Talking Proud Archives --- Military

MiG Alley Korea War, the first jet vs. jet aerial warfare

February 20, 2012
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The B-29 Superfortress and MiG Alley

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The B-29 is a significant part of the MiG Alley story. The B-29 inflicted incalculable damage on North Korea and its forces during the war. At the same time, the MiG-15 was a terror against B-29s. It was the F-86’s job, and the job of other USAF and USN fighters, to protect those B-29s and much of that was done in MiG Alley.

There was and remains much controversy surrounding the application of the B-29 in Korea.

It was meant to be a strategic bomber. If General Curt LeMay had had his way, it would have been conserved for the Soviet Union (even though jet replacement was coming into use), but if used in the Korean War, he wanted to use it as a strategic even atomic bomber in China as well as in North Korea. Of course China was off limits for the B-29, as was the atomic bomb, much to the dismay of General Lemay.

The introduction of the MiG-15 most certainly ruined the day for all those who flew and believed in the B-29. It now had to be protected, escorted.

Furthermore, there were so few strategic targets in the DPRK that the B-29, during the early days when the US had air superiority, exhausted its list of strategic targets in three months, destroying them all, though some such targets such as hydroelectric plants were initially kept off the roster. They were later added.

The bottom line was that the B-29 ended up being used for interdiction and on occasion close air support, for which it was not designed and the crews were not trained. Its deficiencies in the close air support arena angered the Army and Marines, who needed that kind of support the most.

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Here you see a USAF B-29 bomber in the line sight of a Soviet MiG-15. Flying at about 300 mph, with the MiG able to go nearly Mach speeds, the B-29 caught alone was a sitting duck. The B-29’s gunners fortunately were good, many very good, and they could give the MiG a good fight.

The B-29’s contribution during the Korean War is not widely known and in some cases controversial. The B-29’s role deserves to be studied separately. But the MiG Alley story must include at least a summary about the B-29 in Korea. After all, this is the aircraft the MiG-15 was designed to stop, and the F-86 was used to protect.

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The B-29 was the brain child of General Hap Arnold, who would eventually lead the Army Air Corps in WWII and then become the Chief of Staff, USAF thereafter. He was very much a forward thinker and had to fight hard for the aircraft’s development and production. He felt existing bombers were good enough for Europe, because of the short distances involved. He saw the B-29 as mission essential for the Pacific, where distances were much greater. He also understood that Allied ground forces were going to have to fight their way up the Pacific island chains to get airfields that would put the B-29 within striking range of Japan’s home islands. The Marianas were close enough, so when the Marines took Guam, Saipan and Tinian, his foresight came into productive application. The B-29s could now fly round-robin from the Marianas to Japan. Once the Marines took Iwo Jima, they could do so with fighter escort from Iwo Jima all the way to target and back to Iwo Jia. Iwo Jima also gave battle damaged B-29s a place to recover should the crew feel it could not make it to the Marianas.

With the end of WWII came the Cold War and the Atomic Age. The B-29 was now the aircraft to conduct atom bomb drops against the Soviet Union until follow-on jet bombers could be developed and fielded. It had now fully matured as a strategic bomber. Truman was reluctant to employ too many in Korea because they were needed for the Soviet mission. And as I said in an earlier section, Truman to this point was not enamored with the USAF, an organization he agreed to make a separate service in order to keep its overall strength down. Yet, despite this, he committed the B-29 Superfortress to battle right away.

It must also be said that following WWII, and the formation of the USAF, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) was formed as a Major Air Command (MAJCOM) to conduct nuclear attacks against the Soviet Union. SAC’s prominence rose in stature rapidly, in terms of priority and funding. SAC’s focus was on the Soviet Union. It therefore saw the Korean War as a distraction. It was, therefore, always reluctant to commit B-29s and crews to the Korean War. It did so, but grudgingly.

WonsonPetroRefinery

At first, the B-29s worked to protect retreating US forces. Then quite quickly, they began bombing strategic targets throughout North Korea. For all practical purposes, given North Korea’s sad economic shape, the B-29s ran out of strategic targets within three months, and concentrated on interdiction of enemy lines of communication (LOC). This is a post-strike photo of the Wonsan petroleum refinery after B-29 bomber strikes in August 1950, ninety-five percent destroyed.

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Three days after the invasion, on June 28, 1950, the 19th Bombardment Group (BG) transferred four of its twenty-two B-29s from Guam to Okinawa. They began right away attacking enemy forces north of Seoul. This is a photo of a 19th BG B-29 in flight. Among its first missions was to provide ground support by attacking enemy troops on the north side of the Han River north of Seoul. It did not do this well. Nonetheless, it was among the first USAF aircraft in the battle.

The 19th was the only medium bomb group not under the control of SAC. The 19th BG was B-29 BG assigned to 20th AF, once the proud owner of all B-29s in WWII, and the numbered AF responsible for bombing the Japanese home islands and for dropping the atomic bombs on Japan. Other B-29 units would come to fight in Korea. For the Korean War, B-29s fell under the operational control of two commands, the 20th AF, which was subordinate to FEAF, and SAC, which was responsible to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). It’s worth pointing out as well that following WWII the B-29’s label was changed from heavy bomber to medium bomber group, a label change only.

The 19th BG bombers were the only B-29s permanently stationed overseas, in their case in Guam. They were the only bombers capable of hitting the Korean peninsula, but had to be moved to Japan to get in close for a maximum punch. It promptly began bombing bridges, roads, railroads and troop concentrations when they could be found. The initial job was to provide defensive protection for US forces retreating to the south. It was the first B-29 group to arrive and the last to leave the war.

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In the first two months, it flew more than six hundred sorties, supporting UN ground forces by bombing enemy troops, vehicles, and such communications points as the Han River bridges. In the north, its targets included an oil refinery and port facilities at Wonsan, a railroad bridge at Pyonyang, and an airfield at Yonpo. After UN ground forces pushed the communists out of South Korea, the 19th BG turned to strategic objectives in North Korea, including industrial and hydroelectric facilities. It also continued to attack bridges, marshalling yards, supply centers, artillery and troop positions, barracks, port facilities, and airfields. This photo shows B-29 bombs blanket the runway at Saamcham, about 50 miles north of Pyongyang.

The 92nd BG deployed to Japan in early 1950 and began bombing the Wonson Marshalling Yards straight away. It fell under the 20th AF but returned to the US in late October and November 1950.

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The 98th BG followed in August 1950. It immediately started bombing marshaling yards at Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital and quickly became an important part of the interdiction effort. Unlike the 19th, it fell under SAC’s command. This photo shows the 98th bombing a target in North Korea in January 1951, hitting a supply center. The aircraft in the foreground would, in February 1952, crash on take-off from Japan, all 13 souls aboard lost.

The 307th BG also arrived in August. It is my understanding that it was detached from SAC to fall under the 20th AF as well. From August through September 1950, the 307th bombed strategic targets in North Korea and in November 1950 bombed bridges over the Yalu River and played an interdiction role.

In the early days, the B-29s employed general purpose (GP) bombs instead of employing incendiary bombs which worked so well against the Japanese home islands in WWII. Use of the GP bombs demanded more sorties to knock out targets, though they were outfitted with delayed-action fuses to slow enemy damage repairs.

The bombers could bomb during poor weather using radars that located offset aiming points. The reality was that there were not many worthy strategic or military targets in North Korea. The B-29s had just about destroyed all 18 strategic targets by September 15, 1950. Oil storage facilities at Rashin were the only one left untouched because it was so close to the USSR. Pyongyang fell on October 19, and UN forces advanced toward the Yalu. Not only had most North Korean strategic targets already been destroyed, but now UN forces held most of North Korea. The 22nd and 92nd Bomb Wings were returned to their SAC roles in the US on October 27. Remaining B-29s focused on tactical targets supporting forces on the ground.

Th Soviets acted to improve defenses on the ground, but the major action taken to thwart the B-29 was the introduction of the MiG-15. Between June and November, the B-29 bombed where it pleased virtually at will. Some called the flights “milk runs.” The B-29s did not encounter significant enemy fighter opposition until the MiG-15 came along in November 1950. The Chinese invasions and introduction of the MiG-15 changed the whole calculus for the B-29. Prior to that, they would bomb from altitudes as low as 10,000 ft. without any danger.

Just back up a month, to October 1950. Robert F. Dorr, in his book
B-29 Superfortress Units of the Korean War, wrote that on October 18, 1950 “an RB-29 reconnaissance crew of the 31st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron (SRS) peered across the Yalu River and counted more than 75 fighters parked in neat rows at Antung airfield. We know today that these were MiG-15s belonging to a Soviet fighter regiment. The fighters were gone the following day, and General Stratmeyer concluded that the enemy had merely displayed the aircraft as ‘window dressing.’ “ Stratemeyer could not have been more wrong.

A note on the RB-29s. They were modified, some to take photographic intelligence (PHOTINT) and some to conduct Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) signals collection. Four of these arrived in Johnson AB, Japan in late summer 1950, two of each speciality.

Dorr reported on Gene Fisher, a 30th BS gunner from the 19th BG who had previously been shot up by a Yak-9. Fisher’s comments went like this:

“The first time I spotted a MiG-15 was on the 23 October 1950 mission, a seven and one-half hour marathon, to the bridges along the Yalu River. We could see the Manchurian air bases on the other side of the border (Yalu River). We could see the MiGs taking off. When they made passes as us I could see their noses lighting up.”

Other crews also saw the MiG-15s, and one airman reported watching a MiG-15 limping across the Yalu with trailing smoke. Still the leadership seemed unconvinced about the MiGs and the threat they posed.

On November 1, 1950, reality turned its ugly head. Eight MiG-15s intercepted about 15 USAF P-51s. A Soviet piloted MiG shot down one. Then on that same day came the first fighter-to-fighter kill, when another Soviet piloted MiG-15 shot down an F-80C.

Then, in early November, a RB-29 was jumped by MiG-15s while photographing Yalu River bridges. This is when Sgt. Harry Lavene, a tail-gunner, shot one down. During that flight, however, two B-29 engines both on the port side were shot out. But the crew made it back to Japan. Regrettably, on final approach, the left wing stalled and went in, killing everyone in the forward compartment except Lavene.

Given that crews had spotted MiG-15s parked at Antung, an RB-29 was sent up there is take photos. It was escorted by three P-51s. They had some trouble seeing through their own contrails, but managed to get good photography. Shortly thereafter, they too were jumped by MiG-15s. The P-51s attacked them and kept them busy while the Rb-29 cut away and escaped out to the Yellow Sea. Incredibly, Lt. Ambrose, the Rb-29’s skipper, did a high speed dive as an evasive action and got away with it. He would be kidded for being a frustrated fighter pilot, but he got them out of there.

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F9-2F from VF-21 “Mach Busters” aboard the USS Midway, 1952

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America’s first MiG kill occurred on November 9, when Lt. Commander William T. Amen (shown here after the kill) shot one down. He flew a VF-111 “Sundowner” F9F-2B from the USS Philippine Sea. He chased his prey from 4,000 ft up to 15,000 and down again before making his hit. I might remark that some report that the first jet against jet fight took place on November 8, 1950, when a F-80C pilot, 1st Lt. Russell Brown, from the 16th FIS, 51st FIW, shot down a MiG based at Antung. It is my understanding Russian records indicate no MiG-15 lost on that date, but Brown retains credit nonetheless I’ll stay out of this debate --- the USAF and Navy can fight this out on the football field!

Despite the knowledge that the MiG-15 was in the fight, MacArthur ordered a maximum effort to end the war by bombing the men and material coming across the Yalu for two weeks starting November 5, 1950. Truman did not like the operation, fearing upsetting the Chinese too much, but the JCS agreed to the attacks so long as no US aircraft crossed into China. Attacking the bridges across the Yalu with a lumbering massive B-29 without crossing into China was virtually impossible. The two week campaign would last only one day.

To my knowledge, the first B-29 to be engaged by a MiG-15 was a RB-29 reconnaissance aircraft from the 31st SRS on November 9, a day after a massive B-29 bombing raid against Yalu bridges. He made it back to Johnson AB in Japan, but crash landed killing five crew. But during the action, Cpl. Harry J. LaVene, the RB-29’s tail gunner, was credited with shooting down one MiG-15. This was the first loss of a B-29 in combat and to a MiG-15 and the first MiG kill by a B-29 gunner.

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As an aside, gunners would later report that the MiGs were like blurs in the sky to them because of their high speed attacks. They had only a few seconds to fire, and if lucky, might score one or two hits, often nowhere near enough to bring down the tough MiG. Here you see three MiG-15s rolling in toward a B-29 preparing to attack.

In February 1951, the B-29s ran a series of interdiction raids against the Chiese designed to slow them down. On February 25, four B-29s attacking Sunchon were attacked by eight MiG-15s. Following this, the B-29s demanded escorts and flew at 20,000 ft in defensive formations. F-80C and F-84s provided the escort, both of which were largely ineffective against the MiG-15. On March 1, a force of 48 B-29s attacked the rail bridge connecting North Korea with Antung and those were hit by dozens of MiG-15s. Three B-29s were lost, seven damaged. General Stratemeyer now restricted the B-29 to attacking Chinese forces and supply lines farther to the south, around the 38th parallel.

In August and September 1951, the B-29s hit at rail lines and bridges. US intelligence found the enemy quickly repaired the damages.

In October 1951, the Chinese were known to be building air bases throughout North Korea, and the B-29s were tasked to destroy those.

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As history tells the story, the worst day for the B-29 in North Korea was October 23, 1951, known as “Black Tuesday.” B-29s from the 307th BW were to attack Namsi airfield, which was in the heart of MiG alley. Earl J. McGill’s book,
Black Tuesday of Namsi, “chronicles the calamitous B-29 daylight bombing missions … against Namsi Airfield. What many experts consider the epic air battle of the Korean War and perhaps the greatest jet engagement in the history of aerial warfare has largely become another forgotten battle in a forgotten war.”

WagenhallsJohn
John Wagenhalls participated in the flight. He has written this:

“I was flying as Bombardier in the #2 position in C Flight and Peter Dempsey was the Aircraft Commander. . . From the battle damage we sustained it would be the most likely position in the formation. The bomb doors on the right side of the aircraft were shattered from cannon fire, while those on the opposite side suffered only minor damage. I was able to wire the pieces of the bomb bay doors in the up position sufficiently to allowed us to fly the aircraft back to Kadena (Okinawa, Japan).

"Fortunately no one aboard the aircraft was injured in the melee. During and after the attack it seemed that the B29s were scattered, as not one of the flights remained intact. It was almost as if each airplane was on its own since at least one aircraft from each flight was destroyed almost immediately in the first attack. The (B-29) firepower effectiveness was severely reduced as, basically, no formation still existed. I believe we were the first crew to reach Kadena from Korea that fateful day. If the MiGs would have to continued their attack they could have shot us all down."

Stars & Stripes reported that an estimated 150 MiG-15s attacked the B-29 flight of nine. F-86s and F-84 Thunderjets defended the nine. Three B-29s were lost along with one F-84. However, the newspaper said the USAF crews shot down 18 MiG-15s, five of which were shot down by B-29 gunners. My gut instinct is that this number is way too high. I have seen as low as one MiG shot down, and several reports saying four were shot down.

I must comment here that I have seen a wide variety of loss numbers for both sides.


Newsweek said 100 MiGs attacked, thirty-four F-86s operated as a screening force while 55 F-84s escorted the B-29s. Newsweek went on to say that 50 MiGs got through, shot down two B-29s and severely damaged six others, leaving only one in reasonable shape.

There seems to be a consensus that three B-29s were shot down along with one F-84. I have seen no consensus on how many MiGs were lost.

FoglerB2950holes

Aircrews reported three B-29s had to land at Kimpo in the ROK with heavy battle damage. Aircraft 44-61816 flown by “Fogler” had over 500 holes in it. It is shown here at Kimpo. A common practice for Air Force men and women is to go out to a damaged aircraft and just stare at it, like many of these people are doing, oft times in complete awe. The second aircraft flown by “Reeter” had cannon damage that killed the navigator and wounded others. Major William Griner crash landed but all crew members survived.

Paul Dickerson was a gunner aboard Griner’s aircraft and said, “We took the shell in no. 3 main (fuel tank) and fuel started pouring out over the wing and down the right side over my blister. When the fuel went over the blister it made the blister milky … I could not see out of it anymore … I then went off interphone and took care of Lt. Thorton who had shrapnel in his arm. On landing we went off the side of the runway. Major Griner gave the crew the option to bail out. None did. Our CFC (central fire controller), SSgt. Slagowski got a MiG, confirmed by 4th FIW photos at debriefing.”

Dewell Turner was a gunner. He said, “Paul Dickerson's account matches my recollection. I saw the tires blow out upon our landing when Major Griner locked the brakes to stop us. I also recall that a bomb hung up and had to be manually jettisoned before we landed. I think the bombadier and CFC did that chore. I saw the MIG go down after the CFC hit it. I remember the debriefers at Kimpo really pressed me about what I saw. Major Griner gave us the option of bailing out, but all the regular crew wanted to stay with the plane, probably because the radar operator was wounded and could not jump and they did want to leave him. I wasn't about to jump alone. Everyone had great confidence in Major Griner and he did a fantastic job getting us down safely. The first thing the gunners did after landing was to clear the guns. When we looked for the lower forward turret cover to remount it after clearing the guns, we could never find it. No telling what happened to it. Someone probably thought it would never be needed again. They were right.”

Whatever numbers are right, the B-29 took a beating this day. Making matters worse, the B-29 was completely ineffective this day against the Namsi airfield. Some reports say they did not get to drop any bombs, others say the ones they dropped missed the target.

