Book Review: CRIMSON SKY: THE AIR BATTLE FOR KOREA (by John R. Bruning) : AH

CRIMSON SKY: THE AIR BATTLE FOR KOREA, by John R. Bruning, Brassey’s Inc., 231 pages, $24.95.

The jet engine, which entered combat near the end of World II, revolutionized air warfare to a degree that no one fully understood until East and West clashed in the skies over North Korea. As author John Bruning points out in Crimson Sky, Korea’s “forgotten war” marked a crossroads in aviation history, a last hurrah for one generation of tactics and technology and a proving ground for the next. The war marked not just the flowering of the jet age–with jets even flying from aircraft carriers into battle–but also the first widespread use of helicopters for medical evacuation and search and rescue missions.

Crimson Sky offers 20 fascinating, often thrilling episodes from the Korean air war, based on personal interviews with Korean War pilots and a painstaking search of existing records. With vivid descriptions of aerial combat, Bruning puts the reader in the cockpit, sharing pilots’ emotions, listening to their jargon, and hearing terms like TARCAP (air cover over a target) or “trapping (landing) aboard a carrier.” (Fortunately, there’s a glossary for the uninitiated.)

Bruning tells of both victories and defeats, including frustration with political interference, such as the order from Washington to bomb only the “south end” of the Yalu River bridges. (Pilots were also forbidden to return fire received from the Manchurian side of the river. The enemy, perceiving this, promptly moved all anti-aircraft batteries to the north shore.)

Later, as peace talks grind on at Panmunjom, we see the United Nations relying in vain on a strategic bombing campaign to wring concessions at the bargaining table. As Bruning points out, however, the failure of that campaign did not stop future American presidents from adopting the same ineffective course of action, and he concludes that, “The seeds of America’s flawed air strategy in Vietnam can be found in the last year of the Korean War.”

Harry J. Maihafer is a regular contributor to American History.

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