MiG Alley Korea War, the first jet vs. jet aerial warfare
February 20, 2012
The setting for MiG-Alley’s creation
The North Korean Army (NKA), known more properly at the time as the Korean People’s Army (KPA), invaded the Republic of Korea (ROK) on June 25, 1950 with overwhelming force, 10 divisions, some 90,000 men on the ground and decimated ROK Army (ROKA) forces on their way in. The US had no combat forces stationed in the ROK. Whatever the US had in the area was in Japan, and most of it was not combat ready. The photo shows the NKA marching through Seoul three days after their invasion.
Task Force Smith (TFS), shown here arriving at Pusan, ROK from Japan, was a small unit of about 400 men from the 21st Infantry Division along with another 100 or so from the 52nd Field Artillery sent in a hurry to the ROK from Japan. It arrived in the ROK on July 2, 1959. Its orders were to delay the NKA attack until reinforcements could arrive.
They took a position for the fight outside Osan, ROK and were told to stop the NKA. This map shows their route up to the Osan-Suwon area.
The thought at the time --- in retrospect insane thinking --- was the NKA would stop as soon as they saw they had contact with the Americans. No such luck. Note the town of Osan in the lower right quadrant, and then the road heading north. The blue lines with the tick marks attached, three of them just above center, show the positions the Task Force took up, on either side of the road. The arrow points to where their artillery set up. The red arrow shows the oncoming enemy force, massive numbers of tanks and infantry.
Task Force Smith was lucky to get out of there with anyone left alive. American reinforcements arrived but it was too late. Everyone had to fall back to the area of Pusan in the south with their backs to the sea. I urge you again to read the story of Task Force Smith. Here is one quote that tells it all:
“The 500-man task force would meet two KPA regiments with tanks with limited artillery, no tanks, no anti-mines, munitions useless against the KPA's tanks, no air, no naval bombardment, only the courage and brains of GIs doing their duty as best they could.”
The American military was not prepared for this war at all. Having just completed the long World War II in the Pacific, and in Europe, US forces were largely disbanded and the US had moved into a post-war mode. Many of the troops occupying Japan had fought their way up from the southern Pacific region to Okinawa, and were preparing to invade Japan’s home islands. Once they learned they would not have to do that, and would become an occupying force that was to help rebuild Japan, their entire outlook changed.
The Cold War had begun. The American focus was on the Soviet threat and to a lesser degree, the Chinese threat, especially to the Nationalist government on Formosa, now known as Taiwan.
Conversely, the NKA employed the most modern Soviet weapons, especially the Soviet tank. The invasion plan had been in the works for some time. TFS had artillery and rocket propelled grenades, but their ordnance simply bounced off the tanks, often at point blank range. Much of the time, the tanks just kept on rolling as though they had not even been fired at.
So the US military was not prepared for this invasion, and neither was the Washington governing establishment. Indeed, it was US policy that the ROK Army (ROKA) not be much more than a constabulary, equipped only with small arms, heavy machine guns, 81-mm mortars, and no artillery of any consequence. The plan was for a 100,000 man Army and 50,000 man militia. The ROK Air Force (ROKAF) was to be kept very small. The plan was founded on the desire for the ROK to grow economically and not burden itself with defense spending. For its part, the US was demobilizing as well. Fixing Japan and western Europe were major goals. The Korean peninsula was not really on the American radar screen.
All this said, experts understood that great turmoil on the Korean peninsula had been the norm and would continue to be, turmoil that could even erupt into full-scale war. But the priorities were simply not there.
In the meantime, the Soviets and Chinese had been preparing North Korea for an offensive war all along.
Once the invasion occurred, events in Washington and in the Far East moved very quickly, indeed surprisingly quickly.
I want to present the setting back in the US. Please keep the International Date Line in mind; events that occurred in the US on June 25 occurred in Korea on June 26. Don’t worry about it; just don’t get all tangled up in it as I did initially.
The red arrow marks Formosa, the blue the Korean Peninsula. Japan lies just east of Korea off the map. Given the massive scope of the Pacific region, these locations are all in tight quarters.
When the NKA attacked the ROK, the number one worry in Washington was that this might be a prelude to a CHICOM attack on the Chinese Nationals in Formosa. There was equal concern that Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek might take matters into his own hands and provoke a fight with the CHICOMs who were positioned on mainland China just across the 111 mile-wide Formosa Strait.
