While July 27 is one of the lesser-known days of remembrance for the U.S., for the Air Force, recognizing the signing of the Korean War armistice on this day in 1953 marked an era when the service came into its own.
The 1950s heralded a decade of innovation, with inventions such as power steering, the bar code and the transistor radio, but, for the Air Force, nowhere was innovation more on display than during the span of the Korean War, from June 25, 1950 until July 27, 1953.
This was the first war for the newly independent Air Force, and it was the first war in which the United States used jet aircraft. The Air Force’s F-86 Sabre jets bested Soviet-built MiG-15s, the U.S.-trained pilots were better prepared for combat, and their tactical approach was better thought out.
By the time of the mid-century Korean conflict, the 20th century had already seen two destructive and costly global wars. Towards the end of World War II, Allied summits decided the future of the Japanese empire, some say, by leveraging the future independence of the Korean peninsula. Although only intended as a short-term, pre-independence arrangement, Korea, a Japanese colony since 1910, was to be occupied north of the 38th parallel by Soviet Russia; to the south, the United States. A military administration under the direction of Gen. Douglas MacArthur would control the area from its headquarters in Tokyo.
War-impoverished Russia saw this as an opportunity to rebuild its economy, and the newly created and Soviet-equipped North Korean Peoples’ Army, headed south to capture the important port of Pusan and natural resources of coal, lead, tungsten, and iron ore.
Even though the Air Force faced a conflict that was almost entirely tactical in nature, limiting how and where airpower could be applied, this newest armed service had learned its lessons well during World War II and knew the strategic role it played in attacking an enemy’s homeland.
The role of the Air Force
The Far East Air Forces Fifth Air Force was the command and control for Air Force-engaged in combat with units located in Korea and Japan. The command was fortified by fighter and troop carrier wings from Tactical Air Command and federalized Air National Guard units from the United States. These tactical units conducted interdiction strikes on supply lines, attacked dams that irrigated the fields and flew missions in close support of United Nations ground forces. AT-6 “Mosquitoes,” the ubiquitous, single-engine prop plane of World War II, were used as airborne controllers, provided communication links between ground troops and supporting aircraft.
President Truman was unwilling to risk extensive use of the U.S. bomber force, which was being used as a deterrent for possible Soviet aggression in Europe. However, a few groups of Strategic Air Command B-29 Superfortress bombers that were not part of the nuclear strike force were released for combat over the Korean skies, effectively targeting North Korean government centers, military installations and transportation networks.
By mid-1951, the land battle was in a stalemate, and both sides agreed to armistice talks, which dragged on for two years. The main haggling point was the future of the tens of thousands of communist prisoners: Communist negotiators demanded their return to their country of origin. Yet, thousands of prisoners were not willing to be repatriated.
Finally, in July 1953, a formula granting repatriation and asylum for prisoners of war was worked out, a demilitarized zone (DMZ) was established extending two meters either side of the 38th parallel, and a United Nations Commission was set up to supervise the armistice.
The Legacy of the Air Force
The Air Force suffered 1,841 battle casualties, of which 1,180 were killed in action. Hostile action and other causes resulted in the loss of 1,466 aircraft. The Korean War was the last (and only) time large numbers of piston-engine and jet-engine aircraft engaged in war simultaneously. It was also the last major war of the U.S. without some space support.
With the end of fighting in Korea, the newly inaugurated President Eisenhower called for a greater reliance on nuclear weapons and air power to deter war. This resulted in a strategic investment in the Air Force. The nuclear arms race had shifted into high gear, and the Air Force retired nearly all of its propeller-driven B-29s and B-50s. They were replaced by the B-47 Stratojet. By 1955, the B-52 Stratofortress was being ordered in huge supply, and the prop-driven B-36s were being rapidly phased out of heavy bombardment units.
War tactics were forever changed by the Korean War, and the strategic initiative and innovation of the Air Force was leading the way.