Not even the most aggressive aerial bombing in history was winning the Korean War, until one heroic Air Force mission did the impossible—ended the war—and violated every rule command leadership had created. Author Thomas McKelvey Cleaver reveals the secrets behind this daring mission.
Between June 27, 1950, when the first U.S. interdiction bombing mission of the Korean War was flown, and July 27, 1953, the last day of the war, the United States Air Force dropped more bombs on North Korea than were dropped in the entire Pacific theater in World War II. If the totals from the U.S. Navy’s bombing campaign are added in, more bombs were dropped on North Korea than were dropped on Germany in World War II.
The capital of Pyongyang was bombed into rubble over a three-day all-out campaign in the summer of 1952. The entire North Korean electric power-generating grid was also bombed into rubble, and then subjected to repeated bombing to keep it nonoperational for over a year. The agricultural water system was bombed and the country flooded in the spring of 1953. Every road, every railroad, and every bridge was bombed. As one Air Force planner put it, “If it was bigger than an outhouse, we bombed it.” All of this effort was undertaken to break the will of the North Koreans and their Chinese allies to continue the war. None of it worked. As VADM J.J. “Jocko” Clark, one-time commander of Task Force 77, and later commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet during the final year of the war put it, “The aerial interdiction campaign didn’t interdict.””
And yet, ten days before the end of the war, the Air Force was presented with an opportunity to change the course of the fighting on the battlefield with one bombing mission. That mission was undertaken, and the targets were destroyed. Doing so did, in fact, stop the final Communist “land-grab” offensive of the war before it could begin. This led directly to the Communists’ decision to accept the UN terms for a ceasefire, and stopped the war. However, because of its own bureaucratic command structure the Air Force couldn’t take credit, since the mission was carried out in circumstances that violated every rule the Air Force command leadership had created for prosecuting the air campaign.
A Developing Opportunity
In early 1953, the 8th Fighter-Bomber Wing was able get rid of their war-weary F-80s, and the 18th Fighter-Bomber Wing was finally able to retire the F-51 Mustang. The worn-out
fighter-bombers were replaced with the new F-86F-20 Sabre. The final subtype of the Sabre to see combat in Korea, the F-86F-20 had provision for another underwing hardpoint inboard of the drop tank pylons, ahead of the main landing gear. The Sabre could now carry two 1,000-pound bombs and still have the range to fly into North Korea. Putting the Sabre to use as a fighter-bomber in MiG Alley ended the MiG’s superiority over the UN fighter-bombers. The 8th Fighter Wing was joined a month later by the 18th Fighter-Bomber Wing, which was finally able to exchange their obsolete F-51D Mustang fighter-bombers for new Sabres, and the two wings ranged over North Korea, attacking targets that had been denied them when flying their old mounts.
In April 1953, the peace negotiations at Panmunjom, North Korea recommenced. Intelligence learned that the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army hoped to go on the offensive in the summer, changing the “facts on the ground” and influencing the outcome of the negotiations. UN bombing sorties against the transportation system were increased in May and June, which resulted in the planned Chinese offensive being delayed until mid-June. With negotiations stalled by the riots happening in South Korean prisoner-of-war camps, and the subsequent decision by the South Koreans to allow the Communist prisoners to escape from the camps, the outcome of the war was on a knife edge. The main thrust of the Chinese attack broke through the Eighth Army’s defensive lines and threatened a breakthrough that could end with a third fall of Seoul. The army did not have the reserves to stop the Chinese, and action was limited to attempting to close the hole and blunt the enemy spearhead. A second Chinese attack in the west to push on toward Seoul and Inchon was expected any day. It finally appeared that it might happen in mid-July, as final negotiations to end the war with a ceasefire and armistice reached their height.
On the night of July 15, 1953, the Sabre fighter-bombers of the 18th Wing took part in a mission that did affect the final outcome of the war, one that the Fifth Air Force would deny had ever happened, until Maj. Flamm D. “Dee” Harper of the 18th Fighter-Bomber Group told the story for the record in 1992.
While still a captain, Harper had been shot down over North Korea and injured in his ejection. He had been assigned a ground job as group operations officer, which carried with it a spot promotion to major. On July 15, 1953, both 18th Wing commander, Col. Frank Perego, and 18th Group commander, Col. Maurice Martin, were attending a conference in Tokyo. Therefore, the deputy group commander, Lt. Col. Glenn Stell was the acting group commander. By 1700 hours the wing had completed all missions assigned for the day by Fifth Air Force’s Joint Operations Center, which was responsible for coordinating air support operations over the front.
“Everything They Shot Exploded! We Had a Real Target!”
Harper recalled, “Two flights were still north of the Main Line of Resistance [MLR], but at the Combat Operations Center, we were putting the day’s activities to bed. Lt. Col. Harry Evans, commander of the 12th Squadron, who was leading a flight still north of the MLR, contacted us and said he had located about 100 enemy boxcars in a marshalling yard near the front. Everything they shot exploded, which indicated munitions! He also said another nearby marshalling yard was loaded with boxcars, too, and gave the map coordinates. We finally had a real target!
“Night was rapidly approaching, and we were a day fighter outfit. I knew that by morning the munitions would be dispersed and this prime target would no longer exist. Instant action was required. While the duty officer relayed the scramble order and target data to our two alert flights, I contacted the duty officer in the Combat Operations Center at Fifth Air Force Headquarters. I gave the data on the targets and I stressed the need for immediate action. I advised I would launch our alert flights against these targets while he obtained the necessary authority.
“Considering the seriousness of the situation, I never once thought we may not receive such authority. The duty officer at the Combat Operations Center at Fifth Air Force was also advised we would load and man all available aircraft for immediate strikes against these targets.”
There Was No Authority. A Captain Made the Call
Harper continued, “Within 15 minutes we were ready to launch 16 additional aircraft. Again, I contacted the duty officer at Fifth Air Force for authority, and was advised that General Barcus, the commanding general, was at dinner, and they did not want to disturb him. Again, I advised the duty officer that we would launch the flights that were ready. Meanwhile, we would turn everything around upon landing as well as augment the force as rapidly as possible. He agreed to work on the necessary authority for conducting our operation.
“By now this had become a major operation. Bombs were moved from the dump to the flight line. Every organization on base was putting on a maximum effort. I was the only one on base who knew that none of this had been authorized or directed by the Fifth Air Force.”
A Day Fighter Unit Fighting at Night
“We continued launching flights. The sun set, and darkness arrived. I was advised by the commanders of the 67th and 12th Squadrons that the fires within the targets were so extensive our pilots could read their instruments without their cockpit lights,” said Harper.
Lt. Col. Evans later recalled, “The whole valley in the target area looked like daylight. We did not need maps or photos. We just headed north, and when we got to 6,000 feet, we could see the fires on the horizon.”
Lt. Col. Carroll L. “Stan” Stanton, who commanded the 67th Squadron, remembered, “When my flight arrived over the train, Harry’s was just leaving. It was now almost pitch dark. It was obvious we were setting ourselves up for a mid-air collision. That would have really ripped it! I took control and assigned holding quadrants, then called individual aircraft in and out of the target area. Let me say, I’ve never seen a fireworks display that comes close to the show that night. Burning ammo flew thousands of feet into the air, and secondary explosions were everywhere!” As the night wore on, clouds moved in between the 18th’s base at K-55 and the target, and pilots were logging 40 minutes of weather on each sortie. After several hours of sustained attacks, a C-47 with a forward air control team arrived to take charge.
“There Was No Need for Anyone Else to Be Open for Court-Martial.”
Harper recalls, “Due to the press of events, I had not advised Colonel Stell we lacked authority for the sorties, a serious breach of command authority, because up to this time I had not considered Fifth Air Force approval to be a problem. In my mind, I knew approval was imminent. I was just busy doing my job hacking through the red tape. I continued contacting the Combat Operations Center at Fifth Air Force Headquarters for authority. At one point I requested they order me to stop or else obtain authority, but neither occurred! In my opinion, the response from the 18th had been so fast and of such a magnitude that after General Barcus completed dinner, no one wanted to tell him he had missed the war! In my defense, we were striking the only real target I had seen during the seven months I was in combat. I was also aware that after going this far, I had better finish the job. I made the personal decision to remain silent about the authority. There was no need for anyone else to be open for court-martial. Operations continued.”
Shortly after midnight, ground fire claimed two Sabres, and 1st Lt. Don Forbes was down in No Man’s Land. “Because of these losses, I knew our operation could not be swept under the carpet. We shut down shortly thereafter, feeling assured our target had been destroyed. For the day, the 18th Fighter-Bomber Wing produced 212 sorties, of which 120 had not been authorized.”
At 0300 hours, Harper realized the upper echelons of Air Force command were upset when he saw a copy of an order to Colonels Perego and Martin, directing them to return to Fifth Air Force Headquarters immediately. “After the day’s events, I was totally exhausted and extremely shaken, considering that I was not in good physical shape to begin. With visions of a court-martial and a possible sentence in Leavenworth, I went into shock prior to falling asleep,” he said.
“You Have Earned Your Pay for the Rest of Your Career.”
The next day, 18th Wing commander Colonel Martin walked into Harper’s office in the group operations office at 1430 hours. Harper was officially informed that he would not be court-martialed for his audacity, and would receive no citation. Harper recalled, “After a considerable pause, Colonel Martin continued, ‘As Air Force officers we are all required to make decisions. Yesterday, you made the right decision. If you never make another decision, you have earned your pay for the rest of your career.’”
Following the destruction of the ammunition trains, the Communist offensive ground to a halt, as the expected second assault failed to take place. In James Michener’s novel, The Bridges at Toki-Ri, Admiral Tarrant hopes that stalled negotiations will be moved forward by the news that “they have even bombed the bridges at Toko-Ri.” The equivalent of this had actually happened, but the Air Force couldn’t officially claim its victory because staff aides had been reluctant to interrupt General Barcus’s dinner in order to obtain proper bureaucratic approval of a one-time-only opportunity. General Barcus, the man who had consistently “pushed the envelope” during his time in command in an unceasing effort to achieve this result, would never be able to claim his victory.
Throughout 18 months of a stalemated war, air power had not been able to conclusively affect the outcome, but the Sabres of the 18th Wing had literally saved the conclusion of the Korean War by stopping the planned Chinese attack on the western end of the battlefield in its tracks before it could begin. The armistice that ended the fighting was signed ten days later.
Adapted from MiG Alley: The U.S. Air Force in Korea, by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver, Osprey Publishing, 2019
by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver