Skip to main content

“Attack The Sabres”

October 2019

In an unpublicized and little known campaign, American and Russian pilots fought directly against each other south of the Yalu River.

In reading “America and Russia, Americans and Russians,” by John Lukacs in the February/March 1992 issue, I noted his statement that the two countries had never fought a war. It’s true enough, but I happened to be a bystander when America and Russia went toe to toe in a series of air battles during the Korean War.

In this unpublicized campaign both the Soviet and United States air forces threw in their best, and the U.S. Air Force won hands down. Even the official The United States Air Force in Korea: 1950–1953 by Robert F. Furtrell is scanty on the subject, referring to unconfirmed reports of Russian pilots flying from time to time. But I know that this was a full-fledged Russian-American battle, directed by Russians, flown by Russians in Russian aircraft. I heard it all.

I got into the eavesdropping business by default. Graduating from college in June 1950 made me a prime candidate for the armed forces when the Korean War started that month. I enlisted in the Air Force with some idea of going to officer’s training later. An overworked placement sergeant had other ideas. Faced with a nearsighted, colorblind history major without even a driver’s license, he promptly assigned me to a year’s training at the Army Language School in Monterey, California. There I joined other Army and Air Force misfits to learn Russian at a school that until five years before had been concentrating on teaching German and Japanese. Although some old-timers tried to convince us that after graduating we were going to be issued black parachutes and dropped in the middle of the Soviet Union to make our way out as best we could as a sort of test, it soon became clear that we were going to spend the next few years listening to Soviet military broadcasts to determine what they were doing on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

It fell my lot to be assigned to South Korea, where the one hot war of the Cold War between the superpowers was taking place. Based at Younsi University in Seoul, a small contingent of USAF Russian-language specialists monitored the Soviet air force frequencies. The Soviets were flying out of the Antung complex of airfields north of the Yalu River in Red Manchuria, an area off limits to our bombing strikes. Soviet fighters, as well as Chinese and North Korean ones, would at times dash across the Yalu to attack our planes, which were bombing Communist installations in North Korea. We tried to have fighter planes just south of the Yalu to pick up the flights crossing the river. Our job was to listen to the Russian network and keep our own aircraft controllers informed of the enemy’s intentions.

Most of the time the work was boring, but a high point came at the end of each month when all the Soviet call signs, which identified different ground controllers, were changed to confuse any enemy monitors (us). Because we had been listening to the same voices day after day, we were as familiar with them as we were with Jack Benny or Bob Hope, so that when the Soviet call signs were changed, we knew instantly who was who. Our American radio networks made the same callsign changes monthly, with, I’m sure, the same results as far as our counterparts from the Soviet language school were concerned.

The excitement came when we heard the Soviet ground controllers ordering fighter units to cross over the YaIu and attack American aircraft. The Soviets kept tight control over their flights with explicit instructions. They used certain ground reference points, with nicknames, such as the boot, which they rarely changed so as not to confuse their pilots and which we had figured out, so that we had a pretty good idea of where they were going. (Our radar was nowhere near as sophisticated in the 1950s as it is today.) We would call up our ground controllers to tell them what was up, and our fighters would be vectored onto the enemy aircraft.

While the MiG-15, the principal Soviet fighter, was smaller and more maneuverable than our Sabrejet fighter, the F-86, our craft was sturdier and more heavily armed and was flown by better trained and more experienced pilots—as was clearly demonstrated by the 10-1 loss of MiGs to Sabres by the end of the war (792-78).

At least one Russian flight leader had a good knowledge of the odds and a strong sense of survival. I heard a Soviet ground controller order aircraft circling above the Manchurian sanctuary to cross the YaIu and “attack the Sabres!” He repeated the order twice, and after the second repetition I distinctly heard the Russian flight leader tell him to perform an unmentionable act with his mother. The pilot was obviously not going to stick his nose into a Sabre buzzsaw. I often wonder what happened to that man who showed such solid common sense in the nonsense that is often war.