All hands in the US wanted to be sure this did not happen, fearing it would result in WWIII with the Chinese and perhaps even the Soviet Union. So, at the time of the NKA invasion of the ROK, the US wanted to be sure Chiang sat still. Central to this desire was the American fear of letting the NKA invasion erupt into WWIII against the CHICOMs and/or Soviets. Indeed, the US promptly sent elements of the US 7th Fleet to protect Formosa and to assure Chiang Kai Shek did not do anything contrary to US policy.
President Harry Truman, who took over from Franklin Delano Roosevelt toward the end of WWII, was still in the saddle. You will recall he was the one to employ the A-bomb against Japan in a hope the US could avoid a full invasion of the home islands. The plan worked, but it was nip and tuck for several days after the bombs were dropped. Us forces were positioned, and plans were formulated, for “Operation Downfall” to invade Japan’s home islands. It never had to be executed.
In January 1950, prior to the NKA invasion, Truman announced the US would not become involved in disputes over the Formosa Strait and would not intervene if the CHICOMs attacked Formosa. He viewed the problem to be a Chinese civil problem and did not want to get involved.
The NKA invasion of the ROK changed that outlook. Truman declared the Formosa Strait neutral and sent the US 7th Fleet there to prevent any outbreak of hostilities. The net result was that Formosa was now under US protection.
President Truman met with his security advisors on the evening of June 25 (Washington time). He directed a few things be done in response to the NKA invasion, one of which was to use air power to cover the evacuation of US citizens and destroy NKA tanks if necessary.
This is interesting. Robert Dorr, in his book B-29 Superfortress Units of the Korean War, wrote that Truman “distrusted airmen,” seeing them as “glamour boys” flying needlessly expensive aircraft. Nonetheless, when the North Koreans invaded, the USAF was the only service that could get iron on the target right away, and to Truman’s credit, he committed the USAF right away.
Of historical importance, he directed US actions be confined to the United Nations (UN) and to Korea. This would become important because he later called the US response to the invasion a “police action” under UN auspices so he would not have to ask Congress for a declaration of war. The American public accepted this, and accepted continuation of the draft to build up forces.
It turns out the US Air Force (USAF) had already begun preparing for the evacuation of Seoul, as you will see. The US Army Air Corps had by this time changed into the USAF, a new (1949) and separate service. This would be the USAF’s first shooting war.
Major General Earle Partridge, USAF, commander, 5th AF, subordinate to FEAF, ordered his wing commanders to get ready to evacuate Seoul before the advancing NKA forces made it to the city. The 5th AF would become the heart of USAF air operations over the Korean Peninsula.
In the gee whiz category, the pecking order was MacArthur to Stratemeyer to Partridge for USAF air.
At that time, it employed the F-80C Shooting Star. It was a jet aircraft designed as a high altitude interceptor, but in Korea it would spend most if its time providing ground support.
C-54 Skymaster transports then began flying to Seoul’s Kimpo airport for the evacuation.
Yak-9 in North Korean markings
USAF C-54 destroyed by Yak-9 at Kimpo, June 25, 1950
To most people’s surprise, right away, on June 25, with NKA troops just advancing across the 38th parallel, a North Korean Air Force (NKAF) Yak 9 fighter damaged a C-54 on the ground at Kimpo.
C-54 wreckage at Kimpo
It also damaged the control tower and fuel pumps. The Yak strafed the field at will. Six more Yak fighters showed up that night and completely destroyed the damaged C-54. Clearly the evacuation was now in peril.
Nonetheless, the US went ahead and began its evacuation of Seoul the next day, June 26. About 300 civilians, mostly Americans, were evacuated over the next three days.
USAF F-82 Twin Mustangs fighters from the 8th FW provided air cover over Kimpo from their home base at Ashiya, Japan. There were no injuries among the evacuees.
A UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution of June 25, 1950 (voting shown here) set forth the guidelines which the US would interpret quite liberally. The Soviets were boycotting the UNSC at the time demanding that the Chinese seat should be transferred from the Nationalist Chinese to the CHICOMs. The Korean resolution, for which the Soviets were not there to veto, called for the following:
- “The immediate cessation of hostilities.
- “The authorities of North Korea to withdraw forthwith their armed forces to the thirty-eighth parallel.
- “(All UN members are asked) to render every assistance of the United Nations in the execution of this resolution and to refrain from giving assistance to the North Korean authorities.”
The second and third requirements deserve special note, especially when combined with the resolution of June 27 which added this:
“(It is recommended that) the members of the United Nations furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and to restore international peace and security in the area.”
As an aside, the 7th Fleet had fought in WWII but was redesignated Naval Forces Western Pacific thereafter. In August 1949, it was redesignated the US Seventh Task Fleet. On February 11, 1950, it was established as the US 7th Fleet. Its headquarters was at Subic Bay, The Philippines.
The 7th Fleet, already committed to the Formosa Strait, was short of ships for Korea. Initially, it could send only one fleet carrier, the USS Valley Forge, one heavy cruiser, and eight destroyers. This was Task Force 77.
On June 27, the British committed the light fleet carrier HMS Triumph to Task Force 77 command. The commitment by the US and Royal Navy would build rapidly over time. The Valley Forge was already in the South China Sea and steaming toward Korea. The Triumph was cruising toward Japan and headed over as well.
My apologies to the Navy and Marines --- my focus in this report will be on the Air Force. Clearly our naval forces, especially our naval aviators, fought with great valor and courage. Within short order after the war started, the Navy arrived with F9F Panthers as a mainstay of their air attack force and the Marines with F4U Corsairs. They worked this war very hard, accounting for about 41 percent of air sorties flown during the war which included about 40 percent of the air interdiction missions, more than 50 percent of close air support. They provided a great deal of cover for the Marines and Army on the ground as well. But they were not a major factor in MiG Alley because of these other missions and aircraft capabilities.
Main air bases on Korean peninsula
As said earlier, this would be the USAF’s first shooting war. It was also the first time US jet fighter aircraft entered battle. The USAF would conduct interdiction, close air support and air superiority missions. Right at this moment in the war, however, the USAF honed in on air superiority to stop the air attacks against US forces and aircraft on the ground and in the air. Existing USAF aircraft were good enough to face off against the NKAF, which only had propeller driven aircraft of less capability, with pilots of even less capability than their aircraft. They were absolutely no match for the USAF. The USAF owned the skies.
Let’s just pause a moment to look at what the USAF, ROKAF and NKAF had in the way of aircraft.
F-80C Shooting Stars in their way back from a mission in Korea
The newly formed USAF had about 1,172 aircraft in the Pacific region at the time, including hundreds of F-80Cs. The F-80C was designed for air-to-air, but, because of technology advances that would show up with the MiG-15 and F-86, turned out to be best at air-to-ground missions. During the initial weeks of the war, the F-80C flew mostly air superiority missions. Indeed the F-80C was the main reason the USAF ruled the skies in the early days of the war. It would later become a main ground attack fighter, primarily low-level rocket, bomb and napalm attacks. It began flying out of Itazuke, Japan, but then moved to Suwon AB, ROK, though for a while, when the enemy made its second advance into the ROK, most returned to fly out of Japan with a small detachment staying at Suwon.
The F-51 Mustang had been a stalwart fighter in WWII and had good range. The USAF had plenty of F-51Ds in storage and service when the Korean War began, and many were shipped to Korea via aircraft carriers. The USAF and ROKAF both flew them. At first, planners thought they could handle the air-to-air job, but quickly switched it to ground attack. They started their combat flying from Japan and could hit targets not within the range of the F-80C. Both the Royal Australian Air Force and South African Air Force flew them as well.
F-82 Twin Mustang fighters were in the process of being phased out but a few were sent to Korea. They were designed for long range escort for bombers, and would play a key role in the early days of the war escorting B-29s to their targets in North Korea. As best I can tell, the F-82s flew out of Japan.
The B-26 Invaders, about 26 of them, were based in Japan with the 3rd Bombardment Group (BG). They would start bombing marshaling yards captured in the ROK by the NKA on June 28, 1950, three days after the war started, and then on June 29 bombed Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital. More B-26s were sent in to conduct bombing and reconnaissance missions and would end up as a main night bomber. They were the only aircraft suitable for night bombing at the time. Convoys were their main targets. They began their missions from Japan, limiting their time over target, but in 1951 moved to Kunsan AB and Pusan in the ROK.
