From the Summer 2010 issue of MHQ
How daredevil U.S. Navy pilots used smarts and pluck—and a clutch of old torpedoes—to end an early stalemate in Korea
This post contains only a snippet of this article. Please purchase the Summer 2010 issue of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History to read the entire article.
At first light one late-February morning in 1951, as they wrapped up another night mission over North Korea, Skyraider pilots from the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Princeton spotted several long trains making a dash for the mouth of a mountain tunnel. The leader of this Air Group 19 detachment was Lt. Frank Metzner, a World War II veteran and reservist who, before being activated for Korea, had been a writer and radio announcer in civilian life. His flight circled overhead and waited, but the trains never emerged from the other side. This told Metzner one thing: The tunnel—and others like it—was being used as a daytime hideout for Communist supply trains.
Several days later, on March 2, returning to the Princeton from a morning strike against North Korean bridges near Kilchu, Lt. Comdr. Clement Craig, leader of a Corsair attack squadron in Air Group 19, spotted a different target opportunity: a high four-span railroad bridge, parts of it still under construction, connecting three rail lines with two tunnels across a deep canyon near Songjin, inland from the coastal plain and the Sea of Japan.
Pinpointing the bridge from the air, apparently for the first time, was a real coup. Like most choice North Korea target sites—the exceptions were those hugging the narrow coastal plain—the Songjin bridges were built into a landscape of canyons, mountain ridges, and narrow valleys often obscured by clouds or morning mist. The excitement of spotting the target, Craig realized only too well, would soon enough be tempered by the risks and costs of going after it.
The rugged terrain, augmented in some cases by mobile radar-equipped antiaircraft weaponry, worked to the Communists’ advantage. There was often only one flight path in and one out. For the attacking pilots there was little margin for error and little wiggle room for evasion. It took lots of nerve to go in and even more luck to emerge unscathed. Already, since the start of its deployment in November aboard the Princeton, Air Group 19 had lost four prop pilots in combat, all flying Corsairs.
Like Metzner’s find a few days earlier, Craig’s sighting generated a stir as soon as his Corsair touched down on the Princeton. In a hastily prepped strike, pilots set out that same afternoon to hit the bridges. Challenged as much by a race against the early-setting, late-winter sun as by enemy ground fire, strike results were modest—some damage to the approaches but little or none to the bridge spans themselves. They would have to return another day and however many days it took to bring them down and keep them down.
Over the next few weeks the pilots of Air Group 19 carried out risky attacks on North Korea’s tunnels, bridges, and trains, sometimes flying blind on night missions where their planes had to slip through snow-capped mountain ranges. But their ingenuity and savvy would be needed most—along with nearly forgotten World War II–era torpedoes—when they went after a critical target in the war’s early stages: a strategically positioned dam that threatened the American advance to the 38th Parallel.
To view the remainder of this article please purchase the Summer 2010 issue of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History.