Korean War holds unique place in History
By , 39th Air Base Wing History Office
/ Published July 14, 2006
INCIRLIK AIR BASE, TURKEY -- The Korean War began Sunday morning in 1950 when at 4 a.m. the Communist-backed forces of the North attacked the southern half of the peninsula. This was the start of the first direct military confrontation of the Cold War and it proved to be costly.
Four million Koreans were killed, twothirds of them civilians caught in the crossfire. The numbers of dead and wounded U.N. Peacekeeping Forces was also excessively high, but it would have been much worse if not for the achievements of the less than three-year-old U.S. Air Force.
Unfortunately, space does not permit a worthwhile explanation of the complex political showdowns that led to the division of Korea other than to say that Russia finally declared war against Imperial Japan just eight days before their surrender to the U.S. It was previously agreed upon during the Yalta Conference in February, 1945, that Russia could declare war on Japan after the defeat of Nazi Germany for the purpose of getting back some of the territory they lost to Japan after their humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japanese War just 40 years earlier. However, there was never an agreement allowing Stalin to invade and occupy any portion of Korea.
In Stalin's mind, it was justifiable to invade Korea because he considered it to be a part of Japan following Japan's forceful annexation of the country in 1910. Therefore he wanted to get his cut of the ‘war spoils' while the getting was good. In reality, the decision to invade the Korean peninsula had more to do with increasing Russia's sphere of influence and continued expansion of Soviet satellite states as a buffer zone for defense of Mother Russia.
The newly created United Nations was attempting to work out a diplomatic solution to the division of Korea while the U.S. and Russia both appointed semi-autonomous governments with North Korea being led by Kim Il Song. Kim, realizing that the U.S. only had a contingent of 500 advisors in the South, eventually convinced both Stalin and Mao to provide military support of his plan to easily overcome the southern forces, and he was correct. Within days of the attack the U.S. forces found themselves trapped at the southernmost port city of Pusan while President Truman had already ordered his air forces to begin the aerial portion of the war.
Historically, the U.S. always goes to war with a doctrine that worked in the last war. In WWII, the strategy was strategic bombardment against the enemy's war-producing industrial base which presented problems for this new war. The North had no industry to speak of so both Russia and China provided all the material needed. Also, attacking their industries was not an option for three reasons. First, Russia had recently detonated their first atomic bomb in August, 1949, meaning the U.S. no longer had a nuclear monopoly. Second, Truman didn't want to get China directly involved with its numerically- superior army. Lastly, it was greatly feared that any direct confrontation with either nation would start another world war. Therefore the decision from the start was that the war in Korea would be a limited war, a strategy of warfare fought in a way the U.S. had never done.
The ground war was basically stalemated along the 38th parallel for the final two years of the three-year war and, because strategicbombardment was not a viable option, the Air Force's primary role was one of close air support and maintaining air superiority to protect the friendly ground forces from enemy air attack. This level of protection was made possible by suppressing enemy air operations within an area known as "MiG Alley."
MiG Alley was located along the Yalu River which separates North Korea from China and is where the majority of air-to-air fighting took place, most notably between the Russian MiG-15 "Fagot" and the U.S.'s F-86 "Sabre." Because the MiGs were illegally flown by Russian pilots out of bases in China, these pilots were under strict orders not to get too close to the 38th parallel nor to venture west over the Yellow Sea or east over the Sea of Japan.
Although everyone knew of Russian pilots flying out of China, Stalin didn't want to risk the possibility of one of them getting shot down in the forbidden areas and being captured by UN forces.
Meanwhile, the Chinese airspace was off limits to U.S. pilots. However, there were a number of occasions when U.S. pilots chased a MiG into China and/or strafed MiGs parked along their airstrips. This was in violation of the rules of engagement, let alone national sovereignty, but no formal complaints were made by either China or Russia, because their operating out of Chinese bases was also a violation.
Ultimately, the U.S. Air Forces proved their ability to establish and maintain air superiority with great success. So much so that not a single U.S. ground troop was killed as a result of enemy air attack - a fact that is upheld to this day. Because strategic bombardment was not used, one might think that overall casualties would be limited, and one would be wrong.
The ground fighting in The Forgotten War was fierce. The U.S. fired more artillery shells than all of WWII, European and Pacific Theaters combined. The first hot spot of the Cold War resulted in Communist forces losing up to one million soldiers while the U.S. suffered 36,934 dead, 103,284 wounded and 15,317 POW/MIAs of which the POWs suffered a 37.8 percent death-in-captivity rate.
Today, the two Koreas are still at war but under the longest ceasefire in history. Having learned from a past mistake, the U.S. maintains a large military presence in the South as a deterrent. Although not categorized as being in imminent danger, this contingent stands at the ready facing the North which currently has the third largest standing regular army in the world, boosts a claim of possessing nuclear weapons and has demonstrated their use of intermediate-range missiles with which to deploy the devices.
NOTE: At the time this article was written, the People Democratic Republic of Korea (a.k.a. North Korea) was readying for the first test firing of their long-range ballistic missile to the contestation of many countries.