Naval Aviation in the Korean War

By Assistant Professor Gerald E. Wheeler, USNA

In spite of the bridge destruction, the Communists were able to keep the battlefront adequately supplied; therefore, in the summer of 1951 naval aviation was directed to implement Operation STRANGLE. In the area between 38-15 and 39-15 North Latitudes, a strip approximately fifty miles wide, the naval aviators were told to destroy all roads, bridges, railroad tracks, and rolling stock. Again the shocking power of the dive-bomber, supplemented by pin-point accuracy bombing by Panther jets, was called upon. However, permanent damage could not be effected, and the Communists shifted to night supply. Following Operation STRANGLE, naval air power was directed toward rail cutting to thwart the Communist practice of shuttling between blasted bridges. In the period December 28, 1951, to February 1, 1952, some 2,782 track cuts were made, and Rear Admiral John Perry, ComCarDivOne, could report, “An almost complete interruption of eastern rail line movement was accomplished by this effort.”

In the Korean War there were many spectacular aerial feats such as the torpedo attack against the Hwachon Dam by VA-195, or the wiping out of some 500 top Communist leaders by blasting a meeting at Kapsan in October, 1951; yet these great operations were the exception. The average combat mission was against a bridge, factory, railroad line, or troop concentration, and all provided the hazards of flak and ground fire. Under such conditions, the maintenance of pilot morale was as crucial a problem as maintaining his plane.  In its second tour, during the fall of 1951, Air Group Five went through two sets of aircraft, losing 27 planes and eleven pilots. In 37 months of fighting the Navy and Marine Corps lost 559 aircraft to enemy anti-aircraft fire and only five planes in aerial combat. After three ditchings at sea and one emergency landing ashore, all caused by ground fire, one can see the irony in the VF-94 ready room sign dedicated to its much immersed skipper, Commander Paul N. Gray: “Use caution when ditching damaged airplanes in Wonsan Harbor. Don’t hit Cdr. Gray.”

When the Korean War began, the Valley Forge was the only U.S. carrier in Far East waters, but by July of 1953 the United States was averaging four Essex -class carriers in Korean waters. During the three years of fighting, eleven attack carriers and about a half-dozen of the lighter escort carriers saw action. The Badoeng Strait and Sicily earned Navy Unit Commendations, while Marine fighting squadrons VMF-323 and VMF-214 won Presidential Unit Citations flying close support missions from their respective decks. On the CVEs were many Reserve anti-submarine squadrons like VS-892 from Seattle aboard the Rendova . By July, 1953, Naval Reserve squadrons of every type were in action; and Air Group 101, made up entirely of Reservists, flew a full tour from the Boxer in the spring and summer of 1951.

During the Korean operations naval aviation became progressively more modern. In the first six months of combat, jet to propeller driven aircraft sorties were at a ratio of one to two. For the last six months (February to July, 1953) the ratio of jet to propeller sorties was four to three. For fighter cover, light bombing, flak suppression, night attack, and night CAP, Task Force 77 depended on the World War II Corsair throughout the war. As new air groups came to Korea, the number of F9F-2 Panther squadrons increased, until by 1953 most fighter cover and a large per cent of the interdiction work was done by jets. In late 1952 the more modern F9F-5 Panther was brought to Korea by Air Group 102 (later CAG-12) aboard the Oriskany .

The real work horse of naval aviation was the Douglas AD Skyraider. With a 5,000-pound bomb and rocket load, the Skyraider was capable of pinpoint accuracy with devastating effect, particularly when delivering the one ton bomb against bridges. In various adaptations the AD was used for night attack, night fighter, early warning and anti-submarine work. Important among its qualities was the ability of the “Able Dog” to absorb flak damage and return its pilot to a heaving carrier deck.

For utility missions each of the attack carriers had detachments from VC-3, VC-35, VC-11, VC-61, and HU-1. Flying F4U-5N Corsairs, VC-3 detachments engaged in “night heckling” of the Communists. Though suffering little from flak damage, closely pressed night attacks against ground targets made “heckling” a dangerous occupation. Similar operations were carried on by the more heavily armed AD-4N Skyraiders of VC-35. Anti-submarine protection and airborne early warning was provided by VC-11 detachments flying AD “Guppies.” Aerial reconnaissance missions were flown by VC-61 detachment pilots in F9F-2 Panther photo planes, and later in the long-nosed and camera laden F2H-2P Banshee jets. A Post-World War II innovation has been the use of helicopters aboard the carriers as plane guards, and many Navy pilots owe their lives to the quick rescues affected by HU-1 detachment aviators.

From bases in Formosa, the Pescadores, Philippines, Okinawa, and Japan, patrol plane squadrons of Fleet Air Wings One and Six operated during the Korean War. World War II PBM Mariners and P4Y Privateers and the newer P2V Neptunes performed the sundry tasks of sea and land-based patrol units. Anti-submarine patrol, air-sea rescue, mine spotting and destruction, and even gunfire spotting missions were all in a day’s work of the multi-engine squadrons. Privateers carrying two tons of flares worked “firefly” missions with Marine night fighter squadrons, and a few Neptunes flew bombing sorties against North Korean targets until assigned more appropriate duties.

The Korean War proved once again the immense value, indeed absolute necessity, of sea control for a nation’s naval forces. Yet it was in the Korean interior that naval aviation demonstrated its potency and flexibility. Striking vigorously at the enemy’s communications, naval aviators exercised aerial command where it hurt the most—in the Communist backyard.


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