Several American aces made the transition
from propeller aircraft to jets and
added to their victory totals in Korea.
While the accomplishments of many of the great German aces of World War II who flew both propeller-driven fighter aircraft and the revolutionary Messerschmitt Me-262 jet are well known, also impressive are the accomplishments of a handful of American aces who used their WWII experience to take on Korean, Chinese and Soviet pilots in the skies over Korea a few years later.
Although some of their victories were scored against piston-engine adversaries, the Americans participated in the world’s first jet-vs.-jet fighter confrontation. U.S. pilots flying Lockheed F-80C aircraft tangled with Soviet-built Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 fighters on November 8, 1950. One MiG was shot down, but it had become apparent that a new generation of Communist air power would challenge the air supremacy of the United Nations forces.
It was also recognized that the MiG-15 was superior in climbing and maneuverability to even the newest U.S. fighter types such as the famed North American F-86 Sabre. In retrospect, however, even Soviet ace Yevgeny Pepelyaev, who was credited with downing 23 U.N. aircraft over Korea, acknowledged the general superiority of his opponents’ skills and strived to train his pilots “to meet the American standard.”
Some Soviet pilots were veterans themselves, most notably Sergei Kramarenko, with 12 kills in World War II and 13 over Korea. On the other hand, no less than 12 American pilots who were aces during World War II added to their scores in Korea.
Major Walker H. Mahurin scored 21 victories over both Europe and the Pacific during World War II. He also claimed 31Ž2 jet kills in Korea before being shot down and captured himself. Lieutenant Colonel Vermont Garrison scored seven victories during World War II and added 10 more in Korea. Colonel John C. Meyer added two North Korean aircraft to 24 kills made in Europe, and Lt. Col. Glenn T. Eagleston had two Korean victories along with 181Ž2 kills against Germany.
Of the 12 World War II aces, Major George A. Davis, Jr., racked up the highest score in Korea. He shot down seven Japanese aircraft while flying with the Fifth Air Force in New Guinea and the Philippines. His 14 aerial victories in Korea included three Tupolev Tu-2 bombers and a MiG-15 on a single mission, on November 30, 1951. On December 5, he shot down two MiGs on one mission and followed with an astounding four victories over the nimble Soviet-built jets on a second mission on December 13.
On February 10, 1952, Davis was killed. He and his wingman had each flamed a MiG, and Davis was attacking a third when Chiang Chi-wei–a five-victory Chinese ace–slipped behind him and shot him down. When Davis died, he was the top American ace in Korea. He was also the only Sabre pilot to receive the Medal of Honor.
Colonel Francis S. Gabreski, who was the best-known American ace to participate in both wars, recorded 28 kills flying P-47s with the famous 56th Fighter Group of the Eighth Air Force in Europe, and 61Ž2 more over Korea. Gabreski, the third leading ace of the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II, was shot down during a strafing run on July 20, 1944, and spent the remainder of that war in a German prison camp.
Another American ace of note who bridged the gap between propeller aircraft and jets deserves special mention. Colonel Robin Olds recorded 13 kills while flying Lockheed P-38 Lightnings and North American P-51D Mustangs with the 479th Fighter Group of the Eighth Air Force. More than 20 years later, Olds became the first American pilot of the Vietnam War to claim more than two victories. Commanding the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, he shot down four MiGs during a few months of combat flying in 1967. He remained the top-scoring American pilot in Vietnam until 1972.
The fighter pilot is an intrepid breed, and World War II provided the largest stage in history for him to ply his craft. Those pilots who achieved ace status were truly the elite of the elite, and those who continued to win aerial victories in jets were in a class by themselves.
Michael E. Haskew, Editor, World War II