Grueling Tempo of Interdiction
February 1951 was a transition period for U.S. Navy Task Force 77 (TF-77), as its air operations shifted from close support to interdiction—focusing on 48 key bridges in northeastern North Korea. The number of naval aviators flying missions at any one time was astonishingly small—fewer than 215 men piloting approximately 150 fighter and attack aircraft. Knowing the likely American targets, the enemy defended them with dense concentrations of antiaircraft artillery and took careful note of U.S. attack profiles, ingress and egress routes, and tactics.
The aviators faced a much different environment than during World War II. The tempo was brisk, and the duration of the Korean combat operations were completely open-ended, lasting for weeks or months at a time and putting massive stress on aircrews. In the opinion of many of the pilots who flew in both conflicts, Korean operations were more challenging and intense.
By the late summer of 1951, TF-77 consisted of the USS Boxer (CV-21), with carrier air group (CVG-) 101; Bonhomme Richard (CV-31), with CVG-102; and USS Essex (CV-9), with CVG-5. The carriers' aircraft included early Navy jet fighters—F9F Panthers and F2H Banshees—but the air groups' core still consisted of propeller-driven planes—most notably AD Skyraiders and F4U Corsairs. These were killing machines, designed and built with one purpose. They did the carriers' heavy ordnance lifting and delivered immense firepower. Flying at low altitudes to get accurate hits, the ADs and F4Us would make multiple passes per target, but they paid a high price in aviators and aircraft.
CVG-5, which had served its first Korean tour in 1950, deployed on the Essex with 75 aircraft for its second in mid-August 1951. Between 23 August and 19 September, when the carrier was pulled off the line for a rest, the air group flew 1,826 sorties, mostly attacking bridges, railroads, trucks, tunnel openings, and buildings. The toll was high, with CVG-5 losing 15 aircraft. There were 78 instances of enemy ground fire damaging Essex planes. Moreover, seven aviators, one aircrewman, and four flight-deck personnel were killed. And the Essex deployment had four more line periods. The next one began on 4 October, and through 27 October, two more CVG-5 pilots were killed in action.
Flying combat missions from aircraft carriers in 1951 was a dangerous business compounded by effective, dense, and mobile enemy air defenses, which included a relatively new threat: radar-guided antiaircraft guns. Advanced training by Soviet troops came along with the advanced weapons, and the North Koreans and Chinese communists were quickly becoming excellent gunners. With six to eight Navy strikes, as well as numerous U.S. Air Force strikes, per day, they were certainly getting lots of practice.
Fighting from Behind Enemy Lines
American pilots, however, unknowingly had an advantage: Central Intelligence Agency–trained Korean guerrillas were forwarding information from behind enemy lines about North Korean and Chinese targets. These members of the Young-do, or Y, Unit were trained and funded by the Joint Advisory Commission Korea (JACK)—the not-so-subtle codename for the local CIA directorate.
In mid-1950, JACK had tasked South Korean Army Captain Han Chul-min with organizing the guerrilla force to attack communist forces, divert enemy resources from front-line operations, recruit potential operatives, and gather intelligence that could be used to support the larger war effort. The group's fighters, like Han, were anticommunists from North Korea. Their first training base was near a POW camp in Pusan. But in late February 1951, the base was moved to Young-do, an island off Pusan, where the recruits' instruction was supervised by a U.S. Marine lieutenant colonel assigned to JACK, Vincent "Dutch" Kramer. The Young-do Unit was divided into four operational groups—Yellow Dragon, Blue Dragon, White Tiger, and Owl—each of which operated in a specific area of North Korea. Teams of the guerrillas, often accompanied by U.S. military personnel assigned to JACK, infiltrated into the north via U.S. Navy ships and by parachuting from Civil Air Transport (CAT) planes. Created in China by former Flying Tigers commander Claire Chennault, CAT was a nominally commercial airline purchased by the CIA in 1950. Three of its aircraft were assigned to support the Korean guerrilla operations.
On 25 August 1951, a 31-man Young-do detachment parachuted down near Kapsan, in northeastern North Korea about 25 miles from the Chinese border, and linked up with the White Tiger headquarters company, some 30 Y Unit fighters already operating in the area. The united force quickly began operations against communist troops, surprising and decimating a 300-man unit assigned to wipe out the guerrillas. By early September local recruits had boosted the unit's strength to some 200 men, and the communists redoubled their efforts to wipe out the group. But through September and into October, the White Tigers conducted increasingly successful strikes, inflicting significant damage to North Korean forces. Moreover, the guerrillas had begun forwarding to their Pusan headquarters air-strike target information that was then passed on to TF-77.
Lieutenant Commander J. A. Scholes, flag lieutenant to TF-77 commander Rear Admiral Joseph J. "Jocko" Clark, was instrumental in organizing the procedure. Young-do fighters would radio the target information to Pusan, which would relay it to TF-77's flagship, the Bonhomme Richard . Navy aircraft would then carry out strikes against the sites. According to Admiral Clark, "This arrangement was most beneficial, and through it many excellent targets were destroyed."
To obtain information on likely targets, the White Tigers relied on their spy network, which included North Korean Army officers and Communist Party officials. In October, some of their agents informed the group of plans for a 29 October meeting in Kapsan of regional North Korean and Chinese military and party leaders to organize and coordinate actions to destroy the Young-do force. White Tigers commander Ji Yong-su radioed the information to Young-do headquarters, and the task of breaking up the meeting eventually fell to CVG-5.
An Elaborate Deception
Thus far in the Korean War, Navy aircraft had rarely hit targets as far north as Kapsan. To desensitize the communists to the presence of carrier planes in the area of the upcoming attack and mislead them as to the true target, the Navy used operational deception. On 28 October, CVG-5 led a coordinated strike against industrial targets in Sokhyon, about 35 miles south-southeast of Kapsan—close enough to serve as an excellent decoy.
The mission was composed of four F2Hs, eight F4Us, and eight ADs of CVG-5 as well as four F9Fs, eight F4Us, and eight ADs of CVG-15, flying off the USS Antietam (CV-36), which had replaced the Boxer. The aircraft made six attack runs. The Panthers and Banshees went in first, strafing and rocketing antiaircraft positions. The Corsairs and ADs followed, bombing specifically assigned targets.
Although the planes encountered intense antiaircraft fire, they all returned to their carriers and the attack was a complete success, destroying a large warehouse and five barracks. CVG-5's action report claimed "35% of the target completely destroyed, which is considered excellent for the number of aircraft involved." More important, the attack established the Sokhyon area as a legitimate northern target that might require follow-up strikes.
Change of Plans
For CVG-5, 28 October was otherwise a normal, grueling workday. Besides the Sokhyon strike, the air group flew 53 missions against bridge and rail targets. That night began routinely, with the air group's pilots prepared to attack more bridges and railroads the next day, but then a launch order arrived for CVG-5 to assemble a special strike group for the Kapsan mission. Sixteen pilots from two squadrons got the nod: eight F4U Corsair aviators of VF-53 and eight AD Skyraider pilots of VF-54. Between 0330 and 0400 the pilots were awoken and told that their targets had changed; they were to muster for a new brief.
At the briefing, senior officers told the aviators that they were to break up the meeting in Kapsan, about 190 miles to the north, and that "a critical time window had to be met," Commander Clayton Fisher, VF-53's executive officer, recalled. "The attack was to commence at 0900." The pilots were told to expect minimal air defenses, which they distinctly remembered as being in contrast to their previously assigned mission against highly defended bridge and rail targets. "We had lost the baby of our squadron, Ensign [Richard A.] Bateman, at the bridges the day before," Fisher said. A flak burst had blown off a ten-foot wing section from Bateman's Corsair, sending the plane crashing to earth. Reuben Prichard, who was then a VF-53 lieutenant (junior grade), remembered that "We weren't disappointed not to be going back to the bridges."
The pilots, however, did receive some specific warnings: "We were told if you got shot down and survived, we were going to be out of range of our rescue helicopters," Fisher said. "It was inferred we might be better off shooting ourselves with our .38-caliber pistols rather than be captured." Some of the aviators also remember the briefers saying that if the pilots were shot down, to "run like hell."
The target was a compound divided into three walled sections, 16 total structures, which included a police station, a North Korean Army battalion headquarters, and the primary target: the Communist Party meeting hall—the largest building in the northernmost section. Each building was constructed of masonry and wood, which offered little protection from the high-explosive and incendiary weapons typically carried by U.S. aircraft. As the aviators reviewed reconnaissance photos taken on 25 October, they realized that numerous distinguishing landmarks would make target recognition relatively easy. The compound was bounded by large roads to the east and west, and irrigation ditches to the south. A ridge to the east sloped down to the target area.
To minimize any chance of detection, the attack force planned to fly at wave-top height until over land, and then at tree-top level. When near the target area, the planes would pop up to their roll-over point for the actual attack. But during the rapid climb, the lead pilots would not be able to see well over the nose of their aircraft, reducing the amount of time to accurately pick out the correct targets. The ridge would help them quickly orient themselves and locate the compound.
The pilots were not told that their strike would be accompanied by a simultaneous ground attack by the White Tiger fighters. In fact, the aviators knew nothing of the Young-do Unit. The mission's senior pilots, however, were told that a U.S. Marine officer would be on the ground to obtain a battle-damage assessment and report on the success of the strike. The "Marine officer" could have been assigned to the local guerrillas, or part of a cover story to protect the source of the target information.
The Navy Crashes a Party
The Skyraiders and Corsairs launched from the Essex between 0730 and 0745 in clear weather and crisp air. Commander Fisher led the eight F4Us, which were divided into two four-plane divisions. Each Corsair carried a single 500-pound and four 250-pound bombs. Led by Commander Paul Gray—VF-54's commanding officer—the eight ADs were also split into two divisions. Each Skyraider was loaded with two 1,000-pound bombs, one 300-gallon napalm bomb, and eight 250-pound bombs, a massive payload for a single-propeller plane. In all, more than 44,000 pounds of ordnance was assigned for a three-to-four-acre target. If all went according to plan, the results would be devastating.
After the planes formed up, they headed toward Sokhyon to take maximum advantage of the previous day's decoy strike. Maintaining radio silence, the group passed just to the west of the former target as it began its climb, or "pop," to attack altitude. The planes were then eight to nine minutes from the target, too late for the enemy warning systems to identify and assess the threat against Kapsan.
As soon as the strike group leveled off at approximately 8,000 feet, the planes began their attack runs. Coming in from the east, with the sun to their backs, the group achieved complete surprise. Because Kapsan had not been a target of major air attacks, any bunkers at the three compounds would likely have been only rudimentary, and on this day they would have needed to protect a very large number of people.
Antiaircraft guns would normally have opened fire at this point, initially trying to distract the attacking pilots and then working the solution for a kill. However, just as the pilots had been briefed, there was little or no flak, further supporting the belief that the meeting participants felt totally secure from air attack. This allowed the pilots to make maxim use of their preferred attack tactic in Korea: expending ordinance during multiple passes over a target, instead of salvoing all of it during the initial pass.
First, the F4Us came down in division attacks. "I led the Corsairs down ahead of the attack bombers and checked my watch in the middle of my dive," Fisher said. "It was 0900. I spotted a tall radio communications antenna mast and then selected the largest building near it for my first target." After dropping their 500-pound bombs in their first pass over the compound, the F4Us pulled off in a left turn to orbit the target area and wait for the ADs to deliver the massive blows.
The Skyraiders then came in and dropped their first 1,000-pound bombs from between 500 and 1,000 feet, also pulling off to the left, and then coming back around to drop their second 1,000-pounders. On their third pass, half the ADs dropped their napalm bombs and the other half strafed. The procedure was reversed on the fourth pass. "The remainder of the attack," according to Gray, "consisted of strafing the compound and pinpointing the 250s on those sections that had not been completely destroyed." Added then-Lieutenant (junior grade) Herbert Riebeling of VF-53: "We set up a daisy chain. We went round and round hitting [the target] again and again . . . just blasting the hell out of it."
After nearly an hour on target, all 16 planes formed up and returned to the Essex . "When left the target, there was nothing left but a smoking mass of rubble," Gray said. "Pictures showed every bomb except one inside the compound. There was only one wall left standing."
When the bombing had begun, a 19-man White Tigers detachment attacked the police station, freeing 15 young anticommunists held there. Meanwhile, a large number of the communist forces at Kapsan fled into a makeshift air-raid shelter. The delayed fusing of some of the bombs penetrated the bunker with catastrophic results. Commander Fisher was later told that the Marine spotter on the ground "confirmed that a large number of the senior officers were killed in the first pass when the cellar they gathered in took a direct hit from one of the 1,000-pounders." In all, the devastating air strike killed between 510 and 530 enemy personnel.
Following the recovery of the strike group, Admiral Clark sent the following message: " Essex special strike group today outperformed the man who wrote the book X Well done." Each of the pilots earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for the mission. North Korean leaders, naturally, reacted to the attack with outrage. According to broadcasts on Radio Pyongyang, they put a price on the heads of the raid's Navy pilots, referring to them as the "Butchers of Kapsan." Fortunately for the aviators, none were subsequently captured by the North Koreans.
The Young-do guerrillas, however, did not fare as well. Kapsan was the Y Unit's high-water mark. None of their other operations had as large an impact on the enemy, and the communists' reaction was predictable. In the aftermath of the raid, the White Tigers' spies were rounded up and executed, and the guerrilla group became less and less effective. By early 1952, the White Tigers were defunct. For remaining Young-do Unit forces, the direction of the war in 1952 put them in an untenable position. For the North Korean anticommunists, the new goal of the United Nations—status quo antebellum—was tantamount to defeat.
Mr. Pontrelli is a former E-2C mission commander and instructor at the Naval Strike Warfare Center. He is currently a partner with Ernst & Young, LLP.
Action Reports: Carrier Air Group 5, USS Essex , 18 August–19 September 1951, 1–31 October 1951, http://www.history.navy.mil/branches/cvg-5.htm ; Carrier Air Group 15, USS Antietam , 14 October–16 November 1951, http://www.history.navy.mil/branches/cvg-15.htm .
Malcolm W. Cagle and Frank A. Manson, The Sea War in Korea (Annapolis, MD: United States Naval Institute, 1957).
Carrier-based Squadron and Non-carrier-based Squadron Deployments during the Korean War, Naval Historical Center, http://www.history.navy.mil/branches/koreaob.htm .
James A. Field Jr., History of United States Naval Operations: Korea (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962), pp. 328, 335.
Richard P. Hallion, The Naval Air War in Korea (Baltimore: Nautical & Aviation Publishing Company of America, 1986).
Richard C. Knott, Attack from the Sky: Naval Operations in the Korean War (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 2004).
Lee Wha Rang, The Secret History of the Young-do Partisan Unit (Seoul: Procom Publishers, 2001).
Lee Wha Rang, "U.S. CIA Operations in Korea—1950-1955," http://www.kimsoft.com/korea/eyewit9.htm .
Rosario Rausa, Skyraider: The Douglas A-1 "Flying Dump Truck" (Annapolis, MD: The Nautical & Aviation Publishing Company of America, 1982).
Author interviews with LT Murray Barlow, VF-54; LT Nate Curry, VF-53; CDR Clayton Fisher, VF-53; LTJG Reuben "Park" Prichard, VF-53; LTJG Herbert Riebeling, VF-53: ENS Gordon Strickland, VF-54, LTJG Glenn Ward, VF-54.