“On Nov. 1, 1950, United Nations pilots and their planes faced a surprise attack by swept-wing jet aircraft over the Yalu River,” writes Ziaoming Zhang in an important book on the Korean War, Red Wings Over the Yalu: China, the Soviet Union and the Air War in Korea (Texas A&M University Press. $39.95, 320 pages, illus.). “In contrast to official American accounts, Russian pilots, not Chinese, flew them.” Thus opened a new and dangerous phase of the Korean “police action,” the core details of which were concealed from the American public for decades. The U. S. Air Force’s “official history” of the war, published in 1983, suggested that the pilots were Chinese.
The Soviet entry was significant because previously U.S. planes dominated the air, enabling ground forces to maintain a toehold on the foot of the Korean peninsula until the Inchon invasion in September turned the course of battle. The appearance of Soviet built Mig-15s “made every other plane in Korea obsolescent with their speed and performance,” Dr. Zhang writes.
Even a year later, with hundreds of American planes shot down in flames, the air enemy was still officially identified as the Chinese Communists. Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg, the Air Force chief of staff, proclaimed after a visit to the Far East that “Communist China has become one of the major air powers of the world.” To put it charitably, Gen. Vandenberg took gross liberties with the truth, and pilots serving under him knew it. When I researched a book on the Korean War two decades ago, numerous U. S. pilots told me of hearing Russian voices daily from opposing cockpits. They knew exactly who they were fighting.
So why conceal reality? Here one of the many anomalies marking the odd little war in Korea. Neither President Harry Truman nor Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin wanted to risk all-out war, and surely such would have been demanded by much of the American public had it known that Russians were killing American fliers.
For its part, Moscow put the semblance of a fig leaf over its air operations. “Soviet planes were disguised with North Korean markings, and Soviet pilots were required to wear Chinese uniforms when they arrived in China” enroute to North Korea,” Dr. Zhang writes.”Every Russian had a Chinese pseudonym, and they were expected to speak Chinese on the radio, although few pilots did.”
Soviet operations were restricted to the far north, and the Soviets were forbidden from flying over United Nations lines or the sea. If captured, they should claim to be Eurasian Chinese of Soviet extraction. Dr. Zhang writes that not a single Soviet pilot was captured. (I am told, however, that one and possibly two Soviet pilots managed to defect to U. S.-held territory, one of them with a Mig-15 that gave our intelligence people the chance to examine the new Soviet weaponry.) Dr. Zhang’s account of how Soviet air power came to Korea comes from U.S.S.R. and Chinese files to which he gained access.
The combat between Soviet and U.S. pilots enabled both sides to learn jet aircraft combat. No fewer than 32 Soviets emerged as “aces,” that is, credited with five or more kills. The top Soviet ace shot down 21 U.N. (read American) planes. Eventually, the Chinese developed their own air capability, and the thrust of Dr. Zhang’s book is how the war enabled the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAFF) to grow into the world’s third largest air power.
The level of the writer’s expertise is suggested by the dedication to his father, “a veteran of the PLAFF.” Dr. Zhang, who now teaches history at the Texas A&M international university branch in Laredo, Texas, carries the warning that the collapse of the U.S.S.R. means that Chinese airpower provokes serious concerns for regional security and world peace. How, he asks, might “China use that new military strength?” A sobering question, and especially at a time of crisis on the Korean peninsula.
Concurrently, at the other end of the Korean peninsula, the United States had its own covert air war in progress, via an airline known as CAT Incorporated (for China Air Transport) which was owned by the Central Intelligence Agency. The tangled story is told by William M. Leary in Perilous Missions: Civil Air Transport and CIA Covert Operations in Asia (Smithsonian Institute Press, $24.95, 281 pages, illus., paper). First issued in 1984, “Perilous Missions” has long been out of print, and less than a year ago copies sold on the Internet for as much as $400.
Smithsonian does a service with this reissue for several reasons. Mr. Leary’s sound work, based on CAT’s corporate archives, is a palliative for the wild yarns circulated about CAT and its successor organization, Air America, over the years. A Mel Gibson movie based on a book by a Fleet Street hack made outlandish claims about Air America’s involvement in drug trafficking, lies that outrage men who risked their lives in secret service to their country.
CAT was born during World War II, when Gen. Claire L. Chennault created an air force for the beleaguered Chinese Nationalist government, flying troops and supplies into battle and evacuating the wounded. In the post-1945 period, Gen. Chennualt and an air pioneer Whiting Willauer tried to convert CAT into a commercial freight hauler, but found themselves caught up in the raging Chinese civil war. Once the Nationalists lost, CAT teetered on the brink of economic ruin.
In stepped the Central Intelligence Agency, which in 1950 was expanding paramilitary operations in what Mr. Leary describes as “the growing secret struggle against Asian communism.” CAT proved a valuable asset when the Korean conflict erupted.” The airline provided cover for CIA personnel, enhanced the secrecy of clandestine projects, and afforded a freedom and flexibility that would have been impossible if the CIA had had to rely on other government agencies for air transport.” Many of the missions were as mundane as freight hauling. Others were not — for instance, pilots who flew hundreds of miles into mainland China on intelligence gathering missions.
After Korea, CAT moved on to the final phases of the French Indochina War, becoming what Mr. Leary calls “the most shot-at airline in the world,” with pilots risking their lives on supply missions. Much of the so-called “black work” in 1950s Indochina and elsewhereremains secret. Nonetheless, George Tenet, the director of Central Intelligence, in the first public acknowledgment by CIA in 2001, wrote, “From the mist-shrouded peaks of Tibet, to the black skies of China, to the steaming jungles of Southeast Asia, the legendary men and women of CAT and AA always gave full measure of themselves in the defense of freedom.” One more volume is to come from Mr. Leary.
Joseph C. Goulden’ s books include “Korea: The Untold Story of the War” (1982). He is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is JosephG894@AOL.COM.