On the blog today, author Peter E. Davies introduces us to his new book F9F Panther vs Communist AAA



Writing a book for the Duel series is always a challenge in trying to include the widest possible variety of information into its pages. When the subject is relatively unexplored, with many new areas to include on the history and “nuts and bolts” aspects, that process becomes even more interesting. The “forgotten war” in Korea in the early 1950s took the US Navy’s first generation of operational jets into action from aircraft carriers that were not yet adapted to handle them properly. The new jet’s performance took a while to be assimilated on its first combat cruise aboard USS Valley Forge as VADM Don Engen explained, “The ship’s captain didn’t understand why these jets had to land so fast. The [carrier’s] combat information centre [CIC] just couldn’t cope with the speed. Their minds were boggled at the speed at which this blip would move across the horizon. Jets were still kind of an oddity.” There were also reservations about its high stalling speed.

To simplify fuel storage on the carrier, Panthers were adapted to use the same aviation gasoline as the piston-engine planes rather than kerosene. The less economical jets needed far more of it though, as Don explained: “We would have to burn 115 and 145 aviation gasoline aboard ship because that’s all they had. Then we’d suck it all up and they would be out of gas. So the ‘props’ were always mad at us because we’d take all the gas and we were forever having to refuel.” This author was fortunate in being given access to VADM Engen’s log books and reminiscences, with their valuable insights into flying early Panther combat missions.

Flying alongside predominantly piston engine aircraft like the F4U Corsair and AD Skyraider, the first Grumman F9F Panther squadrons, VF-51 and VF-53, had to establish the rules for seaborne jet fighter-bomber operations. They flew from USS Valley Forge, the only carrier that was available for Task Force 77 in the area when the Korean War began in June 1950. The carrier’s cruise had only begun two months previously, but the Panthers flew the Navy’s first jet combat missions on July 3 1950. They would soon become the only practical means of providing air support when the USAF’s Korean bases were quickly overrun by a massive Chinese invasion. Operating at low altitude in support of Allied troops who were driven back into the small Pusan area of South Korea, they came under fire from rapidly increasing anti-aircraft defenses.

In mid-1951 the Chinese were asked to supply 12 AAA regiments to defend the vital bridges along the Yalu River and by 1952 there were over 80 AAA regiments in North Korea. The two available F9F squadrons were initially required as air defense fighters to support Allied bombing attacks on North Korean targets and they proved successful in this role, shooting down Communist Yak-9 fighters in duels that resulted in the first air-to-air victories by US jet fighters. In November the first MiG kill by a jet vs a jet took place when Lt Cdr Tom Amen in a VF-111 F9F shot down Capt Grachyov’s MiG-15, the first of seven to be claimed by Panther pilots in exchange for two losses to MiGs. However, the MiG’s overall performance was soon seen to be better than the Panther’s in aerial combat and MiGs became a serious threat to the USAF’s B-29 Superfortress bombing campaign. F-86A Sabres were sent to Korea at the end of 1950 to take over most of the bomber escort duties.

From then until the end of the war the Navy’s increasing numbers of F9F squadrons continued to fly some escort missions but, joined by the first two US Marines Panther squadrons, they accompanied other naval aircraft in conducting a relentless close support and strike effort against massive communist forces. The F9F-2/3 Panther initially relied on its four cannon as a strafer but from April 2 1951 the F9F-2B version entered combat. It was equipped with pylons for bombs and rockets. Although its engine, like the MiG-15’s, was based on the early British Nene turbojet, the Panther could still offer a credible performance as an ordnance platform, mainly in terms of speed compared with piston-engine types although not in combat endurance.

From December 1950 the enemy’s defenses around the Yalu River were boosted by the arrival of Soviet AAA units. North Korea’s own anti-aircraft equipment comprized a wide range of obsolete, ex-Soviet, and captured Western designs dating from WWII or before, although many similar weapons remained in use world-wide 30 years later. MiG-15 fighters were introduced from November 1950 to defend the western industrial area, bridges, and capital city, but guns were a more cost-effective way of providing the North’s air defense across the entire country. The mobile weapons most commonly faced by Panthers on their medium and low altitude missions were the M-1938 DShK 12.7mm heavy machine gun and the M-1939 37mm automatic weapon, both originating from pre-war designs but still extremely effective. Cities and strategic targets such as hydro-electric plants in North Korea were also defended by heavier S-60 57mm guns, firing four-round ammunition clips, KS-12 85mm heavy guns, or even the formidable 100mm KS-19 gun, capable of reaching the Allied aircrafts’ highest altitudes. The introduction of radar guidance with the SON-2 and later units made the heavier guns far more credible opposition to Allied aircraft.

The presence and mobility of such a wide range of defenses made the Panther units’ missions increasingly hazardous. RADM Turner Joy remarked that, “The hazards of employing aircraft in precision attacks on small targets protected by intense, well-directed anti-aircraft fire which cannot be attacked, as well as by enemy planes flying in the haven of neutral territory, are tremendous.” The most dangerous missions became those for flak suppression in which Navy and Marines F9F pilots directly attacked the guns after baiting them into firing and revealing their positions. These sorties were forerunners of the Navy’s “Iron Hand” missions in the 1960s. The Panther’s 20mm guns remained highly effective flak suppression weapons and on the squadrons’ interdiction and armed reconnaissance missions against enemy transport a burst of 20mm could explode a locomotive on North Korea’s essential rail network. A December 1951 attack on a 600-ft rail bridge near Kilchu by VF-51 Panthers with F2H Banshees became the basis of the Hollywood film The Bridges at Toko-Ri. Anti-aircraft fire took a heavy toll of Panthers. Forty-four were lost to flak in the year from July 1952, but their mission rate was intensive. 

As the war progressed the redesigned F9F-4 and F9F-5 models entered the fray. Larger and equipped with the more powerful Rolls-Royce Tay-based J48 engine they were significantly faster and carried greater payloads. Their missions expanded into “Cherokee” strikes which included eight F4U-4s, eight AD-4s, and up to 12 Panthers on “general support” (rather than interdiction) missions, planned to cause maximum damage within a short time and minimize losses. By mid-October over half of Task Force 77’s strikes were Cherokees. From March 1953 until the end of the war the F9Fs’ flak suppression efforts were often combined with Army long-range artillery fire. Air Group 12 pilots noticed a steady increase in flak as mobile units were spread more widely around routes and targets, reporting that “it has become more difficult to suppress effectively.”

Fighter-bombers were also forced to attack from altitudes that degraded accurate weapons delivery. Heavily defended sites forced mission planners to decide whether re-attacking targets which had been destroyed and rebuilt several times was feasible, given the likely aircraft losses. Many resulted from North Korean barrage firing or releasing concentrations of gunfire (“a sheet of bullets” as a Sea Fury pilot, Lt. Harry Hands put it) into the paths of attacking aircraft. USN losses to AAA remained high between July 1951 and the end of hostilities. Out of 384 in total 57 were F9Fs, but F4Us still took the hardest hits with 193 aircraft downed.

Supply routes generally were defended mainly by 37mm automatic weapons, a major threat to F9F interdiction flights. Around two-thirds of the North’s automatic weapons were used against interdiction flights. Larger numbers of small arms and machine guns engaging most targets at low altitudes gave them more operational purpose than the heavy guns. Of 73 cases of loss or damage to Air Group 5 aircraft in 1951 only nine were attributable to heavier guns. A USAF report in August 1952 estimated that 79 percent of losses was due to automatic weapons. Small arms were responsible for 7 percent and heavy guns for 14 percent. Lighter weapons were also responsible for 97 percent of the damage to aircraft that returned to base with hits. F9Fs used speed to evade flak, but piston-engine types were better for tackling AAA positions in valleys and mountainous terrain. Jets survived AAA damage better than the F4U, which also flew many flak-suppression sorties, but its oil cooler was vulnerable because its by-pass mechanism had been removed to save cost.

As an author this has been a fascinating and previously somewhat neglected subject to tackle. Exploring the earliest stages of jet combat has revealed tales of extraordinary courage as Naval Aviators sought ways of using their new jets to the best advantage in the face of daunting ground defenses.

Keen to get your hands on a copy of the new title? Order here