Over Korea, prop-driven bombers tackled an unfamiliar mission and faced Soviet-built jets for the first time.
The Cold War took on a new and more frightening face when the North Koreans invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950. Five years after World War II, the U.S. military presence in the Pacific could best be characterized as underequipped and antiquated. In the Korean War’s first few months, the Air Force, Navy and Marines had to rely primarily on propeller-driven aircraft of WWII vintage, such as the F-51 Mustang, F4U Corsair and B-26 Invader. The B-29 Superfortress was the only heavy bomber available in large numbers.
At the time there was just one B-29 unit in the Far East, the 19th Bomb Group, attached to the Far East Air Forces and based at North Field on Guam. With the outbreak of hostilities, the 19th was quickly transferred to Kadena Airfield on Okinawa. Less than 24 hours after receiving its movement orders, the group sent two Superfortresses from Kadena to hit tactical targets in North Korea, while another B-29 went after tank columns north of Seoul. In this new conflict the aging bombers would have to undertake a mission for which they were never intended: close-in interdiction and air support.
Since the North Koreans could move large amounts of equipment and supplies by train, it was deemed essential from the beginning to cut the North’s rail system in multiple spots. During the first few weeks of combat, the 19th’s three B-29 squadrons were sent on raids to every bridge and rail junction above the 38th Parallel. The bombers recorded 46 direct hits (complete rail cuts) with 1,000-pound bombs in the earliest days of the campaign. They also targeted industrial sites along the Yalu River on the Chinese border and around the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.
Strategic Air Command soon sent four more B-29 groups—the 22nd, 92nd, 98th and 307th—to Okinawa and Japan, to bomb industrial sites in the North. As the enemy pushed U.N. forces down the Korean Peninsula into a pocket known as the Pusan Perimeter, the B-29s hit tactical targets in the South to help stem the North Korean tide.
By the end of August, most of the peninsula was in enemy hands, but the Pusan Perimeter had held. On September 15, the Marines made a successful landing behind enemy lines at Inchon that quickly led to the liberation of Seoul. At the same time, U.N. troops broke out of Pusan, routing the North Koreans. As the enemy retreated, B-29s went after still-intact bridges and truck columns that jammed the roads. The Pentagon later released figures indicating that in addition to damaging or destroying staggering amounts of enemy materiel, the Superforts’ tactical campaign had a lot to do with the capture by U.N. forces of 140,000 enemy troops.
Cutting the North’s rail lines to slow the enemy retreat was still the B-29s’ top priority—so important that each heavy bomb group dedicated eight of its Superforts each day to the effort. The B-29s also targeted remote villages that were believed to harbor equipment and manpower for repairing bomb damage. Most of the strikes were concentrated in the triangular area from Seoul to Wonsan to Pyongyang.
By mid-October, with U.N. ground forces having captured Pyongyang and pushing toward the Yalu, SAC recalled two of the B-29 groups—the 22nd and 92nd—to the States. It appeared the war might be over by Thanksgiving, but that was not to be. During the first week of November, the Chinese entered the war in massive numbers, triggering a retreat by U.N. forces. Worse, sweptwing MiG-15 jets flown by Soviet pilots began venturing south of the Yalu, a threat to B-29 operations. Attacks on the bombers intensified in early 1951. On March 1 seven B-29s were lost to enemy action, and a few weeks later another six went down within a day. Some of those losses were due to heavy anti-aircraft fire, but others fell to the cannon-equipped MiGs.
Staff Sergeant Richard Oakley, a crewman on a 19th Group Superfort named The Outlaw, remembered one mission that took place right after the MiGs first appeared. Positioned in the B-29’s mid-section and serving as a photographer, he hoped to get pictures of the bomber formation as well as some clear frames of any MiG-15s that showed up. Very little was known about the Soviet jets at the time, and intelligence analysts were desperate for information.
“It was a long flight from Okinawa to North Korea,” Oakley recalled. “As we reached landfall, we joined up with the rest of our group and set a course that would put us over the area that would be known as MiG Alley. Suddenly, as I glanced out of my side bubble, I saw little puffs of black smoke with orange flashes in the center, and they were all around us. I could hear some of the pieces of shrapnel hitting the bottom of our plane—my first encounter with flak.
“We pressed on in tight formation all the way up to the Yalu before releasing our bombload,” Oakley continued. “At this time we did not encounter any of the MiGs. Just as we set a course for Okinawa, we received word that a typhoon was bearing down on our base, and we were ordered to divert to Yokota Air Base in Japan. It would be a brief layover; we would get another bombload and then go after another target.”
The crew’s next target was Rashen, on the Manchuria–Soviet Union border. “As we approached our target at 24,000 feet, the temperature outside the aircraft was minus 50 degrees,” he said. “We were flying in the No. 4 slot, so our bombardier was just watching the bomb bay of the lead bomber so he would know when to release our load. When it got to that point…nothing happened! We made a big circle over the ocean to come back over the target and again…nothing happened. On the third try everyone finally dropped, and as we were pulling away there seemed to be a problem. Our bay doors would not close. Here we were trying to keep in formation with the other three, but with the added drag it was almost impossible. We finally got down below the bomb line. At that point the others went on back to Okinawa, and due to the amount of fuel we were burning, our navigator stated that when we reached our base, we would have one hour’s fuel left and that was cutting it too close.”
Ultimately the pilot decided to head to Itazuke Air Base in Japan. When they arrived they still had problems because the bomb bay doors were open and there was barely enough clearance between them and the runway. “Fortunately, our pilot made one of the smoothest landings you could imagine,” Oakley recalled.“You couldn’t even hear a ‘chirp’ when the main gear touched the runway. Later we found out that the doors would not close due to water in the hydraulic lines that had frozen. This problem was resolved, and we took off for Okinawa. As we approached the base, we were coming in on the tail end of a typhoon that had the ceiling and visibility down close to zero. We made it after a gut-wrenching approach. These types of problems cropped up all the time as our bombers were aging and there was no such thing as a perfect mission.”
Pilot 1st Lt. Richard Allen, one of the 19th Group’s high-timers, flew numerous daylight missions before the MiGs got involved. Soon after the group started flying night missions to avoid the jets, the Superforts’ undersides were painted flat black, to make it harder for searchlights near the Yalu to spot them. But once the B-29s switched to night attacks, MiG pilots trained in nighttime operations stepped in, aided by ground controllers who helped them intercept the bombers.
“On many of our missions that required us to fly into MiG-15 territory, we would launch at least one B-29 an hour before the rest of us took off,” Allen explained. “The lone bomber would fly to a location away from our main target, as a diversion to make the MiGs launch, and by the time we hit our area they were low on fuel or had just returned to their base to refuel.
“On one of our night missions where we were flying from the Wonsan area, our gunners reported that there were several aircraft approaching at our 6 o’clock, and when they got about 200 yards from us they abruptly broke off. This went on for about a half-hour, and we concluded that they were either Air Force or Marine night fighters. When we got back to our base at Kadena, we reported that we were glad to see some protection around the target area. The next day our intel officer told us that there had been no friendlies up in that part of North Korea, which meant they were probably MiG-15s.”
While the B-29s’ bellies were still being painted black, Allen led one mission in which he flew the only aircraft with an original all-silver finish.“The Oriental Light Metal Works, north of Sinuiju, was the end of the world for about 15 minutes!”he said.“This mission was to be a maximum effort, and we were not supposed to go in unless the target was overcast. I was leading, and our entire formation was sitting in the middle of a massive thunderstorm about 20 minutes off the coast of northwest Korea. The target was socked in, which gave us exactly what we wanted.
“We were the first aircraft in,” continued Allen, “and as we turned north for our run and about 10 miles from the coast we broke into the clear. As we approached, you could look to the north and clearly see the lights on the big MiG airfield at Antung. In the meantime, our radar operators on Chodo Island were going crazy because of all the enemy fighters that were getting airborne. About the time we reached Sinuiju, we could see the searchlights start to come on ahead of us. Fortunately, we had an ECM [electronic countermeasures] ship, and our radio operator happened to be setting right on their frequency—this kept them off our backs until we were about four minutes from the target. The tracers were all over the place, and all hell was breaking loose. We got lucky and made it to bombs away, and you better believe that a B-29 can do a split-S, because I did one right then! For the next few minutes, I exceeded every speed and stress limitation on that aircraft, trying to avoid the night-flying MiG-15s and searchlights. Finally we got some distance between us and the threats as we moved out of the area.”
Sergeant Lyle Patterson, who participated in daytime missions against bridges on the Yalu, recalled the MiG attacks in one sortie:“We took off at 5 a.m. from Okinawa, which would put us over the bridges about 10 a.m. After hitting the IP [initial point] and starting our bomb run, I saw shiny little arrowheads dropping down on the flight that was ahead of us— MiG-15s. Their swept wings made them look like small arrowheads at a certain distance. Every one of them had the natural polished aluminum except for the big red stars, and as they came out of the sun, they really glinted.
“Our escorts on this day were straight-wing F-80s. They mixed it up with the attacking MiGs, but the latter had a great advantage in speed. Seconds later, I saw a big red tracer come whizzing by our tail, a narrow miss. We were fighting back with our .50-caliber guns, but there were MiGs everywhere. The B-29 that was right behind us took a 37mm hit in the wing and began streaming fuel as it listed to the right and fell out of formation, heading down. Our lead bomber, Dragon Lady, took a hit in the left side of the cockpit, killing the pilot. They stayed on course and dropped their bombs on target, with the copilot handling the controls. Minutes later we were attacked from our 8 o’clock position, and I put my sight right on the MiG’s cockpit area while firing about 20 rounds. All impacted on his cockpit, and it immediately started tumbling tail over nose.”
Patterson saw another B-29 get hit and start going down. Three of the four bombers in the flight didn’t make it to the target. The fourth one was hit but made the drop before limping to a friendly base and crash-landing. When Patterson’s B-29 landed, his guns each had less than 10 rounds left.
“Once the F-86 Sabres began escorting us, the MiGs were no longer a problem,” Patterson noted.“On one of the missions where the F-86s were with us, I remember we were being attacked by at least 15 MiGs. Only three of them were able to break through the screen, but they were not firing accurately at us. On that same mission I remember a MiG coming down on our formation at a 45-degree angle in a slow roll. Every time it rolled and its belly came up, flames were trailing out like a roman candle. He had an F-86 right on his tail, with its nose almost up his tailpipe.”
Throughout the 37-month Korean War, B-29 crews did their best to fill a challenging new role. According to Far East Air Force Bomber Command records, Superfort crewmen were credited with shooting down 33 enemy fighters, 16 of them MiGs. Another 17 MiGs were listed as probably destroyed, with 11 damaged. B-29s logged 21,000 individual sorties and dropped 167,100 tons of ordnance.
Figures for total B-29 losses vary widely depending on the source. Based on the Korean War Aircraft Loss Database, published by the Department of Defense, a total of 109 B-29As were lost to operational causes and enemy action.
Warren Thompson has been writing about military aviation for more than 40 years. Further reading: B-29 Superfortress Units of the Korean War, by Robert F. Dorr; and The Superfortress and Its Final Glory, by Lt. Col. George A. Larson, USAF (ret.).
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.