The Second World War was a recent memory when North Korea invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950. It had only been four years and ten months since US Air Force Mustangs had been in combat. Since it was now a second line fighter – it had yet to be replaced by turbojet-powered fighters, but it had lost its front line status – the Mustang would see combat again. The Mustang was no longer a USAAF asset because on 18 September 1947 the United States Air Force (USAF) had superseded the United States Army Air Forces becoming a whole and separate branch of the US Armed Forces. The Mustang was no longer classified as a pursuit airplane either as on 11 June 1948, the P for Pursuit prefix was replaced by the F for Fighter prefix.

It was the USAF F-51 Mustang that would be called upon. Specifically, it would be the currently operational F-51D, F-51K or F-51H versions of the Mustang slated for combat duty. Surprisingly, even though it was the latest version of the breed, the P-51H variant was not the favourite of seasoned Mustang pilots who preferred the P-51D and P-51K variants. Therefore, no P-51H Mustangs were deployed to combat units for use in the Korean War. The tactical photographic reconnaissance versions of the Mustang, the RF-51D and RF-51K, were also called up for operations in the conflict. However, before 11 June 1948, these were designated F-6D and F-6K, the old prefix F for Photo giving way to the RF for Reconnaissance Fighter prefix.

South Korean airbase names were confusing to the multi-national pilots who flew combat and support missions in the Korean War. So, to avoid confusion and miscommunications, the Far East Air Forces (FEAF) and 5th Air Force adopted K-Sites numbering system for these airbases – the prefix K meaning Korea. These are as follows: K-1, Pusan West; K-2, Taegu No. 1; K-3, Pohang; K-4, Sachon; K-5, Taejon; K-6, Pyongtaek; K-7, Kwangju; K-8, Kunsan; K-9, Pusan East; K-10, Chinhae; K-11, Urusan (Ulsan); K-12, Mangun; K-13, Suwon; K-14, Kimpo; K-15, Mokpo; K-16, Seoul; K-17, Ongjin (Oshin); K-18, Kangnung (Koryo); K-19, Haeju (Kaishu); K-20, Sinmak; K-21, Pyonggang; K-22, Onjong-ni; K-23, Pyongyang; K-24, Pyongyang East; K-25, Wonsan; K-26, Sondok; K-27, Yonpo; K-28, Hamhung West; K-29, Sinanju; K-30, Sinuiju; K-31, Kilchu (Kisshu); K-32, Oesichon-dong; K-33, Hoemun (Kaibun); K-34, Chongjin (Seishin); K-35, Hoeryong (Kainsei); K-36, Kanggye; K-37, Taegu No. 2; K-38, Wonju; K-39, Cheju-do No. 1; K-40, Cheju-do No. 2; K-41, Chungju; K-42, Andong No. 2; K-43, Kyongju; K-44, Changhowon-ni; K-45, Yoju; K-46, Hoengsong; K-47, Chunchon; K-48, Iri; K-49, Yangsu-ri; K-50, Sokcho-ri; K-51, Inje; K-52, Yanggu; K-53, Paengyong-do; K-54, Cho-do; and K-55, Osan. Many of these airbases were used by Mustangs but not all K-Sites were Mustang bases.

After the Second World War up until the first five months of 1950, most of the F-51 and RF-51 Mustangs were deployed with Air Force Reserve (AFRes) and Air National Guard (ANG) units. Numerous surplus Mustangs, those in serviceable condition, were cocooned for long-term storage. So, there was a substantial number of in-service or stored F-51s and RF-51s available when the Korean War broke out.

At first, the USAF did not intend to call up its old piston-powered propeller-driven friend, its second line Mustang. Instead, it wanted to employ its latest front line turbojet-powered fighter types such as the Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star and Republic F-84 Thunderjet. However, the latter did not have the range of the Mustang. So, with its proven very long range and payload capabilities, the tried and tested Mustang was called upon once more to fight in its second war.

On 26 June 1950, the Republic of Korea (ROK) requested ten F-51s from the USAF to supplement the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) T-6 Texans and liaison-type aircraft. The following day, the 8th Fighter-Bomber Wing (FBW) organised a composite unit of USAF and ROKAF airmen at Taegu Airfield in South Korea to operate F-51 Mustangs.

In July 1950, the 5th Air Force (5AF) moved two fighter groups from the Philippines and Japan to South Korea and began replacing jet-powered F-80s with more fuel-efficient F-51 Mustangs. Compared to the F-80s, the Mustangs could loiter far longer in a target area and endure the primitive conditions of South Korean airbases. By the end of the month, Mustangs were flying from Taegu (K-2) and Pohang Dong (K-3). On 7 July, Number 77 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) began operations under the direction of the FEAF. And on 15 July, the 51st Fighter Squadron (provisional) at Taegu flew the first F-51 Mustang combat missions in Korea. On 22 July, USS Boxer arrived in Japan with 145 F-51s onboard.

Korean winters are notorious for their harsh conditions. This weapons ordnance technician is wrapped up against the bitter cold as he installs a .50 cal. ammunition belt into a gun feed in the right-hand wing of this 18FBG Mustang in 1951. Two outboard five-inch HVARs have been attached to either wing leaving one inboard attachment point open for a drop tank or bomb to be installed. (National Museum of the USAF)

Several 18FBG Mustangs are being armed with 5-in.-diameter high velocity aerial rockets or HVARs which were nicknamed ‘Holy Moses’. An F-51D-30-NA (44-74488) is closest to the camera with another F-51D-30-NA (44-74597) close by. (US Air Force)

US Air Force F-51D/K Mustangs for the most part were used in the fighter-bomber role throughout their deployments during the Korean War. Once their rocket and/or bomb ordnance was exhausted, however, they were free to ‘kick ass’ if an occasion arose. If not, they could strafe strategic ground targets such as enemy convoys, shipping and trains with their six .50 cal. machine guns. This is an F-51K-5-NT (44-11743) named ‘OL’ NaDSoB’ armed with rockets, bombs and .50 cal. guns shown taxiing through puddles to the runway for departure. (National Museum of the USAF)

P-51A-10-NA (43-6237) flies near ‘The Hump’ in the CBI while protecting cargo transport aircraft. Allison-powered, the P-51As were primarily used for ground attack and escort purposes. (National Museum of the USAF)

18th Fighter-Bomber Group armourers prepare to arm F-51s for combat in October 1951. They are loading machine guns, attaching bombs, drop tanks and Holy Moses rockets. (National Museum of the USAF)

A 45TRS RF-51D-25-NT (44-84853) departs the airfield at Kimpo, South Korea, in 1952. (USAF via the Jet Pilot Overseas blog)

Flight of Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) F-51 Mustangs on patrol in late 1951. (National Museum of the USAF)

A large number of 18th Fighter-Bomber Group F-51 Mustangs at Chinhae Airfield (K-10) in South Korea in 1951. In the foreground is an F-51D-20-NT (44-12943). (National Museum of the USAF)

Several F-51s wait to be armed with their six under-wing Mighty Mouse rockets. (National Museum of the USAF)

An F-51D-20-NA (44-73000) rolls towards the runway for another mission with two 500 lb bombs attached. (National Museum of the USAF)

An F-51D-30-NA (44-74651) of the 18FBG, South Korea, mid-1951. (US Air Force)

A view of this near-pristine 45TRS RF-51D and Senior Airman Motsch. (Photograph courtesy of Arlon Motsch Jr.)

An unidentified pilot and his F-51 (44-74879) posed for this public relations photograph taken at Kimpo, South Korea, in 1951. The photo shows the drop tanks, six 5-in. rockets and the number of .50 cal. ammunition boxes (18) to feed its six M2 machine guns. (US Air Force)

Major Louis J. Sebille, commander of the 67th FBS, sacrificed his life on 5 August 1950 when he purposely crashed his damaged F-51 into an enemy position. He was posthumously awarded the first Congressional Medal of Honor received by a member of the recently established USAF. On 13 August, to address the dangers of advancing North Korean troops, two squadrons of F-51s on the 35th Fighter Interceptor Group (FIG) moved from Yonil AB, South Korea, to Tsuiki AB in Japan.

In September 1950, 5AF Mustangs were moved from Japan back to South Korea and destroyed a large numbers of tanks and enemy troop concentrations. On 17 September, F-51s flew napalm attacks, reportedly killing over 1,200 enemy troops in Tabu-dong, Yongchon, and other strongholds near the Naktong River.

The South African Air Force (SAAF) with its No. 2 Fighter Squadron, ‘The Flying Cheetahs’ (the Union of South Africa’s contribution to United Nations airpower), arrived with F-51s and was attached to FEAF on 4 October 1950. An F-51 was for the first time shot down by anti-aircraft artillery over the Yalu River near Sinuiju on 15 October.

In November 1950, FEAF Combat Cargo Command diverted airlift resources from the logistical support of ground forces to move three F-51 fighter groups from South Korea to bases in North Korea. North Korean MiG-15 jet fighters appeared for the first time in the war on 1 November and engaged a T-6 Texan and F-51s in the Yalu River area. US-held Pyongyang Airfield-based F-51s were badly damaged on the ground during an attack on 28 November by what is described as a small communist aircraft.

On 29 December 1950, flying out of Taegu, RF-51 aircraft began tactical reconnaissance missions in Korea for the first time: they had longer ranges than their Lockheed RF-80 predecessors.

The weather was so bad in January 1951, that 5AF cancelled all of its planned aerial operations.

In February 1951, however, Major Arnold Mullins of the 67th Fighter-Bomber squadron (FBS) shot down a Yakovlev 9 (Yak 9) seven miles north of Pyongyang to score the only aerial victory of the month.

On 23 March 1951, during Operation Tomahawk, sixteen F-51s escorted 120 Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcars and Curtiss C-46 Commandos. This marked the first time that Mustangs had escorted aircraft in a combat scenario since the Second World War.

The first indication of enemy radar-controlled anti-aircraft artillery came with the loss of three out of four F-51s making a ground attack against a target at Sinmak on 30 April 1951.

Ordnance technicians prepare a Holy Moses 5-in. HVAR prior to attaching it to the wing of an F-51 on a hot South Korean summer afternoon. These unguided projectiles carried high explosive warheads and travelled to their targets at 1,360 feet per second or 930 mph – faster than the speed of sound. (US Air Force)

The working parts of a Holy Moses rocket. (US Navy)

Fine study of the 14th P-51A built in Inglewood; a P-51A-1-NA (43-6016). A number of these were employed by the RAF as Mustang Mark IIs. (Peter M. Bowers collection)

Colonel Karl L. ‘Pop’ Polifka, commander of the 67th TRW, who lost his life while flying an RF-51 Mustang on 1 July 1951. Col. Polifka was regarded as a real pioneer in the development of tactical photographic and mapping reconnaissance in the Second World War in which he flew 145 missions. (US Air Force)

A downed F-51 pilot was rescued by a Sikorsky H-5 helicopter crew southwest of Chorwon that sustained damage from small arms fire on 19 May 1951.

Another downed F-51 pilot was rescued on 11 June 1951 by the crew of the 3rd Air Rescue Squadron (ARS) flying a Grumman SA-16 Albatross at dusk from the Taedong River near Kyomipo, North Korea. The SA-16, although receiving fire from both sides of the river, made a landing approach without lights, avoiding low electrical transmission lines, rocks and debris on the river’s surface. The pilot earned the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) for the rescue.

Pioneer photo-recce expert Colonel Karl L. ‘Pop’ Polifka, commander of the 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing (TRW), was shot down and killed on 1 July 1951 while flying an RF-51 near the front lines.

F-51 and RF-51 operations continued at a steady pace and on 25 October 1951, in an unusually effective close air support strike, F-51s inflicted about 200 casualties on enemy troops in the I Corps sector.

On 22 January 1953, the 18th FBW began to withdraw its remaining F-51 Mustangs for North American F-86 Sabre Jets, thus ending the use of USAF propeller-driven fighter-bomber aircraft in offensive combat in the Korean War. The final combat mission of a F-51 Mustang in the war was flown by the 67th FBS on 23 January 1953. Several other nations, however, continued to use their Mustangs to the end of the Korean War on 27 July 1953.

Mustang Kills in the Korean War

F-51D/K Mustangs accounted for twelve kills during their tenure in the Korean War: six Yak-9s, three Il-10s, two Yak-3s and a La-7. In chronological order these include:


1Lt Richard L. Burns

8FBG, 35FBS, Il 10


2Lt Orrin R. Fox

49FBG, 8FBS, Il-10 (2)


1Lt Harry T. Sandlin

49FBG, 8FBS, La 7


Capt Alma R. Flake

18FBG, 67FBS, Yak 3


Capt Robert D. Thresher

18FBG, 67FBS, Yak 3


Capt Alma R. Flake

18FBG, 67FBS, Yak 9


1Lt James L. Glessner Jr

18FBG, 12FBS, Yak 9


Capt Howard I. Price

18FBG, 67FBS, Yak 9


1Lt Henry S. Reynolds

18FBG, 67FBS, Yak 9


Maj Arnold Mullins

18FBG, 67FBS, Yak 9


1Lt James B. Harrison

18FBG, 67FBS, Yak 9

An RF-51D-25-NA (44-84843) of 67TRW similar to the Mustang Col. Polifka was flying on 1 July 1951. (US Air Force)

P-51D/K and RF-51D/K Units

8th Fighter-Bomber Group; 35th Fighter-Bomber Squadron; 36th Fighter-Bomber Squadron; 80th Fighter-Bomber Squadron; 18th Fighter-Bomber Group; No. 2 Squadron, South African Air Force; 12th Fighter-Bomber Squadron; 39th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron; 67th Fighter-Bomber Squadron; 18th Fighter-Bomber Wing; 18th Fighter-Bomber Group; 35th Fighter-Interceptor Group; 35th Fighter-Interceptor Group; 39th Fighter-Interceptor squadron; 40th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron; 49th Fighter-Bomber Group; 7th Fighter-Bomber Squadron; 8th Fighter-Bomber Squadron; 9th Fighter-Bomber Squadron; 49th Fighter-Bomber Wing; 49th Fighter-Bomber Group; 9th Fighter-Bomber Squadron; 334th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron; 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Group; 12th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron; 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron; 45th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron; 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing; 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Group.

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