On the day his war finally ended, Tech. Sgt. John Quinn was in no mood to party.
An ordnance specialist, Quinn had for two years supervised a team of airmen at Pusan East Air Base as they armed and loaded bombs aboard B-26s.
For the past few weeks they'd kept up a frenetic pace as United Nations forces jockeyed with their Chinese and North Korean opponents to gain the best position before the truce everyone knew was coming. Timed fuses, proximity fuses, napalm, phosphorus — who knew what would give our side a few extra miles of real estate when the curtain came down?
“We had to work as hard and as long as we could,” said Quinn, now 81 and living in Omaha. “I was sick, with dysentery or something. I was just burned out — I couldn't do any more. When they announced the war was over, I thought 'Just in time. I can't make it any longer.' ”
He might have been speaking for a whole country, sickened by the bloody stalemate that ended 60 years ago this week — on July 27, 1953 — after the exhausted foes negotiated an armistice. The truce brought silence to front lines along the 38th Parallel dividing communist North Korea from Western-allied South Korea.
Peace, though, remained elusive. Quinn expected to go home but would find himself lingering in Korea longer than expected. So would the U.S. military, which has stayed on ever since in a permanent state of alert in the face of repeated provocations from a Kim family dynasty of dictators now in its third generation.
The Korean War left only the faintest imprint in the memories of most Americans who didn't serve there, and might have left none at all if not for the popular 1970s TV series “M*A*S*H.”
Yet historians say the war transformed the U.S. armed forces from a post-World War II skeleton into a military machine on a permanent state of Cold War alert. It ushered in a bigger jet-age Air Force, a branch formed only three years before the war.
Locally, the war gave form to the Omaha metro area's dominant military presence today. It would compel the Pentagon to bulk up the Bellevue-based Strategic Air Command — the forerunner of today's U.S. Strategic Command — to counter the Soviet nuclear threat that the Korean War brought into sharper focus.
“The (Korean) war itself put the United States on a Cold War footing,” said Daniel Harrington, StratCom's deputy command historian. “It probably makes SAC and strategic deterrence a lot more permanent.”
When Kim Il Sung sent his forces across the slender Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas on June 25, 1950, the United States and its allies could hardly have been less prepared. He and the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, believed South Korea was too weak to resist and that the United States — which had not intervened a year earlier when China's government fell to a Communist insurgency — would not consider South Korea important enough to fight for.
They were right about South Korea but wrong about President Harry Truman, who reflected on the unchecked aggression of Japan and Germany in the 1930s and thought it best to intervene. Taking advantage of a Soviet boycott, he persuaded the U.N. Security Council to raise a force, which would be commanded by U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
“I felt certain that if South Korea was allowed to fall,” Truman wrote years later in his autobiography, “Communist leaders would be emboldened to override nations closer to our own shores.”
Kim invaded South Korea on the same day that 2nd Lt. Dick Newton of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., married Ruth Halladay. He had been commissioned as an Air Force officer upon his graduation from the U.S. Military Academy 18 days earlier.
“It was just a whole new reality,” recalled Newton, now 85 and living in St. Petersburg, Fla. “It certainly gave us something to talk about on our honeymoon.”
The Korean War would decimate Newton's class. By September, seven of his West Point classmates would die in action. Before the armistice was signed, the toll would reach 41.
Ultimately the Korean War would claim more than 36,000 American lives.
As a young Air Force officer, Newton spent the next 18 months in flight training. Later, a combat assignment flying reconnaissance missions from Yokota Air Base, Japan, would land him in the war zone for the closing months of the conflict.
But Korea certainly commanded his attention.
“We would all go to the casualty list in the Army-Navy Journal to look for our classmates,” said Newton, who in the 1970s commanded the 3902nd Air Base Wing at Offutt Air Force Base. “Losing seven guys in September (1950) — that was definitely a reality check.”
When the North Koreans invaded, the upstart Air Force was competing with the Army and Navy for a share of the $14.3 billion defense budget — about $139 billion in today's dollars.
“The services were fighting over the slice of the tiny, tiny pie they were going to get,” historian Harrington said.
Because of the tight budget, the Air Force had largely scaled back its mission to one: deterring the growing Soviet nuclear threat.
Spearheading that effort was Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, the architect of the brutal firebombing campaign in Japan toward the end of World War II.
LeMay headed the Bellevue-based SAC, which would oversee the bombing campaign against North Korea. He reshaped the command during his nine-year tenure from 1948 through 1957, and is considered a towering figure in the creation of the modern Air Force.
