Sabres Over Korea

The Korean War broke out 25 June 1950, initiated by the incursion of seven North Korean divisions across the 38th parallel, which was the official geographical point dividing the nation into North and South. The appeal by the United Nations for member nations to provide assistance to South Korea was taken up by South Africa, amongst others.

It was decided to provide a fighter squadron with ground personnel. As South African servicemen were only obliged to serve in South Africa, assignment to the Far East was on a purely voluntary basis. When the call came, there was a huge response from serving personnel and part-time citizen forces. No 2 Squadron, known as 'The Flying Cheetahs' were selected for foreign service. Formed during the East African campaign in World War II, they had a proud tradition. On 5 September the first contingent of 49 officers and 157 other ranks reported for embarkation preparation to the war zone. Logistics were eased by the decision to purchase all equipment from the United States which would await the arrival of the Squadron in Korea. On arrival, they were attached to 18th Fighter Bomber Wing of the USAF and remained so through three years of fighting.

By the end of July 1950, the North Korean Air Force had been reduced to 18 fighters and there was little they could do to counter US forces. This encouraged the Chinese to turn their covert support of Korea into direct assistance and persuade the Russians to put their weight behind the northern Communist state. By December 1950, over 150 MiG 15s with full backup crews, had been supplied to strengthen the North Korean defences. These aircraft flew on average 2000 sorties per month and the American forces soon realised that they were flying outdated equipment. Attempts to equalise the situation were heralded by the first operational sortie by a Sabre on 17 December 1950 over the Yalu River. Of the two fighters the MiG was probably the better combat aircraft, possessing a higher climb rate, speed, ceiling and turning radius than the Sabre. The advantages of the American aircraft were that it proved to be a more stable gun platform, had a longer range and was fitted with superior weapon systems. When the F86-E, with its improved handling characteristics was introduced, the Communist forces could no longer risk putting up large formations of MiGs. It was only toward the end of 1952, with over 950 MiGs on strength, that there was a marked improvement in the fighting abilities of the North Korean Air Force. This was brought about by the delivery of the MiG-15bis, fitted with an up rated engine and enhanced electronics.

It was against this scenario that No 2 Squadron was the first SAAF unit to be equipped with a second generation jet fighter. The 22 surviving Mustangs of the 'Flying Cheetahs', performed a final flypast on 29 December 1952, over their forward airfield K-46. They then went on to land at K-10, their main rear base, where the aircraft were prepared for handing back to the United States. Simultaneously the Squadron was relocated to a new air base labelled K-55 at Osan south of Seoul. This was the first time that the Squadron had operated as a complete unit. Previously they had been forced to fly from a forward airfield, with their main support situated at a more secure location further south. On arrival at K-55, SAAF personnel found that they were forced to experience the deprivations they had encountered on their initial deployment in Korea. The base was barely complete. It was unfurnished, unequipped and it was the height of the Korean winter. While members made every effort to scrounge anything that would add some comfort to their quarters, the Squadron was reformed. In line with newly accepted operational practice, the four flight structure was replaced with two flights.

A South African Air Force P-51D of 2 Squadron.

2 Squadron Sabre at K-55 Osan

Although flying in SAAF colours, the P-51D aircraft were never placed on the SAAF inventory and were handed back to the USAF when 2 Squadron were re-equipped with USAF F-86 Sabres.

The first five F-86F-30s (601 to 605) were delivered in late January 1953. These were fitted with the additional underwing hardpoints and a specialised combination bomb,gun and rocket sight. With ease, the pilots could switch from a ground attack role and take up the cudgels as an air to air fighter. The conversion process from a Second World War technology aircraft to a second-generation jet fighter was eased by the fact that all but two of the flight personnel had previously undergone Vampire conversion in South Africa. As the first squadron of the 18th Fighter-Bomber Wing to convert to jets, it was up to the South Africans to develop a training curriculum, including lectures and all documentation. Ground personnel had been trained in Japan during November 1952. Pilot training began on 4 January with ground familiarisation of the new jet, conducted by instructors from the 4 and 51 Fighter Interceptor Wings, while flight training consisted of dual time on T-33 jets.

