F-86 Sabres over North Korea hunting MiG-15s. Of the 40 aces, all except one flew the Sabre.

Photo Caption: F-86 Sabres over North Korea hunting MiG-15s. Of the 40 aces, all except one flew the Sabre.

During the Korean War, 40 United Nations fliers (all Americans) became aces. To become an ace, a pilot has to destroy five or more enemy aircraft in aerial combat. Of these 40 aces, all except one flew the F-86 Sabre, and all but two were members of the United States Air Force. The exceptions to the all-United States Air Force (USAF) list were Navy Lieutenant Guy Bordelon, who shot down five enemy planes while flying a Corsair night fighter, and United States Marine Corps (USMC) Lieutenant Colonel John F. Bolt, who destroyed six aircraft while flying as an exchange pilot with the Air Force's 51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing (FIW).

Many of the pilots who became aces in the Korean War were experienced veterans of World War II where they had also been aces. For example, Colonel Francis S. Gabreski had been the top-scoring American pilot in Europe during the earlier war, notching 28 kills. He added 6.5 MiG-15s to his scorecard in Korea. Among other World War II aces who also became jet aces were Lieutenant Colonel Vermont Garrison (7 in World War II and 10 in Korea), Lieutenant Colonel James P. Hagerstrom (6 in World War II and 8.5 in Korea), and Colonel Harrison R. Thyng (6 in World War II and 5 in Korea).

One pilot who had not been a World War II ace but who had destroyed 3.5 German aircraft was Captain James Jabara. On May 20, 1951, he was in the thick of the action as some 50 MiG-15s engaged several flights of Sabres. Despite the handicap of being unable to drop one of his wing tanks, which greatly affected his plane's handling, Jabara remained in the fight. His perseverance was rewarded with two kills, bringing his total score to six and making him the first jet ace in history. As a major, Jabara returned to Korea for a second combat tour in 1953. He wound up the war with a total of 15 MiG-15s destroyed, making him the second-ranked ace of the war.

Captain Manual J. "Pete" Fernandez Jr.

Photo Caption: Captain Manual J. "Pete" Fernandez Jr.

 Major George A. Davis Jr.

Photo Caption: Major George A. Davis Jr.

 Colonel Francis Gabreski

Photo Caption: Colonel Francis Gabreski

Major James Jabara
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Photo Caption: Major James Jabara

Captain Joseph McConnell Jr.

Photo Caption: Captain Joseph McConnell Jr.

Captain Manuel J. "Pete" Fernandez Jr., got his first MiG on October 4, 1952. He became an ace on Feb. 18, 1953, when he destroyed his fifth and sixth MiGs. For the remainder of the war, Fernandez, Jabara and Captain Joseph M. McConnell Jr., vied for the title of leading ace. Fernandez downed his last MiG-15 on May 16, 1953, giving him a final score of 14.5 victories and making him the third highest-scoring Sabre pilot.

Joe McConnell became the leading ace of the war. During World War II, he had flown combat missions over Europe as a B-24 navigator. Following the war, he entered flight school and eventually became an F-86 pilot. McConnell scored his first victory on Jan. 14, 1953, and reached ace status on Feb. 16. By the end of April he had downed ten MiG-15s, but his best efforts came the following month. In May, he shot down six MiGs, including three on one day. These victories made him a triple ace and brought his final score to 16. Because senior USAF officials did not want to see their leading ace shot down, McConnell was ordered home immediately following his return from the May 18 mission.

The majority of the Korean War aces (68 percent) were over 28 years old, supposedly "old men" for jet fighter combat. Conversely, 67 percent of those fliers who had no kills were less than 25 years old. Nearly 38 percent of the 810 F-86 victories (305.5) were made by the 39 Sabre aces.

