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Officers in Flight Suits: The Story of American Air Force Fighter Pilots in the Korean War

John Darrell Sherwood
Copyright Date: 1996
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 247
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qg3ps
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  • Book Info
    Officers in Flight Suits
    Book Description:

    The United States Air Force fought as a truly independent service for the first time during the Korean War. Ruling the skies in many celebrated aerial battles, even against the advanced Soviet MiG-15, American fighter pilots reigned supreme. Yet they also destroyed virtually every major town and city in North Korea, demolished its entire crop irrigation system and killed close to one million civilians. The self-confidence and willingness to take risks which defined the lives of these men became a trademark of the fighter pilot culture, what author John Darrell Sherwood here refers to as the flight suit attitude. In Officers in Flight Suits, John Darrell Sherwood takes a closer look at the flight suit officer's life by drawing on memoirs, diaries, letters, novels, unit records, and personal papers as well as interviews with over fifty veterans who served in the Air Force in Korea. Tracing their lives from their training to the flight suit culture they developed, the author demonstrates how their unique lifestyle affected their performance in battle and their attitudes toward others, particularly women, in their off-duty activities.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-8887-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Photographs
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. List of Tables and Maps
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  6. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    At 0600 on 10 October 1952, Major Robinson “Robbie” Risner, a fighter pilot stationed at Kimpo Air Field, South Korea, opened his eyes and surveyed his quarters. He noted the drafty windows, the ammunition crate furniture, and the pot-bellied stove. Excited about the day’s flight, Risner jumped out of bed, snatched a flight suit, and headed out into the forty-degree air. A quick shower followed by a bland breakfast of powdered eggs, weak coffee, and cold toast was in order.¹

    After breakfast, Risner proceeded to the operations hut for the intelligence and weather briefings. The intelligence officer went over the...

  7. 2 An Absence of Ring-Knockers: The Social Background and Education of Flight Suit Officers
    (pp. 11-36)

    At the onset of the Korean War, the Air Force was only three years old. As a result, its social composition resembled that of the U.S. Army, the service from which it had recently detached itself. Like the Army officer corps, the Air Force officers came from a predominantly white, Protestant, rural background. The Air Force officer corps, however, differed from the ground service in one important aspect: education.

    Unlike his peers in the Army and Navy, the average Air Force officer in the 1950s did not possess a four-year college degree. While 75.4 percent of the Navy’s regular officers...

  8. Photographs
    (pp. None)
  9. 3 Stick and Rudder University: Training and the Creation of the Flight Suit Officer
    (pp. 37-67)

    The Air Force’s emphasis in the 1950s on the singular skill of piloting distinguished it from the other services. During the Korean War, over 50 percent of the Air Force Officer Corps had silver pilot’s wings, and almost all commanders were pilots: 200 of the 207 Air Force general officers in 1950 were pilots.² Furthermore, unlike the Army and the Navy, where most officers received their commission from ROTC or the military academies, two-thirds of Air Force officers received their commission directly through the Aviation Cadets—a program that combined officer candidate school with pilot school. Pilot training, in short,...

  10. 4 MiG Alley: Air-to-Air Combat in Korea
    (pp. 70-94)

    In 1950, James Hagerstrom was promoted to major; by 1958, he was a full colonel. How does one rise two ranks in the Air Force in the space of eight years? For Hagerstrom, such advancement was achieved by shooting down eight and a half Chinese MiG-15S during the Korean War.¹ As soon as he found out he was going to Korea, Hagerstrom understood implicitly that all of his future assignments and promotions would depend not only on his flying combat missions, but killing MiGs as well. Consequently, he did everything he could to prepare himself for such a task: he...

  11. Photographs
    (pp. None)
  12. 5 Headhunters and Fighting Cocks: The Fighter-Bomber in Korea
    (pp. 95-115)

    In James Salter’s novelThe Hunters(1956), Cleve Saville, an F-86 fighter-interceptor pilot, is obsessed with one thing: killing MiGs. Although Saville had already distinguished himself as a fighter pilot during World War II, he realized when he got to Korea that he would have to shoot down MiGs to maintain his status as a superior pilot. He was not arriving in Korea as a second lieutenant straight out of flight school, but as a veteran captain and flight commander. Consequently, it was imperative for him to shoot down at least as many MiGs as any other pilot in his...

  13. 6 Thunderboxes and Sabre Dancers: Base Life and Recreation in the Korean War
    (pp. 116-142)

    Every morning in Korea, George Berke and the twelve other pilots in his barracks would wake up and yell in unison, “1–2-3: We hate this fucking place!” What these men hated was living in unfurnished, poorly heated huts, defecating in slit trenches, and showering outdoors in the middle of the winter. They also despised the dusty, dirty, bombed-out Korean countryside.

    However, despite their primitive conditions, Berke and other flight suit officers did not suffer from extreme deprivation in Korea. Cheap Asian labor alleviated many of the major hardships of base living. For example, “house boys” cleaned barracks and latrines,...

  14. 7 Life after Korea
    (pp. 143-163)

    In 1969, a gray-haired Frank Tomlinson climbed into the cockpit of a Special Forces AD-I Skyraider at Nakhon Phanom air base in Northern Thailand and took off for what would be the last mission of his Southeast Asia tour. The mission was a pre-dawn strike against Communist forces in the Plain du Jars area of Laos. Although Tomlinson was now a full colonel and could have retired from the Air Force years ago, he was flying a propeller-driven, Korean War-era fighter in one of the most hazardous areas of operation in Southeast Asia. He was having the time of his...

  15. 8 Epilogue
    (pp. 164-168)

    Most of the pilots interviewed for this book lament the end of the flight suit era. The Air Force of today, argue pilots such as Hagerstrom and Berke, is too big, too bureaucratic, and no longer encourages initiative and independence in its pilots. Instead, all mission planning is done in the Pentagon, and missions themselves are closely controlled and monitored by Airborne Early Warning Planes (AWACS). The pilot who is too aggressive and pursues a plane into unauthorized air space is summarily court-martialed. Similarly, the pilot who displays his flight suit attitude at a pilot’s convention is immediately given an...

  16. Appendix 1. Air Interdiction in Korea: An Operational Overview
    (pp. 169-179)
  17. Appendix 2. Korean Conflict Aerial Victory Credits
    (pp. 180-185)
  18. Appendix 3. Far East Air Forces Table of Equipment and Sorties by Aircraft Type, 1952
    (pp. 186-188)
  19. Appendix 4. Tabulation of Sorties Flown by the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Allied Air Services in Korea
    (pp. 189-189)
  20. Appendix 5. Air Force, Marine, and Allied Aircraft Losses in Korea
    (pp. 190-190)
  21. Notes
    (pp. 191-220)
  22. Blbliography
    (pp. 221-228)
  23. Index
    (pp. 229-240)
  24. Back Matter
    (pp. 241-241)