After some static cockpit time, first flights were undertaken, and by 7 February all 28 pilots had flown solo. Training took place in earnest during February and by 12 March the Squadron was fully operational, taking part in four missions over the Yalu River, in the area commonly known as 'Mig Alley'.

Growth of the Communist air forces meant that urgent attention had to be given to limiting their operational capabilities and it was with this in mind that the fighter-bomber role of the Sabre was emphasised and training commenced in earnest. Firstly, the pilots were trained in fighter-interceptor role which included formation flying and air to air combat. The increased speed of their craft meant that the crew had to acclimatise themselves to the pace of jet-age combat action. There was little room for a second chance and what had come naturally with the older equipment was difficult to achieve in the jet age. During April crews were trained in dive-bombing techniques, for which the Sabre proved to be an ideal platform. Carrying either 2 1000lb (454kg) bombs, napalm or rockets and with drop tanks, they had a very effective range.

It was during one of these training missions that Rodney van Rooyen gained practical experience with an ejection seat. Flying 608, van Rooyen was on an air to air exercise when his radio compass failed. Following his leader down he became lost in the overcast and when his tanks ran dry he was forced to eject. Fortunately, he landed without injury in a rice paddy some way south of the airfield. Van Rooyen, being the first SAAF pilot to exit in this manner, put this incident to good use, lecturing to his colleagues on the subtleties of ejection and demonstrating his technique with the use of the static training equipment.

With the advent of peace negotiations, both sides attempted to break the stalemate and improve their positions with intensified efforts. The intractable attitude of the North Koreans meant that the United Nations forces decided to counter the enemy activity by sustained use of all air resources. 'The Flying Cheetahs' found themselves employed in counteracting MiG incursions, overseeing rescue operations and engaging in the support of ground forces. They spent most of April on regular sorties against troop movements and supply routes. Variety, only from the different ordnance loaded for each mission. An attack on Sinmak airfield heralded the first attack using 1000lb bombs.

Piet Visser, flying 615, 'Kevic', had taken off on 19 April as one of nine SAAF Sabres in a United Nations force of twenty-four. The formation dive-bombed troops south of the Sarwon-Sohung railway and then returned to base. Preparing for finals at K-55, Visser found that he could not lower the undercarriage, had no flaps and the speed brakes would not deploy. In an attempt to save equipment, he throttled back to stall speed, held the nose up to the last minute and brought the disabled aircraft down on its belly. Luckily he survived this risky manoeuvre, but 'Kevic' was destroyed. The source of his problems was traced to burnt-out windings that had caused a complete electrical failure. Two days later Lt Johnny Roberts ran out of fuel. Guided by a USAF F-84 he attempted to glide to air base K-2, realising he lacked sufficient height, he ejected and 613 was destroyed. Roberts was renowned for his effort to improve the standing of 2 Squadron at K-55. The airbase housed a number of units of the 18th Fighter Bomber Wing who competed for awards each month. These were displayed on a totem pole with the winners at the top and invariably 2 Squadron somewhere near the bottom. In a fit of pique and beer Roberts attempted to remove this stain from the Squadron's name, with an axe. Al Rae describes the incident, "The few beers he consumed spoilt his aim. He missed the pole. Before he could take another swipe, Major Pierrie Retief saw what Johnny was trying to do and shouted, 'Roberts, you chop that pole down and you are under arrest!' Needless to say, the totem pole stayed up and Johnny stayed free." Johnny Roberts was killed after the war when flying a Tiger Moth in Zimbabwe (Rhodesia).

Numerous attacks by Boeing B-29 heavy bombers had failed to halt transmissions from Radio P'yongyang, a propaganda station broadcasting to the South. It was decided that more success would be achieved with a surprise attack at low level. A mixed formation of American and eight South African aircraft were tasked with the elimination of the troublesome station. The attack force flew a normal pattern for patrols over the Yalu River. Once above the location of the station they dived. Mike Gedye said of this type of raid, "I have clear memories of dive-bombing attacks; strafing on the way down, watching the altimeter unwinding at an alarming rate, lining the target up in the bombsight for a second or two, releasing the bombs and pullin out low over the mountainous terrain with my G-suit grabbing me tight." The unsuspecting flak defence around the station was caught totally off guard and for a while, Radio P'yongyang ceased broadcasting. "My logbook shows that every mission was an exciting adventure, although my comments at the time pretended that they were mere routine."

