With the opening of former Soviet military archives, the true story of who flew in the Korean War can be told.
By Ralph Wetterhahn
N orth Korea’s President Kim Il Sung launched his ground forces south of the 38th parallel at 0400 hours on June 25, 1950. Eleven hours later, two propeller-driven North Korean Yak-9P fighters appeared over Seoul International Airport and strafed seven Republic of Korea aircraft. At nearby Kimpo, two more Yaks shot up the control tower, blew up a fuel tank, then set an American C-54 transport on fire. Thus, rather conservatively, the first air activity got underway as the Korean War blossomed into a bloody, down-in-the-mud exchange of territory.
But in the hazy skies over Korea, a lot more was going on than hovering and dogfighting. Two nuclear superpowers were secretly trying out their latest hardware in head-to-head combat. At the time of the armistice on July 27, 1953, a staggering 75 percent of the aerial combat over Korea was between Russia and the United States. At stake was the potential for World War III. Now, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian state archives have been opened and interviews with veterans are permitted, and a true picture of events is slowly emerging.
Stalin had learned of Kim Il Sung’s military intentions during several meetings in Moscow, so four months before the onset of hostilities, he positioned a fighter air regiment in Chinese Manchuria. A second regiment, the 29th, began moving east as the conflict began. Retired Col. Valentin Golubev, who currently shares a one-room apartment in Moscow with his wife, Anna, was a lieutenant at the time, serving as a MiG-15 maintenance technician. “Two to three days after the war started, I was notified that I was going on temporary duty. The why and where would be told later,” Golubev recalls. “We were ordered to remove the Russian insignia and Cyrillic labels and stickers that had been put on the MiG-15s at the factory. Then we took the wings off, hauled the parts to the train station, and loaded them into special containers. Before we left, though, six or seven trucks filled with civilian clothes arrived. All of our uniforms, documents, pictures, photos, newspapers, and books were taken away. We dressed [in suits and ties] and boarded. Then armed guards similarly clothed segregated us from the local population at each stop as we headed east on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.”
Pilots and staff officers traveled on a separate train with the regular civilian passengers. Retired Soviet Col. Aleksandr Orlov, at that time a captain in charge of electronic intelligence, laughs as he describes their limited clothing choices: “I could tell who was military because every fifth guy on the train wore the exact same tie as I wore.”
The Russians traveled to Shenyang airfield, where they reassembled their aircraft and launched training flights. Most maintenance men went their whole tour without leaving the base, enduring deep snow in winter, floods in the spring, and torrid heat in summer. Communication from home was tightly controlled. “My wife’s mail was sent to a box number in Moscow,” Golubev recalls, “and from there it got to us. All mail was censored, but I got around that. Before I left, I told my wife to look at the first letter on each line in the letters I wrote to find out where I was. Every time we moved, I sent word.” With an impish smile Anna says, “I always knew where he was.”
Meanwhile, the ground war was in all the news. “I thought it would end very quickly because the North Koreans were moving so rapidly,” remembers Col. Yevgeniy Pepelyayev. “Then there came [the Inchon Landing].” Everything changed as U.N. forces surged toward the Yalu River, threatening to occupy all of Korea. “In October , Stalin decided that direct Russian involvement was necessary to prevent defeat,” Pepelyayev says. By that time, three Russian fighter aviation divisions, the 28th, 50th, and 151st, were assembled in Manchuria and formed the basis of an aviation corps. Headquarters was located in the city of Shenyang (then known as Mukden), and the divisions were initially deployed at airfields at Shenyang, Anshan, and Antung.
On Nov. 1, Lt. Khominich (his and other first names were not recorded in the Russian state archives) and his wingman were the first Russians to attack a flight of American planes. Near Sinuiju airfield, Khominich slid behind an F-80 Shooting Star and, at 800 meters, fired a long, three-second burst into the fighter. Khominich claimed a kill; U.S. Air Force documents show an F-80 was lost on that date in the area of the alleged dogfight, but records indicate the plane was downed by ground fire.
