70 Years Ago: F-86s and MiGs over Korea

Posted on Thu, December 17, 2020
favorite

On December 17, 1950, the first known aerial combat between swept-wing jet fighters took place in the skies over Korea. The Russian-built Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 had been introduced to the Korean conflict in November, its speed and maneuverability causing trouble for the United States’ fleet of B-29 bombers and escorts. The North American F-86 Sabre was rushed to Korea, setting the stage for a clash in the air. Ward Hitt Jr., a member of the 4th Fighter Interceptor Group based at Kimpo Air Base near Seoul, chronicled the early days of the F-86 in combat in a detailed scrapbook, part of the National Air and Space Museum Archives’ digital collections.

Black Scrapbook Page with white ink drawing of Korean Peninsula and Japan

Inside front cover of Lt. Ward Hitt, Jr.'s Korean War scrapbook with hand-drawn maps of Korea and Japan. NASM-9A09976-02

A native of Kansas City, Kansas, Hitt entered Air Force cadet training in 1948 and graduated from Williams Field in February 1949. He received his promotion to first lieutenant after he completed his radar training later in October 1949. In November 1950, he was sent to Johnson AFB in Japan. He joined the 4th Fighter Interceptor Group at Kimpo on December 8, 1950, reflecting in a letter home: “Our planes won’t be here for a week and I’m afraid Seoul won’t last that long.”

As they waited for their aircraft, Hitt was excited by General Douglas MacArthur’s December 11 visit to Kimpo, very aware of the situation. “General MacArthur came in here yesterday, walked right past me not more than 15 feet away. I took a picture of him, hope it comes out ok. The Reds are twenty miles away and things are really tight here.”

Black scrapbook page. Centered photo in photo corners: 3 men in uniform (Gen. Douglas MacArthur 3rd on the left) walk in front of a building. Background left: group in uniform following. Background right: Man in leather jacket and cap.

General Douglas MacArthur, third from left, arriving at Kimpo AFB, Korea, December, 1950. General Edwin Walker is also in the photograph; possibly the figure second to the right. Page from Ward Hitt, Jr., Scrapbook. NASM-9A09976-14

The F-86As arrived at Kimpo on December 15. Hitt wrote, “The situation here remains the same, tight and jumpy. Our planes arrived today so I guess I’ll be in business tomorrow. Don’t worry about me, we are flying top cover here and no one is getting shot down in jets here anyway. The Reds are 12 miles away.”

Hitt was scheduled to be part of the F-86's first mission over North Korea. He wrote home on December 17 as if he was, “We started flying today. I was on the first mission. We didn’t see anything on our flight but the one this afternoon did.” But a photo caption released by the Far East Air Forces told a different story:

A little bit of Lt. Ward Hitt's combat heart broke off recently at an air base in Korea. He drew an assignment of making the first U.S. Air Forces F-86 Sabre jet mission over frozen North Korea.

The airplane he was to fly developed trouble just prior to takeoff. Hitt, of 2834 Parkwood Boulevard, Kansas City, Kan., ran to another plane to take off. He got off the ground late, however, and was ordered to return to base by the flight leader.

"There will be other chances, " Hitt said later, "but never the first chance again."

Man in a helmet sits in an aircraft cockpit giving the okay sign with his right hand to a man in a cap and flight suit on his left

Lt. Ward Hitt, Jr., sitting in the cockpit of his North American F-86A Sabre fighter, gives his crew chief the OK hand sign, South Korea. An attached caption tells how Hitt narrowly missed taking part in the first F-86 mission over North Korea. NASM-9A09971

Hitt’s letter home continues with the biggest news of December 17: “Colonel Hinton shot down a swept wing MIG! Can’t tell you much about it but it will probably be in the news.”

Black scrapbook page with photo of the right side of model airplane with star on tail and fuselage centered. Handwritten white text below reads: "MIG!"

View of a model of a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 Fagot, probably made by a member of Ward Hitt's 336th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron. Korea, 1951. Written on album page - "MIG!!" NASM-9A09976-37

Hitt’s scrapbook contains several newspaper clippings in which Col. Bruce Hinton, commander of the 336th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, described his group’s success in the air about 10 miles southeast of Sinuiju. They tricked the MiGs into combat by flying at a “very low speed in an area where the MIGS usually play possum while waiting for slower American planes.” After waiting in the area for a few minutes, “They were below us and we headed into the attack.” He continued, “I closed in gradually and when I figured I was within range I let go a short burst. I could see the bullets flying. I continued to maneuver and fired a long burst and he started to smoke and burn very badly…. I closed in to within 600 to 800 feet and first another burst and then I pulled off. As I looked back I could see him spinning down, trailing smoke and fire.”

Black scrapbook page, four mounted photographs. Upper left: view of fields, a range of hills, a canal and a bridge. Upper right: villagers among thatched huts. Lower left: Left side view of Sabre in flight. Lower right: right side of aircraft more in back

Upper left: “View North [of Kimpo] from Field.” Upper right: “Korean Village near Kimpo.” Lower left: [North American F-86A Sabre (registration 49-1297)] “Mission over North Korea” Lower right: "Flight line" beyond the nose of F-86A at Kimpo Field. Page from Ward Hitt Scrapbook. NASM-9A09976-17

Hitt would get his own chances in aerial combat later. The citation for the Air Medal he received in April 1951 read: “He performed an act of meritorious achievement as a member of a flight of four F-86 type aircraft on a combat aerial patrol south of the Sinuiju-Yalu river area, north Korea. In the face of superior numbers of high performance enemy jet aircraft, Lieutenant Hitt’s flight made repeated attacks upon the enemy.”

(Left) Man in military uniform and hat pins an award on man in cap on right. Air field with aircraft in background.

Lt. Ward Hitt, Jr. is awarded a ribbon (most likely the Air Award) by a Colonel Smith. NASM-9A09976-31B

Hitt was then ordered to Forward Aircraft Controller Duty in January, for which he was awarded the Oak Leaf Cluster to the Air Medal in April as well. He was assigned to the 5th Republic of Korea (ROK) Corps, 36 Regiment February 3 through 26, 1951 in central Korea. Hitt returned to Japan in June 1951 to attend the Combat Orientation School at Johnson AFB until September 1951.

One-half left front view of North American F-86A (P-86A) Sabre jet on display on the NASM Udvar-Hazy Center, Chantilly, VA; 2004. SI-2004-25989

By the end of the Korean War, the US awarded almost 800 aerial victory credits to Sabre pilots, while losing less than eighty F-86s, although Soviet and Chinese records challenge these numbers. The North American F-86A Sabre on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is one of the aircraft that was assigned to the 4th Fighter Interceptor Group at Kimpo in December 1950 (along with Ward Hitt). The history of the Museum’s Chinese Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 is unknown.

Related Topics