The Korean War, fought between 1950-53, marked several truly remarkable episodes in the history of aerial warfare. Most well remembered is that the conflict saw the first Jet vs Jet air combats, with the most famous of these being the epic dogfights that occurred between the Soviet-built MiG-15 and the American F-86 Sabre.
But less well remembered is that the Korean War was the last time that American ground personnel are believed to have been killed in action by enemy aircraft. In fact, it is fairly well remembered by the United States Air Force, who quite rightly are very proud of that record and put it down to the stellar job they’ve done in achieving air supremacy over America’s battlefields for almost seventy years.
But the story of those fatalities also ties directly into how a biplane brought down a modern fighter jet. On the night of April 15, 1953, a small detachment of men from A Company, 933rd Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion were sitting in their tent on Cho-do Island, just off the coast of North Korea.
Cho-do was very much a deployment right out on the edge of the control of United Nations forces during the Korean War. Situated less than 10kms off the North Korean coast, the island was important as a rescue base for helicopters to pick up airmen who had ditched in the Yellow Sea, as well as a signals intelligence centre for monitoring communist communications.
But the island’s location also made it a priority target for harassing attacks by North Korean artillery and air strikes – as was demonstrated on the night in question.
One of the men had turned on their radio to try and drown out the bickering of two of his tent mates, who were loudly arguing about baseball. It would have been a scene familiar to soldiers and service personnel the world over for eons – tent mates putting up with the boredom of a lonely posting far from home.
And then the bomb hit.
The two men arguing, Cpl. William R. Walsh, from Queens, N.Y and Pfc. Herbert Tucker, of Ocean, N.J, were killed outright. Several other men were injured, and an anti-aircraft gun destroyed.
This was, as far as is known, the last time US personnel were killed by enemy air attack. And the culprit was likely one that the USAF had been having significant issues with throughout the entire war.
The Polikarpov Po-2.
This rather antiquated two-seat aircraft was originally designed as a basic trainer, entering service in 1929. It had soon found itself being used in other roles such as crop dusting and as a liaison aircraft.
Powered by a simple 5-cylinder radial engine that developed 125hp, the Po-2 had a top speed of 94mph – just over 150km/h – and cruised at about 70mph/110kph. Those sort of performance figures are more in line with a First World War aircraft and that, with its wood and fabric construction, was essentially what the Po-2 was.
In an era of jet fighters, radar and nuclear weapons, it seems unlikely that such an obsolete aircraft could be of any use at all. But the Po-2’s very obsolescence is what made it so dangerous. And not just to those on the ground, but to those trying to hunt it in the skies.
With the USAF and their United Nation allies proving very effective at downing would-be ground attackers during the daylight hours, the North Korean and Chinese pilots had to resort to night raids. And for that, the Po-2 wasn’t just ideal, it had pedigree.
During the Second World War the aircraft had become notorious amongst German troops for regularly attacking them at night. Though the little biplane couldn’t carry much of a bombload – only 350kgs (770lbs) – by flying extremely low and slow it proved extremely difficult for Axis night fighters to shoot down.
Plus, it proved to have a disproportionate effect on morale. The simple engine made a popping noise as the Po-2 flew along. Axis troops came to hate the rattling that came in the night, the announcement that a Po-2 was in the area. Any light on the ground would prove an irresistible draw to the aircraft, which would drop bombs or grenades on anyone not practising strict discipline.
The racket led to several nicknames from Axis soldiers, with the German’s calling it the “Coffee-Grinder” while the Finns called it the Hermosaha – the nerve saw. This perfectly sums up the real impact that the Po-2 had; the damage it did was not primarily in material or casualties, but on the psychology of enemy troops.
This was further compounded by a tactic that the Po-2 pilots developed later – attacking in a glide with their engines off. With its biplane layout and light construction, the Po-2 proved an excellent glider, even with a bombload. Axis forces found that not only did they have to deal with the grinding banshee call of the “Nerve Saw”, they might also be attacked out of a pitch black and silent night by an aircraft that they didn’t even know was there.
When the North Koreans and Chinese ended up fighting the United Nations in Korea, their Soviet allies gave them not just Po-2s amongst the host of military equipment supplied, but also the benefit of their experience by training the communist forces in these tactics.
The UN troops came up with their own name for these night-time raids – Bedcheck Charlie – and though the North Koreans used several types of aircraft for these attacks the Po-2 was the most notorious. Flying literally just off the ground and at a rate most cars could easily exceed, the Po-2’s pottered around for much of the war, launching attacks that normally did little but cause annoyance.
But the attacks could and did sometimes inflict serious damage. Throughout the war Po-2s destroyed and damaged several Sabre jet fighters and other aircraft on the ground, as well radars and other equipment. This, combined with the psychological effects meant that they not only had to be taken seriously, they had to be dealt with.
Initially, the Americans deployed anti-aircraft battalions, such as the afore mentioned 933rd, but they generally had little success against the raiders. So, the USAF deployed one their most advanced aircraft to try to stop the pesky little biplanes.
The F-94B Starfire.
This two-seat night fighter carried a nose mounted radar and a battery of .50 calibre Browning heavy machine guns – more than enough to shoot down a dodderer like a Po-2.
The Starfire’s had the same issues as every other fighter that had gone up against the Po-2 – their ability to get down so low and so slow that other aircraft couldn’t match them. But with a spate of attacks occurring on Cho-do Island, culminating in the attack on April 15, the USAF was determined to do something about it.
And so, the stage was set for a remarkable occasion.
The only credited downing of a jet by a biplane – though that is “credit” in the loosest of terms.
On May 3, 1953, a raider was picked up by air defence radar approaching Cho-do Island. In response, a F-94B of the 319th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron was dispatched to try and destroy the interloper.
The crew, pilot Stanton G Wilcox and radar operator Irwin L. “Goldie” Goldberg, both 2nd Lt’s, zoomed across the dark ocean guided by their ground controllers. As they approached the target, they switched to their own radar systems to conduct the interception.
Now, the aircraft they were chasing has never been positively identified as a Po-2, as far as I am aware. But seeing as the aircraft in question dropped to sea level and down to a veritable crawl, it has always been assumed that this was the type involved.
Certainly, Wilcox had trouble engaging his target, and according to the radar operators tracking him he took his Starfire down to just above the water and dropped his speed to 110mph – on the very edge of the aircraft’s stall speed.
What happened next is open to conjecture.
Wilcox evidently engaged the target at very close range, and called “Splash” over the radio, indicating that he had killed the aircraft. But then the Starfire also dropped off the radar scopes, never to be seen again.
The opinion is that either the Starfire stalled out immediately after engaging the target or hit the debris from their intercept. Either way, the jet vanished into the ocean. Both Wilcox and Goldberg were posted as Missing In Action, and their bodies and aircraft were never recovered from the Yellow Sea.
And, as there is no direct confirmation that they had successfully destroyed the enemy aircraft, that has led to the crediting, technically, for a manoeuvre kill on the Starfire by a Po-2.
As I said, it’s a credit in the very loosest of terms. There is no solid proof, as far as I am aware, that the aircraft was a Po-2, though it is admittedly by far the most likely culprit. Plus, it is almost certain that both aircraft were destroyed.
Though I’ll concede that from a rather brutal point of view, trading biplanes for modern, high-technology jets is a very cost-effective tactic, which I’m pretty sure is how the North Koreans see it.
But the whole affair has now become internet legend, and the Po-2 gained a final star on its historical record:
The humble little biplane that shot down a jet.
Futrell, Robert F., The United States Air Force in Korea, 1950-53, REVISED EDITION; OFFICE OF AIR FORCE HISTORY – UNITED STATES AIR FORCE; WASHINGTON, D.C. (1983) – Available for free download on Google Books, the incident discussed is on p.664