B-29 Superfortress bombing industrial targets in North Korea
The B-29 Superfortress, of course was the aircraft used to drop the A-bombs on Japan. It flew missions over Korea from 1950-1953, mostly normal strategic day-bombing missions. It virtually destroyed North Korea’s few strategic targets and then focused mainly on interdicting supply routes and destroying bridges across the Yalu. Its gunners were credited with shooting down 27 enemy aircraft. That said, as was the case in WWII, they were best when accompanied by fighter escorts. You might recall that the Maine Corps capture of Iwo Jima enabled fighters to escort the B-29s round robin Iwo Jima-Japan-Iwo Jima. The matter of the need for these escorts in Korea is a major part of the MiG Alley story.
ROKAF T-6 Trainer
The ROK Air Force (RKAF) was poorly equipped, with 64 pilots, eight L-4 and 4 L-5 liaison-type aircraft and 10 T-6 advance trainers.
The NKAF was equipped with old Soviet WWII aircraft, as shown in the following sequence.
Yak-9 in North Korean markings
For its part, the NKAF had only about 122 combat aircraft, with about 80 poorly trained pilots. But they felt they had an advantage of air superiority with the surprise attack. Major Pak Kyung Ok, NKAF, shot down near Suwon at the outbreak of war, provided an air order of battle (AOB) for the NKAF that is probably an accurate accounting for June 1950: 10 Yak-7B, 12 Yak-12 and 18 IL-10s at Yom; 10 Yak-7B and 2 IL-10 at Sinmak and 48 IL-10, 20 Yak-7B, 2 Yak-11 at Pyongyang. However, they also flew the Yak-9 and the La-7.
I wanted to show you all these aircraft for two reasons. First, note the hodgepodge of aircraft employed at the outset of the Korean War. Second, it is hard to know what the North Koreans were thinking given their inventory of aircraft, planes that would clearly be no match for the USAF fighters, whether propeller or jet.
General Vandenberg sought clarification as to whether USAF forces could cross the 38th parallel into the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK) and President Truman said no, not yet.
On the morning of June 27, 1950 a flight of five F-82 twin Mustangs from the 68th Fighter All-Weather Squadron, Itazuke, Japan and 339th Fighter Squadron, Yokota AB, Japan, 8th Fighter Wing, 347th Provisional Group were escorting four C-54 Skymaster transports out of Kimpo filled with civilians being evacuated from Seoul. A flight of five Lavochkin La-7s appeared at altitude 10,000 ft, headed toward Kimpo airfield (This flight in other reports indicate the enemy had one Yak-11 and four La-7s).
Once the enemy aircraft spotted the C-54s, they descended and opened fire, scoring several hits. They then opened fire on the USAF escort aircraft. The enemy split into two groups, two aircraft climbing into the clouds while the other three descended. Two F-82s pursued the climbing aircraft, one enemy aircraft maneuvered around one of the F-82s, fired and damaged its tail. The other F-82 responded against the lead and struck him in the fuselage and right wing. The enemy pilot bailed out while his navigator remained in the aircraft and died in the crash. The enemy pilot landed by parachute at Kimpo, drew his weapon, and started firing. ROKA forces killed him in response.
This was the first US aerial kill of the war. Several reports I have read said the aircraft shot down was a Yak-11 vice a La-7. General Vandenberg reported to President Truman it was a Yak-11.
The damaged F-82 stalled, recovered, and shot down the second La-7. Another F-82 descended to engage the other three enemy aircraft and shot one down. The remaining two enemy aircraft left. Score three USAF victories in the first aerial combat of the war.
Shortly thereafter, four F-80C Shooting Star jets from the 35th Fighter-Bomber Squadron conducted air patrols over Seoul. A flight of eight Ilyushin Il-10s appeared between Inchon and Seoul working to ambush transport aircraft still on the ground. The F-80s spotted them, engaged them, and promptly shot down four. These were the first victories for US jet powered fighters in history. The other four enemy aircraft bee-lined out of there.
C-54 taxi after landing at Kimpo
By the end of June 27, 1950, US fighters from three USAF squadrons had flown 163 combat sorties. The evacuation would complete successfully with no injuries.
Bombers were also at work. The 8th Bomb Squadron, 3rd Bomb Group (Light Night Intruder) flew its first combat missions over Korea on June 27, 1950 flying B-26s against the Munsan rail yards, near the 38th parallel.
The 3rd Group’s B-26s from the 8th and 13th squadrons flew against enemy troops in the Han river area and other targets of opportunity. They lost one aircraft which crashed on the way home, killing the crew, the first US fatalities of the war.
I wish to highlight here that it was clear right away that the NKAF was absolutely no match for the USAF coupled with Naval aviation. The latter two owned the skies above Korea and operated virtually at will.
