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By Richard K. Kolb

Reprinted from the August 1999 issue of
VFW Magazine onto The Korean War Educator website
With permission from the editors

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 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."


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. 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 F-86 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.


Soviet involvement in the Korean War was on a large scale. During the war, 72,000 Soviet troops (among them 5,000 pilots) served along the Yalu River in Manchuria. At least 12 air divisions rotated through. A peak strength of 26,000 men was reached in 1952.

These forces were grouped under the 64th Air Defense Corps, consisting of three fighter air divisions, two anti-aircraft divisions (85mm and 57mm guns) and several regiments. Mobile AAA units served in North Korea itself, peaking at 20,000 men. The 64th deployed to Manchuria in November 1950. The number of available MiG-15 aircraft varied between 170 and 240.

Russian pilots were mostly WWII veterans. Their skills were soon evident. The Korean War produced 51 Soviet fighter aces, according to the book Stalin’s Eagles by Hans Seidl. One Soviet pilot supposedly earned the Hero of the Soviet Union (Moscow’s highest military decoration) for shooting down 20 U.S. planes. However, such claims must be taken with the proverbial grain of salt.

To meet the superior MiG-15s, the Far East Air Force (FEAF), whose main component was the Fifth Air Force, sent F-86s of the 4th and 51st Fighter-Interceptor Groups north to the Yalu. They were joined by the 8th and 18th Fighter-Bomber Wings during bombing runs.

B-29s—primarily from the 19th Bomb Group (based on Guam) and Strategic Air Command’s 98th and 307th Bomb Groups from Okinawa—carried out the dangerous missions to the Chinese border. A maximum of 99 Superfortresses were used during the war. Many B-29 crews, typically 12 men per plane, were Reservists.

A bombing mission was an unforgettable experience. "It was like being inside a dark, steel cocoon that shook like a cement mixer," said Staff Sgt. Darren Sleeper, a B-29 tail-gunner. "We took off from Okinawa and covered 1,600 miles each way. Our targets were rail yards, truck parks, and troop concentrations. The weather was always terrible in Korea, and the flak and MiGs were always there. But the biggest challenge was not to vomit."


America’s war with the Soviet Union began inadvertently on Oct. 8, 1950, when two F-80 jets strafed a Soviet airfield near Sukhaya Ryechka, 60 miles north of the Korean border, in the Soviet Maritime Province. Considerable damage was inflicted on the parked aircraft. The errant mission was due to navigational error, but the pilots were still punished. This was the only time Soviet territory was attacked by the U.S. during the Cold War.

The air battle began in earnest in November 1950. On Nov. 8, the first all-jet dogfight in history occurred during a B-29 attack on Sinuiju. An F-80C pilot of the 16th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, 51st FIW, shot down a MiG of the Soviet 28th Soviet Interceptor Air Division based in Antung. The next day, the Soviets shot up an RB-29 of the 91st Recon Squadron. It made it back to base, but crash-landed, killing five crewmen.

This was followed by the loss of a B-29 of the 307th over Uiju. Then on Nov. 15, the first bomber interception battle was fought between eight MiGs and 21 B-29s escorted by F-80Cs over Sinuiju. Two B-29s were damaged. On March 1, 1951, 10 B-29s were damaged—three had to make emergency landings in South Korea—during a 98th BG run. It was only a matter of time before the bombing missions directed at the Yalu bridges suffered a major loss of men and machines.

 It came April 12, 1951. Some 48 B-29s from the 19th, 98th and 307th Bomb Groups went against Antung and the Sinuiju bridges. The 27th FEG served as screen while the 4th FIG provided high cover. Up to 70 MiGs rose to defend the Communist sanctuary, shooting down three bombers and seriously damaging seven others. This was the largest single-engagement loss for the U.S. so far.

Some 47 years later, Lyle Patterson, a B-29 central fire control gunner with the 30th Bomb Squadron, was belatedly awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for shooting down the only MiG that day. His citation recounted how "the enemy jet fighter fell away in a tail forward position, then rolled over on a wing and out of control and was sent o hit the ground."

Large-scale dogfights over MiG Alley were common by June. "American pilots recognized the dramatic increase in the enemy pilots’ skill level by using the term ‘honcho’ or boss to describe them," wrote Walter J. Boyne in Beyond the Wild Blue. "American pilots assumed the newcomers to be veteran aces and instructor pilots from the Soviet Union, this view being validated over time by reports of blonde pilots ejecting from damaged MiGs."

Aerial combat increased in intensity throughout the fall of 1951, peaking in the biggest air battle of the Korean War on Oct. 23. "Black Tuesday," as it became known, was the turning point in the air war. The U.S. bomber armada was attacking the airfields at Samchan, Taechon, Uiju and Namsi. Over Namsi, it was a "holocaust," wrote Robert F. Futrell in The U.S. Air Force in Korea.

Eight B-29s of the 307th Bomb Group escorted by 55 F-84Es of the 49th and 136th Fighter-Bomber Groups plus 34 F-86Es from the 4th FIG flew into a hornet’s nest. About 100 MiG-15s engaged the escort while 50 others hit the bombers. Futrell labeled the 20-minute engagement "one of the most savage and bloody air battles of the Korean War."

When the shooting was over, three bombers were lost, four crash-landed in South Korea and three had to be scrapped upon reaching Okinawa. An F-84 was lost, too. Four MiGs went down—three of them reportedly to B-29 gunners. The war’s last daylight bomber raid was conducted five days later.

B-29 crew casualties for the week, most sustained over Namsi, totaled 67—55 KIA/MIA and 12 WIA. Among the dead was Capt. Thomas L. Shields who sacrificed his life in keeping his crippled bomber flying until his fellow crew members had time to bail out.

Jim Ammons was a flight engineer aboard a B-29 of the 307th Bomb Group that Oct. 23. He remembers the action vividly, especially the casualties. He quoted Time: Namsi taught the "sort of lessons which still make WWII airmen shutter at the name of Schweinfurt [60 B-17s were downed over Germany]."

Even nighttime raids proved deadly. On June 10, 1952, four B-29 crews of the 19th BG found themselves in Soviet searchlights over Kwaksan in the southern end of MiG Alley. Attacked by 12 MiGs, three bombers went down: one exploded in mid-air, one hit the ground in North Korea and one crash-landed at Kimpo Airfied in the South.

Verne W. Gordon, Jr., was with the 28th Bomb Squadron aboard the Apache that night. "We were engulfed in searchlights," he said, and "were hit by 20mm cannon shells. The aircraft immediately lost altitude. Although the plane was badly damaged, we were fortunate to make it back to K-16, a base near Seoul. This was the first time B-29s had been hit by night fighters."

Night fighters continued to take a toll on the bombers. Five more B-29s were lost to the enemy planes between November 1952 and January 1953.


Meanwhile, Navy aviators were waging their own air war from the sea, which included some unusual incidents. On Nov. 18, 1952, carrier pilots experienced their first multiple-jet combat. Three F-9F5 Panthers from Squadron VF-781 "the Peacemakers," based aboard the USS Oriskany, engaged in a frantic 8-minute dogfight at 26,000 feet.

The aviators were attacked by seven or eight MiG-15s over Hoeryong. They had taken off from Vladivostok, Siberia, 90 miles away.

"I commenced firing from 15 degrees off his tail," remembered Lt. Elmer R. Williams. "My first burst sent him into an uncontrolled spiral. Dave Rowlands followed this crippled MiG down to 8,000 feet, where he left it smoking in a deep graveyard spiral. Later, gun camera film confirmed the kill of this MiG."

But the pilots experienced some hair-raising ordeals. "The most unbelievable part of the incident," said Lt. (j.g.) John D Middleton, "was the sight of Rowlands [Lt. (j.g.) David M.] sitting so close on a MiG’s tail with the MiG firing away like mad at Williams."

Five of the Soviet-piloted planes were destroyed or damaged, according to Daniel E. Keough, a radarman assigned to the Oriskany’s Combat Information Center. One Russian pilot parachuted into the frigid waters and drowned.

For their role in what was officially described as an "uncoordinated melee," three U.S. pilots were highly decorated. Williams and Middleton earned the Silver Star; Rowlands received the Distinguished Flying Cross. Williams recalled, "The President’s [Eisenhower] reaction to our story was one of elation."

Russia’s role in the air war subsided somewhat in the summer of 1952 and especially after the death of Stalin in March 1953. Always wary of its covert involvement, the Kremlin by then saw where the war was headed. To cut its losses, Moscow increasingly turned over responsibility for air action to the Communist Chinese air force.


Tallying a final death toll in the clandestine Soviet-American air war is difficult. The Russian public was told that deaths were due to "strange diseases." Concealment was paramount, as burial in a remote Port Arthur cemetery attests to.

In Alien Wars, authors Gen. Oleg Sarin and Col. Lev Dvoretsky cite 110 planes lost and 319 pilots killed. Other sources say 345 aircraft were downed with 200 pilots dead. Still other accounts claim total Soviet casualties of 299, including non-pilots (AAA gunners were killed in raids). B-29 gunners claim credit for 16 MiG-15s shot down while F-86s destroyed 792 MiGs. How many had Soviet pilots in the cockpit is anyone’s guess.

On the American side, the count is even more controversial.  During the Korean War, the U.S. Air Force sustained 1,198 deaths in combat. Of these, 968, or 80%, were fighter pilots. Some 112 of them were F-86 pilots, the most likely to engage the Soviets in MiG Alley. Sixteen B-29 bombers were downed by enemy fighters and four by anti-aircraft fire.

Historian Jon Halliday, who has conducted extensive research into this matter, asserts that virtually all the American airmen perished as a result of Soviet action.

Whatever the case, no one can any longer deny the identity of the adversary. Lt. Gen. Otto P. Weyland, head of FEAF after June 1951, boasted that he was the only U.S. Air Force commander who ever fought the Russians.

Indeed, President Harry Truman wrote in an April 1954 memo: "In Korea, we whipped the Russian air force."

In this war, America emerged with the upper hand. Lt. Gen. Georgi A. Lobov, commander of the Soviet 64th Air Defense Corps, conceded defeat. "We could not overcome the Americans in the air," he said. "We had only fighters and AAA."

A postscript to this hidden conflict further confirms the deadly aerial duels in MiG Alley. In September 1998, the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIA Affairs brought together five American pilots and six Russian representatives to help locate the remains of 45 Soviet pilots lost over North Korea.

Meeting in Virginia, one of the U.S. pilots, former F-86 Sabre jet wingman 2nd Lt. William E. Brown Jr., of the 4th FIG, remarked: "I found it eerie. I spent 34 years in the Air Force preparing to fight these people. Then I found myself sitting across the table from them."


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