Introduction

From Kimpo to the Yalu
The Naval Air War in Korea

The years immediately following World War II marked a time of transition for naval aviation. Indeed, with dwindling defense budgets and a bitter interservice rivalry with the upstart United States Air Force over the employment of the nation’s air power, the very existence of sea-based air power was seriously questioned. Strategic bombing employing the atomic bomb in the minds of many had supplanted the Navy as the nation’s first line of defense, and minimized the importance of tactical aviation. Such was the severity of the situation that by mid-1950, a carrier fleet that numbered 98 at the end of World War II, encompassed fifteen flattops.

In the early morning hours of 25 June 1950, North Korean tanks and troops stormed across the 38th Parallel into North Korea in a sudden attack that took the world by surprise. In keeping with a subsequent resolution by the United Nations Security Council, President Harry S. Truman committed U.S. military forces to battle, and on July 3rd Valley Forge, in concert with the British carrier HMS Triumph, launched the first naval air strikes of the war, attacking facilities at Pyongyang. In this engagement, U.S. Navy F9F-2 Panthers scored naval aviation’s first jet kills, shooting down two North Korean Yak-9 aircraft.

In the ensuing months, which included General of the Army Douglas MacArthur’s brilliant amphibious assault at Inchon and drive up the Korean peninsula, through the eventual withdrawal and settlement into a stalemate, U.S. naval aviation made a significant contribution to military operations in Korea. By July-1953, when the cease-fire was signed, U.S. Navy and Marine Corps aircraft had logged 189,495 attack sorties, jets had successfully demonstrated their value in combat, and the helicopter had come of age as a transport and search and rescue platform. Most importantly, the aircraft carrier had demonstrated its value as a flexible platform for power projection in a limited war, a role that continues to this day.

The carriers of Task Force 77 bore the brunt of naval aviation’s air effort in Korea. At any given time three fleet carriers operated in the Sea of Japan, launching offensive air strikes into North Korea.

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USS Princeton (CV-37), pictured here coming alongside a tanker in July 1951, completed three combat cruises during the war.

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Though the Korean War marked the dawn of the jet age in aerial combat, propeller-driven aircraft like the F4U Corsair and AD Skyraider logged 75% of all offensive sorties flown by carrier aircraft. The Corsair lived-up to its World War II reputation as a tremendous close-air-support platform, while the "Able Dog" demonstrated its versatility in supporting troops or knocking out significant targets. In the latter mission it was greatly aided by the fact that it could carry as much ordnance as a B-17 Flying Fortress. Pictured here is rocket-armed F4U-4B of VF-54 and a brilliant color image of an AD-4 of VA-55. Both aircraft flew from USS Valley Forge (CV-45) during 1950.

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During World War II, Lieutenant Colonel Gregory Boyington’s VMF-214 "Blacksheep" achieved lasting fame because of their skill in shooting down Japanese aircraft. In Korea, their successors operated from the deck of the escort carrier USS Sicily (CVE-118) with great success attacking not enemy bandits, but positions on the ground. Entering combat in August 1950, the "Blacksheep" and pilots of VMF-323 off USS Badoeng Strait (CVE-116) logged 6,575 combat flight hours that month in support of Marine ground forces defending the Pusan Perimeter. They also supported General Douglas MacArthur’s epic amphibious assault at Inchon.

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An F4U-4B of VMF-214 is slung off the bow of USS Sicily (CVE-118) for a close air support mission over the Pusan Perimeter. Note the HVARs slung beneath the wings and the mission markings forward of the cockpit.

"Blacksheep" pilot Ken Reusser shows squadron skipper, Major Robert P. Keller, the location of a "jackpot" target in the ready room on board USS Sicily, 4 August 1950. Note the pilots are wearing Marine utilities in lieu of flight suits.

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Life at one of the many airfields scattered throughout South Korea was primitive to say the least, as evidenced by this photograph of VMF-323’s living area at K-1, Pusan, South Korea, 1951.

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The "Flying Nightmares" of VMF(N)-513 employed a variety of aircraft in the night fighting role, including the F3D-2 Skyknight, an ungainly looking jet that featured four 20-millimeter cannon and three radars. Given the nocturnal environment in which they operated, squadron aircraft were painted black and marked with red numerals and lettering.

Major Elswin P. Dunn (l) and Master Sergeant Lawrence J. Fortin pictured next to their F3D-2 in January 1953. Note the night mission markings and the red star signifying a night kill of an enemy MiG-15 on 12 January 1953.


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