The following tale is a rather unfortunate, though surprisingly little-known piece of military history. One would even say somewhat mysterious, as I hope I can highlight in this video. And it is very much a story of two sides.
So, let’s start with the agreed upon facts as a bit of background.
The afternoon of October 8, 1950 was pretty much the same as normal at the Soviet airbase of Sukhaya Rechka. The airfield, located about 80 miles northeast of the Soviet Union’s border with North Korea, and close to the Chinese border, was the home to three squadrons of the 821st regiment of the Soviet Air Force.
The posting appears to have been pretty relaxed. After all, though war in Korea had been raging for several months by that point, the Soviet Union, officially at least, was not involved in the conflict. In fact, the main area of tensions between the West and the Russians was very much in Europe, which the year before had seen both the Berlin Blockade and the formation of NATO.
The considered low risk to the Soviet Far East was graphically demonstrated by the aircraft that were posted at Sukhaya Rechka – old American P-63 King Cobra’s that had been supplied by the United States as Lend-Lease equipment during World War Two. Now thoroughly obsolescent, these old birds give an indication how low a priority this area was in Soviet defensive plans.
While the Air Force in Germany had more formidable aircraft and was reequipping with the new MiG-15 jet, the P-63s were considered sufficient to cover this sector, far from any threat. And the aircrafts disposition at Sukhaya Rechka, lined up in two neat rows out in the open, certainly indicates that the base personnel didn’t think that attack was likely.
As it turned out, a mistaken assumption.
At 16:17 the air was rent by the sound of two jet fighters streaking over the airfield. As they went their machine guns opened fire, tearing into one of the rows of King Cobra’s. The attackers completed their pass and then swung about, screaming in on the second row. Again, they opened fire, strafing the parked aircraft, causing one to burst into flames.
Then the interlopers screamed off, vanishing as quickly as they appeared.
They had been F-80Cs of the United States Air Force’s 49th Fighter Group.
According to the Soviet reports afterwards, the cost of the attack was a single P-63 destroyed and six others damaged. No personnel were killed or injured.
Soviet forces went to high alert and, when nothing further occurred, the next day registered an official complaint at the United Nations.
The United States admitted after an investigation that an error had occurred, stating that two young pilots had gotten lost whilst on an armed recon mission that was meant to look for North Korean aircraft near that countries border with China.
As Robert Futtrell summed it up in his book The United States Air Force In Korea 1950-1953:
“…two young F -80 pilots…whose zeal surpassed their navigational prowess…happened upon and repeatedly strafed a Russian airfield north of the Siberian border.”
On the 19th of October Warren Austin, America’s Ambassador to the U.N., wrote to the organisations Secretary that:
“The commander of the Air Force group has been relieved and appropriate steps have been taken with a view toward disciplinary actions against the two pilots concerned.”
Restitution was offered for damages, which the Soviet Union ignored, and both sides resumed their frozen demeanour towards each other.
And that is where the agreed upon history ends.
Because while the US stuck to its story, a widely held opinion in the USSR was that this was a deliberate action – either a threat to the Soviet Union or a deliberate provocation. And now with tensions again mounting between the USA and Russia, the story is again popping up periodically, mainly in Russian resources.
So, let’s look at some of the other details, and conspiracy theories, that are out there about the attack on Sukhaya Rechka.
We are lucky to have an account from one of the pilots involved, Alton H. Quanbeck, who in 1990 gave an in-depth description of the attack to the Washington Post.
Quanbeck states that he and his wingman, Allen Diefendorf, approached their target area at a height of 37,000 feet, above the cloud cover which was solid practically the whole way. This meant that they were navigating by dead reckoning, with no ability to visually confirm their location as they flew.
Their flight took them over the Sea of Japan and he states that they misjudged the tail wind, thus taking them further north than expected. As there were no navigation beacons to guide them, nor accurate weather reports, that is entirely possible.
Once in the expected target zone, which was to be the North Korean airfield of Chongjin, they dropped altitude to try to find out where they were. Spotting a small hole in the clouds they flew their F-80s through and found themselves above a broad river valley with mountains on each side. They then flew southeast, heading away from the Chinese and Soviet borders, or so they thought. They were briefly engaged by anti-aircraft fire and then came across a dream target – a packed airfield.
Unfortunately, it was a Russian one, though Quanbeck says he had no idea of that fact at the time.
As he put it:
“I had only seconds to make a decision. At our speed, the airfield would soon pass beneath us unless I positioned us for an attack. We were also nearing minimum fuel. Our low altitude and the low hanging clouds prevented me from seeing more than a mile or two in any direction. Even if I could have identified distinctive terrain features, it was unlikely I could have related them to the crude maps I carried on the mission.”
A few hours after returning to their base in South Korea, both pilots were called in to see their commander, who went over their report again, before making them go over a map of the Soviet Union southwest of Vladivostok and asking if their attack could have been in this area. The next day, as Diefendorf apparently put it to Quanbeck at the time, ‘it hit the fan’.
Both men found themselves facing a court martial, accused of violating their orders to stay clear of the Chinese border, of attacking Soviet territory and of violating an order to make no attack without positive identification.
But despite the show, both men were quickly cleared and carried on with their careers. And this provides the start of Russian suspicions that in fact, despite Quanbeck’s testimony, this was a deliberate attack on them.
Both pilots would continue their careers, and Diefendorf would go onto command a squadron of F-4 Phantoms in Vietnam. Quanbeck would also continue with the Air Force for several more years, and then went to work for the CIA. Naturally, this really does get those who think the whole affair a deliberate attack to get very excited.
They also point out that these were not rooky pilots. I haven’t been able to find any solid details on Quanbeck’s air force career in my cursory investigations, but Diefendorf was an experienced pilot who had fought in Northwest Europe in 1944 and ’45.
Now, it must be remembered that even experienced pilots can get lost and military officers being recruited into the CIA was a common occurrence, especially in those early Cold War days. But the minimal court martial, held behind closed doors and kept extremely quiet, certainly haven’t done a lot to assuage suspicions.
The fact that President Truman himself thought that the whole affair might be deliberate also doesn’t help. He apparently suspected the attack was ordered by the commander of United Nations forces in Korea, General MacArthur, to provoke a conflict with the Soviet Union.
This may not be as unlikely as it seems.
MacArthur was deliberately ignoring orders from Truman to not escalate the war in Korea. A week after the attack Truman flew to Wake Island for a conference with his rogue General, apparently because MacArthur refused orders for him to fly back to the United States. Though the two men were all pally in public, including Truman awarding MacArthur his fifth Distinguished Service Medal, the two also had a private meeting of which no record was made.
Obviously, we don’t know what was discussed, but MacArthur was fired six months later as the situation in Korea deteriorated due to Chinese – and has since come to light, Russian – intervention.
So, if we play along with this and say that the attack was deliberate, we must first ask what was it such an action intended to achieve?
In October 1950, the war in Korea was about to hit a critical point. The UN forces, under MacArthur’s command and, as already stated, in direct contravention of his own orders, were pushing through North Korea, rapidly approaching both the Chinese and Soviet borders.
Here MacArthur made a major miscalculation. At the Wake Conference, he blew off concerns that the Chinese were going to intervene against the United Nations in Korea, stating that they would suffer huge casualties from Allied air power if they dared. In fact, Chinese troops would secretly enter Korea on the 19th of October, and by the 25th were launching attacks on UN forces.
But considering MacArthur’s thinking, perhaps he thought that such an attack would provide a deterrent to the Soviet Union from becoming more involved in the conflict. Indeed, the event graphically illustrated how weak Soviet defence were in their far eastern province.
After Sukhaya Rechka, the Soviets scrambled to reequip the fighter squadrons around Vladivostok with brand new MiG-15s. These critical aircraft were needed in Europe to face off with NATO. But they were also being supplied to the Chinese communists for their upcoming confrontation in Korea.
According to Quanbeck:
“The Oct. 8 incident forced Soviet leaders to recognize the vulnerability of their forces, especially in the east, and their inability to defend against the more modern, experienced U.S. Air Force. Stalin decided to disengage from North Korea and stopped all further aid on Oct. 22, only two weeks after our attack.”
This may explain a discrepancy that has cropped up concerning the amount of damage, and casualties, inflicted in the raid. As already said, officially the total was one P-63 destroyed, six damaged, and no casualties. But there is some evidence, admittedly hearsay, that contradicts this.
In an interview Vladimir Zabelin, a pilot who served with the attacked regiment and later fought over Korea against the UN, stated that he saw at least twelve aircraft damaged. There have also been rumours of unmarked graves at the airbase of at least ten personnel killed in the attack, though I do need to point out this is essentially just internet gossip.
Perhaps what isn’t though, is another detail from Quanbeck. He says that several months after the event, an intelligence officer assigned to Far East Air Force Headquarters told him that “…the airfield burned for a week.”
If true, that would certainly indicate a much greater level of damage inflicted than the Soviets were willing to admit. And the logical reason for doing so would be to avoid a confrontation. After all, casualties would be a definite source of outrage if openly admitted.
Whatever the truth of this, one thing I’m afraid we can state that Quanbeck was mistaken on was the Soviets backing off over Korea. Because it now seems that the attack may have been directly responsible for what is considered the first jet vs jet aerial kill in history.
On the 1st of November, three weeks after the attack on Sukhaya Rechka, Soviet pilots assigned to assist the Chinese were given an unexpected order. Their job had up until then been to train Chinese pilots on their new MiG-15s and to protect the Chinese border areas from incursions by American aircraft. But now they were told they were to fly directly into North Korea and engage any American aircraft they encountered.
At 1550 hrs, Snr Lt Khominich attacked a group of four F-80s, sending one down in smoke. The pilot, Frank Van Sickle, was killed.
This was the start of a secret war fought between the Soviets and the United States over the skies of Korea, one that is only just now coming out into the open. It would also see the Russians supply their Chinese and North Korean allies with copious amounts of equipment, including MiG-15s, and the fighting would drag on until 1953.
And so. there we have it – a tragic event that could have sparked a World War and probably played a part in causing the deaths of countless unknown others.
But was it a deliberate act, or a terrible mistake?
I doubt that question will ever be fully resolved.
Sources / Related Reading:
Massacre of the Innocents? – The Shooting Down of RF531
Renegade SOE and Burma – When Rogue Spec Ops Officers Refused to Abandon Their Friends