The North American Mustang was assigned a vital role in Korea–to save the South Korean army.
By Walter J. Boyne
Mustangs Over Korea: The North American F-51 at War, 1950-1953 (Schiffer, Atglen, Pa.,1999, $45) adds even more luster to author David R. McLaren’s reputation. Fifty years after the Korean War ended, McLaren’s painstakingly detailed research covers a subject that has only been given the once-over-lightly treatment in the past and thus rectifies a deficiency in the study of the Korean War.
The North American F-51 Mustang was given a new and vital role in the 1950s–saving the beleaguered South Korean army and the scratch American units with it from being pushed into the sea at Pusan. There were few F-51s to do this (and they were joined, of course, by the Far Eastern Air Force’s Lockheed F-80s, Douglas B-26s and Boeing B-29s) and even fewer F-51 pilots current in the aircraft. No matter; the first batch of 10 was reclaimed from tow-target duty, and these were soon joined by 145 taken from Air National Guard stores. Many more would follow, for attrition would be heavy.
McLaren’s lucid text reveals the career of the F-51 in logical and comprehensive detail, and in a somewhat unusual format. He begins with a general overview of Korea as a country nobody ever heard of and then in separate chapters paints an accurate portrayal of the air forces of North and South Korea. As accurate as the text is, however, it is the selection of photos and the insightful captions that really set this book apart. As an example, he shows a derelict Shturmovik at K-27, Yonpo, but goes on to point out the buildings that would be used by the 35th Fighter Interceptor Group a few weeks later. Another photo shows a rare North Korean air force Mitsubishi Ki-54 “Topsy” abandoned at K-24, Pyongyang East Airdrome. That would be enough for most buffs, but he also notes the barest tip of an F-80 tail at the extreme edge of the photo and comments “it would have to have wound up at K-24 through some sort of emergency, since Shooting Stars were never based there.” Now that’s photoanalysis of the sort that warms the cockles of an historian’s heart!
The remaining chapters are focused on the histories of the units that used the Mustang. The book concludes with a chapter of combat history that is all too often overlooked, the heroic efforts of the 45th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron. Tasked by the Eighth Army with a seemingly impossible job (3,600 photographs a day!) and aiming for impossibly high standards of achievement, the 45th accomplished results that would have pleased one of their greatest leaders, Colonel Karl Polifka, perhaps the finest U.S. reconnaissance pilot in history.
McLaren writes with the assured hand of a man well read in the subject and thus avoids repeating the old stories. Instead he gives a sober and realistic assessment of the war, just as a unit commander must do. He knows the importance of maintenance problems, the relative effectiveness and reliability of ordnance and munitions, and the key role played by ground crews. He knows that it’s not all pilots and white silk scarves, but instead the combined effort of genuine professionals that wins air wars.
At the same time, this book is filled with tales of heroism, for heroes abounded in the Mustang units. It also covers the stark tragedy of their many losses to enemy fire and to accidents. There are five valuable appendices, one of which gives the names of confirmed Mustang pilot losses in the Korean conflict, information that has often been neglected.
This is not merely a book for Mustang enthusiasts, by any means. Anyone interested in the history of air warfare will find it an absorbing account, and potential authors should study it for its clarity and organization.