Mike probably described the near write off of his Sabre in the same dry tones. To celebrate Queen Elizabeth II's coronation a flypast was to be made by United Nations Force on 2 June 1952. The practice flight on 29 May nearly ended in disaster. On take-off, Mike Gedye lost the hard outer shell of one tyre. Advised of his predicament by the control tower, he calmly elected to continue with the flight. His return proved to be both exciting and a display of superb airmanship. Flying over the threshold he was greeted by a posse of rescue vehicles. Gently easing his plane groundward he landed faultlessly, the canvas and inner tube holding to the end.

F86 Sabre RUTH II in flight via 2Lt Ivan Holshausen

SAAF-F86-Korea_number 604 undergoing maintenance1

Increased Northern activity in June and July was countered by an even greater effort by the United Nations Forces. SAAF Sabre action reached its peak in June with the continued backing given to XI ROK Corps to the south of Kumsong. Successful ground support operations were improved with the abandonment of minimum altitude restrictions, to which the Cheetahs reacted favourably.

John Koekemoer remembered one such sortie. "On 5 June Ivan Holshausen and I had a ball. We were scrambled to attack a train and convoy of trucks north of the front line. Our results were pleasing, but both Sabres were hit by ground small-arms fire. The airspeed indicator of Ivan's machine was put out of action, and he was forced to format on me while flying back to K-55."

In spite of flak damage being sustained by five aircraft, the Squadron persisted in extremely low and direct support of the troops. Although weather hampered flying, wherever possible the Sabres were in action. Very soon it was evident to the North Koreans that their offensive had once again failed and they decided to enter into peace negotiations. Strategically it was of vital importance that the Communist forces were to be prevented from restocking and building up their air power. With this in mind, it was decided to destroy the Communist held airfields. These attacks began on 23 July and continued up to the deadline of the armistice at 22h01 on 27 July 1952.

Left 2Lt Ivan Holshausen SAAF Korea 2 Squadron F-86

It was during this campaign that the South Africans lost the only Sabre to be downed by enemy action. 2nd Lt George Thom had recently returned from an 'R and R' tour in Japan, overweight and keen to complete his 100 missions. An armed reconnaissance flight on 21 July was to be his 72nd and last sortie. Al Rae, the flight commander was forced to ground abort and George took over command of the three-ship flight. The weather was overcast and miserable and it was pure luck that George spotted some vehicles through a break in the clouds. The Sabres dived on the target and within seconds George felt his aircraft sustain two hits. Warning lights flashed indicating fire in the tail-pipe and forward engine compartment, close to the fuel tank situated behind the cockpit. Adopting standard procedure he cut the engine to halt fuel flow. Barry Ross in another of the Sabres came up alongside and shouted for George to eject as his plane was burning fiercely behind the cockpit.

"I disconnected the 'G' suit, radio leads, oxygen tube and got rid of the canopy. I tucked my arms in, pulled the ejection handle on the seat and Whoooosh - I was tumbling through the air still strapped to the seat!" George related in a post-war interview with Dermot Michael Moore.

After freeing himself from the seat and floating down to earth, he made contact with Barry Ross on the emergency radio. "Then the radio went dead. I saw about 15 soldiers approaching - The war was over for me so I hid the revolver, hurled the radio over the edge of the hill, and looked for a hiding place." Finding nowhere to conceal himself, George found himself in enemy hands within five minutes.

The war was dragging to its inevitable end, radar bombing operations were no real challenge and the flying had become rather routine and boring. Because of this, the last day was greeted with a great deal of enthusiasm and effort. On the morning of 27 July 1953, the ground crew proudly reported that 14 of the 16 Sabres were airworthy, armed and ready to do battle for the last time. The Squadron proved its commitment by flying four missions and establishing a new record for Sabres of 41 sorties in one day. "We patrolled the Yalu River hoping that the MiGs would come up and fight, but these hopes were not realised and the last Cheetah flight of the war returned to K-55 without joy", John Koekemoer recalled.

Although a peace agreement had been signed, flight training continued. It was important to maintain a highly visible threat and continue observation of North Korean activities. The last SAAF pilot was lost in Korea when engaged in a maritime exercise with HMS Ocean. After completing a mock attack on the vessel pilot Mike Botha reported that the controls of his aircraft were locked and he could not regain control of his aircraft. He was ordered to fly toward the coast and once over the land he ejected. Instead of landing safely he was blown out to sea and came down a mile from the shore. Immediately helicopters and naval craft rushed to the scene, but in vain. After two days the search was abandoned and Mike Botha was posted as missing presumed dead.

Operational flying ceased on 1 October 1953 with the last Sabres being handed back to the USAF on 11 October. It is reported that these aircraft went on to serve the Philippines Air Force where they were subsequently retired and sold. The 'Flying Cheetahs' had played a small but vital role in the course of the conflict, and they had achieved a high level of regard amongst the American forces. The extent of this is illustrated by the Policy Order issued by the commander of the 18th Fighter Bomber Wing. It was ordered that at all Retreat Ceremonies of the Wing, the first few bars of the South African National Anthem would precede that of the American Anthem.


The development of the F model began on 31 July 1951 by taking the successful F-86E and fitting it with the improved General Electric J47-GE-27 powerplant. Delays and problems experienced with engine production resulted in the first flight of this mark only taking place on 19 March 1952. Within eight days six airframes had been taken on strength by the USAF. Throughout the production run of 2539, continual improvements were incorporated. Additional underwing hardpoints which accepted larger auxiliary fuel tanks (200 US gal/757 litres), increased flying time, armour protection was strengthened and the cockpit layout redesigned. The most significant enhancement was the addition of two additional stores stations inboard of the existing ones. This transformed the F-86 from a day air superiority fighter to that of a 'fighter-bomber'. The South African Air Force (SAAF) used a derivative of this form, the F-86F-30-NA.

Colour scheme

Aircraft were finished in natural metal, but the various alloys and construction techniques resulted in a number of different hues being evident. Often an individual name was applied in large black letters, below the gun ports. Under the cockpit was the Squadron badge. This was a head-on view of a 'flying' cheetah in yellow and black, its blue wings fully extended upwards from the shoulder. Between the cheetah's wingtips was a curved yellow scroll, inscribed with the squadron motto, 'Sursum Prorsuque, Upward and Onward. Immediately below and behind the cockpit appeared the individual aircraft code applied as a very large single black letter. A yellow diagonal fuselage band edged in black was carried between the aircraft code and the national insignia. All aircraft of the USAF 18th Fighter Bomber Wing carried these bands to aid the identification of 'friendly' aircraft and prevent Sabres from being mistaken for MiG 15s'. The aircraft's serial number was carried in black under and ahead of the tailplane.

In order to clearly identify 'their' aircraft, the South African Air Force introduced the new 'Springbok' roundel. This comprised a blue ring and white centre, on which the profile of a leaping springbok was superimposed in orange. The national marking was placed on either side of the fuselage and above and below the wings, with the 'Springbok' facing forwards and inwards. A thin red band circled the fuselage at the point of the roundel, being broken at the top and continuing at the bottom. Fin markings were orange white and blue bands of equal width, with the orange forward. These stretched the full length of the tail fin to immediately below the AHF aerial housing, following the vertical pattern of the stabiliser.


History of United Nations Forces in Korea, Vol1, Ministry of National Defence, Republic of Korea

Keene R, Kinsey HW, Tidy DR, Tyrrell ACM, (Eds), Military History Journal Vol 4 No 3, (South African National Museum of Military History, Johannesburg, 1978)

Mondey, D. Aviation, The complete book of Aircraft and Flight, (Octopus Books, London, 1980)

Moore D. and Bagshawe P. South Africa's Flying Cheetahs in Korea, (Ashanti Publishing, Johannesburg, 1991)

Moore D. The role of the South African Air Force in the Korean War 1950-1953 (Unpublished Doctoral Thesis, University of South Africa, 1982)

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