With Memorial Day coming up, I thought a little story from the past about American airmen supposedly shot down that was pure fiction might provide an amusing sidebar. I found it while looking through letters I wrote home from Korea in the spring of 1953 shortly before I was shipped back to the States.
I worked in the Estimates Division of the Directorate of Intelligence at Fifth Air Force Headquarters in Seoul. We were housed in the old Seoul University Medical School buildings. My job was to keep up with enemy air activity from debriefings of aircrews as they returned from missions. At that point, we ruled the skies over North Korea.
My section was involved in putting out the DINTSUM, or Daily Intelligence Summary, that went all around the Far East Air Forces command. I sent home a couple of pages from No. 307 on 9 Mar 53 which had been declassified. It was a translation from Radio Pyongyang in Korean dated Sunday, 1 March 53.
“Falcons of an Air Force unit commanded by Comrade Choe Sang Tae scored brilliant gains in recent battles with the American imperialists air bandits in which they shot down two F-84 jets and one F-86 Sabrejet.
“Last Sunday morning, (22 February) a formation under the command of Choe Sang Tae was flying the skies of the Fatherland southeastward on a (? ? ? ?) mission. Watching the skies with high alertness, our young Falcons continued on their course. When they reached the skies of an undisclosed area, Commander Choe Sang Tae, flying with utmost caution sighted a formation of enemy F-84 jets flying at an altitude of 1,800 meters above an undisclosed place. He immediately passed a combat order among the aircraft under his command.
“The hateful enemy planes, fleeing upon their discovery by our heroic Falcons, were caught from the rear by Comrade Choe Sang Tae, who was skillfully maneuvering his plane in attack. Comrade Choe Sang Tae quickly intercepted an enemy plane in his sights. Drawing clear red lines in the sky, the mighty fire penetrated the body of the enemy. In a moment, the enemy, now a fire ball enveloped in black smoke, crashed to the valley below. Having lost their commander, the other enemy planes, afraid of our brave Falcons, took to their heels. After ascertaining that there were no enemy aircraft around, all the planes in the formation commanded by Choe Sang Tae returned to the base safely.
“Then, at an undisclosed time on the fifteenth (of February), a formation led by Comrade Kim Chi Pom of the same unit on a pursuit mission encountered an American Air Force F-84 jet formation. As soon as Formation Leader Kim Chi Pom gave the order to prepare for combat, planes in the formation thrashed into the enemy formation, while tightly guarding the commander’s plane. The enemy planes arrogantly counter-attacked but their fire hit only empty air. Trained in outstanding flight technique and turning with iron determination, Flier So Chol Ha swiftly raised the nose of his plane and, turning to the left and right to elude the enemy fire, followed the rear of the enemy and poured revengeful fire into it. In a moment, the enemy crashed and buried itself in a hill behind an undisclosed position.
“The same day brave Falcons led by Cho Song Chol sauntering in the sky over an undisclosed place saw an enemy formation of F-86 Sabrejets about to bomb peaceful inhabited areas. The Cho Song Chol formation at this crucial moment skillfully shot down one enemy plane, scoring another bright victory.”
My boss, Maj. Harry Kelliher, provided the following explanatory note at the end of the broadcast translation (I have added parenthetical explanations of the military acronyms):
“Here’s what actually happened: On 22 February, UN air made no claims against the enemy and suffered no losses, although two friendlies sustained minor damage from SA (small arms) and AW (automatic weapons) over the MLR (main line of resistance, or the battle front). If the date is in error, however, F-86s on 21 February shot down three MIGs (Russian-built fighters) and probably destroyed another. On 15 February, F-86s destroyed three MIGs, probably destroyed three others and damaged six more, most of the action taking place in the vicinity of Sinuiju and the Suiho hydroelectric plant (both on the Yalu River border with China). One F-86 incurred minor damage from flying debris while firing on a MIG, one F-84 received minor damage from SA in the YC area and one AD (Marine Skyraider fighter-bomber) was slightly damaged by AW in the CT grid square.” (The YC and CT grid squares refer to 100,000 meter squares on the aerial charts we used.)
Major Kelliher added another explanatory box saying, “The story, of course, is completely unrelated to facts, and despite the flowery language the material is considered good ‘copy’ in the Oriental radio trade. The ‘hammy’ dramatics of the script are typical of all Oritental narrative and the complete lack of coordinates are normal in the reporting techniques of Red journalism.”
Following enemy air activity over a period of months made it obvious the war was being used as a training ground not just for North Korean pilots but for Chinese and Russians as well. When a new class started out, they stayed close to the Chinese border, where they could dart for safety when the F-86s got too aggressive. As they gained more confidence, they ventured farther to the south. Then the situation would reverse with introduction of a new group of trainees.
Hardly seems that was nearly 60 years ago. And though we did quite well in the air war, a lot of good guys from both air and ground units didn’t make it back. We’ll be remembering them this weekend.