Canadian airmen and airwomen in Korea
by Carl Mills
On June 25, 1950, the North Korean Army crossed into South Korea at about the 38th Parallel. This began an uninterrupted drive that forced South Korean and United States troops into a small corner of the Korean Peninsula that became known as the Pusan Perimeter. The United Nations immediately responded to the attack and appointed the U.S. as the organizing nation under General Douglas MacArthur. The war would continue until an Armistice was signed on July 27, 1953.
Over the next year, even with the Chinese intervention, the peninsula to about the 38th Parallel was regained and secured by United Nations (UN) forces. For the final two years of combat, the front lines remained relatively constant.
Over the three-year combat period and the subsequent peacekeeping era (to 1957, for Canada), Canada provided 27,000 military personnel: 23,000 Canadian Army, 3,000 Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), and 1,000 Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF); and other Canadian aviators.
Most of the RCAF personnel, about 800, were from 426 (Transport) Squadron (at that time located at RCAF Station Lachine, Quebec), while the remainder were fighter pilots, flight nurses, a cadre of supply, technical, and photo intelligence personnel, and a judge advocate general. Civilian flight crews from Canadian Pacific Airlines (CPA) and several other airmen from the RCN and the Canadian Army also participated, along with some Canadians who crossed the border and joined either the United States Army or the United States Air Force (USAF) directly.
Throughout the Korean War, Canada was in the midst of NATO commitments to provide 16 day-fighter squadrons in Europe, all equipped with the Canadian-built version of the F-86E Sabre jet. The first squadrons were equipped in the United Kingdom in May 1951 as the Air Division at North Luffenham.
Other wings were established and equipped in Germany and France in the early 1950s. In addition, nine squadrons were re-equipped with the Canadian-designed and -built CF-100 Canuck all-weather fighter interceptor, the first having arrived in June 1953.
April 1953 saw the C-119 Flying Boxcar added to the RCAF transport fleet, while in May the de Havilland Comet jet airliner and the Canadian-built version of the T-33 Silver Star trainer, which first flew in late 1952, were added to the RCAF inventory.
It was a busy time for the RCAF, and squadron-level participation in the Korean War – other than the airlift capabilities provided by 426 Squadron – was not feasible. In spite of this, Canada provided a significant number of airmen and airwomen to aid, either directly or indirectly, in the Korean air war.
Canadian-built aircraft in the Korean War included the Canadair North Stars flown by 426 Squadron, hundreds of de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beavers in service with the U.S. Army (known there as the L-20) and the USAF, and 60 older-model Canadair F-86 Mk II Sabre aircraft in service with the USAF.
426 Squadron made 599 round-trip flights between McChord Air Force Base (AFB) (near Tacoma, Washington) and Haneda airfield in Tokyo while working with the USAF’s Material Air Transport Service on the airlift.
Canadians did not fly the Beavers in Korea; however, de Havilland sent a technical representative there to service the aircraft. Analysis of most of the RCAF fighter pilot logbooks indicated that about 20 per cent of all combat missions, including some MiG aircraft “kills” by Canadian Sabre pilots in Korea, were flown in Canadian-built Sabres.
The first Canadian airman to be involved in the Korean War was Wing Commander Harry Malcolm. He was sent in July 1950, with Army Lieutenant-Colonel Frank White, to report first-hand on the status of the war. They were Canadian participants in the UN Commission on Korea (UNCOK). Although initially stationed in Seoul, they soon followed the retreat to the Pusan Perimeter.
In October 1950, the RCN sent Lieutenant-Commander Pat Ryan, a naval aviator. His duty was to investigate “anything naval air” that might require the participation of a squadron of RCN Sea Fury fighters. However, similar to the RCAF, the RCN was otherwise committed – in their case, to an anti-submarine warfare role with NATO in the North Atlantic.
In November, the first RCAF combatant, Flight Lieutenant Omer Levesque, who was on a one-year exchange duty with the USAF when the war broke out, flew to Korea with his squadron. Sitting beside Flight Lieutenant Levesque on that flight between San Francisco and Honolulu was the first RCAF flight nurse to participate in the Korean War, Flying Officer Joan Fitzgerald. Flight Lieutenant Levesque completed his tour of duty in June 1951 while Flying Officer Fitzgerald returned to Canada in March 1951.