NKA soldiers occupy Seoul
The ROKA abandoned defense of Seoul on June 27 and the NKA took it. The enemy took over Kimpo field on June 29, and strafed Suwon airfield to the south, destroying one B-26 and one F-82. On June 29, USAF B-29 bombers were ordered to destroy Kimpo field so the enemy could not use it. They did so, harassed by enemy fighters, but suffered no losses or damage to themselves.
When the Korean invasion occurred, the 19th Bombardment Group (BG) was detached from the Strategic Air Command (SAC) and assigned to FEAF, specifically the FEAF Bomber Command (provisional). B-29 bombers from the group were immediately redeployed from Guam to Okinawa, closer to the war zone.
Three days after the war began, four B-29s from the 19th BG dropped 260-lb fragmentation bombs on suspected NKA troops on the north bank of the Han River, outside Seoul. But there were no NKA forces there. Immediately planners learned that the B-29 was not going to be good in a close air support role.
As a result, the B-29s were employed against strategic targets in North Korea, concentrated around Pyongyang, Chongyin, Wonsan, Hungnam and Rashin (Rashin later declared off limits because of its proximity to the USSR).
B-29 bombing raid on Wonson, North Korea
Aftermath B-29 bombing Pyongyang, Noth Korea’s capital
President Truman was reluctant to use the B-29 for this war. He did not want to take away too many B-29s from the strategic atomic bombing mission targeted against the Soviet Union.
On June 29, 1950 the JCS issued orders to CINCFE to “employ naval and air forces available to the Far East Command to provide fullest possible support to South Korean Forces by attack on military targets so as to permit these forces to clear South Korea of North Korean forces.”
As mentioned earlier, Admiral Sherman had already assigned 7th Fleet forces to General MacArthur’s operational control. It is my understanding that when 7th Fleet forces operated in Japanese waters, its ships were subordinated to MacArthur as his naval component. Ships operating around Formosa were not under his command.
Furthermore, MacArthur was “authorized to extend your operations into Northern Korea against air bases, depots, tank farms, troop columns and other such purely military targets” but such operations “in North Korea stay well clear of the frontiers of Manchuria or the Soviet Union.” MacArthur was to take defensive measures if Soviet forces attacked and report events immediately to Washington.
USAF bombers destroy three parallel rail bridges across the Han River, with another bridge already destroyed.
My impression is that June 29 marked a stepped up pace of air-to-ground attacks. NKAF aircraft strafed Suwon again and destroyed a C-54 on the ground. MacArthur directed Stratemeyer to concentrate on the Han River bridges and NKA troops massing north of the river.
Timothy Warnock, editing a timeline for Air Force Magazine covering the Air War 1950-1953, presented this recap for the 29th:
Last bridge over Han destroyed January 4, 1951
“B-26s attacked the bridges, and 5th Air Force F-80s patrolled the Han River area. F-82s from the 86th FAWS, using jettisonable fuel tanks, attacked with napalm for the first time in the war. Pilots of the 35th and 80th Fighter-Bomber Squadrons (FBS) shot down five North Korean airplanes that were attacking Suwon airfield.
“Eight B-29s of the 19th BG attacked enemy-held Kimpo airfield and the Seoul railroad station, reportedly killing a large number of enemy troops.
B-29 gunner A/2C Kenneth W. Roberts, 98th BW, Japan 1953
“As the medium bombers turned toward Kadena, Okinawa, Japan, enemy aircraft attacked the formation, enabling B-29 gunners to shoot down, for the first time in the war, one of the opponent's airplanes. (Sgt. Nyle Mickly firing the winning shots.)
“MacArthur authorized 5th AF attacks on airfields in North Korea. In the first USAF attack on North Korea, 18 B-26s of the 3rd BG attacked Heijo airfield near Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, claiming up to 25 enemy aircraft destroyed on the ground. The 8th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS) began photographic reconnaissance of North Korean airfields. Using RB-29 aircraft, the 31st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron (SRS) (Photographic) also started operations over Korea from Yokota AB, Japan.”
These photo missions went deep into enemy territory.
There was skepticism at this juncture about whether US air power could do much given the speed and lethality of the NKA invasion. Once again, President Truman couched all US actions as being done “for the United Nations.” There was some discussion about mobilizing ground forces and President Truman asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to consider this carefully and report back in a few days. He said, “I do not want to go to war.”
