Korean War's Ghost Pilots and Mystery Planes
It was the sort of surprise no combat pilot wants to get. As his small, propeller-driven “Mosquito” spotter plane droned along over the Korean battlefield, the U.S. Air Force pilot spotted a far faster enemy jet roaring in for a kill. Only quick action allowed him to escape by executing “several 360-degree turns” to shake off his less agile adversary. But when the report of the encounter made it to Air Force intelligence, what analysts found most remarkable was not their pilot’s skill, but the identification of the attacker – a “hostile F-84,” an American fighter jet.
This was no isolated case of mistaken “friendly fire,” officers feared. In late 1951 and 1952, numerous American pilots reported sighting, and even being attacked by, several types of “hostile” U.S. fighters, sometimes spotted flying in formation with enemy MiG-15s. Previously classified records obtained by Korean Confidential detail these incidents and that Air Force intelligence believed even its new, top-of-the line jet fighter was involved, reporting indications in 1952 that the Soviet “enemy has put an F-86 aircraft into operation in Korea.”
These reports represent more than the potential need to update a chapter of history; evidence of Soviet acquisition of American technology raises again the far more important issue of American pilots captured and never returned by Moscow during the Korean War. Additional documents and interviews obtained by KorCon – from Soviet veterans to CIA documents possibly never shared with previous congressional investigations - provide additional evidence that dozens of U.S. pilots were shipped to the Soviet Union. The records also make clear that Washington essentially abandoned serious efforts to recover the men or their remains in the face of Russian intransigence and deceit in recent years. (This report does not deal with related reports of hundreds of other Americans, including Army soldiers, shipped to Siberia in trains or the Americans known to be in North Korean and Chinese hands but never returned; for more on them see www.kpows.com).
The U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs (USRJC), a Presidential commission supported by the Pentagon, produced important information in the 1990s, but is now essentially defunct due to Russian foot-dragging and an absence of U.S. resolve. The former senior staff member for the American side of the Commission says the Pentagon simply dropped the most recent plan to restart the process, proposed in 2010. "Why does the (2010) work plan that was developed - by the way, at the Russians' suggestion and with their full concurrence - continue to lie fallow even though it offers the only serious, agreed-upon way of moving forward?" asked Norm Kass, former head of the U.S. Joint Commission Support Directorate (JCSD).
“Another 20 years have passed and we are no closer to answers than we were 20 or 60 years ago,” said Lynn O’Shea, Director of Research for the National Alliance of Families, which represents the families of Americans missing from conflicts since WWII. Rick Downes, President of the Coalition of Families of Korean and Cold War POW/MIAs, urged President Obama to step forward and focus the attention of his administration on the fates of the pilots and similar cases, including reaching out to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “We're not after recrimination. We only want answers,” Downes said.
KorCon asked the Pentagon to provide an update on its efforts and issues raised in this report, but no response was received by deadline. We’ve posted declassified documents, video and pictures from this report at www.koreanconfidential.com.
Information on the mysterious “hostile” American fighters and fate of U.S. pilots comes from more than 4,000 pages of previously secret Air Force intelligence records reviewed by KorCon; CIA documents declassified in recent years; and now-public files from Pentagon investigators in the 1990s, including a declassified report provided by POW/MIA researcher John Zimmerlee, an official of POW/MIA family groups whose father is missing in the war.
During the Korean War, the U.S. and Soviet Air Forces were effectively at war over the skies of Korea. Spectacular dogfights raged in the so-called “MIG Alley” near the northwestern border of North Korea with China’s Manchuria region. The Soviets, who pretended to be North Korean or Chinese, flew MiG-15 fighters from sanctuaries in China, protected by a border with North Korea that American pilots were generally forbidden to cross. The Soviets and Americans believed global war with one another was quite possible, so each side scrambled to get its hands on the technology and pilots of the other. Moscow later confirmed, during a 1990s period of cooperation with the U.S., that it dispatched special teams designed to capture an advanced American F-86 and gather all sorts of other American technology.
The Soviets were masters at “reverse-engineering” defense technology, in other words stealing and copying the technology of others. Their TU-4 bombers were based on American B-29 bombers obtained in World War II, and the MiG-15’s engine was from British design. On the Soviet’s Korean War shopping list were U.S. fighters, especially the F-86; RB-45 and other reconnaissance planes; updated versions of the B-29 and helicopters. At least one F-86 (by some reports two) was sent to the Soviet Union, the Russians admitted, and other planes and prizes such as U.S. G-suits and radar gun sights also went.
Could the Soviets actually have put captured American planes, or parts of planes on other platforms, back in the air over Korea? This would have required the Russians to obtain both technology and, for optimal performance, some level of operating expertise for the airplanes. Records reviewed by KorCon indicate the Soviets may have captured more American planes than previously believed and so might have had the capability. But did they?
Declassified Air Force war records, covering late 1951 and 1952, cannot resolve the issue with certainty, but they do list well over a dozen occasions when U.S. jet fighters reported seeing, or even being attacked by, what appeared to be other American aircraft. The sightings began as early as the fall of 1951 with claims of “hostile” F-80 Shooting Stars, America’s first operational jet fighter. “Unfriendly F-80s again appeared in the skies over North Korea … Previous sightings of unidentified F-80 types occurred on 5 September, 1 November, 3 December, and 10 December (1951),” the reports noted.
The sightings continued and grew to include reports of hostile F-84 Thunderjet fighter-bombers and the advanced F-86 Sabre jets, whose swept wings could compete with the performance of the Soviet’s swept-wing MiG-15s.
“The elusive red-nosed F-80 once more made its appearance. On 10 November (51), a flight of Thunderjets reported a red-nosed F-80 made passes at their formation in the vicinity of Kyomipo. This is the third incident reported in which an F-80 had committed a hostile act against friendly aircraft; it is the second time in which this type of nose marking has been seen. (No friendly F-80s were in the area.),” intelligence officers reported. In a January 1952 incident, “(U.S.) F-80 pilots observed three strange F-80s, one of which made four firing passes at the friendlies. One friendly followed one of the strange F-80s through a spilt “S”, firing from 1,500 feet to 600 feet range, but lost contract. One of the strange F-80s had a solid red vertical stabilizer.” Another attack occurred in February, “This is the seventh time hostile F-80s have been observed since 5 September 1951 …” In February “(o)ne (U.S.) F-86 reported sighting an F-86 with a yellow stripe and right wing tank retreating into enemy territory.” The next month there were at least three observations of “hostile” U.S. jets and in April an American RB-26 reported being attacked by two hostile F-80 types.
In February 1952, a senior Air Force intelligence officer concluded: “Two sightings were made during the month which indicate that the enemy has put an F-86 aircraft into operation in Korea." Reports continued to arrive. ”This appearance of hostile USAF type aircraft in increased numbers indicates the enemy’s continued experimentation with methods of improving his ability to launch surprise attacks on friendly aircraft,” a September 1952 report concluded.
To be sure, confusion in combat has been known to cause both accidental attacks on friendlies and misidentification of hostile jets. In November 1952, Air Force intelligence officers gathered a group of F-86 pilots to discuss the issue and most were skeptical of the reports. Their objections: the short duration of “hostile” F-86 sighting; the difficulty of repairing a crashed F-86; the unclear Soviet motive to risk a captured U.S. jet in combat rather than keep it safe for testing in China or the Soviet Union. Perhaps, it was suggested, the sightings were of a new Soviet fighter that resembled an F-86.
Skepticism remains today. “Any ‘reports’ you may have heard or read about 86/84/80 attacks on U.S. aircraft are bogus,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland, who served as an F-86 pilot in Korea during 1952. “There was just one F-86 captured by the Communists after it crash landed in North Korea, and it was never made flyable. Now, there were indeed a few instances of F-86s starting to attack other 86s, thinking they were MiG-15s (they looked a lot alike from a distance), but when the attackers got close enough to recognize the ‘prey’ as fellow 86s, they broke off the attack. As a matter of fact, that happened to me,” said Cleveland.
Norm Kass, the former Pentagon official, also expressed reservations. “Soviet efforts to down an F-86 and bring it to Moscow for technical exploitation were handled through a program conducted with a tight veil of secrecy around it. It is not clear to me why the USSR would have risked exposure of the program and possible disclosure that its pilots were flying in U.S.-designed aircraft in a war that Moscow went out of its way to deny any participation in,” he told KorCon.
But neither Cleveland nor Kass had seen, or previously heard about, the Air Force accounts in this KorCon report. Evidence also suggests that more than one or even two F-86s, along with other aircraft types, were obtained by the Soviets. Some U.S. pilots were not skeptics; they had no doubt they’d spotted American aircraft being operated by the enemy.
