In 1953, North Korea Used 1920-Style Planes to Fight America. They Did a Lot of Damage.
On the night of June 16, 1953, the Associated Press reported on “a boiling mass of flame, mushrooming like an atomic bomb, shoots skyward from a burning fuel dump, set afire at the South Korean port city of Inchon.” The fire “lighted the sky for more than 20 miles” and took three days to put out, having consumed 5.5 million gallons of fuel.
The perpetrators of this devastating attack? A flight of four pokey North Korean two-seat trainers flying blindly through the night.
The Marines, Navy and Air Force fielded their most advanced radar-equipped jet fighters to intercept these low-tech night raiders—but soon also had to contend with deadly MiG-15 jet fighters stalking the night skies over Korea.
Washing Machine Charlie Heckles at Night
The Polikarpov Po-2, or U-2, was a two-seat wood-and-fabric biplane developed in the late 1920s for use as a primary flight trainer. The aircraft’s 125-horsepower Shvetsov engine could lift the plane no higher than ten thousand feet and to a maximum speed of around ninety-five miles per hour. You could outrun one with your typical modern car. Up to five one-hundred-pound bombs could be carried underwing, while backseaters sometimes operated a machine gun on a flexible mount, or hefted mortar shells or bunches of propaganda leaflets to be dropped by hand.
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During its darkest hour in World War II, the hard-pressed Soviet air force deployed Po-2 units to harass German troops at night, including the famous all-female 588th “Night Witches” regiment. Though the night raiders inflicted only minor damage, they were devilishly difficult to track and shoot down, and kept troops on the ground stressed and fatigued.
By late 1950, the Korean People’s Air Force had most of its piston-engine fighters and bombers swept from skies or destroyed on the ground by UN fighter planes. While Soviet MiG-15 jets based in China joined the fray in November, it would be a few years before the KPAF’s own MiG-15 pilots were ready for prime time. In the meantime, the KPAF adopted Soviet night-raiding tactics to harass frontline positions, logistical bases and airfields.
The North Korean Po-2s were later joined by around a dozen Yakovlev Yak-18 two-seat basic trainers. A more modern metal-and-fabric design that entered production in 1948, the Yak-18 could fly faster at 150 to 180 miles per hour but had shorter range. Nonetheless, both the Po-2 and Yak-18 could operated from short frontline airstrips at night, and concealed in barns or underground caves during the day.
These “heckling” raids were frequent, scary and noisy—the throaty drone of their motors led to the nickname “Washing Machine Charlie”—but they usually didn’t cause too much damage.
Airbase technician Herbert Rideout recalled that Bedcheck Charlie “would fly over toss out small bombs hoping to hit a tent, aircraft or something else of importance. I found these night time extravaganza’s rather exciting. The sirens would go off, big search lights would come on to try to find him and anti-aircraft batteries would begin firing with tracers which would light up the sky better than any Fourth of July that I had ever seen, and all the time we in trenches were shooting our rifles in all directions. Bed Check Charlie was very elusive and only one was ever brought down.”
But as the 1953 raid on Incheon demonstrated, the night raiders did get lucky sometimes. Late in 1950, two Po-2s hit a line of P-51s at Pyongyang with a cluster of small bombs, damaging eleven and forcing three to be abandoned. Later, two Po-2s ventured over Suwon Air Force Base and managed to destroy an F-86A Sabre of the 335th Fighter Squadron on the runway, and damage eight more of the advanced jets.
Though UN forces disposed of air defense radars, they had only a few squadron of F-82 Twin Mustangs, F4U5N Corsairs and F7F Tigercat fighters designed for night fighting. The Po-2s and Yaks flew low and slow, and were not highly visible on radar due to their small size and fabric construction.
Still, Marine fighter pilots did make a few successful intercepts. Benefitting from onboard radars, twin piston-engine Tigercats shot down two Po-2s, while gull-winged F4U-5N Corsair, arguably the best naval fighter of World War II, also scored several kills. Corsair pilot Guy Bordelon would shoot down three La-11 fighters and two Yak-18s at night over Korea, becoming the only Navy ace of the Korean War.
Skyknight and Starfire to the Rescue
In December 1951, a flight of MiG-15s buzzed the South Korean capital of Seoul at night, startling the U.S. military with the realization they had no night fighters jets that could meet the Soviet jets on equal terms. All three branches of the U.S. military hastily deployed their most advanced radar-equipped jets to counter the threat.