STRAIGHT WINGS VS. SWEPT WINGS
Flight Journal|September - October 2021
F-84 Thunderjets & MiG-15s over Korea
WARREN E. THOMPSON

In the fall of 1950, the increasing numbers of MiG-15s based just north of the Yalu River caused great concern with the Far East Air Force (FEAF), and when these swept-wing fighters started coming south of the river in November 1950, air superiority and safety of United Nations (UN) ground troops were threatened. The call was made to bring the new F-86 Sabres over to Korea to counter the Soviet-built MiGs. The 4th Fighter Wing was the first to respond, but that is not the end of the story. At the same time, there was also a need to bring in a newer fighter bomber that could easily range up to the Yalu and take care of itself in a fight. The F-80Cs were doing a good job of this, but if the MiGs came south of the river in large numbers, the current U.S. Air Force bombers, the F-51 Mustang and the F-80 Shooting Star, could be in for a much tougher job of bombing targets and getting back home unscathed. The Mustangs were also getting old, and heavy maintenance was required to keep their in-service rate up.

The Strategic Air Command (SAC) had a highly trained F-84 wing at Bergstrom AFB in Texas, and it included some of the most combat-experienced fighter pilots from World War II. This was the 27th Fighter Escort Wing and, up until this time, their main task was to fly escort for SAC bombers if WW III started. The unit had already transitioned from the F-82E Twin Mustang to the F-84E and was able to get proficient in the new jet before the orders sent the wing to Japan. General Hoyt Vandenberg approved the request to send one wing of F-86s and one wing of F-84s to Korea.

MiG Alley heats up

The 27th arrived at Yokosuka, Japan on the USS Bataan on November 30. There was a slight delay in getting them into combat due to corrosion from saltwater spray on the aircraft while on the carrier deck. The wing settled into an over-crowded Taegu AB in South Korea, and they flew their first combat mission on December 7 (the ninth anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor). At this time, the MiGs were still playing it safe with very few venturing south of the Yalu. For the remainder of the month, the 27th tore into targets all over North Korea, flying 927 effective sorties in the first 38 days. But in January 1951, the MiGs could no longer sit by and watch the fighter bombers destroy targets in the far northwest sector of the peninsula. The time was right for the Thunderjets to go head to head with MiG-15s.

Between January 21 and January 29, the Thunderjets destroyed four MiG-15s and damaged nine in dogfights up in MiG Alley. First Lieutenant Jake Kratt highlighted the wing’s feats with two MiG kills on January 23. He recalls the action as it unfolded. “Our assigned target that day was the airfield at Sinuiju, just south of the Yalu River and approximately 15 miles from the big MiG base at Antung over in Manchuria. Our mission leader was Colonel Donald J.M. Blakeslee of WW II fame [12.5 kills]. Two of our squadrons would be loaded with bombs, rockets, and .50 caliber ammo to work over any aircraft, bunkers, and hangers that we found on the airfield. My squadron, the 523rd, was tasked with flying top cover for the bombers in case the MiGs tried to interfere. I was element lead in my flight. It was an exceptionally cold and crystal-clear January day as we headed north.

“During my normal scan for enemy aircraft, I noted the sun was positioned at our 4 o’clock and 5 o’clock and about 40 degrees above the horizon. Just as we expected, with our target in sight, I saw dust plumes bellowing from the airfield at Antung, which meant that were a bunch of MiGs getting in position to take off. A minute later, I saw a flash—a reflection of the sun off an object—and that was followed by several more. The MiGs were over the Yalu at about 3,000 feet, making a dash to the east and straight for the Sinuiju Airfield! I called them out to flight lead, but he did not immediately acquire a visual. At that time, our other two squadrons were beginning their bomb runs, so there was no time to spare and soon our buddies would be easy pickings for the MiGs as they came off their drops. My wingman and I began our dive toward the MiG formation from 14,000 feet with our speed brakes extended, idle power, and redline indicated airspeed. Our approach from the MiG’s point of view was about 2 o’clock and out of the sun. Initially, I had in mind to distract them, but that didn’t work.”

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