The circumstances of the first American kill are even cloudier. On Nov. 8, Air Force 1st Lt. Russell Brown was flying an F-80 in the same region when he spotted a lone MiG-15 separating from a group of MiGs that were headed homeward. Brown dove on the loner, and recalls, “When the MiG pilot realized his error, I already had him in my sights.”
Brown opened up with his .50-caliber machine guns. Parts began shedding from the MiG, which started streaming smoke as it rolled into a dive. Then the MiG pilot steepened his descent and seemed to crash. Brown claimed the first jet-vs.-jet kill based on that incident, but Russian units reported no losses that day. However, Russian records do show that, at the time of the engagement, part of a Russian formation near the Yalu came under attack by an F-80. One MiG pilot, Senior Lt. Kharitonov, dove to escape, jettisoned his drop tanks to gain speed, and then pulled out just above the ground and continued across the Yalu.
Were the tanks what Brown saw separating from the MiG? Was the “smoke” normal fuel spray that accompanies tank jettisoning and the “crash” actually the fuel tanks hitting the ground and exploding? Pepelyayev thinks so. The MiG-15 was well-protected with self-sealing fuel tanks, a bulletproof windscreen, and an armored cockpit behind the pilot. “The American .50-caliber machine guns acted on our aircraft like peas,” Pepelyayev says. “It was routine for our aircraft to return home with 40 or 50 hits.”
If Brown did not make a kill, then the United States’ first actual kill occurred the following day as a cluster of 13 MiGs positioned themselves for attack on Navy A-1 Skyraiders and F-4U Corsairs escorted by F-9F Panther jets. The MiGs went for the propeller-driven A-1s, but an element of MiGs led by Lt. Grachev was attacked by a Panther flown by Navy Lt. Cmdr. William Amen from the aircraft carrier USS Philippine Sea. Amen fired several bursts of 20 mm cannon fire and saw strikes appear on the MiG, which pitched nose low, then rolled inverted. “He was either psycho or could not leave the aircraft,” Amen remembers thinking. The MiG crashed into the side of a small knoll. Russian records confirm the loss of a MiG-15 in that dogfight. As a result, noted Russian historians Leonid Krylov and Yuriy Tepsurkayev credit the first jet-vs.-jet kill to the U.S. Navy on that date.
Regardless of who really achieved the first jet victory, from the start of jet combat over Korea in November 1950 until Chinese units came on line in December 1951 (the first North Korean unit began jet operations in early 1952), the air war over the Yalu was fought exclusively by the Soviets. According to their records, Russian pilots flew 63,229 sorties during the war, compared with 22,300 flights by Chinese and North Korean pilots.
Although some 50,000 Soviet artillerymen, searchlight operators, communications specialists, intelligence collectors, radar operators, and maintenance personnel contributed to the fighting, the glory went to the pilots. The Soviets didn’t use the term “ace” (denoting aviators with five or more kills to their credit). Status, both through national acclaim and financial reward, accrued to those receiving the coveted Hero of the Soviet Union medal, the country’s highest decoration. Top-scoring Pepelyayev and Gen. Maj. Sergej Kramarenko (a MiG-15 squadron commander who already had achieved 12 kills in World War II) were among the 35 who were awarded that distinction (out of more than 5,000 Russian pilots serving in the war).
Kramarenko’s unit was tasked with stopping the B-29 bombers and achieved some success. April 9, 1951, remains indelibly etched in Kramarenko’s memory. “We saw the bombers coming with F-84 and F-80 escort fighters 10 kilometers behind. Our formation did a U-turn and dove on them out of the sun. We opened fire from beyond 1,000 meters, effectively out of range of the bomber’s machine guns.” Then the escorts showed up, and Kramarenko shot an F-84 down but got in a furball with a gaggle of fighters. “A big mess,” he recalls, “with a hundred aircraft going every which way.” After he broke free, Kramarenko looked back. “I saw a complete cloud of parachutes in the air.” American records show a B-29 and an F-84 were shot down along with an unknown number of MiGs. (Much heavier bomber losses in October 1951 would eventually force the B-29s to switch tactics, shifting to night and bad-weather missions from that time on. The result portended ominously should America’s prop-driven B-29s or B-36s ever have to attack Russia.)
In mid-1951, the new F-86E Sabre jet arrived in quantity, and the balance of power shifted to the U.S. side. The F-86E still couldn’t outclimb the MiG-15, but it could turn better at the medium and low altitudes where most dogfights took place. The superior gun sight of the Sabre was another factor in its favor, but the plane was armed with those limited .50-caliber machine guns. The MiG, on the other hand, had 23 mm and 37 mm cannon but was equipped with a poor gun sight. MiG pilots began having less success, so the MiG-15bis version was introduced with a more powerful VK-1 engine. Meanwhile, the Russians were eager to get their hands on a Sabre. On Oct. 6, 1951, Pepelyayev attacked an F-86. “I damaged the Sabre, and the pilot tried to coax the plane out over water where helicopter rescue would be possible,” Pepelyayev remembers. “He didn’t make it but managed to put the plane down on a sand bank on the coast.”
A furious three-hour battle began as the Russians tried to prevent destruction of the abandoned Sabre. “We lost seven MiGs and didn’t get any more Sabres,” Pepelyayev says, “but the incoming tide protected the F-86. That night, the Chinese cut the wings off, then trucked the fuselage through underground tunnels to our field.” The feat was treated as sensational. “I sat in the cockpit,” Pepelyayev grins, “we all did. It was there for a week. That’s when we found out about the gravity-suit (G suit) regulator.” The MiG-15 had no antigravity system at the time, and the Russians considered that a distinct disadvantage because the G suit allows pilots to sustain higher forces of gravity before vision deteriorates during tight turns.
The captured Sabre was sent to Moscow and then-Senior Lt. Vadim Matskevic in the Air Force engineering department. He was instructed to compare the F-86 sight system with the one on the MiG-15. “The F-86 had a semi-active system that used radar for ranging. It was very accurate, able to account for range and maneuvering of the target. The MiG-15 had a manual collimating system that was designed in 1939. There was no comparison.” Matskevic received some 30 denunciations for claiming the F-86 sight was better than the Russian design. Under pressure of getting kicked out of the service, sent to Siberia, or worse, Matskevic worked hard to develop a counter to the effectiveness of the sight. He helped design the Serena Warning System to detect the F-86 radar signal. In May of 1952, Matskevic took 10 of his new devices to Korea. “The system was a simple receiver, mounted on the tail,” Matskevic says today. “We removed the aft section from the plane, ran four wires to the top where we installed the device. Then we connected it to the cockpit by diverting wires that were installed for use with the rocket assist takeoff system, which nobody used. It took three hours to complete the install.” How did it work? “A low tone came on weakly when the F-86 was about 10 kilometers away. If a Sabre was on your tail, you got a loud warning in your ear. We saved a lot of pilots.” The system also saved Matskevic’s career — and possibly his life. He retired as a lieutenant colonel and lives in Moscow on a monthly pension of less than $100.
The Soviets rotated 12 fighter divisions on an eight- to 14-month basis during the year. Each time they rotated, the new pilots took a beating in combat against American units that maintained a flow of new pilots into experienced squadrons. As feisty Pepelyayev points out, “Our Russian leaders like to step on the rake.”
Did U.S. intelligence know about Russian involvement and unit moves? Yes — from the start. But asked what he was briefed regarding Russian involvement, U.S. Air Force ace Harold F. “Hal” Fischer, who had two combat tours, says, “Zip.” Another veteran ace, Col. Walker “Bud” Mahurin, recalls, “When I arrived in December of 1951 at Suwon Air Base to fly the F-86, we were briefed that the pilots we were flying against were North Korean.”
It would be months later, when problems developed with the radar facility that controlled combat intercepts, that Mahurin and his squadron mates learned the truth. “My pilots mistrusted [Ground Control Intercept radar operators] because too often we were scrambled and found no MiGs where they sent us,” Mahurin says. Orlov, who was in charge of Soviet electronic reconnaissance there, explains this discrepancy: “Radio receivers were positioned on top of mountains to pick up takeoff and landing transmissions from airfields in South Korea. At Antung, my unit monitored these receivers. The Americans were doing the same, listening to our calls. So, especially when there was bad weather at our bases, we would make fake radio transmissions to lure the U.S. planes into the air where they found no opponents.”
Unaware of this ploy, Mahurin, then already a full colonel with 20 kills in World War II and two thus far in Korea, went to check on the radar facility 16 miles north of Seoul. He discovered that some of the controllers spoke Russian and were listening to transmissions in that language coming out of Manchuria.
For the first time, Mahurin and his fellow pilots understood they were flying against Russians — but Mahurin was never told the extent of Soviet involvement. U.S. intelligence put the translators there in the first place, but, for reasons of national security, this information was withheld from the pilots and the media. Russian leaders kept it secret from their people as well. When Kramarenko was awarded his Hero of the Soviet Union medal, for example, “the ceremony was conducted in civilian clothes, and the honor was given to me for ‘special government service,’ ” he recalls.
Both sides were well aware of the tinderbox nature of the clashes but elected to control that information. Each government had much to gain by learning about each other’s aircraft, jet engines, armament, and tactics because this information might spell the difference between victory and defeat in a third world war. So, the air battles above the Yalu raged on.
Still, Stalin must have worried. President Truman had already demonstrated a willingness to drop the A-bomb on Japan. According to Pepelyayev, “Stalin tried to conceal Russian participation by requiring pilots to remain behind a line drawn between Wonsan and Pyongyang in central North Korea.” Meanwhile, American pilots were prohibited from crossing the Yalu. Both sides routinely violated these restrictions, yet no Russian pilot ever fell into U.N. hands.
The same was not true for American pilots. A number were shot down north of the Yalu, including Fischer, who was confined in separate prisoner-of-war status in a Chinese prison and was released 23 months after the armistice.
Mahurin acknowledges that American pilots in hot pursuit often chased MiGs well beyond the Yalu. “The pilots would say they shot up the MiG on our side of the Yalu, and it crashed over there,” he recalls. Pepelyayev remembers when two F-86s crossed the Yalu. “We were in the landing pattern when they appeared. Two of our planes were shot down.” Asked if the airfield was defended with antiaircraft artillery, Pepelyayev replies, “Only after that incident.” He lets slip a sad grin, “We have a saying: The Russian doesn’t make the sign of the cross until he has already heard the thunder clap.”
Both countries had experienced and highly decorated pilots from World War II who were eager to increase their scores. The differences between the MiG-15 and the F-86 were not overwhelming, so pilot skill, cunning, and luck made all the difference.
By war’s end, the Russians claimed a loss of 335 aircraft while shooting down 1,309 — a 4:1 advantage. Pepelyayev, with 23 claims, admits, “I am absolutely certain of only six of my kills, and I saw just two of those actually crash. Too much was going on to follow everything.” Meanwhile, U.N. forces claim a 7:1 kill rate in their favor. Will we ever know the actual results? At this point, it is not even certain who got the first jet-vs.-jet kill. As Pepelyayev put it, “After both the hunt and combat, that’s when the tales begin.”
In the end, Russian pilot Nick Sutyagin and Pepelyayev each claimed 23, and 12 were credited to Alexander Smortzkov. Several other pilots are attributed with 10 or more each. They may not have actually gotten that many, but as late Soviet Lt. Gen. Georgy Lobov wrote, “Our pilots shot down Col. Walker Mahurin; a U.S. Air Force wing commander [Col. Bosie Arnold, captured]; Maj. George A. Davis, the top American ace of the war at that time (killed); and Capt. Joseph M. McConnell, who went on to surpass Davis as the leading American ace after being rescued.” Also shot down were Air Force squadron commanders Lt. Cols. Edwin L. Heller and Robert V. Witt and a Maj. Richardson, first name unknown. Fischer, who had 10 claims, was downed over Manchuria.
With the demise of the Soviet Union, the system the Russian veterans fought for has vanished. Their deeds count for little in the new Russia. The medals they wear proudly on their lapels are copies because the real ones, made of gold, are prime targets for thieves.
Outside Moscow there is a sprawling air and space museum at the air base at Monino. Even in the coldest weather, docents lead visitors and children on daily outdoor tours. And what do these tourists learn about Russia’s involvement in the Korean War? Zip.