“Experienced and reliable pilots of both fighter-interceptor wings have reported sighting F-86 type aircraft flying in formation with MIG-15s …,” noted an Air Force intelligence report. While some reports couched the identifications, for example calling an aircraft an F-86, F-84 or F-80 “type,” in other cases the intelligence reports were categorical. “At 0800 hours, four F-86s patrolling along the Yalu River north of the Suiho Reservoir observed two aircraft which separated over friendlies. One of the aircraft was definitely identified as an F-86 with yellow wing markings while the other appeared to be silver MIG with no markings.” (emphasis ours) The F-86 was last seen headed north toward enemy territory.”
In two attacks involving several aircraft over about five minutes, one U.S. F-86 sustained minor damage. “In both instances the attacking aircraft followed friendlies a sufficient length of time to make identification” that they were hostile American jets, according to the report. In one case, the “hostile” jet looked so convincing that an American pilot started to fly along with it, thinking it was his lost partner. “At 1245 hours, an F-86 flying south of the Suiho Reservoir reported being fired on by two F-86 type aircraft. This incident was observed by friendly’s wingman who had become separated and started to join these aircraft, believing them to be part of his flight,” said the report.
Even if the Soviets could fly a captured American jet, why would they risk it in combat? “(I)t would be in keeping with Soviet tactics to utilize an F-86 possessed by them to cause a psychological reaction of mistrust and uncertainty in the minds of U.S. fighter-interceptor pilots. This was believed to be an important consideration in the event that a hostile or any other F-86 should shoot down a friendly F-86,” noted a November 1952 intelligence report. Weeks after that writing, a Canadian F-86 pilot was shot down by what he claimed, after returning from a long stint as a POW, was another F-86. If an F-86 was the culprit, it is highly possible it was a case of “friendly fire” rather than Soviet subterfuge; the documents claim an investigation was conducted with unknown results.
How many U.S. aircraft did the Russians capture? Official U.S. records (see www.koreanconfidential for a link) show enough F-80s, F-84s and F-86s crashed in enemy territory or simply went missing to provide the parts for “hostile” versions. Russian veterans interviewed by American investigators in the 1990s also indicated Moscow got far more than a single U.S. jet. A former senior Soviet officer reported seeing a jet crash land in February or March 1951 and the Soviets grab it and its pilot.
The recovering of an F-86 in October 1951 has been well documented (see www.koreanconfidential.com for the link). Another veteran said he saw the Soviets capture two F-86s that were forced down in 1952, one early in the year and another in the spring or early summer. Georgiy Matevosovich Dzhargarov, a Soviet assigned to China, told U.S. investigators he stood right next to an F-84 that landed and was captured, along with its pilot, in June 1953. The pilot may have been taken away by North Koreans. KorCon reviewed Pentagon data for F-84s lost in June 1953. Some were seen destroyed, but the F-84G piloted by 1st Lt. Stewart Held on June 10 “faded from ground (radar) scope during night armed reconnaissance mission,” and was not seen again, according to Air Force records.
Russian records allude to much other equipment and wreckage being collected.
Whether the Soviets actually used their captured technology in Korea, or shipped all of it to Russia for engineering as is now accepted, aircraft technology is worth far more when combined with pilots who know the plane inside and out, along with its uses, tactics and limitation. The records reviewed by KorCon make clear the Russians kept some American prisoners and have information on many more. One of the reports – authored by an exceptionally tenacious and meticulous government contractor named Dr. Paul Cole - also paints a picture of Russian duplicity and Pentagon sluggishness in the search for these men.
As Downes, the family group leader, puts it, in recent years the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) has generally given up pushing cases of men known or suspected to have been alive in communist hands (both in Russia and China, where DPMO has a more recent relationship) in exchange for a focus on human remains at known crash sites that both sides can agree upon. “It is officially in the bones business. That is good. Closure is being found for some. The critical eye, however, notes that this has become the sole focus. Efforts to learn the fate of Korean War missing men not already on American soil as remains have gone up in smoke,” he commented.
Making the search for answers more difficult over the years has been the Pentagon’s lack of follow-up analysis and the fact that the “USAF suppressed or destroyed evidence which showed American aircraft in Chinese airspace (during the Korean War),” according to the Cole document. American pilots were ordered not to cross the Yalu River into Chinese airspace except in limited circumstances – a political restriction that provided great advantage to the enemy and frustrated some American pilots. Interviews by Cole and other information show the desire to shoot down MiGs often outweighed orders from the top; pilots made cross-border forays and kept them secret to the occasional extent of destroying gun camera footage and fabricating the location of MIG shoot-downs and U.S. losses. (See KorCon’s YouTube channel for video of a mission and dogfights involving pilots of the 5th Fighter Interceptor Wing and their commander Col. Francis Gabreski, who reportedly took some of his men on secret Chinese missions.)
