The Korean War was the era of the jet ace. Among them, Iowa native Harold E. “Hal” Fischer, the 25th pilot to achieve ace status during the conflict, was one of the most remarkable. After flying 105 ground support missions in Lockheed F-80 fighter-bombers, he wangled a second combat tour in the North American F-86 and soon began racking up Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15s. He became an ace on his 47th mission and got his 10th victory on his 66th. On his 70th mission, however, his luck ran out. In a fight over Manchuria, he damaged three MiGs before becoming the fifth victory for a Chinese pilot. He spent the next two years as a Chinese prisoner of war in Manchuria. Bob Bergin, who interviewed Han Decai, the MiG pilot credited with downing Fischer (Military History, December 2001), subsequently interviewed Fischer.
MH: What sparked your interest in aviation?
Fischer: I was given an allowance of 10 cents every Saturday night. I would spend it all on Flying Aces, a magazine about World War I. On a blackboard I could draw airplanes in different attitudes, turning and banking. Later I saved my money to buy model airplanes and then climb a windmill to fly them. My first contact with a real airplane was at the state fair in Des Moines. I saw a man named Frakes crash an airplane into a house and survive. Later I saved to take a ride in an airplane, an early Waco, I think.
MH: How did you enter the Air Force?
Fischer: I worked for my parents and then went to Iowa State. After a couple of years, I wanted to enlist, and only the Army was taking anyone. I went before the board for infantry officers, was sent to Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, GA, and trained as a platoon leader. In the meantime, I had applied for Air Force pilot training. I got my Army commission, and I had a paper that said I could go into Air Force pilot training. I took leave, got a hop to Washington and went to the Pentagon. I went to the Army Reserve office and said, “If you release me, the Air Force will take me.” Then I went to the Air Force and said, “The Army will release me if you take me.”
MH: Did you know you would be going into jets?
Fischer: I didn’t want jets. I wanted the North American F-51, an airplane that had class and a great history. You had to be a real pilot to fly it. I was headed for the F-51 class at Nellis Air Force Base when they canceled the F-51 program. Suddenly, there I was — with the F-80.
MH: You were sent to Japan. Did the country have any special appeal for you?
Fischer: I had studied history, the Japanese people and the war. I wanted to know as much about that as I could. I still remember arriving in Japan and then driving by the park where we were told the Doolittle Raiders were beheaded. Later I got a scooter, went everywhere and met the people. You can learn a lot if you’re friendly and go where no one else has gone. I was assigned to the 80th Fighter-Bomber Squadron, known as the “Headhunters,” based at Fukuoka, on the island of Kyushu.
MH: What were the F-80 missions like?
Fischer: From Japan it was a long way. We could make a few passes, and then we’d refuel at Taegu. It was all ground support, attacking Communist troops, vehicles, trains if you could catch them. Actually, during the day the trains went into tunnels, and we would try to close the entrances. We carried 500-pound bombs, napalm and rockets, and we had our six .50-caliber machine guns. The most effective was napalm — you didn’t exactly have to hit the target.
MH: Where did you go after your tour ended?
Fischer: I volunteered to go back to Headquarters, Far East Air Force, in Tokyo to work in combat crew assignments. To get another combat tour, you had to go back to the United States first or go to a squadron and wait a year. I got one of the 80th pilots assigned as commander to a squadron in Japan. We agreed that if I got this done, he would recommend that I go back to combat.
MH: You were assigned to the 39th Fighter Interceptor Squadron. Did you find life in an F-86 squadron different from your previous assignment?
Fischer: In my F-80 squadron there was a lot of experience, even people who flew original jets, but they hardly talked. With the F-86 squadron it was different. You could evaluate who was successful and who was not, who wanted to fight and who did not, and who was there for political reasons — to do the thing you needed to do for your career. You learn from other people. You could learn a lot at the bar. I didn’t always know enough to ask.
MH: You became a flight leader after only a few missions. Why?
Fischer: Because I had a combat tour where I was assigned to Douglas Lindsay, an exchange officer from the Royal Canadian Air Force. Doug taught me everything I knew about combat flying. He flew Supermarine Spitfires in Britain during World War II and became an ace. He was an outstanding flight leader. He ignored all the rules that really did not have much to do with combat and concentrated on what got the job done.
MH: What was your first victory like?
Fischer: I moved up into lead, and when I saw the MiGs — they were everywhere — I called that I was going to make a bounce. So I took this bounce, and actually I didn’t have a target in sight. Then two MiGs started going north. They were a long distance away, and I used Kentucky windage and tracers, and just fired short bursts. Eventually, one of the two started a descent to the left. So I fired again, and then moved up beside the aircraft. I saw the canopy gone and no pilot. I turned around and started climbing out, and there was the pilot in a parachute. I didn’t have time to pull the circuit breakers to deactivate the guns, so I just moved to the right and fired a few rounds to activate the camera. I flew right by him and waved. He had a ribbon parachute like the Germans used in World War II, and a lot of cold weather flying equipment. Doug had told me you’ll never sleep the first night you get a kill. And he was right — you keep reliving it.
MH: How did you score your ace-making fifth victory?
Fischer: When I first fired on him, the MiG was a long distance away, flying toward China. He started to burn. He slowed, and I was able to go up alongside. I saw the pilot, beating on the canopy. He couldn’t get out. I didn’t want him to burn to death, so I dropped back, intending to shoot him down. I was behind and very close. The burning MiG was streaming molten metal back on my aircraft and caused one of the rounds in my guns to explode. That severed the rudder cable, and I thought I’d been hit. I lost pressurization. It became a question of whether I could get back or not. I came back at 43,000 feet, as high as the F-86 could get, and I got the bends because there was no pressurization. I felt sad about the MiG pilot. I had felt no animosity toward him.
MH: Was there much speculation about who was flying the MiGs?
Fischer: There was speculation, but that was mostly for the public. There were security services monitoring enemy pilot conversations, and they knew who was flying. That information was never passed on to our pilots. We knew the Russians were the ones who had the MiGs. The North Koreans didn’t have them, and initially the Chinese weren’t trained in MiGs. There were North Korean aces, but they were mostly flying Yaks.
MH: Which of your opponents was the most dangerous?
Fischer: I started an attack on a MiG, and my wingman called me free. You’re clear, he said. Suddenly I had all these golf balls going by my cockpit. I guess the MiG behind me was too close. If I had been farther out he would have hit me. He couldn’t get me without hitting the guy in front, but he kept firing and they were going all around me. Finally we went through a cloud. The MiG in front turned left, and I followed. When I finally thought I was clear, I fired and he went down burning. The pilot bailed out. When I got back I had some words with the wingman for calling me free.
MH: When you headed out on what was to become your last mission, you had a problem before it started.
Fischer: Yes, I accepted an airplane I shouldn’t have. It hadn’t been bore sighted after its last mission. When I made my first attack on four aircraft, I fired at about 1,000 feet and found I was about 100 feet to the left. Then I saw four other airplanes and initiated an attack on them. I allowed for the problem with the guns and hit two of the MiGs, both Russians. Years later I talked with the Russian pilots. One of them said I had hit him 14 times, right behind the cockpit in the wing root. He had to land with his wheels up. The second MiG I hit was also a Russian aircraft. And there was a third MiG that I hit really hard, and it crashed. When I bailed out there was this one MiG that was floating around. He had no power and was burning. I thought he was coming toward me, and all I had was my .45. I think he was Chinese, but I’m not sure.
MH: You had hit three MiGs, then in the middle of this fight you suddenly found yourself with a dead airplane.
Fischer: Here was the thing. With the MiG where I saw the numbers 341 on its side, I had this bad feeling about getting ahead of the target. In this case, all kinds of debris was coming off the MiG in front of me — the third one — and I pulled up through it. And there, right over the top of him, my engine died, the throttle came back in my hand and the warning lights came on. We were told that when you have fire warning lights, you’ve got 30 seconds to bail out. I was just high enough so there was an opening shock when I ejected. I came down on the side of a hill. I didn’t have a hard landing because my parachute got caught up on some shrubbery.
MH: What kind of shape were you in when you landed? What did you do?
Fischer: I lost my helmet, and my ear was bleeding. I just walked and walked. Finally I sat down, and here came an old Chinese. I had a choice, I could shoot him, but I didn’t know — there were insurgents there who worked with us. I didn’t know if he was on their side or our side. Anyway, he motioned me to follow him, and I followed, right into a group of Chinese with hatchets and farm implements. I tried to play the part of a Russian and just walk away, but then the Chinese soldiers came.
MH: You were held for two years in Manchuria. You managed to get in contact with other POWs, and at one point you actually escaped. Tell us about that.
Fischer: They tried to keep us from knowing it, but through manipulating a guard, I found out other POWs were being held in the same place and made contact with them. Two were in a room next to me. I had also made contact with Andy McKenzie, who claimed he had been accidentally shot down by an F-86. Andy was saying he was going home, but we thought they were going to do away with him. To protect him, we told the Chinese that we knew there was another prisoner. Through a code system I had also made contact with Ed Heller. Because of this, I was declared an “activist” and placed in a separate cell where I could have no contact with anyone. After a while, I decided to become a model prisoner so they wouldn’t watch me as closely. At the end of the bed I had found an outside wall. I started digging with a nail until I had a brick I could push out. I chose the holidays to do it, when the guards were not looking in on me as much. I pushed out feet first, and it was a really great feeling. I headed for the MiG base to steal a MiG. I meant to play a Russian, but the guard stopped me. So I just turned around and walked away. My next plan was to reach the water, maybe steal a boat. Crossing a river I got wet and froze my feet. Then I drank dirty water and got really sick. I followed the railroad to town. My idea was to get on a rail car headed south. But reports of my escape were out. I got grabbed and really hurt, put in handcuffs and taken back. The guards were really hostile then. For at least a month I was forced to stay in one place and not move. Finally I was taken back with the other prisoners.
MH: You were not released until May 1955. Looking back, how do you feel about your time in China?
Fischer: I feel I was lucky to be a prisoner of the Chinese. They treat their prisoners the way they treat their troops, in the way they feed and house them. It was not the way the North Koreans did it.
MH: Official credit for shooting you down was given to the Chinese ace Han Decai, as his fifth victory. How did you feel about the claims?
Fischer: I found out only years later that Han Decai was credited with shooting me down. I took a lot of time to contact the Russian pilots and talk with them. I got to know them and respect them. When I found out that Han had been given credit for me, I tried to contact him through Chinese embassies. In 1996 I joined a group of AVG Flying Tiger pilots who had been invited to visit China. There, I met General Han and presented him with an F-86 model. We’ve met again since then. And we have become friends.
This article was written by Bob Bergin and originally published in the January/February 2007 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!