LeMay responded quickly. The first B-29 bombers struck on June 28, eight hours after the United Nations authorized the use of force to repel the invasion. By Aug. 1, four bomb groups had moved from the United States to Japan for the war against North Korea.
They achieved early dominance in the skies over Korea, even as U.N. forces were being routed on the ground.
“If air power hadn't been there, a lot more Americans would have died,” Harrington said.
Still, LeMay was reluctant to commit his best forces in Korea. He thought the real threat was a war with the Soviet Union in Europe. He kept his top-flight forces in reserve to fight that war if it came about.
“He was balancing the demands of this (Korean) war versus a potential war,” Harrington said. “He kind of took these units off the bottom of the deck.”
Nor did LeMay want to use his most advanced electronic countermeasures in a conflict with relatively low stakes, even if it added to the risk facing combat crews.
“If you do, you're giving away the gold mine information the Russians would love to have,” Harrington said.
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As a result, the air campaign resembled those in World War II. The B-29s would primarily attack railroads, industrial areas, supply depots, airfields and other logistical targets.
But the classic bombing campaign was dangerous work in an age of technological change. The North Koreans and Chinese countered the lumbering, propeller-driven B-29s by launching jet-powered MiG-15 fighters against them starting in November 1950. The Soviet-built — and, frequently, Russian-piloted — MiGs outclassed the straight-winged F-80 and F-84 fighters escorting the B-29s, and briefly bent the air war in their direction.
The threat from MiGs, and from North Korean air defense systems, grew as ground action shifted from South Korea to North Korea in late 1950. China's intervention pushed U.N. forces back to roughly the 38th Parallel for the rest of the war.
It took the introduction of the F-86 Sabre jet to bring parity to the fighter war. U.S. Sabres and Soviet MiGs fought epic dogfights over a region along the Chinese-North Korean border that came to be called “MiG Alley.”
The Sabre pilots' job was to protect fellows like C.E. Jordan, a B-29 radio operator from Virginia who flew missions over Korea for six months near the end of the war.
Jordan enlisted days after graduating from high school in 1951, wowed by a stay at an Air Force base with a cousin in the service. On Christmas Day 1952 he stepped off of a plane in Tokyo and joined the 307th Bomb Group in Okinawa a day later.
Over 27 missions he grew familiar with the tension that punctuated the long flights to Korea.
The Air Force had shifted tactics in 1951 to limit mounting B-29 losses. It stopped flying deep penetration missions after a swarming attack in April by 70 MiGs that resulted in three B-29s shot down and seven damaged. And it ended daytime runs after an October raid in which all eight bombers were damaged or destroyed by a pack of 50 MiGs.
“If you've got a slow aircraft like that, and a jet fighter comes after you, you're definitely the underdog,” said Jordan, now 79 and living in Colonial Heights, Va.
The flights lasted up to 10 hours. Because the B-29s kept radio silence after the first hour, Jordan had little to do. He kept a stack of detective magazines at his post, just behind the forward turret.
“I'd read those to keep from going to sleep,” he said.
The boredom ended abruptly once they neared the target. Darkness was their friend, but all too often, the air was filled with flak.
“You look out, all you can see is orange-colored fireworks,” Jordan recalled. “You know you have to fly through it.”
Yet, those orange fireworks could be good news, relatively speaking.
“When you had flak, you didn't have to worry too much about MiGs,” he said.
After his six-month combat tour — and a month before the armistice — Jordan was transferred to a B-36 unit in California for the final two years of his Air Force career.
“God got me through it,” he said. “But I wouldn't want to go through it again.”
Like Jordan, the newlywed Lt. Newton would enter the war late. In December 1952 he joined the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron at Yokota Air Base, near Tokyo.
Newton flew an RB-29, a B-29 modified to carry cameras instead of bombs. His recon work illustrated a different kind of combat mission, one that would continue until the end of the Cold War, and beyond.
Newton's missions never involved flak, and he rarely saw a MiG.
“We had missions that took us all the way from the Kamchatka Peninsula (in Russia) to the Gulf of Tonkin” off of Vietnam, he said.
They typically skimmed the waves at 100 feet above the ocean to avoid radar detection, followed by a long, steep climb four miles high — on oxygen, because the RB-29 was flown unpressurized for this type of mission. At night they would drop a flash bomb that produced one million candlepower of light.
“At 25,000 feet, from 15 miles offshore in international waters, you could catch some pretty good views,” Newton said.
The signing of the truce hardly surprised him.
“The negotiations had been going on for about two years,” Newton said. “When it was signed, it was almost anticlimactic.”
Peace did earn the 91st Squadron air crews a three-day pass. It was cut short, though, when an RB-50 recon flight was shot down off the Siberian coast on July 29. Newton and his airmen headed out to search for survivors.
Only one member of the 17-man RB-50 crew — Capt. John Roche of Newcastle, Neb., the co-pilot — came back alive.
The incident hammered home what Newton already knew: His war was far from over.
“In the recon squadron we knew we wouldn't have to fly over North Korea, but the rest of the mission would continue,” he said.
Tech. Sgt. John Quinn's war would continue, too. He had been a student at Creighton University before the war and planned to join the Air Force Reserves with some college buddies. When that fell through, he enlisted in the Air Force before the draft board could nab him for the Army.
He had hoped to join a flight crew. But he grew to like his job organizing bomb loads.
“It was like heavy work in a steel plant,” he said. “We were running a business. We had to do it as efficiently as possible.”
Quinn also liked the Korean people. He gathered supplies for local orphanages, with help from the people of Omaha after The World-Herald carried a story about his activities.
Quinn felt sick and mentally exhausted at the end of the war. He asked whether he could leave Korea.
“I said, 'The war is over, so I'll go home now.' ”
No dice. Weeks earlier, Quinn had extended for another year in Korea. He remained until June 1954, when he transferred to Lincoln Air Force Base for his final six months of duty.
The Air Force that Quinn and Jordan left looked quite a bit different from the one they had joined a few years earlier. Defense spending quadrupled by the end of the war, to $57 billion. LeMay boosted SAC's staffing by 100,000, adding new bases in Europe and North Africa in addition to the beefed-up forces in the Far East. The number of planes jumped from 870 to 1,830.
President Dwight Eisenhower decided to rely on the Air Force and the U.S. nuclear arsenal to defend the nation.
“The Korean War ushers in that Cold War mentality,” Harrington said. “(LeMay) is building that combat force that's going to be ready to go to war with the Soviet Union.”
During the war, SAC's bombers flew more than 20,000 sorties and dropped 167,000 tons of bombs on nearly 1,700 wartime targets — although scholars still debate whether the massive effort significantly hurt the Communist war effort.
SAC lost 62 bombers in combat and suffered 183 crewmen killed and 59 taken as prisoners of war.
But it wrought untold havoc on the enemy, and played a key role in preserving a pro-Western South Korea that has become peaceful and prosperous.
“Our planes killed thousands of North Koreans and Chinese, we know that,” Quinn said. “But we also saved thousands of American lives.”
Sabre proved good match for Soviet-made jet
When China first flew the swept-wing MiG-15 jet in combat on Nov. 1, 1950, it revolutionized fighter warfare. It sidelined the World War II-era P-51 Mustangs the U.S. had fielded in the early days of the war and even outclassed the American straight-wing F-80 and F-84 jets.
Air Force leaders rushed squadrons of the speedy new F-86 Sabre into Korea. It proved a good match for the MiG. The MiG could fly higher, climb faster and turn tighter than the F-86, but the Sabre handled, rolled and dived better. It performed much better at lower altitudes.
Their builders had equipped the MiG with bigger guns for use against B-29 bombers. But the Sabres carried more ammunition and could fire faster and more accurately, giving them the edge in fighter versus fighter combat.
Fighting in “MiG Alley” along the China-North Korea border gave the MiGs a powerful home-field advantage. They could lurk, waiting only minutes away from their home bases in Manchuria. The Sabre had to fly to distant airports in South Korea or Japan for refueling.
First flight: Oct. 1, 1947
First delivery: 1949
Span: 37 feet, 1 inch
Length: 37 feet, 6 inches
Height: 14 feet, 8 inches
Max. speed: 685 mph
Cruising speed: 540 mph
Range: 1,200 miles
Service ceiling: 49,000 feet
Power plant: General Electric 5,200-pound thrust J-47-13 turbojet
Combat weight: 13,791 lbs.
Armament: Six .50-caliber machine guns, eight 5-inch HVAR rockets or 2,000 pound max.
Initial year of service: 1949
Span: 35 feet, 5 inches
Length: 35 feet, 7 inches
Height: 12 feet, 1 inch
Max. speed: 668 mph
Cruising speed: 520 mph
Range: 1,156 miles
Service ceiling: 50,853 feet
Power plant: 1 x Klimov VK-1 turbojet engine generating 5,952 lbs. of thrust
Combat weight (MTOW): 13,327 lbs. (6,045 kg)
Armament: 1 Nudelman N-37 37 mm cannon in starboard side weapons tray under fuselage, 2 Nudelman/Rikhter NR-23 23 mm cannon in port side of weapons tray under fuselage
Sources: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force; militaryfactory.com; koreanwaronline.com