'In Korea We Whipped the Russian Air Force'

By Kolb, Richard K. | VFW Magazine, August 1999 | Go to article overview

'In Korea We Whipped the Russian Air Force'


Kolb, Richard K., VFW Magazine


America fought a hot war with the Soviet Union in Korea during the Cold War. This secret aerial conflict claimed the lives of hundreds of U.S. airmen, but has yet to be fully revealed.

There was no doubt about it," Col. Walker M. Mahurin, commander of the 4th Fighter-Interceptor Group (FIG), said in his biography, "we were fighting the Russian air force." Indeed, a July 30, 1952, National Intelligence Estimate stated "...a de facto air war exists over North Korea between the U.N. and the USSR." Yet no one in Washington was willing to risk divulging this provocative fact.

"If we started to disclose these facts," said Paul Nitze, who was head of the State Department's Policy Planning Division in the early '50s, "the American public would demand retaliation, and we did not want war with the Soviets."

Only during the 1990s has the truth begun to emerge about the deadly aerial duel between Soviet-piloted MiG- 15s and American airmen in the skies over North Korea. Ironically, the quest to resolve the fates of missing Americans and Russians from the Korean War has opened the door to this long-secret military encounter.

Moscow's role in the air war was far greater than anyone at the time ever imagined. Soviet pilots flew fully 75% of all fighter missions in support of the North Koreans. According to Dr. Mark A. O'Neil on Korea: Stalin's Secret Air War (produced by The History Channel), "From Nov. 1, 1950, through the fall of 1951, it was a Soviet air war-there were no other enemy pilots up there."

Though an American reporter confirmed their presence in 1951 and a general admitted to it, the Russian role in the Korean War was publicly denied by both Washington and Moscow.

Soviet dictator Josef Stalin insisted on "plausible deniability." He ordered that "our air force should not be employed behind the enemy's rear so as to guarantee that our aircraft will not be shot down and our pilots captured."

And he went to extraordinary lengths to conceal his pilots true identities. One pilot committed suicide rather than be captured; another was strafed in the Yellow Sea by his own men. One historian even claims that one of the pilots downed during the war was Stalin's son. Pilots' bodies were buried in what was then the Soviet enclave of Port Arthur in Manchuria. The Russian public was told only that they were killed on a "special mission."

MANCHURIAN SANCTUARY

That mission originated in Manchuria where the Communists maintained at least a half dozen forward air bases with the main base at Mukden. From this sanctuary they defended Red China from U.N. air attacks.

So intense was aerial combat in the northwest corner of North Korea that U.S. pilots tagged it "MiG Alley." It encompassed the triangular area from Antung along the Yalu River to Suiho and south to Sinanju (see map on p. 38).

Patrols of F-86 Sabre jets arrived in MiG Alley at five-minute intervals and remained there for about 20 minutes. If they made hostile contact, it was even less time.

"The basic air patrol or fighter sweep involved`gaggles' [strung-out formations] of F-86s in four-plane cells patrolling MiG Alley to lure the enemy into combat or intercept MiGs trying to slip through to attack F-80 or F-84 fighter-bombers," wrote Bill Yenne in The History of the U.S. Air Force. "Once engaged, the classic maneuver was to get behind the enemy and attack from the six o'clock position."

In any case, U.S. rules of engagement were stringent, allowing enemy aircraft to escape back into Manchuria."Hot pursuit" was allowed, but only under officially severe restrictions. Consequently, an unwritten code of "don't ask, don't tell" prevailed among pilots and commanders.

Maj. John Glenn, a Marine on exchange duty with the Air Force, flew an F86 he called "MiG Mad Marine." He recalled: "You were permitted to go across the Yalu if you were in hot pursuit and what was `hot pursuit' was liberally interpreted" Glenn shot down three MiGs in about a week at the war's end. …

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