Special Operations: In the Enemy's Backyard
Published May 12, 2015
"We started dropping people way up north. We would fly eight-hour missions in a C-47, dropping people all over."
- Capt. (later Brig. Gen.) Harry "Heinie" Aderholt
During the Korean War, Air Force personnel conducted highly-classified special operations in enemy territory, including partisan insertions, intelligence gathering, flare-drops, and psychological warfare. Airmen participated in these dangerous missions at great risk, and could expect particularly brutal treatment from the enemy if captured.
One important top secret mission inserting Korean agents and guerillas into North Korea under the code-name OPERATION AVIARY. "Special Air Mission" aircrews dropped hundreds into North Korea by parachute from C-46s, C-47s and B-26s. Others were inserted by C-119s, B-29s, UH-19 helicopters, SA-16 amphibians or Air Force crash boats.
These special missions demanded exceptional skill. To avoid detection, aircrews flew at low altitude at night in mountain valleys -- the slightest error in navigation could cause them to fly into a cliffside. Flying at this level also made them vulnerable to ground fire.
Air Force-inserted partisans sabotaged key infrastructure like bridges, attacked enemy forces, and gathered vital intelligence on enemy military strength. The guerillas not only disrupted the enemy, but they also provided warning of impending attacks.
Air Force aircrews orbited above the partisans at prearranged times to relay radio messages and drop supplies. If a guerilla survived the mission, they made their way back to friendly lines on foot (in the first year of the Korean War, about 70 percent returned safely, but this number dropped later in the war).
The Air Force also carried out psychological warfare against the communists with leaflet drops and loudspeaker broadcasts over North Korea. These missions often targeted the enemy's will to fight by enticing them to surrender or face annihilation (a legitimate concern -- 82 percent of captured enemy soldiers said they feared air attack more than anything else). Some leaflets and broadcasts also warned civilians to leave an area for their own safety.
OPERATION FIREFLY flare-dropping missions helped deny the enemy cover of night. Air Force flare-dropping aircrews could be found both over the battlefield, and behind the lines illuminating enemy convoys for bombers to strike. The enemy rarely moved or attacked during the day because of swift and deadly air attacks from UN air forces.
Click on the following links to learn more about special operations during the Korean War.
1st Lt. James Pragar
Tech. Sgt. James H. Ledford
Korean War Leaflets and Safe Conduct Passes
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