During the conflict, some 1,200 Canadian Army personnel were wounded. About half remained in Korea or Japan for medical attention and then returned to their units in Korea. The others were airlifted back to Canada using the services of the 1453 Medical Air Evacuation Squadron, part of the USAF’s Material Air Transport Service Pacific Division, located in Honolulu, Hawaii.
The 1453 Medical Air Evacuation Squadron worked in tandem with the USN and used specially-rigged, four-engine, long-range aircraft such as the Constellation, C-97, and DC-4. The aircraft could carry up to 60 litter-bound patients and specially-trained medical crews (including RCAF flight nurses) to give professional medical care en route.
The aircraft flew from Haneda Field, Tokyo, to Honolulu and then on to Travis AFB in California. Canada made arrangements with the USAF to evacuate Canadian wounded soldiers alongside American wounded, back to Travis AFB and, from there, on to McChord AFB in Washington.
Medical evacuation flights often refuelled in Guam, at Clarke Airfield in the Philippines, in Iwo Jima and Midway Island, in Okinawa (Japan’s southern island), in Wake Island, and in Kwajalein Island.
In the early part of the war, 426 Squadron flew some wounded U.S. personnel to Honolulu, and later flew some of the Canadian walking wounded home to Canada. The RCAF nurses, who had already been taking comprehensive flight-nurse training in the U.S., increased this commitment when the Korean War broke out.
Classes and practical training, including familiarization flights and ditching drills, were held at Gunter AFB, in Alabama, for seven weeks, and were immediately followed by a three-month tour of duty carrying out medical air evacuations from the Korean War in the Pacific. All flight nursing graduates (USAF, USN, and RCAF) flew with 1453 Medical Air Evacuation Squadron and were stationed in Honolulu.
The RCAF flight nurses program in the Pacific was continuous from November 1950 to March 1955 and involved some 40 nurses who served in pairs during that time. These nurses never served in Korea nor did they fly with the RCAF’s 426 Squadron during their Pacific tours with the USAF.
The RCAF’s 435 Squadron, stationed at RCAF Station Edmonton (and later Namao), Alberta, was tasked with the delivery of Canadian wounded from McChord AFB to points across Canada, as required. The squadron was equipped with DC-3 Dakotas powered by three supercharged, high-altitude engines. The aircraft were also specially equipped to carry 16 litter patients complete with oxygen. On occasion, 412 Squadron from RCAF Station Rockcliffe in Ottawa (also equipped with Dakotas) and 426 Squadron participated in evacuations of Canadian wounded from McChord.
Flight nurses who had completed their tour of duty in the United States or the Pacific were stationed at various Canadian airfields and at least one qualified flight nurse always accompanied RCAF medical evacuation flights in Canada.
Twenty-one RCAF volunteer fighter pilots (not including Flight Lieutenant Levesque) were sent to Korea for F-86 combat duties and they served from March 1952 until November 1953 in small scheduled groups.
They flew exclusively with the USAF’s 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing at Kimpo (about 15 miles northwest of Seoul) or the 51st, at Suwon (some 24 kilometres south of Seoul). Both fighter interceptor wings had three fighter squadrons and Canadians served in all six of them. A few had extra duties at the wing level.
RCAF pilots served for six months or 50 combat missions, whichever came first. Fifty missions usually took three to four months. On arrival at their assigned squadron, pilots were usually given a short on-squadron introductory flying program called “Clobber College”. After that, they went into combat.
A combat mission usually consisted of flying about 322 kilometres over enemy territory to the infamous “MiG Alley” (near the Chinese border) area, patrolling, contacting and fighting with the communist’s MiG-15s, and returning home.
A round-trip mission usually took about 90 minutes: 30 minutes to MiG Alley on drop tanks (external, often jettisonable auxiliary fuel tanks) and 60 minutes on internal fuel. Double-mission days were frequent and there were some triple-mission days. Contact with MiGs required the release of drop tanks prior to combat, and aircraft that had drop tank failures were not allowed to fight.
MiGs were sighted on only about 10 per cent of all missions to MiG Alley, and even fewer missions involved combat. MiGs had sanctuary across the Yalu River in China, but pilots, including Canadians, often broke the rules during hot pursuit or blatantly crossed the Yalu to catch the MiGs letting down to land. During interviews, it was found that an estimated 75 per cent of MiG “kills” were across the Yalu.
Although there were no fatalities in this group, there were many close calls during combat. One RCAF pilot, Squadron Leader Andy Mackenzie, was downed by a mechanical failure, friendly fire, or enemy fire. In any case, he ejected, and was taken prisoner of war (PoW) for two years. Although the downing of Squadron Leader Mackenzie’s aircraft remains controversial, his two-year internment was not and is another amazing RCAF story.
Flight Lieutenant Bob Carew experienced an engine failure over enemy territory and, while his squadron flew top cover, he glided to the coast. At 7,000 feet (2,134 metres), he ejected over a friendly island and was rescued immediately by the USAF.
Squadron Leader Eric Smith and Squadron Leader Doug Lindsay both endured head-on shooting passes with MiGs. While on patrol near the Yalu River, Squadron Leader Smith saw a speck in the distance which was soon identified as a MiG with its cannons firing. The MiG was armed with two 23-millimetre cannons and one 37-millimetre cannon. He fired back as the MiG passed on the port side. The MiG turned left and Squadron Leader Smith turned into the MiG for a second head-on pass. Both fired at the same time during the second pass which lasted just a few seconds. The MiG then climbed away to the sanctuary of the Yalu River.
It was Squadron Leader Lindsay’s 50th and last mission in Korea. He had just claimed his second MiG and was headed back to base with about 20 minutes of flying time remaining in his Korean tour of duty. USAF radar advised that a lone MiG was approaching head-on. Squadron Leader Lindsay’s plan was to “clamp the trigger and fill the air with 50-calibre shells” before the MiG could react. However, just as the air filled with tracers, the MiG fired all three cannons and orange golf-ball sized rounds surged toward the Sabre. Clearly outgunned, Squadron Leader Lindsay dove away and it was over in seconds.
Flight Lieutenant Bob Lowry and Flying Officer Gene Nixon were both involved in dangerous and intense situations while being shot at.
With impending MiG action, Flying Officer Lowry was unable to jettison his aircraft’s drop tanks and was released from combat. During the return-to-base flight with another Sabre, they spotted an enemy train in a valley. The Sabres strafed the train but, at the end of the valley a trap had been set, and several anti-aircraft batteries opened fire from the adjacent hills. The flak was intense but somehow they both escaped.
Flying Officer Nixon became separated from his flight and was chased by two MiGs. He was able to out-manoeuvre them but could not lose them. Alone, they twisted and turned through the sky, down to deck level beside the Yalu River, and flew under a bridge. It was only when he flew out to sea that the MiGs turned back. The MiGs shot at him several times. In his excitement, F/O Nixon had triggered the gun camera which recorded the entire event and it became a great source of amusement.
The RCAF accounted for nearly 900 combat missions with nine MiG “kills”, two “probables”, and 10 “damaged”. High-scoring pilots included Flight Lieutenant Ernie Glover with three MiG kills and three damaged, and Squadron Leader Doug Lindsay with two MiG kills and three damaged.
In addition to Flight Lieutenant Glover’s eventual six MiGs, Flight Lieutenants Claude LaFrance, Omer Levesque and Larry Spurr, and Squadron Leader John MacKay achieved one MiG kill each. RCAF pilots received eight U.S. Distinguished Flying Crosses and 10 U.S. Air Medals. Flight Lieutenant Glover was the last and only RCAF pilot to be awarded the Commonwealth DFC since the Second World War.
Just two weeks after the North Koreans invaded South Korea, 426 Transport Squadron was alerted to move to McChord AFB to participate in Operation Hawk, the Canadian military portion of the Korean War airlift. The instructions to 426 Squadron were specific: they would have 12 “war strength” North Star aircraft, would integrate with the USAF’s MATS, would cease all domestic flights except those that were essential, and would operate into Japan but not into Korea.
This was the beginning of a new era for the squadron – one of intensity and challenge. The flights over the North Pacific route called for careful planning to deal with the severe and unpredictable weather, and the flights over the mid-Pacific route required precision to deal with the long legs over open water.
Radio navigation aids existed at each end of the Shemya Island (in the Aleutian Islands archipelago, southwest of Alaska) to Japan leg, but were only good for about 161 kilometres at each end. Land to the west was Russian territory and radio jamming was a way of life along this leg. The northern route required two refuelling stops, one at Elmendorf AFB (near Anchorage, Alaska) and one at Shemya Island. The southern route went via Travis AFB in California, Honolulu and at least two other Pacific islands such as Midway or Guam. The southern route was 10 hours longer from McChord to Tokyo.
Shemya Airfield, located 1,770 kilometres from the west coast of Alaska at the remote end of the Aleutian Islands, was a crucial stop-over point for all flights to and from Japan. Weather along the Aleutians is as bad as anywhere in the world.
To combat this, the USAF provided a ground controlled approach system with top-quality operators to ensure safe arrivals even when the weather was below limits. In spite of this, in December 1953, an RCAF North Star, after making a safe but difficult landing in a blinding snow storm and in a heavy cross-wind, was blown off the slippery runway. Although there were no injuries or cargo lost, the aircraft was completely destroyed.
One RCN pilot was assigned to the USN’s VF-781 (later VF-121) Squadron for combat duty in Korea, flying the Grumman F9F-5 Panther. After a strenuous work-up for combat duties, the squadron was assigned to an aircraft carrier – USS Oriskany – one of up to four carriers operating at any given time with Task Force 77 in the Sea of Japan.
Because of his background, Lieutenant Joe MacBrien was appointed the squadron’s weapons officer. His missions included combat air patrols over the fleet, photo escort missions, close air support, and armed reconnaissance. He flew 66 combat missions and achieved 92 deck landings during both the work-up and the combat era. Lieutenant MacBrien was awarded the United States DFC for his courage and leadership in a difficult ground attack mission that he led in February 1953.
During the tenures of the various Canadian Army regiments in Korea, an air organization, informally known as the “Mosquitos”, had evolved. This was a USAF-run operation, formally known as the 6147 Tactical Air Control Group.
The Mosquitos consisted of two flying squadrons – the 6148th and the 6149th Tactical Air Control Squadrons – and several three-man radio-jeep ground parties – the 6150th Tactical Air Control Party – that resided with infantry units.
The primary duty of the Mosquitos was to control all tactical air strikes between the front lines and the bomb line (northern limit of friendly artillery fire), and to inflict maximum damage to the enemy while ensuring the highest possible degree of safety to friendly forces. This was done by adequately marking targets with air-fired smoke rockets and directing fighter-bombers in the target area. The Mosquitos were extremely effective and, in addition to the destruction and devastation that they directed upon the enemy, they saved the lives of countless UN ground forces.
This activity was conducted from unarmed, single-engine, two-seater T-6 aircraft. Canada provided, on a secondment basis during their one-year tour of duty in Korea, 16 Army officers from five regiments as back-seat forward air controllers between early 1951 to mid-1954. Missions were continuous from dawn to dusk across the peninsula under the guidance of a mother ship, and a typical mission lasted up to three hours. Multiple combat contacts per mission and double-mission days were not uncommon. Fighter-bombers were always on station and available within minutes of a target acquisition.
Secondments usually lasted three months but a few were extended, including that of Lieutenant Geoff Magee (The Royal Canadian Regiment), who served three tours with 162 combat missions – the second highest of all UN forward air controllers. Canadians participated in nearly 800 Mosquito combat missions and received four U.S. DFCs and five U.S. Air Medals.
Short training programs for successful Mosquito back-seat candidates were provided at the 6148th and 6149th TACS. The ability to achieve ground-to-air information and successfully spot and mark targets with smoke rockets, and to direct the delivery of incoming, high-speed explosives dropped from above by USAF and USN fighter-bombers, all while in either too-hot or too-cold, noisy, bouncing, unarmed, slow-flying aircraft with poor in-cockpit radios, and which were often flown by aggressive young pilots with heavy southern drawls, all while being shot at, came with the on-the-job training.
The Mosquitos flew from Chonchun airfield near the 38th Parallel. This was considered to be the most dangerous flying during the Korean War. The enemy knew full well that if they were spotted by the Mosquito, an air attack – delivered by fighter-bombers that could carry napalm and 500-pound (228 kilogram) bombs and fire 20-millimetre cannon – would soon unfold upon them. There was an impetus by the enemy to shoot the Mosquito, and aircraft were “holed” on most missions that involved enemy contact.
Fortunately, the only Canadian who was shot down managed to survive, and only two other Canadians were actually wounded by Mosquito fire while in the air. Lieutenant Neil Anderson (The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada) was killed in a post-war training accident and is buried at the cemetery in Pusan (now Busan), South Korea.
The airfield and the Commonwealth Division Headquarters, known as Fort George, were located on the Imjin River about 48 kilometres north of Seoul. They supported Commonwealth Division and Canadian artillery units that were in turn supporting infantry units in the Commonwealth Division.