By October 27, it appears five B-29s had been lost total and 20 more heavily damaged. Between November 1950 and November 1951, the USAF lost 16 B-29s (I have seen as high as 28) to enemy action and, on October 28, they were restricted to nighttime bombing in an interdiction role for the rest of the war. Daylight raids were suspended in favor of night raids which would employ SHORAN radar.

By December 1950 MiGs were all over the skies engaging the B-29s in the Sinuiju and Sananju areas of northwest North Korea.

BombedChosenPowerPlantJul111952

In April 1952, the B-29s and USAF and USN fighters were given permission to attack hydroelectric facilities, the bombers by night, the fighters by day, and by June’s end estimates were 90 percent of North Korea’s power supplies had been destroyed. Starting in July, heavy-duty raids were conducted against Pyongyang, Sungho-Ri- Chosin, Sindok and Sinuiju. Some 45 B-29s destroyed a chemical plant at Namsan-Ri. This photo shows the damage done to the Chosin power plant after a raid on July 11, 1952.

But between November 1952 and January 1953, five B-29s were lost to enemy night fighters and Marine F3D-2 Skyknight night fighters were brought in. By late spring 1953, the emphasis for the B-29 returned to the bridges in the north and Chinese airfields.

Joe Baugher has studied aviation and the numbers game carefully. He has written this:

“When the Korean War ended on July 27, 1953, the B-29s had flown over 21,000 sorties, nearly 167,000 tons of bombs had been dropped, and 34 B-29s had been lost in combat (16 to fighters, four to flak, and fourteen to other causes). B-29 gunners had accounted for 34 Communist fighters (16 of these being MiG-15s) probably destroyed another 17 (all MiG-15s) and damaged 11 (all MiG-15s). Losses were less than one per 1000 sorties.”

I leave those numbers to you and not dispute them.

I will try to summarize what I perceive to be the accomplishments of the B-29 in Korea.

It was among the first USAF aircraft to inflict major damage against North Korean marshaling yards, rail bridges, and supply depots right off the bat, starting just days after the invasion. They wiped out virtually all North Korean strategic targets in less than two months, and left the country in a complete state of destruction. I do not know if the North Koreans really expected this level of destruction so quickly. Since the MiG-15 did not show up until November 1950, one could argue their arrival was too late.

Even with the arrival of the MiG-15, the B-29s would continue to conduct those kinds of missions, though they did incur losses. They had a tough time hitting the bridges across the Yalu, in part because bridges were hard to take out, and the North Koreans were able to work around the losses. Complicating the B-29’s Yalu bridge mission was that they were not supposed to overfly China, which constrained their approach profiles.

PyongyangSupplyDestroyed

The B-29 was very effective against supply depots, forcing the enemy to disperse supply centers, which slowed resupply of forces heading south. This especially hurt the enemy the farther south it went. This photo shows what happened to a supply depot in the environs of Pyongyang, as an example.

Ground-based radars were effective in helping the B-29 conduct night attacks against enemy positions and troop concentrations. But such night bombing did negatively impact accuracy. Employment of the SHORAN helped improve that.

But the B-29 was without question vulnerable to the MiG-15. The F-86 Sabres started showing up, as you recall, in November 1950. Along with other fighters such as the F-80C and F-84, they gave the MiG-15 a helluva fight and inflicted major damage, so much so that at one point the MiGs were told to stay out of MiG Alley. So the B-29s just kept on trucking in and out hitting their targets.

Perhaps the most significant point to be made is that the American air war in Korea employed a variety of aircraft and demanding command, control, and coordination of all these aircraft to produce cohesive attacks against the enemy. No single aircraft did the job. All together raids slowed the enemy advance, in some cases enough to allow UN forces to regroup. While enemy forces, North Koreans alone, and with the Chinese, made significant advances, they were always pushed back. Between the B-29s, the supporting fighters, shelling from the sea, artillery, transport supply flights, and the troops fighting on the ground, the enemy advance was stopped and pushed back twice across the 38th parallel, where it remains today.

Lt. General Georgi A. Lobov, commander of the Soviet 64th Air Defense Corps, conceded this point:

"We could not overcome the Americans in the air. We had only fighters and AAA."

If there was a bottom line for the USAF, is was that following this war, it needed to quickly get a new jet powered bomber force to replace the B-29 and a new suite of jet fighters. Always in competition with the Army and Navy for air assets, the newly formed USAF would have to work hard to build.
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So this is MiG Alley: Pilot Stories