H061.1: U.S. Navy in the Korean War – March to July 1951

70-year Anniversary of the Korean War

U.S. Naval Operations, March-July 2001

On 1 May 1951, eight AD Skyraiders off carrier PRINCETON (CV-37) threaded their way two-by-two through 4,000 ft. mountain passes as F4U Corsairs flew ahead to provide flak suppression.  As the Skyraiders reached the Hwachon Reservoir, they leveled off on a low altitude torpedo attack profile targeting the sluicegates on the massive Hwachon Dam.  Although almost none of the pilots had any experience with torpedoes (none had been used since the end of World War II) all eight Skyraiders got their torpedoes away.  One torpedo ran erratic, one was a dud, but six ran true, demolishing one sluicegate with two direct hits and putting another out of operation with one direct hit.  Hitting the sluicegates deprived the Chinese troops and North Korean technicians on the dam from controlling the level of the Pukhan River, which separated U.S. and Chinese forces (lowering the river so Chinese troops could ford it without bridges, or inundating the valley if U.S. troops tried to cross.)  Previous attempts to knock out the dam using B-29 Superfortresses with 12,000-LB guided bombs or capturing it with Army Rangers had failed, as had an attempt the day prior by the same Skyraiders using 2,000-LB bombs and 11.5-inch “Tiny Tim” rockets with 500-LB warheads.  Finally, Navy ingenuity prevailed to accomplish the mission.  All eight torpedo plane pilots were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for what was the last aerial torpedo attack in history against a surface target.  The VA-195 Tigers then changed their name to the Dambusters.

Other significant events in the period included continuous (foul weather permitting) interdiction air strikes by Task Force 77 carrier aircraft against Chinese and North Korean logistics infrastructure such as bridges and tunnels, in a constant battle between strike aircraft and repair crews, who fixed bridges almost as fast as they could be knocked out of action.  One of the more famous bridges came to be known as “Carlson’s Canyon,” for how many times Commander “Swede” Carlson’s VA-195 Skyraiders attacked it.  In the end, the bridge was destroyed and the North Koreans built a bypass.

In mid-April 1951, the TF-77 carriers BOXER (CV-21) and PHILIPPINE SEA (CV-47) and escorts suddenly left the Sea of Japan and transited to the Formosa Strait as a show of force to deter a possible Communist Chinese invasion of Formosa, the last stronghold of the Nationalist Chinese.  Carrier aircraft flew “aerial parades” along the 3 NM limit of the Communist Chinese coast, drawing sporadic but ineffective ground fire.  During the operation, the destroyer ROBERT A. BOLE (DD-755) was ordered to a position 3 NM off the Communist port of Swatow and found herself surrounded for over five hours by almost 50 armed motorized Chinese junks, warily watching each other to see who would shoot first, as U.S. aircraft flew attack profiles on the junks, which only added to the hair-trigger situation.  There is a theory that the BOLE’s mission was intended to provoke the Chinese into shooting and give General MacArthur the excuse he was looking for to widen the war into the Chinese sanctuary in Manchuria and to mainland China. If true (which is not proven,) the Chinese refused to take the bait.  However, the Chinese also abandoned plans to invade Formosa, so the show of force and resolve arguably worked. MacArthur was fired by President Truman as the BOLE situation was ongoing (although the order had been signed on 9 April.)

Mines remained the biggest threat to U.S. Navy forces, and on 12 June 1951, destroyer WALKE (DD-723) was 60 NM off the beach when she hit one of the hundreds of contact mines that had been deliberately set adrift.  The explosion hit berthing compartments, killing 26 Sailors and wounding over 35 more.  The ship was in danger of sinking, but superb damage control saved her despite the heavy casualties.  Four crewmen were awarded the Silver Star for repeatedly entering the damaged compartments to save unconscious or badly injured shipmates.  This was the highest loss of U.S. Navy life in a single incident due to enemy action during the Korean War.  (Heavy cruiser SAINT PAUL (CA-73) suffered 30 dead in an accidental turret explosion on 21 April 1952 while bombarding enemy targets.)