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Korean War Aces

Boots Blesse in cockpit of F-86 Sabrejet

Boots Blesse in cockpit of F-86 Sabrejet

'Boots' Blesse

Page 2 of Interview

It was very frustrating because we couldn’t get at them. You’d get a MiG in trouble and he’d streak across the Yalu before you could shoot him down. You’d have to break off and let him go.

But in late November of 1950, the Chinese ground forces entered the war in full force. After that we got permission, we were allowed 'hot pursuit'.

If we had the enemy in sight and had engaged him, we could go across the border and shoot him down. But under no circumstances could we shoot airplanes or anything else that was on the ground. We could only shoot an airplane down if we were in hot pursuit."

We stretched "hot pursuit" like the longest rubber band you ever saw, because they couldn't know whether we were in hot pursuit or not. That gave us an opportunity to stretch our hunting grounds to more lucrative areas -- Phen Chen, Tai Ton Chao, Antung, all those bases just across the river. They all had 100, 150, or 200 MiGs apiece on them.

Later on we stretched 'hot pursuit' a wee bit more. On June 23, 1952, the commanders called in half a dozen dependable leaders, and said, "There’s gonna be a huge air strike today on the Suiho reservoir, over 100 air-to-ground airplanes to completely knock out that dam's electrical-generating capability. We expect a massive attack from the MiGs when that happens. We’d like to give you twenty four aircraft apiece, but you only get one flight, and your objective is to keep those MiGs on the ground. Don’t let them get airborne for about twenty minutes, while these guys make their strikes and get out."

And Phen Chen was my target; I knew Phen Chen like the back of my hand. I had watched it being built, reported it to the intelligence officers, swore them to secrecy and said, "Put an "X" right here because they’re building an air field there." About once a week I’d whip over to see what they had done. Next I observed a whole bunch of boxes on the south end and figured they were moving in airplanes. Soon two or three MiGs appeared on the runway. Before I left, they could have flown 200 airplanes from that air base.

On that day I got two kills over Phen Chen without firing a shot. Two MiGs were taxiing out when I brought my flight over the field. When they started take-off I kept my wingman high and told the element leader to protect the two of us. I kept the wingman up above me because I didn’t know what I was going to run into down there. I came down right over the approach end of the runway and these airplanes were about halfway down. The tower apparently told them, "An F-86 is coming down the runway right behind you." Big blue smoky streaks came off the tires as they tried to stop. But it was too late. They had passed the point of no return. They both ran off the end of the runway. Two airplanes were sticking like that, their engines pumping out jet fuel. They didn’t shoot at me, and I didn’t shoot at them. I had two airplanes that were totally destroyed at the end of the runway. I climbed back up and we continued to circle. All the other airplanes turned around and taxied back. Not a single MiG took off from Phen Chen that day.

And that’s exactly what they wanted us to do. Other guys were doing the same thing. I never reported those two kills. And four or five other flights had assigned airfields, keeping those planes on the ground during the air strike.

Q: Describe your rescue, the time you had to bail out.

On my last mission in Korea (3 Oct 1952), we went up there and some MiGs were flying, but we couldn’t get into them. I had a guy that was on his second mission, and he was doing fine. We went up, circled around, and took a look at Phen Chen because there wasn’t much going on. We started back with about 1200 pounds of fuel, which is enough to get back home comfortably. But four MiGs jumped us from the rear before we reached the coast. It wasn’t really a surprise. I saw the MiGs, high, over a mile back. But it was just my wingman and me; the number three airplane had had trouble with its fuel system, so three and four had returned home.

We were flying south now, headed back to Kimpo, but we’re still up in Manchuria and coming down towards Antung Air Base and the East China Sea. The first two MiGs were coming down, gaining on us. They had altitude and were turning it into airspeed. I nosed down my F-86 to keep up own my airspeed.

If we could reach the sea they wouldn't follow, because our Navy controlled the water. If they bailed out over the water our people would pick them up, they didn’t want to be prisoners. So they’d always turn around before they reached the water. But for us the water was a safe haven. If you weren’t going to get home then you wanted to get over the water, because your own people rescued you.

My wingman was behind me when this started. I watched him coming down and they were gaining on us a little bit. But they were never going to catch us before we got to the water so I really wasn't concerned.

I called my wingman, "Close it up." But he didn't close it up very well. He drifted back further, and I repeated, "Close it up, nose over, close it up, pick up your air speed." And that didn’t happen quickly enough. The MiG flight leader, a pretty smart guy, took a long range shot with that thirty-seven millimeter cannon at my number two. He knew he couldn’t hit my wingman, but he probably thought he might get him to turn, and that’s what he did.

Their thirty-seven millimeter was a strange weapon. When they fired it you could see the round coming, and after it went underneath, you could see it going. So it made a pretty big impression on you.

The MiG pilot fired several rounds, and my wingman broke without telling me. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Now the first two MiGs are coming around to cut off my wingman. I checked my fuel gauge and said to myself, "Oh man, this is one thing I don’t need." I came back down, sandwiching the two MiGs between my wingman and myself. I could see the number three and four MiGs trying to cut me off, trying to come in behind me. This fight had started about 23,000 feet; we still had lots of altitude. I told him, "Put your nose down and keep four "G’s" on that thing and we’ll be okay. So he did, he was pulling it around and going down, the MiGs were trying to get on him, and finally I got in position on the number two man, and I hit him. Sparks flew and pieces of his tail came off. He broke off right away, then the leader broke off, and the two of them left. I called my wingman and said, "Okay, you’re clear, roll it out, heading such and such and keep going. Climb to 32,000 feet and you’ll be okay." He did that and got home fine.

But I still had two MiGs behind me. Two had gone home, but I still had two behind me. We went a couple more turns, I got down to 7,000 feet, gobbling fuel like mad, keeping the MiGs to the outside. They were not turning quite as tight as I was. I rolled over the top, went around, and got behind them. They took off, and the minute they did I was so glad. I didn’t have enough fuel to chase them. I was just trying to get away from them. They went back across the Yalu River, and I went off the other direction to go home.

Now I was about 6,000 feet; my fuel gauge showed about 700 pounds of fuel. I thought, "Boy, is this going to be close." I climbed out to about 9,000 feet, when over to the left I saw a MiG letting down in front of me. I thought, "Oh my God, school’s out." I didn’t have enough fuel to fight this guy. He was out in front of me, I was just waiting for him to turn into me. But he never saw me. He just kept letting down and going across, heading for the Yalu River. I looked at my fuel gauge, and at that MiG in front of me, and said, "What the hell, why not?" I pulled in underneath, slid in behind him, and shot him down. He burst into flames and went off. I started back home again with maybe 500 pounds of fuel.

Our squadron operations people had developed a low-fuel procedure. If you could get to Pyongyang at 33,000 feet with at least 400 pounds of fuel, then you could pull it back to idle and glide at 200 knots all the way. You’d get there at idle as long as you didn’t have to push the throttle forward. No throttle manipulation in the traffic pattern, you had to come straight in.

But if you had less than 400 pounds that was a shut down maneuver. You shut the engine off, glided at 180 knots until you got to about 6,000 feet, then you did an air start and one 360 degree turn and used the remaining fuel to land the airplane. I had done that two or three times, and found that it was a safe procedure.

I decided to try it, and started climbing to gain altitude. At about 17,000 feet, I called the base weather officer. Pilots used to hang out in the ready room where the radios were, to listen for the flights, to hear who was fighting, and to hear who was doing what on the radio.
I called the weather guy and said, "I need to know the winds. I’m low on fuel, and if I’ve got a head wind coming home, I don't know if I can make it."
The weather guy said, "You have a sixty knot quartering head wind from the east."
I said, "Alright, I won't be able to reach Kimpo. I’m turning west, to land on the beach at Pen Yang Do," an island about twenty-five miles off the coast. I got on the rescue channel to ask where Dumbo (the Grumman SA-16 rescue plane) was. The operator said, "He’s out there circling." I replied, "Okay, go to Pen Yang Do, I’m low on fuel. If I don’t make it I’m going to bail out between the coast and Pen Yang Do." I wasn’t sure, but the winds really weren’t at my tail; they seemed to be head winds to me. I was losing the battle to reach the water. I turned to the right and decided to bail out there, which required me to shut down the airplane.

But I changed my mind, and determined that I had to make the coast, no matter what. With only 400 pounds of fuel left, I re-started the Sabre's engine, and climbed to 11,000 feet when it soon flamed out. Gliding down, I got out over the water. At about 3,000 feet I called back to Stormy, the weather guy, and said, "I’ve cleared the coast, I’m about 3,000 feet and am bailing out. Dumbo's in sight. Everything’s good."