On June 30 MacArthur requested he be able to employ two divisions of ground troops and he received the go. The JCS ordered a naval blockade of the entire Korean coast on July 1.
Navy F9F-2 Panther from USS Valley Forge fires 5-inch wing rockets at North Korean air field.
The USN’s Valley Forge and Royal Navy’s Triumph aircraft carriers arrived on scene about a week after the invasion and started attacking Pyongyang and the Haeju airfield on July 3, 1950. The USS Philippine Sea Essex-class aircraft carrier and two escort carriers, the USS Beading Strait and the USS Sicily were on station in early August 1950. The USS Boxer Essex-class aircraft carrier arrived shortly thereafter and provided air cover for the Inchon landing by the Marines, which we will discuss a bit later.
Well where are we? The invasion occurred on June 25. Massive USAF and Navy air attacks were well in train. The 24th Infantry Division, undermanned and unequipped, was the first to oppose the NKA in early July. Task Force Smith was the first combat unit to arrive on the scene, on July 1, 1950. Shortly thereafter, the 24th Division sent in reinforcements. They and ROKA forces were defeated in battle after battle and were forced southward to the area of Pusan, a port city in southeastern ROK.
Yet another UNSC resolution of July 7, 1950 ordered that a commander be designated to command all UN forces in Korea and to fly the UN flag. The UN asked the US to name the commander.
Truman did this to reduce the risk that it would evolve into a US vs. China-Soviet WWIII. That said, the direction for the war’s conduct came from Washington, and from MacArthur himself who often acted on his own. The execution of military operations was ordered by General MacArthur. There was precious little UN command and control involvement once these resolutions were made.
In the meantime, NKAF aircraft were based at Kimpo on July 15, despite the earlier American attempt to destroy the field. B-29s bombed the field again and fighters strafed it. But by August 4, the NKAF had the field up and running so 5th AF fighters again strafed it.
The US Eighth Army, Lt. General Walton Walker in command, was to have invaded Japan at the end of WWII, but instead became an occupying force, as mentioned earlier, not combat ready.
By this time, it had three weak divisions in the Korean fight: the 24th Infantry brought in during early July, and the 1st Cavalry and 25th Infantry brought in between July 14 and July 18. By the end of July to early August, the 8th Army established what has become known as the Pusan Perimeter in July 1950. The perimeter’s size was about 100 by 50 miles and the 8th Army troops were in desperate battles to form a perimeter and hold. In the background, while Army forces were momentarily stuck at the Pusan Perimeter, MacArthur was planning the Inchon invasion to the northwest, just west of Seoul, and USAF and Navy air attacks continued against North Korea and NKA troops in the ROK.
Kimpo Airfield, also known as K-14, looking to the north.
But to pull off the Inchon invasion, MacArthur needed Kimpo neutralized. Kimpo was to the northeast of Seoul, and to the east of Inchon.
On July 31, 1950, the JCS instructed MacArthur to undertake “mass air operations against North Korean targets, the destruction of which will assist your future operations, destroy industrial targets in North Korea and reduce the North Korean ability to wage war in the future.”
On August 5, 1950, the 1st Provisional Marine Regiment arrived from San Diego (departed there on July 14, 1950), and landed at Pusan with the enemy about 40 miles outside the city. Here you see them assembling to head to the front. On August 7, the Marines launched three major counter-attacks against the enemy that enabled the 8th Army divisions to set up and solidify the Pusan Perimeter.
The NKA committed about 70,000 troops to fighting at the perimeter in early August 1950. General MacArthur reported having about 141,808 combat troops there on August 4, about 47,000 US ground combat troops and 45,000 ROKA troops.
The 25th Infantry Division launched a counter-offensive out of the Pusan Perimeter on August 7. Many other US and Allied units entered the push and by September 18 the NKA had essentially been defeated. This photo shows US forces on the move northward after the breakout, while Koreans move back into their homes. With the breakout came the decision to pursue the NKA into North Korea. The US 8th Army was ordered to push as far north as possible to Manchuria and North Korea’s border with China. We’ll come back to this later --- it was a huge decision, arguably contradicting the UN mandate.
On September 15, 1950 some 75,000 troops, mostly US Marines, conducted an amphibious landing at Inchon, ROK and secured the city of Inchon by September 18.
