News | Dec. 21, 2022

F9F Panther vs Communist AAA, Korea 1950-53

By Cmdr. Peter Mersky, USNR (Ret.)

No. 121 in the long-running “Duel” series, this latest title by prolific Osprey author Peter Davies addresses an interesting, seldom-described area in the air war during the Korean War, that of one of the U.S. Navy’s two major jet fighters’ record against the often fearsome barrage of Communist major defenses, that of often intense ground anti-aircraft fire. What would become the second most-feared ground defense in the Vietnam War some 15 years later, the surface-to-air missile, the SAM, had not been perfected and thus, the North Koreans had to rely on their thickets of Communist Soviet- and Chinese-supplied 57mm and 100mm guns, occasionally augmented by 82mm unguided rockets, supplied by their Soviet benefactors. Combined with the impressive Russian-designed-and-built high-tailed MiG-15, whose performance when flown by Russian surrogate pilots could match that of the Grumman Panther and most other Allied jets of the time, the North Korean ground flak sites presented a highly dangerous threat to the Panthers on ground-attack missions.

Perhaps a sidebar to this statement is graphically shown in the movie “The Bridges at Toko-Ri,” the excellent adaptation of James Michener’s novella, which actually features the McDonnell F2H Banshee, not the Panther, as the mount of Naval Aviator Harry Brubaker, played by actor William Holden. However, the availability of Banshees, as well as a suitable carrier, which was ably portrayed by the USS Oriskany (CVA 34), demanded the substitution of Panthers for the book’s Banshees. In the Oscar-winning action scenes, Holden and his compatriots fly several missions against enemy targets. In the movie’s final mission, Holden’s Panther is hit by North Korean flak requiring him to crash-land in Communist territory with little hope of rescue. His dreams and fears of being struck by fearsome North Korean AAA come true in the film’s climax.

Peter Davies’ book details other aspects of the Panther’s Korean War log, which are also described by Osprey author Warren Thompson in his “Panther Units in the Korean War” book for Osprey’s 2014 Combat Aircraft series book, No. 103. Where Thompson’s book focuses more directly on the experiences of the pilots of Navy and Marine Corps Panthers against air-to-air action, Davies’ new book hones in on how the Panther and its aviators met the enemy ground defenses, which as many veterans of those times will agree were the most harrowing and perhaps effective. Those pilots who flew in Vietnam against North Vietnamese MiGs as well as the heavy flak and SAMs, would also probably attest to the fact that the guns and missiles presented the most fearsome weapons they faced over Hanoi, Haiphong and other cities and facilities.

Indeed, two well-known Marine personalities, then-Major and future astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn and recalled reservist baseball’s Red Sox slugger Ted Williams, ran into Communist flak sites and barely made it back to their base in South Korea while flying Panthers for VMF-311. As several of the Osprey books dealing with this period and the U.S. Navy aircraft of the air war in Korea, the experiences of the recalled Naval Air Reserve squadrons and pilots, Peter Davies’ latest book also includes accounts of these citizen aviators.