Such was the fabrication of wartime documents that in some cases the Soviet records appear more accurate than those of the U.S. Air Force, an awful irony given Moscow’s stonewalling in recent years. During one period when Cole was able to root out documents the Russians had withheld, DPMO failed to keep up with his findings and then dropped the project. Records make clear the current Russian government is withholding more than it has provided. A glaring omission is the refusal to provide files from the MGB (the precursor to the KGB), which could reveal the truth about dozens or even hundreds of American POW/MIAs.
Even the information Russia has provided sometimes reveals duplicity. A Russian official provided information on Maj. Charles McDonough in the form of two documents cut apart and pasted into one. Cole was able to find both original documents and discovered the Russians had edited them together to give “the misleading impression that McDonough died while being '’evacuated’ from the crash site when in fact McDonough died nearly two weeks after the crash. In that time McDonough had been interrogated by Russian forces, been transported from China to North Korea, and apparently died while being transported to an unknown destination by the North Koreans with a Soviet political officer escort.” McDonough, according to Soviet records, acted heroically before he allegedly died in communist hands under murky circumstances Moscow has yet to clarify.
The release of incomplete documents can pose even more questions for the Russians. For example, as far as we can tell Moscow has not provided scores of POW interrogation reports that other records indicate should exist. In other words, as with the MGB/KGB records, it appears Russia has classified and is withholding the very files the U.S. most needs to see. But the U.S. government is not entirely cooperative either. John Zimmerlee, the researcher and son of a Korean War POW/MIA, has been battling the U.S. National Archives this year to obtain large numbers of documents, some still classified after more than 50 years.
KorCon has found wartime CIA documents, declassified only in recent years, that apparently never surfaced(at least publicly) during Congressional investigations of the Korean POW issue in the 1990s and may not have been shared with senior U.S. officials of the Joint Commission either. One CIA report covered a communist POW interrogation center that operated at different, specified locations starting in 1951: “Most of the inmates were U.S. airmen … and after interrogation were taken to the USSR.” The reported also noted that “Natives of the area said they had seen a group of about seven persons, reportedly ‘U.S. Army spies,’ including U.S. Nisei (Japanese-American) soldiers,” at the center in 1952. Another document is subtitled “PWs Expected from Korea, including Americans” and reports the Soviets in 1951 were preparing a specified Ukrainian prison, formerly used to house German POWs, to accept American prisoners.
Those CIA documents join others released in the past that detail Soviet abduction of American prisoners, but the most persuasive details come from former Soviet officials themselves. Several retired senior Soviet military and intelligence officers, both on and off the record, have confirmed that dozens of Americans, at least, were shipped to the Soviet Union and never returned. In one case, a former Soviet military official reported details about a U.S. pilot from Korea who was captured with his plane and taken to a specific facility in Russia where, over an identified span of years, he was forced to assume a Russian name and provide certain types of technical assistance; KorCon is not providing additional details, including the potential identify of the American, at the request of a POW/MIA family.
Col. Pavel Grigorevich Derzskii had a “distinguished military career” and was a senior advisor to Moscow’s top official in the Korean theater. He not only told U.S. investigators that American pilots had been sent to the Soviet Union, he said it was a standing order he helped execute. Not only that, Derzskii recounted that he himself captured an American pilot.
While returning from visiting his family in China “he saw a plane make a forced landing in a rice paddy not far from the road on which he was traveling. Initially, he thought it was a Soviet plane, but upon reaching the site, he realized that it was an American aircraft. Derzskii immediately sent his interpreter to call Col. Gen. Shtykov (the senior Soviet official) with the news. Then together with his driver, he helped the American pilot out of his aircraft and administered first aid to him,” a U.S. report recounts. Derzskii said when he visited the hospital some time later, he saw what he believed to be the same American pilot. The jet and pilot were taken to the Soviet Union, Derzskii said.
Mikhail Yakovlevich Fomin said he was commander of the 2nd Squadron, 117th Fighter Aviation Regiment, 50th Fighter Aviation Division when he met an American F-86 pilot in December of 1950 or January of 1951. He told American investigators that Chinese personnel brought the American to a room with a stage at his base in Antung (now Dandong), China, where Soviet pilots and aircraft operated in relative safety behind the Chinese border. The American addressed the Soviet pilots in the unit, using a Russian interpreter, on the training of U.S. pilots and capabilities of their aircraft. Fomin said the American was young and thin. He showed his military identification card and a document indicating Americans were paid money for shooting down Soviet planes. Fomin says he learned the American was a member of the Republican Party. The pilot was taken away by Chinese (KorCon note: The handlers may have been Chinese, but Soviet intelligence sometimes used ethnic Asians to impersonate Chinese and North Koreans).
Soviet fighter pilot and squadron commander Vasily Nikolayevich Shalev said he met an American prisoner brought to his airfield in Mukden (now known as Shenyang and the focus of other sightings of American prisoners, including Army Sgt. Richard Desautels, whom the Chinese have admitted taking from Korea; see www.kpows.com). Shalev said the American was an aviator from a B-29 downed in May 1951. A young man with light-colored hair, the American said his tour of duty was almost over when he was shot down. He shared pictures of his family, a wife and daughter about eight years old. Shalev said the America stayed at his base for several days; Soviet pilots ate with the American and asked him questions about the U.S. Air Force before he was taken away.
Another Soviet pilot, Nikolay Pavlovich Alintsev, reported rumors of an American pilot captured by his unit in the summer of 1951. He heard the pilot was a handsome blond man who turned 30 on the day he was shot down. U.S. investigators associated the case with Capt. William Delbert Crone, who was shot down on June 18, 1951, his 30th birthday. Another Russian, Vladimir Mikhailovich Roschchin, separately said he had been shown the ID card of an American officer named, he explained (apparently in Russian), “Kron.”
These helpful sources can also assist American investigators in determining what happened to pilots who fell into Chinese or North Korean hands. Mikhail Ivanovich Dramenko was commanding a Soviet anti-aircraft artillery unit when he saw an F-86 shot down in spring 1953 close to a nearby hydroelectric station. The pilot ejected successfully. “When the American landed he was captured, blindfolded, and taken away by North Korean soldiers,” Dramenko reported. Pentagon investigators noted: “Two American pilots shot down in the Spring/Early summer of 1953 were last seen alive on the ground and are listed as MIA. These were John E. Southerland, shot down on June 6, 1953, and Joseph P. Ziegler, April 23, 1953.” Searchlight operator Ivan Khoteevich Khomenko said he too saw an American pilot in the hands of North Koreans during the late spring or early summer of 1953. The American was tall, in his mid-20s, had brown hair and was wearing a flight suit. He showed the Soviets a picture of himself with his wife and son before he was taken away. U.S. investigators also associated this sighting with the cases of John Southerland and Joseph Ziegler.
KorCon wonders what the American leaders of 1953 would think about such Russian confessions of what were once top state secrets, or how the U.S. government has handled them. At the end of the Korean War, U.S. officials were frustrated at their inability to recover all American POWs, according to their statements and previously classified documents. Public demands for an accounting by the communists did no good. A year after the war, according to a newly revealed 1954 document, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Nathan Twining requested covert C.I.A. assistance to recover “an unknown but apparently substantial number of U.S. military personnel captured in the course of the Korean War (who) are still being held prisoners by the Communist Forces.” Soon after, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow delivered a note to the Soviet government asking it “to arrange their (U.S. POWs taken from Korea to the Soviet Union) repatriation at the earliest possible time.” The Soviets simply denied they had the prisoners.
By 1955, many in the Pentagon had apparently given up hope of recovering the men from such an implacable enemy, according to a then-classified memo: “The problem becomes almost a philosophical one. If we are ‘at war,’ cold, hot or otherwise, casualties and losses must be expected and perhaps we must learn to live with this sort of thing. If we are in for 50 years of peripheral ‘fire fights’ we may be forced to adopt a rather cynical attitude on this (the POWs) for the political reasons.”
Now that 50-year period is up and the President of the United States has announced a “reset” with a Russian nation freed of Soviet control. In 1996, the U.S. side of the USRJC issued a “comprehensive report” stating - in what appears to be diplomatic understatement based on the contents of the voluminous report - “the probability is high that transfers (of U.S. POWs to the Soviet Union) took place.” Yet since then the most basic questions about America’s lost heroes continue to go unanswered in a bog of Russian obstruction and Pentagon bureaucracy. Almost 20 years after compelling evidence emerged that Russia retained U.S. pilots, successive U.S. administrations have failed to secure the return of the men or their remains. Unlike jet aircraft recognition, it doesn’t take much training to identify a “cynical attitude.”