Aerial view of Kimpo after the Marines recaptured it
One group of these Marines was sent to Kimpo on September 17 and they took it. On September 19, nine C-54 aircraft and 23 C-119 “flying Boxcars” loaded with supplies landed at Kimpo. The USAF transport leadership turned on a 24-7 logistics support operation to Kimpo from Japan. Fighter and bomber groups started pouring into both Kimpo and Suwon. The 811th Engineer Aviation Battalion came in and fixed up what needed to be fixed. Kimpo became among the world’s busiest airports. Troops now also began streaming in to this and other airfields, sometimes employing rails to move up to the north.
The Marines entered Seoul on September 22 and found it fortified. House-to-house fighting ensued. This photo shows Marines in a vicious street battle in Seoul. General Edward Almond, the X Corps commander, declared Seoul liberated on September 25 even though the Marines were still engaged.
But make no mistake about it, Seoul was virtually destroyed. This photo is of a part of the city in November 1950.
In the mean time, General Walton Walker’s 8th Army, which had broken out of the Pusan perimeter, was heading north at a rapid pace.
The NKA erred by committing most of its force to the south, trying to break through the Pusan Perimeter. As a result, the NKA was unable to defend Seoul from the Inchon landing. The troops left in the south had to head back north. In truth, an argument could be made that the NKA troops in the ROK were trapped.
But MacArthur decided to concentrate on securing Seoul, which turned out to be a prolonged and very bloody fight. The NKA had a division in the city. Concentrating on defeating that division in an urban war proved costly and time consuming. The result was that an estimated 30,000 NKA troops from the south were able to sneak back into the DPRK where they were reconstituted and reequipped by the Soviets.
As you will see, this is an important point, as it would be used as justification for sending ground forces into North Korea, at the least in pursuit of the NKA forces able to return. Sentiments in Washington had evolved. Now talk focused on destroying the NKA and there was even talk about occupying all of North Korea.
During the final days of September 1950, events and major decisions were made quite rapidly.
I wish to point out here that at the outset of the war, the UNSC’s tasking was for the NKA to withdraw its armed forces to the thirty-eighth parallel. This had been accomplished. One could argue at this point that it was mission complete. The NKA were back across the 38th parallel. But Washington did not view life that way.
Stepping back just a bit to early September, before the breakout had even occurred, an executive level report to the US National Security Council of September 1, 1950, entitled, “US courses of action with respect to Korea,” addressed the possibility of UN forces crossing the 38th parallel into the DPRK. For our purposes here, this report to the NSC specifically said under no circumstance should the UN attempt to go to northeastern DPRK near the border with the Soviet Union. So the focus was on the northwest.
This report was mostly concerned about what the Soviets and/or Chinese might do. There was a specific focus on whether they would come in to occupy North Korea. There was also concern the Chinese might enter the war to avoid the defeat of North Korea. The dominant view was that neither the Soviets or Chinese would reoccupy North Korea. That said, there was all kinds of language in the report addressing “what if” they do reoccupy and even go south of the 38th parallel. Washington did not feel they would enter, but many in town were concerned they would.
The idea of going beyond the 38th parallel seems to pop out of nowhere in this report to the NSC, though the report spends quite a bit of time and language on the subject, language frankly I found confusing.
On the one hand, there was the idea of reunifying the Koreas. On the other hand, there was the idea that crossing the 38th parallel would be required to force NKA forces to roll-back into the DPRK, or even be defeated. The report acknowledged such an effort exceeded the UN mandate.
Yet, on the other hand, the report, in its conclusion, said:
“The United Nations forces have a legal basis for conducting operations north of the 38th parallel to compel withdrawal of North Korean forces behind this line or to defeat these forces.”
The report went so far as the say the “UN commander should be authorized to conduct military operations, including amphibious and airborne landings or ground operations in pursuance of a roll-back, north of the 38th parallel for the purpose of destroying the North Korean forces.”
My gut instinct from reading this several times is that “legal basis” was a stretch. But then again, it was the Cold War, the NKA invaded, and the UN forces had the enemy on the run. The feeling was the war could be wrapped up promptly.
My sense is the Americans actually expected some kind of Soviet response. The report was a bit more nebulous as to whether a Chinese reaction would be expected. But the report went into some detail on how to handle various scenarios involving their intervention, either alone or together, either remaining north of the 38th parallel or going south of it.
I want to highlight here that it’s only late September, just three months after the NKA invasion. How the tide could turn!
Again on September 27 the Acting Secretary of Defense sent a memo to the president recommending he broadcast to the North Koreans that their defeat is inevitable and directing them to lay down their arms and cease hostilities. Interestingly, the word “surrender” was not used.
On September 28, 1950, MacArthur sent a message to the JCS providing a summary of his plan:
“If the North Korean Armed Forces do not surrender in accordance with my proclamation to be issued on October 1, 1950, disposition will be made to accomplish the military objectives of destroying them by entry into North Korea.”
There was a message sent by Secretary Marshall to MacArthur on September 29, 1950, “eyes only,” that referred to an apparent “announcement by the 8th Army that ROK divisions would halt on the 38th parallel for regrouping: We want you to feel uninhibited tactically and strategically to proceed north of the 38th parallel.” Marshall said he expected a problem with doing so in the UN, so suggested MacArthur rationalize it by saying he “found it militarily necessary to do so.”
I hesitated using this map because it does not exactly reflect MacArthur’s plan, It reflects what happened instead of exactly what was planned to happen. But it is close enough to plan and shows the locations well. The plan was to send the 8th Army to Pyongyang and ultimately to Sinuiju on the Yalu. The ROKA would head up the middle to the Yalu. Please take note of Sinuiiju. It sat on the Yalu River border with China, and almost directly across from it was the Antung Chinese air base which would play a most important role when we get to MiG Alley discussions. Remember, MiG Alley did not yet exist nor did anyone on the UNC side expect it to exist.
On October 1, 1950 MacArthur did a broadcast from Tokyo to the North Korean commander-in-chief, demanding his surrender. There was no response.
The ROK 3rd Division of the ROK I Corps under the command of General Walton Walker crossed into North Korea for about 30 miles on the eastern side unopposed on October 1. That same day, MacArthur ordered the 8th Army to cross, but General Walker said it was not ready, short of supplies. In effect, the Army coming all the way up from the Pusan Perimeter had outrun its logistics tail.
Back in Washington, there were concerns now about occupying the DPRK. The US government agreed that such should be done, but wanted UN authorization. Therefore, the State Department wanted only ROKA and Asian forces to go in with an ultimate US withdrawal. This was quite a departure from earlier orders. Secretary Marshall agreed that US forces needed to stay out of the occupation and therefore wanted more troops from other nations. Confusion at best.
The UN General Assembly passed a resolution on October 7 directing steps be taken to stabilize all Korea and actions be taken to prepare for Korean-wide elections such that there would emerge a “unified independent and democratic Government in the sovereign State of Korea.”
Too late. The die had already been cast.
Wonson Landings, 1st Marine Division, October 26, 1950
The X Corps’ 1st Marine Division (MARDIV) and Army’s 3rd Infantry Division conducted an amphibious landing at Wonson on October 26, 1950. The plan was for it to move westward to link up with the 8th Army. Two events caused the plan to change.
The ROKA Capital and 3rd Divisions raced up the east coast and captured Wonson about two weeks before the landings.
The 8th Army captured Pyongyang on October 19, also before the Wonson landings. As a result, the X Corps forces did not move westward as planned but, as shown on the map, headed north toward Hungnam and the Changjin Reservoir. The Army’s 3rd Infantry Division landed at Wonson in early November and joined with the X Corps.
This plan, and its execution, deserve special study alone. There were all kinds of problems and issues associated with it, several of which had to do with friction between the 8th Army and X Corps, complete overconfidence on the part of US military leaders, and a total failure at recognizing what the Chinese were about to do. The two operated independently of each other.
A lot happened in the timeframe I’ve just covered, but I wanted to give you a flavor to set the stage for a discussion of MiG Alley. So I’ll end my summary overview of the beginning of the war here.
To this point, the NKAF was operating with old Soviet single prop driven aircraft while the USAF and USN were employing much better prop aircraft and far superior jet fighters, the latter used largely for ground attack. The USAF owned the skies of the Korean peninsula with the Mustangs and its other fighters. The Navy and Marines were attacking ferociously from the sea, often staging from air bases as well. And, at this juncture, the NKA had largely retreated back across the 38th parallel, with the Allies preparing to go in.
There was no way the NKA was going to achieve its objectives with the USAF and USN having air superiority over the entire peninsula, so something had to be done to counter that air superiority. The Soviets understood the need. The Chinese understood well what was happening on the ground. All of a sudden, the NKA invasion had backfired and UN forces were on their way to threaten China.
The push to China, China invades