Then one of the best things that ever happened to me occurred. I’ll never forget it as long as I live. At that moment, I was about ready to pull the ejection handle, and one of the pilots with Stormy picked up the mike and said, "You little red-headed bugger, you better get yourself back to dinner. You owe me five bucks. Good luck buddy." Then another guy picked it up. Everybody had something to say, even if it was, "Good luck Blesse, we’ll see you at supper." Here I was losing altitude, getting too close to the water, yet all that was going through my mind was "God, what a wonderful bunch of guys."

I unfastened my safety belt so I wouldn't get tangled up with the seat. I wanted the wind blast to tear that seat away. When the seat goes it pulls your rip cord automatically. Since I was down to only 1500 feet when I bailed out, I didn’t want to start tumbling in the seat and trying to kick away from it.

I went out beautifully; the seat went away from me and the chute deployed immediately. I came down in the water and milled around for a few minutes. My maps and some other things had fallen out of my pockets and were floating around. I activated my dinghy and threw in all this stuff. Immediately the SA-16, plopped down, taxied over towards me, and the guy fired a rope line out of a big opening in the back of the airplane. I grabbed the rope and pulled myself underneath the plane. A couple of guys helped me up into the opening, and as soon as I got aboard, the pilot started moving off. I ran down the aisle to him and said, "Wait a minute, my dinghy’s out there; it’s got all my stuff in it." And he said, "To Hell with your dinghy! They’re shooting at us. We're getting the Hell out of here." I guess it was the first time he had been fired at.

Q: This rescue business was really pretty hairy, wasn't it?

Blesse: Not so bad. I’d been pulled out of the water in 1946 when I had an engine failure in a P-47, about thirty miles west of Okinawa. But the main thing about it was wondering what’s lurking. Number one you need a dinghy that works. Every fighter pilot sits on a little one-man life raft, and when you go out you gotta know the procedures. You pull some lanyards and it inflates. But when I bailed out of the P-47, I pulled the lanyard and that dinghy wouldn't inflate. I was treading water with nothing but a Mae West on. Luckily a nearby fisherman picked me up in his little boat. An flying boat came by, touched down, and they transferred me into it.

But when I bailed out of the F-86 the dinghy worked perfectly. I was paddling around in the dinghy. It was a little cool because it was October but it really wasn’t that bad. The seat, my parachute, the dinghy, and everything had worked as advertised; that was quite exhilarating. But I remember my sinking feeling when my F-86 hit the water and sank to the bottom, that was traumatic. I felt that more than my own safety because the crew chief and I had worked to put a high polish on it, making it a little faster. I had to come back and tell him that our plane was in the bottom of the East China Sea. All that work for nothing.

Q: Who was your enemy? What language was he speaking, how did you know this?

Blesse: At the beginning we just assumed that we were flying against North Korean pilots. But that wasn’t true except for the first month or two. The North Koreans were out of it pretty quickly, and Chinese pilots came in. As the war went on, Russian pilots came in. They’d send in a squadron or two to operate for several months. As a pilot, I never heard any transmissions from any Communist planes; we were not on the same frequencies.

But our controllers heard the enemy speaking different languages. So they brought in guys who understood North Korean, Russian, and Chinese, and these guys passed information down to the squadron that North Korean or Chinese pilots were flying. But we never really paid much attention to that. Actually, the whole time I was in Korea, from April until October of 1952, I didn’t know that Russian pilots were flying MiGs into combat. I only found that out later.

Q: Could you tell by the dexterity with which they used their aircraft who they were?

Blesse: Not really. My objective was to shoot somebody down. I didn't care what nationality he was, or whether he was better than the guy who flew yesterday. I’m sure there were some very good Chinese pilots and some very bad ones. And there were some very good Russian pilots and some very bad ones because they were getting shot down at a rate of about thirteen to one. (Editor's note - Post-war USAF studies show a kill ratio of 2 or 3 to 1. See Robert F. Dorr, Korean War Aces, Osprey Aircraft of the Aces, 1995)

As much as I wanted to mix it up with the MiGs, there was one time when my wingman and I attacked a four ship flight, and watched them do everything according to the book, very skillfully. As we closed in from the rear, the element leader slid out to the right. They were heading home and didn’t want to vary their course. As we approached him, I told my wingman, "We’ll go in here, but we gotta watch that element. If that element doesn’t know what to do, we’ll shoot down the number two man. But if he reverses and comes back in here, we’re gone because we’re not in very good position. We’re going away from home, we don’t have much fuel, and we don’t want to get mixed up with these guys. But if we can pick off an easy kill, we will." And as we closed up, that MiG pilot just started moving down threateningly. When he did that I just split and we went home. That was the only time in Korea when I left a possible fight without going ahead and trying it.

One time (4 Sept 1952) we took on sixteen aircraft with a two ship flight. The MiGs just kept peeling off, and every time I told myself the same thing: "If this guy reverses, we’re out of here." But they all kept going away until finally the number three and four man broke off and didn’t protect the lead element. We shot down the number two, and then we got involved in something else. The leader broke off when we shot down his number two, and we started maneuvering around. That was the one mission when I got two kills. But it was ridiculous. I shot down two MiGs that day, and just two of us had attacked a flight of sixteen. None of them attempted any mutual support. If just one of them had closed into the rear, I would've been out of there. But they flew off and didn't do anything about it.

Q: Describe the different models of the F-86.

Blesse: In December 1950, the USAF began flying the Sabre model designation F-86A in Korea. It had manual cable controls, but it was the only swept wing jet fighter available, and they elected to send it to Korea where it was combat tested. They were still flying the "A" when I got there, in April of 1952. My first sixty missions I flew in an A-model.

The "A" did not have the hydraulic control system that came with the F-86 E-10, which was the second model. I flew the rest of my 100 missions in the E-10. I volunteered for twenty-five more and flew those in the F-86 E-10. In June we began getting a Canadian E-10 which had hydraulics to power the flaps, ailerons, and elevators. Moving the flying surfaces by hydraulics was a lot better than by cable because you could roll the aircraft over at high altitudes, and still do something with it. If you rolled the "A" over at 35,000 feet it just dived like an arrow until you got down around 18,000 feet where the air was a little thicker and you could control it then. Everything was done with hydraulics in the E-10, which cost more weight. While it had the same engine as the "A," it was slower . But the E-10 was good, and I flew it for the rest of my time in Korea.

After the E-10, after I left, they got the "F" model. From January to June 1953, our guys flew the "F," which had a "six three" slat in it. The slat was three inches thick and came down six inches at slow speeds. That gave you much better turning capability. The E-10 had a six five slat, which was quite thick, and although it did some good, it wasn’t nearly as good a turning airplane as the "F" model with its six three. Also the "F" had a modified engine with 600 pounds more thrust. That allowed you to turn tighter, and it also allowed you to climb better. That was very important in a fight. A third thing was the twenty millimeter guns. At the end of the war some of the "F" models came over equipped with twenty millimeter guns. These allowed you to fire at a MiG from a couple thousand feet and still get some significant damage.

And that’s the way they finished up the war -- with the bigger engine, the six three slats in the "F, and the twenty millimeter gun. The slat, the engine, and the gun. Those were the three primary things that helped increase our kill ratio by the end of the war. But we had about ten and to one during the time I was there. And the ratio got even better after these airplanes got into the theater.

Looking back on my tour I’m very grateful that I was over there at that time. I’m lucky to have scored as many kills as I did without getting in any serious trouble. Only two guys, Davis and I, got ten or more kills in the old airplanes. All the other people that got ten were flying late in the war when there was more activity and better equipment. But I would have liked to have been there six months later.

Sperry A-1C gunsight

We used a marvelous gun sight, the Sperry A-1C radar gunsight. It had a range limiter on it, which you could set to 1000, 1200, or 1600 feet. The earlier gunsights had a pipper in them and if you didn’t have this range limiter to set, the pipper would go off the screen when you turned sharply, and it wouldn’t display, because you needed more lead than it could give you. Until you backed off on the "G’s," the pipper wouldn't come back. Well you can’t do that in a fight. So that wasn’t very useful to us. But when they developed this range limiter, you’d set it on 1200 feet, for example, and that dot would stay right there. It would only drift off maybe a quarter or half an inch. You’d just continue to maneuver until you got close enough. The range limiter would activate when you crossed 1200 feet. From then on you were getting actual lead to your target. So you waited for that sign on the circle that was around the dot. When you got that, you were getting good lead. You'd get the pipper on him and go after him.

Q: Tell me about the time you hit the truck.

Blesse: I came close to terminating my career on my first P-51 mission, when I tried to land with about a tenth of a mile visibility. All this weather had rolled in, and a truck was trying to cross the runway. It wasn’t a runway really, it was a 3700 foot grass strip. I was trying to land and the driver thought nobody else would ever be there, We were trying to get a four ship flight in.

The visibility was listed officially as a tenth of a mile but it was a lot less than that because my flight leader landed and went out of sight. He couldn’t have been 600 feet ahead of me. Suddenly the truck appeared! I first thought my leader was going to hit it. Then I realized that I was going to hit the damn thing. I reached out switched off the mag and the battery. I just don’t like explosions and fires in my aircraft if I can help it.

My left wing hit the engine part of the truck, just in front of the driver. The driver and the other guy in the front seat were okay. But a Korean standing in the back got killed. Didn’t do the truck any good. It hit the wing and swung the airplane around. The right wing started to fly up and my P-51 cartwheeled into the air. Suddenly I found myself looking down about thirty feet. I saw this big prop going around; the airplane came down and it hit right on the nose, dipped over on its back, chugged a couple of times, and stopped.

The Mustang had rolled up and pinned me on the ground. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t get out. There was a crash bar fortunately, which had embedded itself in the ground but it had saved me from breaking my neck. I was over to the side, and the gasoline started coming out of the fuselage tank, coming down my back, rolling into my helmet, and filling up my ear with hundred octane. I wiggled my toes and my fingers, and realized "God damn it, I’m not even hurt." Then I thought "I gotta get out of here." I couldn’t move an inch in any direction. Next I began to smell the gas, and thought "Oh shit, this isn't going to be good."

They came and dug a big hole and got me out. That was a pretty harrowing experience. I got some gasoline burns on the inside of my ear that showed up a little later, but that was the worst thing that had happened to me.

Q: Did you have anything to do with air drops, air rescue, the guerrilla stuff on the islands off the west coast?

Blesse: We didn’t have anything to do with rescue or air drop missions in the F-86 outfits. The closest we came to that was the airplane we called the Dumbo, the SA-16 and that was assigned for air sea rescue. When a pilot go down, the Dumbo flew out, picked him up out of the water, and brought him back.

Q: How did you use the tactical knowledge gained in Korea?

Blesse:I brought the information and doctrinal experience that we learned back to our tactics team at Nellis Air Force Base, where all F-86 training was conducted. I commanded one of the squadrons there. We formed a tactics team and worked with other F-86 units. Some Navy and Marine outfits visited Nellis on weekends and we worked with them. In March of 1955, General Ben Davis, in the Pentagon's Fighter Division, ordered my tactics team to the Far East to evaluate our F-86 outfits over there. I had a team that was myself, Captain Brooks Lauss(?), Don Pascow, and Walter Druin. We went to the Pacific and flew with all the squadrons in the Far East, evaluated them, and unfortunately got a couple of wing commanders fired because of what was going on over there.

At Nellis we were teaching the tactics that we used in the 334 squadron in Korea. I got back to Nellis and I started teaching this to my squadron there and to all my students. The group commander decided to do this wing wide, and so we taught it to the other six squadrons there. Then they wanted me to take that tactics outfit to Southeast Asia. I wrote a little three page hand-out to give to the Marine and the other pilots that we’d fly with, so that they could remember what we were doing. That seemed a little inadequate for something that was dictated by the Pentagon. So I wrote a manual called "No Guts No Glory." I didn’t want to bore everybody to death so I went over to the fighter weapons outfit and asked one of their illustrators to help me out. I said to him, "Here’s the doctrine. This is what we’re doing." I gave him some ideas for the cartoons and he did all the illustration.

Q: You guys started what was known as the Air Force in Korea really. What did that make you feel like? I mean what did you feel you were doing at the time?

Blesse: Our work in Korea was very important because it was the first real good tactical air-to-air experience that the Air Force was gonna have on record. I never felt that we had invented anything. I had read articles from British fighter pilots. I got ideas from Gerry Johnson, Bud Mahurin, Gabby Gabreski, and other people that I had talked to and flown with. They all had ideas. I took what had worked for them and added some things that made it a little easier in jets. It combined all the different things that were learned in W.W.II. and in Korea. But I always felt that we were cutting a new niche for the Air Force. We were going into areas where nobody had gone before, and giving them some pretty good information. I was very proud of that.

After the Korean war, he stayed in the Air Force, and rose to the rank of Major General. A few highlights of his distinguished career include:

His military decorations and awards include the Distinguished Service Medal; Silver Star with two oak leaf clusters (OLC's); Legion of Merit with OLC; Distinguished Flying Cross with 5 OLC's; Purple Heart; and many others. In the course of his career he accumulated 6,500 flying hours, mostly in fighter planes including the P-40, P-47, P-51, F-80, F-86, F-100, F-102, A-7, F-104, F-106, F-4, and F-111.

Sources and Recommended Books: