Fighting the MiG in a Mustang held no concerns for Capt. Byers who flew with the 12th FBS. Capt. James F. Byers was one of the most experienced of the pilots in that he had served a full tour in World War II and flew well over 100 missions in Korea with the 18th Fighter Bomber Group. In speaking to other pilots in the 18th, he told them, «You could not find a better aircraft for the job than the F-51. We could carry the load, had the range, can outgun and outturn the MiG and above all, outlast it in every encounter! All we have to do is go out there and keep our eyes open and keep from being hit from low and behind and once we got in the fight, give them hell because all the odds, which was the ability to maneuver and turn, were in our favor. We sure as hell could not outrun a fighter that was 300mph faster than ours. This information set well with our pilots who had World War II experience, but the new guys still had something to worry about.”
Although the Mustang had already proven itself a master in aerial warfare, it would also prove its worth in the air-to-ground role, but at a heavy price. The Korwald Loss Report shows that during the October-December 1950 period, there were over 50 Mustangs lost (including both RF-51 and F-51Ds).
Capt. Byers recalls a significant mission he flew against a rail complex just south of Kuniri. «This mission involved all the squadrons in the group and I had the lead. We followed the Imjin River up into the target area. As we approached, we noted that there were a lot of boxcars on a siding and that was what we planned to go after first. The 12th Squadron came in first and after the first two Mustangs dropped their 500-pound bombs, we observed some secondary explosions among several of the rail cars. Seconds before the explosion, we started receiving a lot of ground fire from 20mm and 40mm guns and they were evidently determined to defend something valuable. We lit up several of the cars and I called the 2nd South African Squadron and told them to forget their target and come over and help us take out these rail cars that were probably loaded with ammunition for enemy ground troops.»
«I had expended my ordnance and was sitting off to the side and watching the others deliver theirs. One of our pilots made his bomb run and right after releasing, he started to pull up. Suddenly, he took a hit and his Mustang flipped completely over in the air and he was only about 100 feet above the terrain. I figured he was going in, but he righted his plane and started climbing out for home. His reflexes had to be very quick to have come out of that situation like he did. Our group of F-51s took out every boxcar in that complex. They must have been dropped off during the night and the locomotive headed for one of the tunnels before first light. This cache of ammunition was close enough to the front lines that it would have killed or wounded a lot of our guys.»
«We still had our .50 caliber ammo intact, so we all spread out looking for targets as we moved to the south and some of us found a few troops on the roads or an occasional truck. When we reached the MLR, we contacted a forward air controller who was working in a hot area. He gave us a few things to strafe and then we headed on back to base. We inspected the Mustang that had flipped over coming off the target and it had a hole in the middle of the right wing that you could stand up in.
«The next day we went after a supply dump just north of Chorwon. We were armed with napalm and rockets. The problem we faced was that the target was down in a deep valley with high ridges on either side. We had to dive down way below the ridgeline, which had us running the gauntlet of automatic weapons fire from the higher elevations. After we lit the dump up with our napalm and rockets, we took the time to strafe the gun emplacements knocking out a number of them. We all returned safely with a few holes in our Mustangs.»
A shattered windscreen
The F-51 was not designed for close air support because its coolant system was so vulnerable to small arms fire at low altitudes. However, even with heavy losses, it was one of the most effective bombers and strafers against the enemy forces dug in along the MLR.
Second Lt. William Urquhart, a pilot in the 67th Squadron, related a experience he had while working over Chinese front line positions. «I was hit by ground fire in my windscreen. We were attacking trenches with napalm flying four abreast. Approaching the target, I noticed a flash of fire to my right. It was my element leader’s aircraft exploding! At the napalm drop point, I took a .30 caliber hit from straight ahead. It grooved the cowling for about three feet and broke the windscreen on the right of the armored glass. I had my goggles up and was scratched near the right eye.
The Mustang’s Post-War Foreign Air Force Use
When the United States Air Force became an official branch of the military in 1947, the designation of the Mustang was changed to F-51D. During the early post-war years, although production of the Mustang had ended, its afterlife was just beginning and would spread to numerous foreign air forces before the dust settled.
It was the use by foreign countries that gave the Mustang legendary longevity. The Australians had been flying the P-51 since 1944 and they contributed three squadrons to the postwar occupation of Japan. The Royal Canadian Air Force proved to be very interested in the Mustang when it purchased 100 airframes for front line duty and they remained in active inventory until 1956. At the end of World War II, the Chinese Air Force had already flown some combat in the P-51 and soon after the war ended in 1946, they were provided with enough aircraft to fill three squadrons. However, Chinese leader General Chiang Kai-shek was overthrown in a communist takeover in 1949 and all of the 160 flyable Mustangs were flown over to Formosa. The P-51s that could not make the flight out were captured by the Red Chinese and immediately repaired and put in service with the new regime. Some of these airframes were still flying when the Korean War started. The Nationalist Chinese had only two squadron left in service by 1954 and these included F-51Ds and RF-51Ds.
The year 1947 proved to be a catalyst for the smaller air forces in foreign countries to begin flying the Mustangs.
The Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance was signed in 1947, which allowed some countries to purchase the P-51 for the nominal price of one dollar. One of the larger Inventories was in Guatemala, which totaled 30 of the P-51DS. They had a long life here as they were flown from 1954 until 1970.
The Cubans, under the terms of the 1947 Rio Pact, received a number of «D» models and they continued to operate them until the early 1960s when Batista was overthrown by Castro’s communist government. At that time, all of the Mustangs were replaced by aircraft provided by the Russians.
In October 1952, the Dominican Republic started bringing P-51s into its air force when they purchased 32 airframes from Sweden. They were one of the last small air forces to operate the Mustang, which lasted until 1984. El Salvador obtained seven Mustangs and later added to its small fleet by obtaining five Cavalier Mustang lls which were also flown during the “Soccer War» against Honduras. A few years after the Rio Pact was signed, the Honduran Air Force began flying the P-51D. It initially flew P-63 King Cobras and P-38 Lightnings that were given to them by the U.S. but largely were replaced by F4U Corsairs. The Mustangs were In service there until the 1960s. El Salvador was one of the last small air forces to operate the Mustang, lasting until 1984.
The Dutch operated Mustangs in the latter stages of World War II out of bases in Australia. Right after the war ended, they used them against Indonesian Nationals. When things quieted down, the Dutch transferred what was left of the P-51 force to Indonesian Air Force and flew them foi nine years until they were replaced by Russian-built aircraft.
Haiti was one of the smaller users when it purchased six P-51Ds just after World War II and flew them until October 1973 when they were to the main runway with half of the base alongside taking pictures.
«At the same time that this was happening, I was flying a mission over enemy territory looking for a South African Mustang pilot who had failed to return to base. I was flying wing for my leader, slightly off to his right and above. Out of the corner of my eye, here comes a large power cable almost straight ahead. I was able to pull up just enough to hit the cable with my prop spinner. The prop cut the cable and threw it over the left wing and down into the right wing. It bent the right wing’s leading edge, the .50 caliber gun barrels and creased the upper wing skin. Immediately after snapping the cable as I was climbing out, the engine quit cold at about 200 feet! You can only imagine my surprise. When the Merlin quits, our only emergency procedure was to throttle back, switch fuel tanks, check boost pumps and advance the throttle. Hearing that engine respond was music from Heaven! What had happened was a horrible coincidence of draining a fuel tank right after hitting the cable. That mission has always remained in my memory bank!»
“The trains are leaving the station»
Once the Chinese entered the war along with the MiG-15, the Mustangs had to have top cover when they penetrated deep into North Korea. At first, the escorts were F-80 Shooting Stars, but this quickly changed over to the F-86 Sabre. There were times when the coverage was lacking in that there was a mix-up of arrival time over the target (TOT). There was also another hazard that is related by Lt. Ted Hanna, a Mustang pilot who flew a number of missions with Sabre escorts.
«We were flying at 10,000 feet and our «MiG cap» was up at 20,000 feet. About the time we passed over Sinanju, ground radar radioed, ‘The trains are leaving the station,’ which meant the
MiGs had taken off. At this point, the F-86s dropped their external tanks, which fell right through our formation. Luckily, no one got hit. Seconds later, the MiGs came up through our formation firing as they went. We were still at 10,000 feet so they had the chance to get under us. They zoomed back up to their high perch way above the Sabres. We dropped our ordnance and headed for home. If any of the fuel tanks had hit us, one or more of us would have been POWs or worse.»
Put to pasture
Although the Mustang was available in huge numbers in the late 1940s, it would soon fall prey to the jet age even though it contributed heavily to saving South Korea from communism. However, there were still several Air National Guard and Reserve units that would fly it through the 1950s. The West Virginia ANG would be the last of these units to fly the F-51 and they retired it in 1957. This led to large numbers of the aircraft moving into civilian ownership. The production rights of the Mustang were bought from North American by the Cavalier Aircraft Corporation, which would try to market a new version among the smaller air forces. These aircraft could carry a much bigger ordnance load, but the success of this airframe was below expectations, as many of the South American and Pacific Rim countries were looking more toward moving into the realm of jet aircraft.