Back to Bud Mahurin first page

Korean War Aces

F-86 Sabre Jet page

F-86E Sabre Jet

F-86E Sabre jet


MiG 15, Soviet fighter jet used in Korea

'Bud' Mahurin - Page 2

Secrets of War interview

"If you’re gonna cross the Yalu, for god’s sake, turn off your identification friend or foe system, because we can track you on radar," [the General told Mahurin and his comrades, after chewing them out for flying over China.]

So, that opened the door. We were really going to go get them. But the JCS, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had only authorized what they called 'hot pursuit'. If you were attacking a MiG, and had a chance of shooting it down, you could cross the river.

Toward the end of the war, when the peace negotiations looked promising, and nobody on either side wanted to stir up trouble, they quit crossing the Yalu, but it was a lot of fun. However, you didn’t want to get shot down over Manchuria. This happened to a couple of guys, and they were held as POWs for over six months after the war ended. The Chinese treated them harshly, but eventually they came home.

Q: Who was in the cockpit of the MiG? Who was your enemy?

Mahurin: We were concerned by the information that we were getting from our radar controllers. We would get calls like, "Bandit flight now in the Antung area." Our pilots would immediately zip up to Antung, looking for the enemy. We wouldn’t find anybody, so we thought we were getting misinformation.

I had the clearance which would allow me to go up to that radar site. There I found that almost all the MiGs' air-to-ground and air-to-air communication was in Russian. Our radar site had some Russian-speaking controllers, who could hear their communications. As soon the enemy controller ordered his flights to scramble, our guy would receive that information in Russian. He would transmit in English over to our controllers, who would then say that flight number one is now in the Antung area. But it took quite a time for the enemy to climb up to our altitude. We thought they’d be right there and didn’t allow for the time lag. So our guys weren’t trusting our radar at all.

When I returned to our base, I told my pilots to believe the reports from the radar site. We compensated for that time lag by splitting our flights up into elements of two. Two aircraft here, two there, two there, with flight leader discretion. Each leader of two aircraft could go wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted, until the commander in the air sent out different instructions. As a result, if we had forty-eight aircraft in the air, there were two here, two there, two there, all around in the sky.

The Russians couldn’t send up a big group of MiG-15s, attacking two aircraft with forty, it didn’t make sense. It’s a waste of airpower. So, the Russians would get squared away and try to send in big numbers of MiGs to our little two and two and two. In the meantime, the first guy that saw the formation would say, "I can see them, they’re in the vicinity of so and so." So, all our pairs would head for that location. As the Russians came down into our area, elements here and there would start to tag them until we had all we needed to attack. That represented a really big change in tactics, and it was highly successful, because we were able to get into them pretty good after that.

Q: You’re saying that these were all Russians. I thought we were fighting the North Koreans.

Mahurin: They were predominantly Russian. There were a small number of Chinese and North Korean pilots who would talk in Chinese or Korean. Our controllers listened to their communications. When those people took off, our controllers would call us and say, "The Koshun flight is now in the air." And Koshun meant kite flight to us, so every time we thought, "Boy, if we could only get into those kite-flying guys we’ll have great success." We really did, because they couldn’t fly well at all. But they were very few; the Russian pilots predominated. We didn’t see very many Orientals. A couple of times, the Communist controllers were confused, and they actually intermingled the Russian airplanes with the Oriental airplanes, and the Russians shot down their own allies, the Oriental pilots. Our controllers heard this over their air-to-air communications.

Q: You're in the cockpit of an F-86, and you’re out after a MiG. Describe what’s going on in your mind and what you’re actually doing with your aircraft.

Mahurin: It depends on the circumstances of the combat. On several occasions, I dogfought, like World War I, with a MiG. Once we started fighting about 37,000 feet, went around and around down to the ground and back up to about 26,000, before I shot him down. So that hadn’t changed much since World Wars One and Two. It was very exciting and a lot of fun. On a couple of other occasions, we caught them when they didn’t know we were there. That was just a matter of going in and shooting down an unaware pilot. But we could outperform them with the F-86's slab tail, we could turn faster than they could, we could dive faster, and we could pull out quicker. We didn’t try to climb with them, because they could climb higher than we could. We tried to keep the combat on those elements where we had an advantage. Whenever they were gaining an advantage, we could always leave, we could always turn around and dive away.

When you talk to a pilot, especially a guy like me who has a lot of years on him, his stories get better by the moment. The next thing you know, his airplane was a dud, but due to sheer combat capability he was able to shoot down twenty enemy aircraft.

Just after the war, a North Korean pilot named Ro Kim Suk defected with a MiG-15 and landed at Kimpo airport just outside of Seoul. The MiG-15 was sent to Wright Field, and Chuck Yeager did the performance tests on it, which revealed that the F-86s was slightly faster. The Sabre had lots of combat capability that the MiG didn’t. Above all, it had the creature comforts that I talked about earlier. The MiG-15 wasn’t as good as the F-86, but all in all it was a pretty good airplane. A lot of them have survived, and once in a while, F-86s and MiGs show up at air shows, and it’s quite a sight to see them. Especially when you realize that one of them used to be an enemy.

Q: I heard that the Russians copied the British 'Nene' jet engine. So the Sabres were basically fighting against British engines.

Mahurin: The British scientist, Sir Frank Whittle, had developed a jet engine that worked on a centrifugal compressor. If you looked inside your washing machine and saw that thing rotating around, in essence that was the thing that compressed the air that went through burner chambers and then out the back end of the MiG-15's engine. The only way to increase the performance of that engine was to increase the size of that compressor. When you did that, you increased the weight of the turbine wheel. Then the engine got to the point where its increased performance didn’t compensate for the added weight. So the centrifugal compressor engine eventually became obsolete. But during the Korean War, it was pretty good for the MiG-15 and light enough so that it had a high performance.

But the F-86 was powered by the GE J-47, an axial flow engine. This engine is like having a whole bunch of electric fans stuck together, pumping air in and increasing compression. That compressed air goes through the area where they have gas, and ignites the fuel, and that goes through turbine wheels on the back end, and that provides the forward thrust. Eventually, the world embraced the axial flow engine.

Q: How was the F-86 modified in the course of the Korean War?

Mahurin: There was a lot of controversy about our armament. The F-86 had six Browning fifty-caliber machine guns, which fired a bullet slightly smaller in diameter than my thumb. The MiGs used cannons, and one of the cannons was a thirty-seven millimeter, an inch-and-a-half in diameter. Many people argued that our guns were underpowered. So the Air Force put twenty-millimeter cannons on some F-86s toward the end of the war, which flew combat in Korea. But it was too late to equip all the F-86s that way. But those of us who flew F-86s were satisfied with the six fifty-caliber machine guns. It’s a tremendous amount of firepower. Until you actually see that gunfire hit a locomotive, or a tank, or a building, and see all those bullets hitting all at once, you have no idea of the power of that fifty-caliber machine gun. It was incredible.

Q: How many seconds or minutes worth of ammunition are you carrying, and what do you have to do to think through how to use that?

Mahurin: That depends on what effect you’re having on the enemy. And you can tell the damage you’re doing. If you’re not having much effect, you want to use it until you’re out of ammunition, and then you want to go home. But, if there’s a lot of enemy aircraft around, you obviously want to conserve the ammunition.

During World War II, we carried 450 rounds per gun, and the P-47s that I flew had eight of those guns. The armorers used to put five rounds of tracer ammunition before the last fifty rounds in each gun. When we saw tracers, we knew we had fifty rounds per gun left. I don’t know why we didn’t do that in Korea. Very few people ran out of ammunition. I did several times, but mostly because I was shooting up ground targets. When you fire three seconds worth of those fifty-caliber bullets, it’s an awful lot of bullets, it’s an awful lot of power. If you’re in the right position, you really don’t need any more.


Q: Describe the incident when you were shot down.

Mahurin: We were trying to entice the MiGs to come across the Yalu River and fight with us, so we started to carry bombs in our F-86s. As the commander of a fighter group, you don’t call your pilots in, to brief them on a new operation and say "Okay, you go out there and go get ‘em, I’ve got some staff work to do." You like to say, "Well, this is kind of experimental. I’ll lead the mission."

When we first decided to carry bombs in the F-86s, we needed external fuel to get back home. We could only carry bombs on the wing mount, so in our first bombing mission, we put a 500 pound bomb on one side, and carried fuel on the other. We wanted to see how far we could get, drop a bomb, and still have enough fuel to come back home. That went off successfully, although our accuracy was terrible, so the next mission we ran, we carried two 500 pound bombs and no external fuel, to see how far we could get. Then we tried one 1,000 pound bomb and an external fuel tank, and calibrated how far we could get, and how much fuel would be remaining.

On my last mission (May 13, 1952), I flew as a leader; we carried two 1,000 pound bombs, and no external fuel. Halfway up the bomb zone from where we were located, we bombed a rail marshalling yard, from fairly low altitude, to see the impact of these thousand pound bombs and to see what our accuracy was.

I was brought down by anti-aircraft fire, and by foolishness. Combat fatigue can take a number of different forms. When a pilot refuses to go on a mission, when he continually aborts with engine trouble and malfunctioning instruments, or when he has a lot of colds, that’s evidence that he’s losing his courage. But there’s another form that says, "They can’t lay a gun on me, I’m invincible." That’s where I was. I figured they couldn’t touch me. I was on the side of God. I felt that we were doing the right thing for humanity.

As I rolled into my target, I saw a truck coming into the target area. I thought to drop my bomb, and then go down to strafe that truck. Back at the officer’s club bar, I would have a great story to tell. As I got squared away to shoot up the truck, it turned off the road. I increased power to climb out and was hit by ground fire, about three or four times.

The cockpit filled with smoke; I opened it up to clear the smoke out, so I could see the instrument panel. I immediately called my element leader and told him I’d been hit, could he see me. He couldn’t find me because I had done something that we hadn’t briefed on. He told me to switch to emergency channel on my radio, and that used all the power that was left in the battery, so I couldn’t transmit any more. I headed toward the Yellow Sea, where I hoped to ditch and get picked up by helicopter. Passing over two more heavily defended towns, I got hit three or four more times. I eventually just had to fly into the ground. By then, my instrument panel showed both a forward fire-warning light, and an aft fire-warning light. That usually is an indication that you better do something. Fortunately I landed in a rice paddy. I think I hit a telephone pole right before the airplane slapped down on the ground. The fuselage broke loose from the wings and rolled over a couple of times, and I ended up upside down with the tail going in the direction that I’d been flying.

Q: Why didn't you eject?

Mahurin: I didn't eject because I was too low when I'd been hit. The ejection seat hadn't been perfected yet. Only about sixty percent of the guys that ejected survived. So, at low altitude and knowing the odds, it wasn't really a choice. I preferred to try to make it to the Yellow Sea, where I could ditch and then be rescued by helicopter. Ejection was not an option.

Q: When you're bombing, how low to the ground are you? What does the concussion feel like?

Mahurin: In modern air war, you really don't hear the concussion because you're going too fast. But in World War Two, there was a tremendous blast effect. But as a modern pilot, you just don't hear it.

When we started to bomb with the F-86, we varied our altitude. We started out about 15,000 feet and the last time, we were down to about 6,000. None of us knew how to bomb with the F-86. We hadn't had any practice; the whole thing was experimental. We were rolling over and diving straight down in hopes that the bomb would continue to drop straight down when we pulled out. It was horribly inaccurate, but eventually, the Air Force ordered over 750 F-86 E's that could carry bombs on stations underneath the wing, in addition to its regular fuel load. These were called F-86 F's and they equipped several wings in Korea with those new airplanes and thus came up with an excellent dive bombing capability.

Q: Now you're a prisoner of war. What's going through your mind? What kind of prisoner of war are you?

Mahurin: First off, you're exposed to Orientals, and to people who have embraced the Communist philosophy. Those things are hard for a person that was brought up in the United States to cope with. When I was captured, I expected to be interrogated along military matters and then sent to a POW camp. For the first twenty or so days, I was interrogated by North Koreans; for the next forty-five days, I was interrogated by English-speaking Chinese, all on military matters. After that, I was taken north to a prison camp near the Ao(?) River, where I stayed for the rest of the war.

I was interrogated on several occasions after that, but suddenly the interrogations became political instead of military. It's easy to say how big the F-86 is, what radio channels you use, and that sort of thing, It was easy to tell them anything I wanted to because the interrogators didn't know intimate military details. You're apprehensive all the time because you're not gonna be treated by the rules of the Geneva Convention. But, all of a sudden, the interrogations took a different twist. They started to accuse me of instigating a campaign of germ warfare against North Korea and China.

Q: Why did they think that? Was your aircraft were disseminating germs or what? What was going on?

Mahurin: It was all a propaganda ploy. By mid-1952, we were defeating the Chinese and the North Koreans again. Earlier, MacArthur had reached the Yalu River and then had been driven back to the thirty-eighth parallel, where the war had stagnated. But even though the Chinese eventually committed over a million men in North Korea, both the North Koreans and the Chinese had lost their will to fight.

There were two Caucasians who acted as go-betweens between the Communists and our newspeople down at Freedom Village in Caysong(?). The only way our media got information on what was going on on the enemy side was through these two individuals. One of them had devised the germ warfare allegations to create the desire to fight on the part of the North Koreans and the Chinese. The North Korean and Chinese populations were susceptible to all kinds of infectious diseases anyway. The countries aren't really clean even today in the rural areas. So, if the people could be convinced that germs were being dropped on them, they were gonna get mad.

Every captured airman was confronted with these allegations. He had to confess to waging germ warfare in order to solve his situation. We all knew that nothing like that was even considered, we knew it wouldn't work, it was totally unfeasible. Yet the interrogators sounded very knowledgeable. All you could do is say, "I don't know anything about that." And they would continue the pressure by asking you questions. "Are there any men in white uniforms at your air base?" Clue, that's a clue. If you're gonna confess, you gotta have men in white uniforms. "What did you carry in your fuel tanks?" Well, that says you gotta have space in there for some kind of pestilence to drop.

On and on and on came these leading questions. The interrogations lasted hour after hour after hour. Because I was a senior Air Force guy, they worked on me pretty heavily. They had to have some organizational chain of command. An Air Force lieutenant couldn't take responsibility for starting germ warfare. A junior officer would have to look up the line and say, "Colonel Joe Blow came into our organization and he started the germ warfare." So they worked me over. Fortunately, they captured a Marine full colonel, and under the interrogation: lack of food, no sleep, and terrible living conditions, he finally confessed to waging germ warfare. And they laid off me.

Q: Was there a lot of brainwashing among the prisoners of war?

Mahurin: The germ warfare was their main thrust. A young Air Force captain would know the details of his airplane and a little bit about his squadron commander, but he wouldn't know anything about the conduct of the war. He didn't have any idea what the headquarters were doing. But from a propaganda standpoint, this germ warfare allegation could be useful. A POW could be convinced to admit anything, using Pavlovian reflex conditioning, which we call brainwashing. With lack of sleep and constant interrogations, these young men confessed. If you come from Peoria and have a college education, but haven't been exposed to the real world, and suddenly professional Oriental interrogators are interrogating you, you're in a fearful position. After the first four B-26 pilots confessed, every captured airman was given the same treatment, so they would add more confessions of germ warfare. All together about forty-nine of us confessed, including me.

Q: What were the conditions in the POW camps?

Mahurin: I don't know about the camps. I lived in solitary confinement, with no on to talk to except the interrogators. The villages in North Korea and China have speaking systems that are mounted on poles, so the propaganda was broadcast all the time, music and news items and whatnot, based on what the government wanted the populace to hear. At Christmas time, I heard Bing Crosby singing White Christmas and all of that kinda stuff on that speaking system. Once in a while, I could hear POWs marching by. I could hear that, so I knew there was a prison camp nearby.

This Communist that I mentioned, who instigated the germ warfare allegations, published articles describing the POW camps like vacation paradises. The POWs had a hard time, but they were together. Being isolated in your own mind, in your own facility without any extraneous information, except what they wanted you to hear, was a different circumstance.

Q: What were you involved in that was secret, that was classified?

Mahurin: The main Korean war secret was the Russian-speaking combat pilots. It was years before that became known in the United States. Our government kept it quiet. I wrote a book, called Honest John, later reprinted by Time-Life in a series called Wings of War. I think it's out of print now. But people didn't believe what I wrote in that book and I knew it to be an absolute iron-clad fact.

Also I knew a lot of classified stuff because I had worked for the Secretary of the Air Force. I'd been briefed on nuclear weapons and I knew operational things that you would learn in the course of normal duty, but the interrogators never asked me about any of that.

Q: Were you involved with the guerrillas on the West Coast, on the islands?

Mahurin: I didn't have any idea. Once, I suspected a North Korean civilian was trying to talk to me. He asked me what time it was. The interrogator shooed him away. Other than that I had no idea that there was any covert activity going on in North Korea at all. And it never occurred to me. Although when I was shot down in France in World War II, I was involved in covert French operations. So I knew it existed during World War II, but I didn't know it existed in Korea at all.

Q: Did you know anything about Operation Hula(?).

Mahurin: No. When we were briefed by our Intelligence Officers, they didn't get into any of that stuff because we might get shot down and maybe divulge that information. I had no idea that there was even an allegation of germ warfare until I was exposed to that in prison camp. We told our pilots, "If you get captured, we can't give you any concrete instructions. You know that it's always been name, rank and serial number. But if you can't get away with that, then tell 'em anything they want to know. You don't know enough to influence the course of the war. You can do anything you want to do, as long as you don't endanger other Americans by things that you confess to or talk about."

I had acquired all my classified knowledge either in the Pentagon or up on that radar site we spoke about earlier.

Q: When MacArthur was canned and Ridgeway came in, how did Ridgeway's tactics or strategy affect you?

Mahurin: I didn't know much about Ridgeway. He visited our base and I had briefed him and showed him the cockpit of the airplane. When you looked in his eyes, brilliance came right back out again. He was a sharp man, and dressed sharply in his uniform. He asked all the right questions. He spent maybe forty-five minutes at our base. But as far as his conduct of the war, it didn't have an impact at all. I'm sure he did with the ground forces but not with us in the Air Force. And if he had, I'm sure it would have been Ridgeway to General Everest and then down to our staff and eventually to me at my level.

Q: Air Rescue. Pilots were shot down. They had to be rescued from the sea or from the land, if the pilots could get to them, but how did that go about? This was actually the first time the helicopter was used. Tell me about that.

Mahurin: Air Rescue was a happenstance operation. It depended upon whether or not the pilot looked as if he had survived whatever brought him down. We had a radar site on a little island called Cho Do, in the Yellow Sea. It was about half way between the thirty-eighth parallel and the Manchurian border, about a mile out in the ocean. Not far from Cho Do, there were shallow-water salt beds where the Koreans would harvest salt. If you could go down or bail out anywhere near those salt beds, we could send a helicopter from Cho Do Island to pick you up and get you back to freedom.

As far as going after somebody that was shot down while he was dive bombing or strafing, most of the fighter jet combat took place at high altitude, so you didn't know where the pilot ended up. But when it came to the ground support aircraft, we made every effort we could to pick 'em up by helicopter.

In one instance a Russian pilot bailed out of his MiG, into the Yellow Sea. We set up a rescue effort to try and get him. Our helicopter was on its way, circling, and some MiGs came and shot him in the water. Our guys saw that go on. The Russians didn't want us parading a Russian pilot in front of the free world, because Russia would then be condemned for having combat troops in North Korea. A lot of Mickey Mouse stuff went on, as both the Chinese and Russians tried to preserve a pristine approach to North Korea. So that poor guy was killed. 'Boots' Blesse might have told you that he went after a MiG one time and shot it down, and the guy bailed out. In order to corroborate his claim, Boots turned his camera on and flew by this pilot in the parachute. The pilot's helmet was gone; he had red hair; he was Caucasian.

Blesse: Tell 'em about how horrible it was in prison camp.

Mahurin: That just goes without saying. Americans like to think that most of the world is like us. It's hard to conceive what the general population in China is really like. Eighty-five percent of China is agricultural. Only about fifteen percent is city. The peasants that live in the mountains and on the rice paddies live a completely different life than we can conceive of. The same is true of the North Koreans and much of the world. When you're exposed to the way those poor people live, it's an incredible existence. I've never lived in such demeaning conditions. I couldn't even visualize them until I got there, filth and disease that- I don't know if there was disease or not because when I came out, the only thing I suffered from was intestinal worms, but it just- it's incredible, The things they eat are incredible. They were starving in North Korea when I was there. The food I got was just barely enough to sustain a person. As an American, I was accustomed to making sure that everything was pasteurized and treated so it had no salmonella and all that. Over there, you ate anything you could get, and the general population ate the same way. Now the enlisted Chinese soldier generally comes from the peasant villages, and when he joins the service, he has a much better life than he could ever enjoy if he went back to his village. He's given some uniforms, some clothes, and some food, and they give him some minuscule education. He has a good life compared to the ordinary peasants. So, the soldiers like that duty much more than ours do. They don't complain about it.

I had a chance to observe them a little, because I was always guarded by a squad of eight to fourteen guards, and they kept in on me twenty-four hours a day. There was always a light on in my cell, and so I could tell what they did and what they said by watching 'em. If a guard said "Kaivan(?)" that meant he was going for food. So I could track a little bit from my vantage point what was going on, and I'll tell you, they don't have much to live for. That's my view, but it's based on living here in the most fantastic culture in the world today.

After his release from China in 1953, Col. Mahurin's willingness to discuss brainwashing techniques and psychological pressures applied to American POWs greatly aided the content of Air Force survival courses.

Leaving active duty in 1956, Bud Mahurin entered the aerospace industry and joined the Air Force Reserves, later retiring as a Colonel.

Sources and Recommended Books: