Crimson Sky, by John R. Bruning, Brassey’s, Dulles, Va., 1999, $24.95.
At 5 p.m. on June 27, 1950, four North Korean Yakovlev Yak-7B fighters swept low over Seoul Airfield and strafed the tiny South Korean air force’s North American T-6 Texan trainers, which were parked around the field. Seven of the 10 Texans were damaged. At the same time, Kimpo Airport was attacked. Two Yaks shot up the base control tower and set fire to a gasoline dump. North Korean pilots also holed a U.S. Air Force Douglas C-54 transport that they caught on the ground.
Meanwhile, in Japan, the U.S. Fifth Air Force was making preparations to lend air support to South Korea. The ground war had started on June 25, and now the Korean air war was underway.
The Korean War conjures up images of mud and dust, trench warfare and stalemate, bitter retreats and demoralization. It was a fierce and frustrating conflict that, despite increasing numbers of U.N. victories, tapered off into a long and uneasy truce. But above the rice paddies and mountains through which the Allied infantry slogged for three years, the Korean War gave rise to a new type of aerial warfare. Born at the end of World War II (though it had been unveiled by the Germans in 1939 and first used operationally by them in the closing months of the war), the jet airplane revolutionized air warfare to a degree that no one could understand until East and West clashed in the skies over North Korea.
The air war in Korea was long and costly, though most postwar accounts have failed to make that clear. Far from being a mere joust between North American F-86 Sabrejets and Soviet-built MiG-15s, the Korean air war was more diversified and complex than is generally recognized. So says aviation historian John R. Bruning in Crimson Sky, a masterful history of the air battle for Korea from 1950 to 1953.
Bruning explains that he wrote this book because he found that the Korean air war has been neglected even by historians and military archivists. The Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama has some of the best World War II records anywhere, Bruning discovered, yet its Korean files are woefully disorganized. He found the same situation at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., where thousands of pages of documents had been randomly thrown into ragged cardboard boxes.
Bruning points out that the skies over Korea were the last hurrah for one generation of tactics and technology and the proving ground for the next. Starting with the war’s first dogfight (between North American F-82s and Yak-9s), significant battles took place that would profoundly affect the future of air warfare.
It was in Korea that jet fighters and fighter-bombers first flew from aircraft carriers into battle and, in the process, demonstrated how unsuitable the World War II flattops were for this new generation of aircraft. The author explains that the hard-won lessons of the Korean War gave birth to the modern super carrier, complete with angled deck (a British invention) and steam catapult.
Korea also witnessed the first widespread use of the helicopter. Helicopters had been virtually ignored by the Navy and the Army Air Forces in the late 1940s, says Bruning, but the Korean War changed that attitude when the spindly, ungainly little Sikorskys proved highly effective in medical evacuations and search-and-rescue missions.
Bruning points out that America, emerging victorious from World War II, entered the postwar era with a cockiness that cost thousands of lives in the early weeks of the Korean War, when poorly motivated, trained and equipped U.S. soldiers proved no match for their North Korean and Chinese enemies. While the ground forces faced a rude awakening during the first year of the war, the U.S. Air Force and Navy received a terrible shock in November 1950, when the Chinese and Soviet air forces intervened. Riding high on the great aerial victories won in Europe and the Pacific five years before, both services failed to realize just how far behind most of their aircraft technology was in comparison with the recent innovations of the Soviets. They learned this hard lesson when the first Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15s swept down from Manchuria and engaged the Air Force Lockheed F-80s and Navy Grumman F9F Panthers and Chance-Vought F4U Corsairs. In the end, says Bruning, only the F-86 Sabrejet could stay in the air with the MiG.
The Korean air war set the stage for modern jet warfare. It was also one of the oddest crossroads of aviation history. Over MiG Alley, the latest jets clashed in remote dogfights, the pinnacle of Western technology pitted against the best that the Soviet Bloc had to offer. South of MiG Alley, however, the bulk of the air war was waged by World War II holdovers. Douglas B-26 Invaders prowled, looking for targets of opportunity, while Corsairs and F-51 Mustangs struck daily at troop concentrations and fortifications. Meanwhile the North Koreans and Chinese were raiding U.N. bases with ancient wood-and-fabric Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, tossing down hand grenades and light bombs.
Korean was the oddest air war in history, Bruning concludes. It pitted old technology against new, jet fighters against piston engines, and Soviet pilots against American and Allied. It was a hybrid war fought with old tactics and old ideas. But as the fighting wore on, new tactics evolved that were to shape the nature of wars to come, providing many lessons about the future of aerial combat.
In the war’s immediate aftermath, some of those lessons were heeded, and others were not.
Michael D. Hull