A competition grew between 51st Fighter Wing and 4th Fighter Wing, the two American Sabre units. The constant emphasis on the victory count in fact would lead to what came to be known as “MiG Madness,” as individual pilots and their leaders concentrated on scores.
Between December 1950 and July 1953, the northwest corner of North Korea between the Chongchon and Yalu rivers bore witness to an air campaign unlike any other before or since. It was fought almost exclusively by two antagonists: those flying the US Air Force’s premier air superiority day-fighter, the North American F-86 Sabre, and those flying the Soviet Red Air Force’s powerful interceptor, the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15.
As told by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver in his book MiG Alley, a competition grew between 51st Fighter Wing and 4th Fighter Wing, the two American Sabre units. The constant emphasis on the victory count in fact would lead to what came to be known as “MiG Madness,” as individual pilots and their leaders concentrated on scores. In January 1952, the 51st claimed 27 victories while the 4th only claimed five. This was undoubtedly due to the fact the 51st was flying new F-86Es with improved flight controls and a new radar-ranging fire-control system, while the 4th continued on with its increasingly weary F-86A Sabres. While maintenance and spares problems continued to plague the two American units, fewer missions were flown in February, and only seven MiGs were credited to the 4th and ten to the 51st.
These successes were overshadowed by the loss of the top Sabre ace of the war at that time, Major George A. Davis, Jr., on Feb. 10, 1952. 1st Lt Alfred W. Dymock, who flew as element lead with Davis on some missions, later recalled his friend’s state of mind at that time. “George’s main goal in life was to shoot down MiGs. He was dwelling on his score a lot, about how he hadn’t scored since December.” Davis was recalled by others as being more willing to take risks than other pilots in the squadron, which was considered remarkable given his status as a World War II ace and an older pilot. “Bones” Marshall remembered him as “the best deflection shooter in the air force.” Dymock and 1st Lt Charlie Mitson, who had flown with Davis before the war as well as in the 4th, both recalled that after the four-victory mission of December 13, Davis became increasingly contemptuous of the enemy, saying they were nowhere as good as the Japanese pilots he had flown against in New Guinea. “He’d come to believe no MiG pilot could shoot him down,” Mitson remembered. “It wasn’t a good attitude, because there were some good pilots on the other side.” Some in the squadron compared Davis with the impetuous ace Frank Luke of World War I fame. Other pilots in the squadron took quiet bets on when Davis would “get himself killed.”
On Feb. 10, 1952, Davis led 18 334th Squadron F-86s as screen for an attack on Kuni-ri by Thunderjets from the 49ers. With no enemy aircraft in sight, he broke formation and took his flight up the Yalu, looking for action. The decision was remarkable, since was the mission commander responsible for the screen. It is even more remarkable when put in the context of the time — F-86s did not operate in MiG Alley in formations of less than three flights, since the MiG formations were so large they could overwhelm their American opponents with sheer numbers. Just before entering MiG Alley, Davis’ element leader reported his oxygen system had failed and he aborted with his wingman, leaving Davis with only his wingman, 1st Lt William W. Littlefield, as he flew into the area most likely to have MiGs in it.
Moments after his formation was halved, Littlefield later remembered they spotted five MiGs milling about north of the Yalu. Davis led them around and spotted a formation of ten MiG-15s ahead and below at 32,000 feet. On that day, the weather was such that the MiGs at high altitude were not leaving contrails, which meant they might not have spotted all the MiGs in the vicinity. Despite being outnumbered 10:1, Davis bounced the MiGs and flew directly into the enemy formation as he opened fire. The MiGs immediately broke and scattered, but one hesitated just long enough for Davis to pounce and score victory number 13. Davis had the speed to continue his dive and get away from the enemy, but he chose instead to rack around after another MiG, sacrificing speed and energy in the turn. He got behind what would become his 14th and final victory and opened fire in a steep bank, hitting the MiG in its wingroot and engine. It caught fire and went down while Davis continued his turn, bleeding off more energy and speed, as he sought a third victory. As he did, an unseen MiG closed on tail and opened fire. Littlefield saw cannon shells rip the Sabre just below the cockpit canopy; they were almost certain to have killed him. The Sabre spun out of control and fell from 32,000 feet to crash in the mountains below as Littlefield followed him down, calling for help.