With two training flights under his belt, Captain Joe Liston was shot down and captured on his 12th combat mission (in 13 days) in August 1952. He was a prisoner of war for one year and was released under Operation Big Switch (the exchange of PoWs) in September 1953.
During his internment, he was constantly interrogated and pressured to give information. The Chinese threatened, “No one knows that you are here but us – and no one is going to know.” Captain Liston said, “That was the worst part of being a PoW.” In Canada, he was listed as missing in action, which caused enormous pay and accommodation problems for his family, who were obliged to move out of military housing.
Captain Liston’s replacement, Captain Peter Tees, was an energetic combatant, completing 211 combat missions during his one-year tenure. He had three engine failures, one completely destroying the aircraft. In addition, he was hit by friendly fire when a not-yet-armed artillery shell went through his port wing at 7,000 feet. Two other AOP pilots followed Captain Tees and achieved some combat flying but were substantially used in peacekeeping duties. Captain Tees was the second and last Canadian to be awarded the Commonwealth DFC in Korea.
By the time the Korean War broke out, Canadian Pacific Airlines (CPA) had already been making weekly flights from Vancouver to Hong Kong via Tokyo. It was a simple matter for CPA to convince the Canadian government and the United States Army that they were capable of participating in the Korean War airlift. CPA began four (later five) charter flights per week as a part of the Canadian portion of the airlift, starting in August 1950. Unlike the service of 426 Squadron, CPA flew only passenger service. CPA provided first-class service for all ranks and was soon the desired method of travel for both U.S. and Canadian servicemen.
These flights continued – first using North Stars, then refurbished DC-4s, and then new DC-6B aircraft – until March 1955, providing more than 700 charter flights. In July 1951, a DC-4 with a crew of seven and passengers including two Canadian sailors and 29 United States Army and USAF personnel, disappeared off the coast near Juneau, Alaska. Despite an intensive two-month search that ended when the area was covered in deep snow, no trace of the aircraft or the people on board was ever found.
The three most senior RCAF officers in Korea were Group Captain Ed Hale, who flew F-86 combat missions with the USAF at Suwon in 1952, and was the commander of the RCAF’s No. 1 (Fighter) Wing, North Luffenham; Group Captain Robert “Buck” McNair, the air attaché at the Canadian Embassy in Japan; and Group Captain Ken Patrick, commander of the Air Force Reserve in Montreal and founder and CEO of Canadian Aviation Electronics in Montreal.
Group Captain Patrick had served as a communications expert during the Second World War and, because of his in-depth knowledge, was invited by the Canadian and U.S. governments to carry out top-secret interrogation flights over North Korea. To achieve this, he spent five weeks (November to December 1951) flying with the USAF’s 343rd Bomber Squadron out of Yokota, Japan.
He flew on six B-29 bombing missions and acted as the radar officer to analyze enemy radar and the available counter-measures equipment. On each mission, one or two of the six B-29s in the bombing formations was either shot down or badly damaged.
During the Canadian tenure in Korea, 516 Canadian military personnel and seven Canadian Pacific Airlines personnel). Thirty-three Canadian prisoners of war were held, most of whom were Army personnel, including Army pilot Captain Joe Liston, and also including the RCAF’s Squadron Leader Andy MacKenzie.
Thirty-three Canadians have no known graves, including 16 Army personnel who were reported as missing in action. The last official Canadian casualty of the Korean War, Major Edward Gower, was on his return flight from Korea to Calgary in December 1956 when his TCA North Star hit Mount Slesse (near Hope, British Columbia). The wreckage was found in May 1957 and the remains of all 62 crew and passengers rest on the mountain to this day.
In all, Canadian airmen flew more than 2,200 combat missions and more than 1,500 round-trip airlift flights during the Korean War. RCAF nurses were involved in about 250 medical evacuation flights in the Pacific and many more throughout Canada.
Canadians received 57 Commonwealth and U.S. awards, medals, and commendations. This number would have been higher except for a strange rule imposed by the Canadian military and directing that only one U.S. medal could be awarded to each Canadian serving member. This rule was often ignored by individual RCAF pilots.
Canadian military personnel and civilians served with courage and distinction during the Korean War. Thankfully, today, the Korean War is no longer “the forgotten war”.
Carl Mills served 24 years in the Air Reserve in London and Toronto, Ontario, and is a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force Association.
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