Published May 11, 2015
"After a successful rescue mission, morale would be sky high from the rescue crew right down to the administrative clerk -- we all had a part in it."
- Richard McVay, 3rd Air Rescue Squadron Operations Officer
With courage and daring, the U.S. Air Force Air Rescue Service saved the lives of hundreds of UN personnel during the Korean War. This war saw the first large-scale use of helicopters in rescuing Airmen from behind enemy lines and evacuating the wounded.
The USAF's air rescue mission came into its own during the Korean War. Crews of amphibious aircraft performed spectacular rescues from North Korean rivers and off the coast, and USAF air rescue units used helicopters to reach downed Airmen on land deep in enemy territory. Rescue crews flying modified B-29 and B-17 bombers also dropped lifeboats to Airmen downed in the ocean, and a small number of Air Force crash rescue boats operating from Japan and Korea retrieved downed Airmen. Knowing they could be rescued quickly by air or sea greatly improved aircrews' morale.
The Air Force also evacuated many wounded troops from the front lines. In the war's early stages, USAF H-5 helicopters rushed critically wounded soldiers from the front to Army MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) units. Many would have died without such timely transport and treatment. During the course of the war, the U.S. Army eventually took over front-line helicopter medical evacuation, though USAF helicopters were still used on occasion.
Using helicopters for air rescue and front-line evacuation in Korea represented a fundamental change in tactics. Although helicopters were used for rescue at the end of World War II, it was not until Korea that their use became widespread and efficient helicopter rescue methods were developed. At the same time, the Korean War was the last time the Air Force used sea-going boats for combat rescue.
The Air Rescue Service brought back 996 UN personnel from behind enemy lines, including 170 American Airmen. Air Rescue also evacuated 8,598 sick and wounded UN troops, many of these from the front lines. With this record, the Air Rescue Service in Korea truly lived up to its motto, "That Others May Live."
Blood Chit. Bryce Poe II, who flew the first U.S. Air Force jet reconnaissance mission of the Korean War, carried this "blood chit" during his tour. A blood chit, to be used if downed and evading the enemy, explains in several languages that the pilot is American and needs help. Poe later rose to the rank of four-star general and commanded the Air Force Logistics Command.
E-1 radio carrier vest. The E-1 vest carried a small AN/URC-4 survival radio, which was used to communicate with rescue aircraft.
C-1 Emergency Sustenance Vest. The World War II C-1 vest was the first military survival vest, and the USAF used it in large numbers in Korea. Pilots did not normally wear it in flight, but put it on after landing (the vest was stored in a bag attached to the parachute). Typical items in the C-1's 14 outside and 2 inner pockets included a waterproof match case, compass, toilet paper, first aid kit, bandages, flares, .45 caliber pistol and ammunition, fishing kit, lip balm, sunscreen, rations, water bladder, water purification tablets, signal mirror, gloves, and pocket knife.
Escape and Evasion Map. USAF crews carried cloth "E&E" (Escape and Evasion) maps.
Click on the following links to learn more about air rescue during the Korean War.
Lifeboat from the Sky
Air Force Sailors in Korea
Exposure Suits for Sea Rescue
Click here to return to the Korean War Gallery