When he returned to Kimpo, Littlefield was mercilessly grilled by the group leadership, who intimated they believed Davis had been lost due to Littlefield’s failure to provide proper cover. “They were looking for a scapegoat since George was a national hero,” Dymock later commented. According to others in the unit, Littlefield was shattered by the incident and sick at heart that he might have failed his leader. “It took him months to recover,” said Mitson.
It took Fifth Air Force two days before they admitted the loss of Davis. Of the three MiGs claimed by US pilots the morning of his loss, two were officially credited to him despite the lack of any evidence that they were in fact the MiGs Littlefield claimed his leader shot down, and the fact that two of the claims — for “damaged” — were made by-Major Donald D. Rodewald and his wingman, 1st Lt James R. Ross, of the 51st Wing’s 25th Squadron. According to the 25th FIS squadron history, Rodewald claimed a “probable” at 0800 hours and Ross a “damaged” at 0810 hours, 28 and 18 minutes respectively before the time Davis initiated his attack at 0828 hours after breaking away from his squadron at 0803 hours.
George Davis, the only American ace to be killed in combat in Korea. was posthumously promoted to lieutenant colonel and was awarded the Medal of Honor. The citation reads in part:
Major Davis’ bold attack completely disrupted the enemy formation, permitting the friendly fighter-bombers to successfully complete their interdiction mission. Major Davis, by his indomitable fighting spirit, heroic aggressiveness, and superb courage in engaging the enemy against formidable odds, exemplified valor at its highest.
This part of the citation is undoubtedly true, since the Chinese and Russian MiG formation never made it far enough south to break up the Thunderjet attack that day.
Fellow ace and 336th Squadron commander Major Dick Creighton said of Davis, “He had more guts that the law allows.”
When it was announced that the leading American ace had been lost in combat, the Chinese examined their records and determined that 36 MiG-15s from the 4th Fighter Aviation Division had been involved in the fight in which Davis was killed. Zhang Jihui, a flight leader in the 12th FAR, reported after the battle that while MiGs were en route to intercept Davis’ group, he and his wingman became separated from the main formation. As they tried to rejoin the formation, he spotted eight F-86s in the area between Taechon and Chongye at 0740 hours. The two then got on the tails of two Sabres and opened fire. Zhang claimed that he shot down both Sabres, but other Sabres had shot down his MiG, forcing him to bail out, and killing his wingman. In the absence of gun camera film, the 4th FAD sent out two search teams on Feb. 16 and 18, which found wreckage of an F-86E, in addition to Davis’ body and personal effects. They also determined the crash site was 500 meters from where Zhang had bailed out, and that Zhang’s 12th Regiment was the only unit operating near the area at the time. Additional testimony was taken from Chinese troops on the ground about what they saw of the combat above. As a result, Zhang was credited by the PLAAF with shooting down Davis, whose dog tag is presently on display at the Memorial of the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea in Dandong, China. A MiG-15 in Zhang’s Korean War markings is displayed at the entrance of the museum.
Doubts about Zhang’s claim were raised after the Chinese announcement, due to Littlefield’s recollection of the event being inconsistent with Zhang’s account. The lack of gun-camera footage meant Zhang’s claim hinged on his own recollection of the event. Just to make things more complicated, following the end of the Cold War when Soviet records were opened to researchers, the claim was made that Davis was actually shot down by Senior Lieutenant Mikhail Akimovich Averin of the 148th GvIAP. According to testimony at the time from the pilots of the Soviet 64th IAK, both Zhang and his wingman were probably shot down by Davis, who was in turn surprised and shot down by Averin scrambling to save the Chinese MiGs. Lt Gen Georgi Lobov, commander of the 64th IAK, also noted in his memoir that Davis was killed by a Soviet pilot.
During the war, Zhang became a household name in China. His victory is one of the few proud moments in the PLAAF’s underwhelming performance in Korea and is now a “fact of state” in China. He was awarded the title “Combat Hero, 1st Class” for his accomplishment.
MiG Alley is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force