Book Review: “MiG Alley: The U.S. Air Force in Korea, 1950-53” by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver
Published by Osprey Books, 336 pp. $39.99
Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy
Seventy years ago this summer, the world watched, waited, and worried as a sudden and unexpected conflict in a remote part of Asia threatened to escalate into what many feared might become the Third World War. On June 25, 1950, with the tacit approval of their allies in the Soviet Union and China, troops of the Korean People’s Army stormed across the 38th parallel in what would soon develop into a massive invasion of South Korea. Intent on fulfilling Kim Il-Sung’s vision of reunifying the Korean Peninsula, the Communists would spend the next three years battling their southern neighbors and United Nations forces drawn from a variety of countries, Canada among them, until the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in March 1953 set the stage for an armistice that summer.
The Korean War would differ in many important respects from the enormous global conflict that had ended just five short years earlier. One of the most significant new developments was that the skies over Korea would serve as the first battleground where jet aircraft would engage in direct air-to-air combat. In an important new book, author and U.S. Navy Vietnam veteran Thomas McKelvey Cleaver tells the story of the U.S. Air Force’s involvement in Korea, and lays to rest some popular myths about what really happened in the area that is today remembered as “MiG Alley”.
Much as had been the case at Pearl Harbor, when the North Koreans launched their attack in the summer of 1950, the United States was caught completely off guard. Years of successive budget cuts had reduced the military to a shadow of the force that had returned home in triumph in 1945, with the result that America was ill-prepared to assist the South Koreans in fending off the Communist incursion. Following a hastily-convened meeting of the UN Security Council at which the invasion was condemned, troops of the U.S. Eighth Army were dispatched in early July in order to try to stabilize the situation.
The first several weeks of the war did not go well. The American troops, large numbers of whom were peacetime draftees, were undertrained and inadequately equipped, and as a result they quickly folded in the face of the North Korean onslaught. By the end of the summer of 1950 the UN forces and their South Korean allies found themselves cornered in the Pusan peninsula in the southwest part of Korea. The day would eventually be saved in September by an amphibious landing at Inchon commanded by General Douglas MacArthur, but even so, it was quickly becoming clear that the Americans and their UN allies would be sorely tested in the months that were to follow.
Not long after the war began, the American high command made a decision to launch an aggressive bombing campaign against military targets in North Korea. It was hoped that this would relieve the heavy pressure on the ground troops, and disrupt the Communist forces’ ability to continue to wage war. Responsibility for carrying out the mission was assigned to the newly-created U.S. Air Force, which had become a separate service in 1947. To implement the bombing campaign, the Air Force deployed the four-engine B 29 Superfortress, which had wreaked havoc over Japan during the final year of the Second World War. The heavy bombers would be supported by World War II-vintage fighters such as the propeller-driven F 51 Mustang, and by first-generation jets, notably the Lockheed F 80 Shooting Star and the Republic F 84 Thunderjet.
Initially, the bombing campaign went off without a hitch, and the U.S. aircraft faced little opposition from the propeller-driven Russian fighters which the North Koreans were armed with. But in late 1950, following China’s entry into the war, the game changed abruptly with the sudden appearance of a new swept-wing fighter that outclassed anything the Americans could throw at it. This was the MiG 15, piloted in the early days mainly by veteran Soviet airmen who had first cut their teeth in combat against the Germans on the Eastern Front, and who had been seconded to the Chinese forces to help the North Korean cause.
It soon became apparent that the only fighter in the U.S. inventory which was capable of going toe-to-toe with the MiG 15 was the newly-developed F 86 Sabre, which was destined to eventually become the workhorse of the Air Force in Korea. On paper, the two aircraft appeared to be a pretty even match. Both had made their first flights during the final months of 1947, and had come into service two years later. They were fairly similar in terms of length, height, and wingspan, and their single-engine powerplants could produce approximately the same amount of thrust. Both could thunder through the skies at speeds approaching 700 miles per hour, and both were capable of reaching reach altitudes of nearly 50,000 feet.
As would be expected, there were also some inevitable tradeoffs. The F 86 had a slight edge in terms of the top speed it could reach, whereas the MiG enjoyed a modest advantage in terms of its rate of climb and service ceiling. The main difference between the two aircraft, and one which would prove to be perennially irksome to the Sabre pilots, had to do with their armaments. The F 86 was equipped mainly with six Browning machine guns and carried 1,800 rounds of ammunition. The MiG 15, in contrast, packed three autocannon. The MiG carried far fewer rounds than did the Sabre, but what ammunition it did have delivered a much more powerful punch than did the .50 caliber bullets fired by the F 86’s guns. Later versions of the Sabre would carry a variety of different rocket launchers, and this would help to even the game.
In the end, a lot came down to the skill and daring of the pilots, who were a mix of seasoned World War II combat veterans and newly minted aviators barely into their 20’s. During the early months of the war the MiGs would be flown almost exclusively by Soviet pilots, but as time went by their ranks would be augmented by recently trained Chinese and North Korean airmen. Much of the jet combat would take place over the northwestern part of the Korean peninsula where the Yalu River empties into the Yellow Sea; this part of the world would become known colloquially as “MiG Alley”.
For the U.S. Air Force, operating in Korea presented issues that were very different from what had been encountered during the Second World War. As one example, keeping the aircraft in a state ready to fly proved to be a constant challenge. The F 86’s had to be transported to Korea by ship, and due to the rigors of the voyage some aircraft arrived in theatre having sustained damage that required extensive repair. Compounding the problem was the fact that the supply of spare parts, which had to be brought halfway around the world from the United States, could at times be erratic. It didn’t help matters that American maintenance crews found that working in the extreme cold of the Korean winters could often be arduous and exhausting.
Adding to these challenges, the missions the U.S. pilots were ordered to fly could frequently be exceedingly dangerous. A favored target was the North Korean railways, because of the importance of the role they played in moving troops and supplies to the front. However, the Americans soon discovered that the railways were heavily guarded by North Korean antiaircraft batteries, and over the course of the war, the Air Force would lose nearly six times as many aircraft to ground fire as it did in air-air combat. To add to the pilots’ frustration, even when they did manage to inflict damage on the rail lines, oftentimes it would be repaired almost immediately by the thousands of peasants the North Koreans used as forced labour.
As the war continued and the F 86 pilots gained experience, their confidence grew and they became increasingly brazen in their pursuit of the enemy. At times, this meant that their actions defied official policy. The American flyers were supposedly under strict orders not to cross the Yalu River that marked the border between North Korea and Manchuria, and thereby venture into Chinese airspace. Initially, this policy was flouted in a highly clandestine fashion only by a few of the more intrepid F 86 pilots, but by the spring of 1952 it was routinely ignored. The top brass responded at first by turning a blind eye to these violations, but finally in the spring of 1953 General Glenn Barcus of the Fifth Air Force effectively capitulated by issuing an order authorizing pursuit of enemy aircraft into Manchuria if they were “heavily damaged”. After the war, no less than 26 of the 39 American pilots who qualified as jet aces would admit that they had crossed the Yalu at some point.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, public opinion in the United States regarding the war in Korea had fluctuated wildly. When the decision to send troops to South Korea was first announced at the end of June 1950, nearly 80% of Americans supported the move. But just six months later, a Gallup poll indicated that half of the country believed the decision to provide military assistance had been a mistake. As the support of the population waned and the war itself deteriorated into a seemingly inconclusive stalemate, the military was hungry for heroes whose achievements it could tout. The pilots who sparred with their Communist adversaries in the skies of MiG Alley provided a seemingly perfect answer.
The Air Force was equipped with a sophisticated public relations machine, and it made the most of the flyers’ exploits. Their successes in downing enemy fighters and bombing North Korean military infrastructure provided a steady stream of good news stories for the papers back home, and the swashbuckling derring-do of the pilots was celebrated in popular comic strips of the day such as Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon. The F 86 pilots, in particular, were elevated to almost rock star status, and the Air Force eagerly published all manner of inflated statistics to suggest that the American fighter pilots were cleaning house, outscoring their Communist foes by a ratio of 10 to 1. In fact, as MiG Alley points out, when actual data on aircraft losses on both sides is carefully scrutinized, the U.S. enjoyed an advantage of at the most somewhere between 1.3 and 1.5 to 1.
The relentless bombing the Americans initiated beginning in the summer of 1950 continued throughout the war, but it did not achieve the results that had been hoped for. Although extensive damage was caused in North Korea, the bombing did not help to break the deadlock that had paralyzed the peace negotiations. In the summer of 1953, however, the 18th Wing of the Air Force undertook a major, and somewhat unorthodox, operation that would ultimately affect the outcome of the war.
In the spring of that year, intelligence reports had determined that the Communists were imminently planning a major ground offensive. This posed a serious potential threat, as had it been successful it would have put extreme pressure on the UN forces. In response, the Americans stepped up the bombing campaign, with the result that the offensive that had been planned was reportedly postponed until the summer. On the night of July 15, Major “Dee” Harper, who was serving as Group Operations Officer for the 18th Wing, was advised that pilots of the unit returning from a mission had identified and destroyed a rail yard containing a large train that exploded in a spectacular firestorm, a sure sign that it was loaded with munitions.
Harper was also informed that the pilots had located a second marshaling facility nearby containing what looked like another munitions train. This discovery presented a choice target, and it was precisely the kind of opportunity the 18th Wing had been seeking for months. Under normal operating procedures, an attack on the North Korean train would have required approval from the high command. Realizing that he had to act quickly to take out the train before it could move, and believing that obtaining the required approval would not be an issue, Harper set the wheels for an attack in motion, and within fifteen minutes of receiving the report of the train’s location, pilots of the 18th Wing were in the air and en route to the target
There was only one problem. When Harper made repeated attempts to contact General Glenn Barcus, the Commanding General of the Fifth Air Force and the officer who would normally have approved the mission, he was told by the General’s aides that Barcus was at dinner and they did not wish to disturb him. Realizing that by that point in time it was too late to abort the mission, the operation went ahead without official approval, with Harper being painfully aware of the fact that he faced the very real prospect of a court martial, and possible imprisonment, for his actions.
As things turned out, he needn’t have worried. The attack itself was an unqualified success; sure enough, the second train also contained munitions, and like its predecessor it was completely destroyed. The following morning, Harper’s superior Colonel Maurice Martin walked into his office to congratulate him on his initiative, and inform him that there would be no court martial. More importantly, as a result of the loss of the two munitions trains, the dreaded Communist offensive never materialized, and ten days later an armistice ending the war was signed.
Even though the RCAF was not directly involved in air combat during the Korean War, a number of Canadian pilots did nonetheless make a contribution to helping contain the threat posed by the MiGs. Twenty-two Canadian pilots flew the F 86 in combat as exchange officers with the USAF, and collectively they were awarded seven Distinguished Flying Crosses and four Air Medals. One Canadian airman who was decorated for his service in Korea was Flight Lieutenant “Trottle” Levesque, who flew with the Air Force’s 334th Squadron. During the Second World War, Levesque had scored four victories in the skies over Europe before being shot down and captured by the Germans. He spent three years as a POW in Stalag Luft III, where he had taken part in the caper that would later be known as the “Great Escape”.
Prior to his exchange assignment with the USAF, Levesque had flown the DeHavilland Vampire as a member of the RCAF’s Blue Devils aerobatic team. He arrived in Korea in late 1950 and flew his first combat mission on December 17, making him the first Canadian to fly over North Korea. On March 31, 1951, while escorting B 29 bombers, he shot down a MiG, thus achieving the fifth victory needed to officially qualify as an “ace”, and earning himself a Distinguished Flying Cross in the process.
In contrast to the glorious picture that was painted for many years by the USAF spin doctors, MiG Alley concludes that to this very day it remains a matter of debate as to who really prevailed in the skies over Korea. On the one hand, the fighter pilots who flew the MiG 15 were able to accomplish what the Luftwaffe had not, specifically in terms of severely containing the Americans’ ability to deploy their formidable heavy bombers to wage unrestricted warfare. At the same time, the USAF pilots were able to prevent the Communists from using airpower to effectively support their ground troops, and this was a critically important factor in averting what would otherwise very likely have been an eventual victory by the North Koreans. Just as the F 86, the MiG 15, and the pilots that flew both of them would prove to be eminently worthy adversaries for each other, MiG Alley argues that in the end, the aerial battle they fought – much like the Korean War itself – ended up pretty much as draw.
Even so, the American pilots who braved the dangers of MiG Alley and their fellow airmen who supported them left a legacy that both the Air Force and their country could be proud of. Four U.S. flyers won the Medal of Honor in Korea; sadly, all four awards were made posthumously. Similarly impressive was the fact that a number of Korean air war veterans later went on to play prominent roles in the early years of the U.S. Space program. Three of the original Mercury Seven astronauts – John Glenn, Gus Grissom, and Wally Schirra – had flown combat missions over Korea. So too had Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, who on July 21, 1969 became the first humans to set foot on the surface of the Moon.
As an overall assessment, MiG Alley is an interesting and compelling book that offers fresh perspectives on a long-ago war that today is often overlooked. Drawing upon extensive interviews with American combat pilots, the book takes readers into the cockpit, and provides a vivid impression of the anxiety and exhilaration the American flyers experienced as they dueled with their Communist foes. This book is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the history of the Korean War, and the art and science of aerial combat.