Airmen other than USAF pilots also flew the Sabre with the 4th and 51st Wings. Several of these exchange pilots scored victories over the MiGs. United States Marine Corps pilots destroyed 19.5 aircraft. One of these pilots was future astronaut and U.S. senator Major John Glenn, who shot down three MiGs. Navy pilot and another future astronaut Lieutenant Walter M. Schirra, got a MiG while flying F-84s. Four Royal Canadian Air Force pilots were credited with eight MiGs, and five Royal Air Force fliers destroyed another eight MiGs. Royal Australian Air Force fliers were also credited with four MiG-15s while flying Meteors.

Sources

Dorr, Robert F., et al. Korean War Aces (1995).

Futrell, Robert Frank. The United States Air Force in Korea, 1950-1953 (1981).

Thompson, Wayne, and Nalty, Bernard C. "The Air War over Korea." In Bernard C. Nalty, ed., Winged Shield, Winged Sword: A History of the United States Air Force. Vol. II, 1950c1997, 3-52 (1997).

For additional information contact:

The Office of the Air Force Historian
AFHSO/HO
500 Duncan Avenue, Box 94
Bolling Air Force Base, Washington, D.C. 20332-1111

or e-mail: tom.yblood@pentagon.af.mil

The Korean War Aces

Note: All of the aces, except Lt. Guy Bordelon (who flew a United States Navy F4U-5NL Corsair night fighter), flew USAF F-86 Sabres. (FIS=Fighter-Interceptor Squadron; FIW=Fighter-Interceptor Wing; FBS=Fighter-Bomber Squadron)

ACE UNIT MiGs Destroyed
McConnell, Capt. Joseph M., Jr. 39 FIS 16
Jabara, Maj. James 334 FIS 15
Fernandez, Capt. Manuel J., Jr. 334 FIS 14.5
Davis, Maj. George A., Jr. 334 FIS 14
Baker, Col. Royal N. 335/336 FIS 13
Blesse, Maj. Frederick C. 334 FIS 10
Fischer, Capt. Harold E. 39 FIS 10
Johnson, Col. James K. 335 FIS 10
Garrison, Lt. Col. Vermont 335 FIS 10
Moore, Capt. Lonnie R. 335 FIS 10
Parr, Capt. Ralph S., Jr. 335 FIS 10
Low, 1st Lt. James F. 335 FIS 9
Foster, Capt. Cecil G. 16 FIS 9
Hagerstrom, Maj. James P. 334 FIS/67 FBS 8.5
Risner, Maj. Robinson 336 FIS 8
Ruddell, Lt. Col. George I. 39 FIS 8
Jolley, Capt. Clifford D. 335 FIS 7
Lilley, Capt. Leonard W. 334 FIS 7
Buttelmann, 1st Lt. Henry 25 FIS 7
Marshall, Maj. W. W. 335 FIS 6.5
Gabreski, Col. Francis S. 4/51 FIW 6.5
Adams, Maj. Donald E. 16 FIS 6.5
Jones, Lt. Col. George L. 335 FIS/51 FIW 6.5
Love, Capt. Robert J. 335 FIS 6
Bolt, Lt. Col. John F. (USMC) 39 FIS (attached) 6
Kasler, 1st Lt. James H. 335 FIS 6
Whisner, Maj. William T., Jr. 334/25 FIS 5.5
Becker, Capt. Richard S. 334 FIS 5
Gibson, Capt. Ralph D. 335 FIS 5
Creighton, Maj. Richard D. 336 FIS 5
Moore, Capt. Robert H. 336/16 FIS 5
Kincheloe, Capt. Iven C., Jr. 25 FIS 5
Westcott, Maj. William H. 25 FIS/51 FIW 5
Latshaw, Capt. Robert T., Jr. 335 FIS 5
Thyng, Col. Harrison R. 335 FIS/4 FIW 5
Overton, Capt. Dolphin D. 16 FIS 5
Baldwin, Col. Robert P. 16/25/39 FIS 5
Curtin, Capt. Clyde A. 335 FIS 5
Bettinger, Maj. Stephen L. 336 FIS 5
Bordelon, Lt. Guy (USN) VC-3 5