The US Air Force in Korea, 1950-53
Thomas McKelvey Cleaver
Osprey, Oxford, UK, 2019, 336 pages
Book Review published on: June 12, 2020
One of the myths of the Korean War was the absolute air supremacy that the U.S. Air Force held over the contested skies of Korea. A sense of infallibility has long pervaded historical narratives of the air war, especially in the West, and still does today: that we bombed at will and our fighters shot down the enemy in droves. A case in point is the National Museum of the Air Force’s claim that “F-86 [Sabre] pilots had shot down 792 MiGs, with a kill ratio of about 8:1.” However, longtime combat aviation author Thomas McKelvey Cleaver takes a different point of view in his latest book MiG Alley: The US Air Force in Korea, 1950-53. He writes that the kill ratios were never that high, and in the initial years of the war, they were closer to 1:1. He backs this up with exhaustive research on both sides of the dogfight, diving into official records made available in the early 1990s by the former Soviet Union and Communist China, which opened up official war records that set up an insightful comparison with U.S. records. Cleaver refutes the claim that the United States owned the skies. Instead, he asserts that during critical periods of time, especially during the first year of the war, air parity existed.
When the communists flooded across the 38th Parallel on 26 June 1950, they brought virtually no air support, and what they did bring was no match for United Nations (UN) forces. For the next four months, fighting over the skies of Korea seemed more like shooting fish in a barrel to UN pilots. However, all of that changed in October of 1950 with the Chinese intervention. On 1 November 1950, another important date, Soviet MiG-15s made their first appearance, clashed with UN air forces, and shot down two UN aircraft including an F-80 Shooting Star jet, which marked the first jet-to-jet victory.
For a short period, the revolutionary swept-wing MiG 15 jet fighter dominated the skies; that was until the U.S. Air Force could complete the perilous sea shipment of F-86 Sabres and get them into the fight. From this point, the story really gets interesting as Cleaver retells the air battle through the men who flew the jets, particularly the F-86 Sabre and MiG 15, over the nondescript patch of North Korean rice fields and farmlands that made up the confluences of the Yalu and Yellow Rivers known as MiG Alley. Not only do you get to know about the U.S. pilots and their exploits, but you also learn about the Soviet pilots (many who earned Hero of the Soviet Union titles in the Great Patriotic War and ace honors). Cleaver’s years of writing aviation history, excellent research, and data-analysis abilities shine through as he puts the readers in the cockpit to fly with aces like Capt. James Jabara, the first jet ace in history, or gives them the feel of an F-86 Super Sabre chasing the tail of a MiG 15 or worse, getting tailed by the enemy, as he tells of one dogfight after another.
Cleaver takes it upon himself to conduct an after action review of each questionable aerial victory by digging through U.S. records and crosschecking them against Soviet Air Forces and Chinese air division records. This technique of comparing primary-source mission reports from both sides confirms what I find when studying World War II aviation history: shoot-down claims far exceed actual shoot downs. Thus, Cleaver’s assertion stands up that the U.S. Air Force’s kill ratios were much lower than commonly believed in the Korean War. He also lays bare the forbidden but widely practiced pursuit of enemy aircraft into the Chinese Manchuria region (often with a wink and a nod by the top brass). Cleaver breaks down the risks of crossing the border from facing a court-martial to miring up the Panmunjom peace negotiations or worse, getting shot down north of the border with no chance of rescue and being stripped of Geneva Convention protections afforded to prisoners of war. Still, U.S. pilots driven by “MiG madness” kept crossing the border to hunt MiGs, often over their own airfields.
MiG Alley delivers much more than a recount of fighter jets crisscrossing the skies over the Yalu River. The author describes the war’s bombing campaigns conducted mostly by the B-29 Superfortress. He lays out why daylight bombing was not a good idea and why the UN resorted to night bombing for almost the entire war. Additionally, Cleaver recounts every Korean War aces’ story and how they fought their way to ace status. He gives a great lesson of the history of jet development beginning in World War II, especially U.S. jet development. All the while, he ties in the Korean air war with the bigger picture, from the withdrawal into the Pusan Perimeter to Gen. of the Army Douglas MacArthur’s brilliant strategic move to relieve the Pusan Perimeter with the Inchon landings, the subsequent breakout and attack into North Korea that led to the Chinese intervention and, finally, the stalemate.
The Korean War marked the end of an era in air combat—the classic struggle between the F-86 Sabre and MiG 15 marked the end of aerial combat known as the dogfight. These jet fighters, like their World War II ancestors, waged up-close and personal combat through the nose of an aircraft and were the last jets to use machine guns for air-to-air combat. If the Korean War, aviation history, or early development of jet aircraft interest you, then read this book. If you like good war stories, this book is for you. MiG Alley delivers a classic tribute to the Forgotten War, to the pilots who bravely took the skies, and to those who hazarded their support.
Book Review written by: Ronald T. Staver, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas