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Strategic Bombing: New Flexibility

B-29 bombing a target in North Korea. (U.S. Air Force photo)

B-29 bombing a target in North Korea. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Airman 1st Class W.W. Wood of the 19th Bomb Group inserts a tail fuse into 1,000-lb. high-explosive bomb prior to a night attack. The gray photoflash bombs are dropped at the same time so that photos can be taken. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Airman 1st Class W.W. Wood of the 19th Bomb Group inserts a tail fuse into 1,000-lb. high-explosive bomb prior to a night attack. The gray photoflash bombs are dropped at the same time so that photos can be taken. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Maj. Harry Bailey points out the often-visited target of Sinuiju, North Korea. On the right of the map is a red dot that represents their starting point, Yokota Air Base near Tokyo, Japan. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Maj. Harry Bailey points out the often-visited target of Sinuiju, North Korea. On the right of the map is a red dot that represents their starting point, Yokota Air Base near Tokyo, Japan. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Sometimes mission preparation involved clearing the previous night's snow off the aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Sometimes mission preparation involved clearing the previous night's snow off the aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo)

B-29 crew waiting for the word "go." (U.S. Air Force photo)

B-29 crew waiting for the word "go." (U.S. Air Force photo)

Belching smoke, engine No. 1 roars into life in preparation for takeoff. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Belching smoke, engine No. 1 roars into life in preparation for takeoff. (U.S. Air Force photo)

B-29s on a daytime strike over North Korea in 1950. (U.S. Air Force photo)

B-29s on a daytime strike over North Korea in 1950. (U.S. Air Force photo)

B-29 bombardier hunched over the bombsight in the nose. (U.S. Air Force photo)

B-29 bombardier hunched over the bombsight in the nose. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Superfortress radar observer with a pistol strapped to his side in case of bail out over enemy territory. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Superfortress radar observer with a pistol strapped to his side in case of bail out over enemy territory. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Lead 19th Bomb Group B-29 begins the bombing attack against a target in North Korea in February 1951. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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Lead 19th Bomb Group B-29 begins the bombing attack against a target in North Korea in February 1951. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Pre-strike photos of a munitions factory at Nakwon near Sinuiju, North Korea, on the Yalu River. On the night of Aug. 18, 1952, B-29s dropped 140 tons of bombs on it using electronic aiming methods. The attack destroyed fifteen buildings, including the main factory, and damaged 17 others. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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Pre-strike photos of a munitions factory at Nakwon near Sinuiju, North Korea, on the Yalu River. On the night of Aug. 18, 1952, B-29s dropped 140 tons of bombs on it using electronic aiming methods. The attack destroyed fifteen buildings, including the main factory, and damaged 17 others. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Post-strike photos of a munitions factory at Nakwon near Sinuiju, North Korea, on the Yalu River. On the night of Aug. 18, 1952, B-29s dropped 140 tons of bombs on it using electronic aiming methods. The attack destroyed fifteen buildings, including the main factory, and damaged 17 others. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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Post-strike photos of a munitions factory at Nakwon near Sinuiju, North Korea, on the Yalu River. On the night of Aug. 18, 1952, B-29s dropped 140 tons of bombs on it using electronic aiming methods. The attack destroyed fifteen buildings, including the main factory, and damaged 17 others. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Superfortress bombs blanket the runway at Saamcham, about 50 miles north of Pyongyang. B-29 units regularly attacked North Korean airfields to deny the communists their use. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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Superfortress bombs blanket the runway at Saamcham, about 50 miles north of Pyongyang. B-29 units regularly attacked North Korean airfields to deny the communists their use. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Superfortresses bomb bridges across the Chongchon River north of Pyongyang in October 1952. The communists built multiple spans hoping to keep at least one open. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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Superfortresses bomb bridges across the Chongchon River north of Pyongyang in October 1952. The communists built multiple spans hoping to keep at least one open. (U.S. Air Force photo)

"Sic 'Em!" The B-29’s large fuselage made an ideal canvas for nose art. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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"Sic 'Em!" The B-29’s large fuselage made an ideal canvas for nose art. (U.S. Air Force photo)

"The Outlaw." The B-29’s large fuselage made an ideal canvas for nose art. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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"The Outlaw." The B-29’s large fuselage made an ideal canvas for nose art. (U.S. Air Force photo)

"Honeybucket Honsho." The B-29’s large fuselage made an ideal canvas for nose art. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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"Honeybucket Honsho." The B-29’s large fuselage made an ideal canvas for nose art. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Although the F-84 "Thunderjet" was unable to protect USAF B-29s from the MiG-15, it proved to be an excellent ground attack aircraft. The F-84 carried a heavy bomb load and contributed to the “air pressure” campaign against strategic targets. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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Although the F-84 "Thunderjet" was unable to protect USAF B-29s from the MiG-15, it proved to be an excellent ground attack aircraft. The F-84 carried a heavy bomb load and contributed to the “air pressure” campaign against strategic targets. (U.S. Air Force photo)

On May 16, 1953, F-84s scored several direct hits against the 230-ft thick Chasan Dam 25 miles north of Pyongyang, releasing a devastating flood. The torrent of water that raced down the valley washed out everything in its path, including roads, train tracks and two rail bridges. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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On May 16, 1953, F-84s scored several direct hits against the 230-ft thick Chasan Dam 25 miles north of Pyongyang, releasing a devastating flood. The torrent of water that raced down the valley washed out everything in its path, including roads, train tracks and two rail bridges. (U.S. Air Force photo)

"Practically all of the major military industrial targets strategically important to the enemy forces and to their war potential have been neutralized." 
- Lt. Gen. George E. Stratemeyer, FEAF Commander, less than two months into the Korean War

After destroying North Korea's industry in the first two months of the war, USAF B-29 Superfortresses operated in many varied roles, from close support of troops on the ground to bombing bridges on the Yalu River. The air war in Korea also saw the extensive use of smaller tactical aircraft to attack strategic targets.

In World War II, the division between strategic bombers and tactical aircraft was clear. Long range, multi-engine strategic aircraft bombed factories, key bridges, ports, and power systems far behind enemy lines. Smaller, short-to-medium range tactical aircraft hit targets closer to the front lines. In Korea, this division blurred as the available strategic bomber, the B-29 Superfortress, was used in both of these roles.

Within the first two months of the Korean War, the strategic bombing campaign was considered over. Most of the industrial targets deep in North Korea had been destroyed or seriously damaged -- although some potential strategic targets still remained untouched for political reasons. These included the port city of Rashin, located only 17 miles from the USSR border, and hydroelectric power facilities in North Korea (which also supplied power to Manchuria and Siberia).

The Chinese intervention in November 1950 signaled a new escalation in the Korean War and new responsibilities for bomber crews. Superfortresses hammered towns and cities all along the North Korean side of the Chinese border, and interrupted the enemy's transportation system by bombing bridges and railroad marshaling yards. They also neutralized enemy airfields (including those situated along the Korean side of the Manchurian border) and attacked enemy troop concentrations.

With the first raids into northwestern Korea came the first MiG-15 attacks against B-29s. Between November 1950 and November 1951, the Air Force lost 16 B-29s to enemy action, in spite of F-86 and F-84 fighter escort. The MiG threat forced Far East Air Forces (FEAF) Bomber Command to switch almost exclusively to night attacks for the rest of the war.

In the spring of 1952, with a stalemate on the ground and the failure of a negotiated truce, FEAF began a new policy of "selective destruction" using "air pressure" to force the communists to settle. The goal was to make the war in Korea too costly for the communists by destroying specific high-value economic targets.

The air pressure campaign started on June 24, 1952, when USAF, U.S. Navy and Marine fighter-bombers attacked North Korean hydroelectric dams, devastating the enemy's power supply. The air pressure raids continued into 1953 with strikes against key North Korean communication, transportation, manufacturing, supply, and power centers. In May 1953 Air Force F-84 Thunderjets attacked irrigation dams for the first time, causing extensive flood damage. The air pressure campaign was a means of striking at the enemy when the situation on the ground was deadlocked, and it was a significant factor in bringing the fighting in Korea to a close.

Many features of the strategic air war in Korea pointed to USAF tactics of the future: the use of air power against sensitive enemy targets as a bargaining chip in negotiations, the first extensive use of precision bombing at night by strategic aircraft, and the large-scale use of strategic aircraft against tactical targets. Moreover, the use of smaller, tactical aircraft against strategic targets foreshadowed later multi-role aircraft that could function as fighters, fighter-bombers, and even long-range strategic bombers.

Click on the following links to learn more about strategic bombing during the Korean War.

Bomber Crewman
B-29 Superfortress Command Decision
Guided Bombs in Korea

Click here to return to the Korean War Gallery.

 

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