First Person War Stories

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Maj. Gen. Frederick “Boots” Blesse (Part I): The Korean War

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Maj. Gen. Frederick “Boots” Blesse (Part I): The Korean War

Major General Frederick “Boots” Blesse served two tours as a fighter pilot during the Korean War, flying the P-51, the F-80, and the F-86. When he returned to the United States in October of 1952, he was America’s leading jet ace, and was credited with shooting down nine MiG-15s and one La-9.

Blesse’s motto and doctrine, “No Guts, No Glory” became famous after he returned from his second tour in Korea. He was asked to travel throughout the Air Force to teach it, and he eventually authored the textbook, “No Guts, No Glory”, that became a part of standard Air Force curriculum for years to come.

In this episode, the first of a three-part series, Blesse describes allied and enemy aircraft, his second tour in Korea, a couple of intense dogfights, and becoming an Ace.

Ken Harbaugh:

I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.

Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.

Today, we’ll hear from Major General Frederick “Boots” Blesse. Blesse served two tours as a fighter pilot during the Korean War, flying the P-51, the F-80, and the F-86. When he returned to the United States in October of 1952, he was America’s leading jet ace, and was credited with shooting down nine MiG-15s and one La-9.

In this episode, the first of a three part series, Blesse describes allied and enemy aircraft, his 2nd tour in Korea, a couple of intense dogfights, and becoming an Ace.

Frederick Corbin "Boots" Blesse:

My name is Frederick C Blesse, Major General USAF, retired. A lot of times I say, "Frederick C", and then parentheses, Boots, after. But everybody has called me Boots my whole life.


Well, my father was a general in the army. He was a doctor. When he'd come home from work... You know, in those days they wore these boots and then puttees and all that kind of stuff. Dad had come home and he'd take off his boots and then he'd put on some slippers or something, go in the living room and listen to the news or read his newspaper. As soon as he got settled in there, I'd go back in the closet... My sisters tell me this, I don't really remember this, but go back in the closet and get into his shoes and I'd come clumping out like that. At first my mom or my sisters, one of them, would say, "Here come the boots again." They went through that for quite a while and pretty soon it was "Here comes boots again," and then the next thing I knew I had that as a moniker. I don't know why such a thing would stick to you. I had a perfectly good name, Fred, like my father and everybody knew him as Fred. All through my life I've never been called anything else. If somebody calls on the telephone and says they'd like to speak to Frederick, Betty says, "Here it is. It's somebody that doesn't know you."

First impressions of the F-86

My first impressions of an F-86 were derived from my checkout that I got at the North American Plant down in Los Angeles, here in Los Angeles. I had flown the F-86 a few times. We were transferring our F-80s out and getting F-86s in. This was in the early spring, February to June of 1950. About a half a dozen of us, I was an engineering officer and the engineering officers in the different squadrons were tasked to fly to California commercial, and then you pick up an F-86 and fly it back, and then a week later they give you another one. I had a good checkout in my own outfit, but it was not like... When I got down to North American Plant, boy, they didn't want to lose an airplane and they were thorough. They went through everything with you. It was a marvelous airplane to fly. You could make all kinds of mistakes in it and still come out on top. It had a great pressurization system. You never had to be cold or hot or anything like that. Unlike the MiG, by the way.

One of the things in the MiG that it could fly higher than we did, but if you could get underneath him and scare the guy to rolling over, and then you chase him down while he's going down from 40,000 feet or 42,000 feet down to say 20,000 feet, his whole canopy and everything else ices up, he can't see anything. If you could get him going down that way and stick with him, if he didn't get in the clouds and get away from you or something like that, you could probably get him. They had a lot of troubles with other parts of their airplanes that we didn't have. The F-86 was a very well engineered airplane that was pilot oriented. I don't know. I flew P-51s, and I flew them all from P-40s out to the F-15, and I never flew an airplane that I felt quite like I did in the F-86.

The MIG was a formidable opponent because it would do a lot of things that you couldn't do. The main thing you had to be careful of was not fighting his fight. You didn't want to sight a MiG-15, for instance, at 15,000 feet and get into a turning battle with him or try to climb away from him. If he gets an advantage on him and you try to climb away from him, you're really in trouble because the MiG had a better climb rate and a better turn rate at 15 and 25,000 feet. Above 25,000, it had about twice a rate of climb as the F-86 did, but we just didn't fight there. We went to about 30 or 35,000, and we didn't go any higher than that.

If we got MiGS up there, the first thing we want to do is get them down to an altitude where we could maneuver better with them. The MiG had that pressurization problem. It had a good armament system. He had 2 23 millimeters and a 37 millimeter cannon, and it was an ingenious process.

The armament guy comes up and he's doing this, and the whole gun platform comes down underneath the airplane and they run up and load it, and then he cranks it back up onto the airplane. Well, that was wonderful, but what we found out was that they either didn't know how to or were not able to properly harmonize the guns. I don't think they had as good a gun sight as we did either, but I'm really not sure what kind of gun sight they had so I don't like to get into that. We had the K-14, and every time our airplane came out from an engine change or any major work, the last thing that happened to it went down to the harmonization range. At the harmonization range, there was a great big target down there, they put some ammunition in the guns and the guys got in there, put the pipper in the airplane on the target that was sitting out there, and pull the trigger. If there wasn't holes in that, they had work to do.

The K-14 and the Pipper

The K-14 site was one of the best things that ever happened to fighter pilots. It came about right at the very end of World War Two, but it wasn't really developed to a good state until we got into Korea about five years later. And when you turned it on you had a pipper that showed up right on the windscreen and a circle around it. The pipper was the aiming point on the gun site. When you just got in the airplane, it was just a sheet of glass up there. Comes down like this, a sheet of glass. After you turned the gun sight on, you got a circle and a dot right in the center of it. And you had it in full ranging. What that circle did, if you just turned it on and the airplane was in close, the circle would be like this when you first turned it on, and then the circle would expand to put his wingtips on each side of the airplane. When you did that, you knew that the site was computing and that wherever he went, if he started to turn, if you put the pipper on him and kept it on him, you were going to hit him, because the pipper really was telling you to shoot way out here in front of him, but in the proper place, you see? Where before we had to do that by estimation, we did it by eyesight. If you're a good skeet shooter, that's fine. But things like that happen quickly, and you've only got a couple of seconds in that position and then all of a sudden everything changes. He either reverses a turn or he climbs or he levels out or something and everything changes. It's a constantly changing environment until one of you figures it out.

Previous Squad Member, George Davis

Yeah. When I first came back on my second tour to get into the F-86 program, I was assigned on the 334th squadron at Kempo. Colonel Meherin was the wing commander, and he was going to be the group commander of the outfit at George where I was. When he came in there, he came out of the Pentagon, he didn't have any F-86 time. They sent him down to our squadron, and then our squadron sent him to my Ops officer, and the Ops officer gave him to me to transition him, to get him over and get him qualified in the F-86. He and I, we really had a great time. I had more damn fun... The guy was a marvelous pilot, and he didn't have any time in the F-86 at all. We got to get into this, but he had practically no time in the F-86 and yet he had 22 kills, I think it was, in ETO. He had been shot down and evaded, got back to his unit. In Europe they wouldn't let him fly anymore, so he went to the Pacific, he got one kill, got shot down again by ground fire, and got out of there. And then he got to Korea and was the group commander where I was, and in the meantime I trained him. We had more dog fights and stuff like that, and we got to really know each other pretty well. I told him I wanted to go to Korea and asked him if he could get me over there, because he was going over on a 90 day wonder deal. He said, "Well, I can't get you over there, but if you can get orders to get to the theater, if you can get orders to get back to Pacific theater, I can get you to the 4th wing." So, that's what I did.

It's a long story, but I took a trip with the Pentagon, volunteered to go. The guy said, "Standby, we'll get you over there." I arrived back over in Korea for my second tour about... I'm guessing now, but it was around the middle or toward the end of February. I was assigned to a room, and the guys were all telling me about the guy that had been there before. He was really the mainstay of the 334th squadron. George Davis had been killed. He had 14 kills in Korea, and he had another seven, I think, in World War II. So he was, to say the least, a very experienced fighter pilot. After I got there, all these guys were still there of course that knew him and knew the circumstances around it. I looked up the fellow that was flying his wing the day he got killed, and he and I sat down over at the club and I had a Coke and he had a beer or something, and I got him to tell me all about that mission.

I said, "How it occurred, and now he got shot down?" He said, "Well, we were flying along and we discovered a flight of 12, four, four, and four MiGs underneath us. George called them out, and then we rolled over to go get them." A fellow named Skosh Littlefield was his wingman. Not originally, but he was by that time because a couple of guys got sent home or something, and he moved up to be George's wingman. They're down and go down and attack, and they go to attack the number 12 guy, the last guy on the outside, and George hits him, and he rolls over and flames him and goes in. That was kill number 13 for him, and then this guy is still there and there's four airplanes in front.

Instead of maybe doing something like this and coming around and getting this guy, he bypassed him because he had a lot of air speed. He bypassed him and went up and started to shoot at the number four man in the next flight. This guy's still behind him. Just about the time he flamed that guy, and that was his 14th kill going down, and George himself got hit. His airplane, part of the gear drop down, the airplane rolled over and it started into a weird bunch of things like this. Littlefield followed him all the way down and everything. Littlefield called him. Before he took that other guy, he called him and said, "You got one at 6:00," and then when he started firing, the guy didn't hit him right away. When he started firing he said, "George, break left! Break left! You got one behind and he's firing at you!" Never moved, he just kept right on firing at the guy ahead, and finally, he got this guy, and the other guy got him.

I thought all about that, and I think we covered this a little bit earlier, but one of the main things I wanted to get across to the guys was that we needed to cross-tell on information so that we make the same mistakes twice. Many times you can get away with a bad mistake by nothing but luck if nothing else. Luck or circumstance, you might get away with it, but you're not going to do that consistently. That's why we had these meetings, why everybody told about every encounter that he had with a MiG. Even if he didn't fight with him, if he just saw him, he might light the fire on some guy that said, "You know, if he'd had done this instead of that," and maybe the next day he sees him and gets a kill instead. So, that was one of the reasons that I felt so strongly about that, that we needed to pass around information like that so that nobody else would make that mistake.

At the time this happened, I didn't have any kills. I had 100 and two or three missions in the P-51 and the F-80, but I had no air-to-air experience at all. I had plenty of it in the States with F-86s fighting P-51s and other F-86s. We had plenty of that, but I'd never seen an enemy airplane in combat. I was determined that I wasn't going to make that mistake, and I was just as determined that I didn't want other people in the squadron to make unnecessary mistakes. But Skosh told me he never could figure out why he didn't respond to it, except that it was a common thought or idea that George had very little respect for anything that the MiGs could do. He didn't think they were very good gunners, he knew he could out maneuver their airplanes if he did it right, and he didn't think they could shoot worth a damn, and just found one that could.

The First MiG He Shot Down

I think the first MiG-15 I shot down was a lot more important to me than the actual shoot-down itself. And the reason I say that is that I came into the squadron as a new operations officer. I had been sitting over in maintenance for a month waiting for Colonel Meherin to put me where he said he was going to put me. And when I got over there, during the month that I was flying, the tactics in the squadron were terrible. The people flew so far away from each other, you could hardly tell whether you had a MiG or an F-86 on your wing, and if you ever had to do any serious maneuvering, the guy is going to be thrown off. You'll never see him again. And of course the one of the worst things you can have is a bunch of singles flying around up in the combat area. They're going to get knocked off.

So we made a bunch of changes, to make a long story short, and I fired a couple of flight commanders and brought in some new ones. I flew with the new flight commanders and told them how I wanted things to go, and then put them out there in a wing position to show them that these things really do work. And I started maneuvering with him, and I let him go out here where he used to be. I make one turn into him and the guy is going by like this, and I flip the speed breaks out and sit behind him. I said, "You got me in sight?" He said, "No, sir. Where you go?" I said, "I'm from six o'clock." Okay. So he'd get back in position. This time he was a little closer. Same thing, a little closer, until finally I got him in where I wanted him. And then, after that, why, we did a lot of things. We did loops and hard turns and he stayed right in there.

We got back and I asked him, "I don't understand why, at the end of the flight, you were flying so close to me. Why were you doing that?" I said, "You had the regular position out there." He said, "My God." He said, "If you're going to maneuver your airplane like that, you couldn't expect me to stay out there. I had to get in here so I could stay with you." I said, "You just passed the test. That's what I want you to pass on to the other people in your flight." And I went through each of the four flight commanders and I made them... if they didn't get in a fight with a MiG, I made them come home 10 minutes early from the combat area and have a fight around the base with the two F-86 elements. And there were a lot of things that the guys were not really willing to take this. They're in the combat area. A hell of a lot of them are just clocking off missions and want to go back home, and that wasn't our objective.

So that all happened in April of '52, and early May. And it was a little difficult for me because I knew these things would work, but I didn't have any kills myself. And that's what gives people confidence in you, that you've done it, you can do it, and this is the benefit of your experience. I hadn't. I had an air-to-ground mission and P-51s P-80s under my belt, but that doesn't help you.

So when we cited the MiGs, this was on the 25th of May, as I recall, of 1952. I had a wingman with me and we were skirting around down the southern part of MiG Alley. And I looked up high and there were two MIGS in a high turn, like that, and we were way down in here. So I started cutting them off to the inside and trying to climb and still keep my position well to their rear. And for quite a while, they didn't see me, like a minute or two, and that allowed me to improve my position. And then, suddenly, and it was rather suddenly, I saw the nose of the lead airplane come around and it was obvious to me that he saw me. And he saw me, and I saw him, and I knew one of us wasn't going home, and made the hair kind of stand up a little bit on the back of my neck. And I always had that, every time, from the very beginning until I got out of Korea there with the 86s. That always happened to me. The hair would always try to stand up on the back of my head the minute I had an enemy airplane in sight and the fight started. But it was a game in a way. It was the world's most dangerous game, but it was, to this day, the greatest thrill I think that I've ever had in my life, is when that guy turns into you and he sees you and know he sees you and you see him, one of you are not going back.

Anyway, we kept to the inside, and finally he saw me and he started a big wide turn, and then started down on me, started down with him and his wing man. And when he started down, I pulled up so that we would go by almost... not head on, but at least in a comparable position. But I knew he had a hell of a lot more speed than I did, so I thought, if he goes by me, I'm going to turn immediately. And if he tries to turn immediately, I'm going to have him because he's going to be a big wide turn or else he's going to snap the wings off his airplane. So that's exactly what happened. He went by me going down and I went by him going up, my speed's slowing down. His speed's increasing. I made a turn. He tried to turn around on this way. And then when I was almost three quarters of the way around the turn, he took a look and saw that I was obviously going to get him, and he did the worst thing he could possibly do. He reversed his turn. When he did that, I flopped over to the inside, closed in on him and shot him down.

And the wing man, the minute he started over and came down, the wing man got lost. He was just like the wing man we had in my squadron when I first got there. He was flying in the wrong position. There was no way he could have stayed with that guy when he was trying to maneuver with me. And my wing man, on the other hand, was right there. When I fired the guns, I looked around and he's all the time, every 10 seconds, he's calling me, "You're clear red lead. You're clear red lead."

So the importance of that kill was that it gave me some credibility for the tactics and the things that I was trying to instill in the other people in the squadron. And we came back, I established a method of debriefing. Everybody that saw, didn't have to fight with him, if he even saw an enemy airplane, he had to come back. We called a meeting. The whole squadron would be there. And he'd say, "Okay, here's where we were. We were at 28,000...", that sort of thing. And we admitted our own errors. Many times I stood up in front of them and said, "I really screwed that up. I should have had that guy but I got worried about my own wing man at the wrong time. I took a look. And during that time, this guy...", or something. I just said, "I really screwed it up." But I wanted to do that. I wanted to tell them that I made mistakes because then they're more apt to stand up and say what really happened and not be afraid to incriminate themselves in front of the rest of the squadron. But we wanted to know ‘how are the mistakes being made?’ ‘Why are we making them?’ ‘Let's don't make the same mistake twice.’ That's what hurts is going up and making the same mistake every day. The wing man loses his leader, he's off flying status for a week. He's off for a week. Not flying status, off combat for a week, and we'd put some other guy with him and every day he'd get a flight around the base. He'd get a sortie, and the guy would continue training, continue his work about how he's supposed to be doing this and still do it. So it was a confirmation of the ideas and other things that I was trying to instill in the squadron. And I was delighted over that first kill.

The Boom Demonstration Team

I had a boom demonstration team, before they used to court martial people for booming and breaking windows. It was a rather strange phenomena in the States at that time. It was about 1948 or '49 and I was in an 86 outfit at Nellis. And I had a 16-ship boom demonstration team. And we'd go to the Cleveland Air Races and all these other places, and I'd bring them across at about 40,000 feet, everybody. And I'd come over, and then the next guy would come over, and then the next guy. And we'd come down going as fast as we can, go through the speed of sound and bust a bunch of windows. Everybody thought, "Oh God, this is really..." Boom, boom. And later on we used to get court-martialed for doing it because nobody wanted to clean up the results.

By the way, the reason I told you that was we needed to have a certain distance between the airplanes as they went in. You didn't want them a hundred feet from each other. And so we brought them in like that and we lined them up. Before they were due to come in, we lined them up with the radar site. And everybody had the radar site on at a particular range and when you got that guy, then you knew you were in the right position.

His F-86 Expectations

The first thing that happened that surprised me when I got into combat in the F-86 was that I thought I was going to go up there and get into these big dog fights that you keep reading about back in the States. I thought every day you went up there, you mix it up with the MiGs,. If you're lucky, you got one. If you were too unlucky, you didn't come back. It wasn't like that at all.

The Second Mission and Onward in Korea

I saw a MiG on my second mission. I was up flying with Colonel Meherin and we saw these two guys, and we tried to close on them. The F-86, in spite of what they told you and what you read in a lot of reports, was a couple of knots, maybe two or three knots, faster than the MiG, but it didn't have as good an acceleration. If you put the two together and shoved both throttles forward, the MiG would jump right out in front. After it got out there about three or 400 yards, you'd start gaining on him. That's because it was lighter and it had a better weight-to-thrust ratio. But anyway they were… We didn't have enough fuel to pursue it. Let's put it that way. And we had to let those guys go.

I didn't see another MIG until my 48th mission. And that's the frustrating part of it for me. I came over there because I had, I'd wanted to be an Ace since I first started reading about Eddie Rickenbacker in the 1920s. And that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to go to West Point, I wanted to be a fighter pilot, and then I wanted to be as good a fighter pilot as the Air Force had. And I had an air-to-ground tour, and now I needed an air-to-air tour, and a successful one to feel like I'm finally climbing the ladder a little bit. So this was not cutting it. I've flown now 48 missions and I've seen the MIGs twice. When I went on my 88th mission, I had 2 kills and 5 sightings. Only 5 times in 88 missions we had run into enemy airplanes. And there was a good reason for that. The MIGS flew once, usually. We had three missions. We had a morning mission, a noon mission, and a late afternoon mission. And the MIGS flew, sometimes they flew in the morning, sometimes they flew in the afternoon, you never knew when they were going to. And so they might be up there every day, but you can't get on the mission that they're on. You can be the squadron commander where you're choosing your own missions and you can't do it. So, it was just frustrating as Hell.

I had, I would say I had three pilots I think during the time I was there, that just came into me. And before some of them left, they were really in tears. They just said, "I'm scared to death of it, I know I'm going to get killed." And I just told him, I said, "Look, combat is for some people, it's not for everybody. And if you're scared to death of it, if you have a feeling that you can't do this, then I don't want you to continue on, because your failure will trigger off a failure somewhere else down the line. Something that you do will affect somebody else." So I said, “I don't want you to worry about it, I'm not going to ruin your career over it, but I'm going to have you transferred out of the outfit. Okay?” And I transferred three people like that, they all went back to C-130s or some other place.

A couple of guys, I kind of, I knew really were not... I don't know how I could tell. I really don't know, but I just felt that those guys were trying to get a change of assignment rather than the fact that they really were truly scared. And I basically told them that, "Nobody gets all the assignments they want. You got this assignment, you're going to finish this. If I can help you get a better assignment when your missions are complete and you're ready to go home, come see me and I'll help you." And I never had more trouble with them. Nope, I didn't. I would've felt bad if I'd have sent one of them back and then the guy gets killed a couple of days later, or a couple of weeks later, or even 20 missions later, I wouldn't have liked it. But that never happened. I was luckier than that.

Extending His Stay

Frederick Corbin "Boots" Blesse:

We'll go back to the part where I had two kills and five sightings. And I was really beside myself because I'm closing in on my 100 mission tour, I hadn't, things were not going good, it was too difficult to find the MIGS. And finally, I got lucky on a couple more missions, and at 95 missions, you had to go in and tell the administrative people, "I want to go home at 100 missions," or, then they allowed you to extend for another 25 if you were dumb enough to do that.

So at 94 missions, I had gotten two more. Now I had four MIGs, and I wasn't going out of there no matter what. Oh, and that group commander was a pain in the rear end. He'd called me in and said, "You know, you've done everything, you've got all this fighter experience beforehand in P51s, you need to keep this for the country. You should go back home. You've earned it to go back to your family."

Finally, I just said, "Colonel, look. I've waited all my life to get into the position where I am right now. I have the experience, I'm in an outfit that's fighting MiGS, and I'm going to stay and fight MiGS as long as I can. I want to go in Monday morning and ask him for another 25 missions." And he said, "I've never seen so many Goddamn dumb people in my life," he said, "get out of here."

But anyway, I extended for another 25 in on, I think it was the third or fourth or fifth, somewhere along in there, I got my fifth kill, and that I was now officially an Ace. And I remember when I got my fifth kill, we'd just finished, the guy's down, I rolled out, and started toward home, and I thought, "God, I guess I got my fifth MIG." And I stopped while we were climbing out. And I said a little prayer, I said, "God, I know you may have to," this sounds crazy but I said, "I know you may have to take me before I get through this whole mess over here, but let me get home. Let me get home and tell somebody that I got my fifth kill and became an Ace." And that's what happened to me in Korea.

But that was how dedicated, I guess you might say, or that I was to the proposition of becoming an Ace. I wanted to be like Rickenbacker, and in fact, I would like to have been the, well, I was for a little while. He was the leading Ace in Europe. And when he finished, he was the leading Ace of the Americans in the whole thing with his 26 kills. Well, I never got that far, but I was a leading ACE in the theater when I left, I got up to there.

But anyway, that's the way the missions went. And I flew them on out. And then I got one on the fifth, I think. And then about the 15th and the 17th, I got another couple. I got two on one of those missions, and one on another one. And then the other mission that we described later on was number 10, that was on about the 3rd of October. And then I went home after that.

MiG Alley

MiG Alley was an area to the west of the Yellow River that began down around Antung, which was at the mouth of the river, and Sinuiju. Sinuiju was on one side, and Sinanju on the other, and Antung was right in there. There was a big airfield at Antung that they used to always use. They had about four or five airfields, and they all took off over there and formed up, and then they flew across the Yellow River into MiG Alley. That's why it was called MiG Alley, because that was the first and the last place that we could contact them. For a long time, it seemed as though they really didn't want to fight. They'd form up at high altitude, fly across MiG Alley, go all the way down to Pyongyang at high altitude, make a 180 degree turn, and then fly back, and then they'd break up into four ship flights and land. But, they got over that eventually.

See, there were different nationalities of guys that were flying those airplanes. When I flew there from February or the beginning of March of 1952 until October '52, we flew against Russians entirely. Nobody flew those MiGs except the Russians during that time. Earlier and later, there may have been some North Korean and Chinese fighter pilots that flew them, but not initially. So, that was MiG Alley. It was an area that was probably 50 miles from south to north and maybe 40 miles deep. It looked like a great big D that started at the Yellow River and went west.

His Last Mission in Korea

My last mission in Korea was not pleasant, not unpleasant. There were good things and bad things about it. It always seemed strange to me that I damn near got killed on my first mission in Korea in that P-51 where I hit the truck and it turned upside down and the gas was pouring oil over me and everything. That was as close, I think, as I came during my whole tour, both then and in Vietnam, to really when I should have gotten killed and didn't. The 86 mission was a little different. I had a procedure in the squadron that required a new pilot. I had designated six pilots in the squadron who I thought were the best fighters that we had. And those six guys were designated to be the flight leader of this guy. He's a brand new guy who comes in on Monday. He gets a little transition around the base, and then he gets assigned to a flight and they take him on a mission. And one of those six guys had to take him on the first five missions he had.

Now, there was a reason for that. What I found out when I got there was that there were... I almost hate to say this, but there were a lot of guys that really didn't want to fight. I mean, I told you earlier, I fired two flight commanders. One of them had 65 missions. Another one had, I think, 58 missions, and neither one of them had ever been in a fight. Now it was difficult. That's another whole story about how difficult it was to find the MiGs and to be on the right mission. But still in 65, missions I just called the guys in. They weren't particularly good pilots, and when I took them out to fly with them it was just obvious to me that these guys just didn't get it. And well, anyway, we had these guys on the mission, on the first five missions with one of these specific pilots, because I knew that they were going to take them up. They were going to get him in a fight, and if there were MiGs there, they would seek. How they went towards the MiGs, they didn't go home when the MiGs were in the... When the MiGs were on the east, they didn't make turn to the right, that kind of stuff. And so I had this guy. I had a fellow who was on his second mission and he was not my wing man. He was actually the wing man of the number four man, or the number three man, I mean. He was the number four man in the flight. But the element leader had some problems with his fuel system. I think he had a tank that wouldn't feed, and you don't send a guy home by himself. He's liable to get wired on the way home. I wanted number four to get this mission in. So I sent my wing man with the number three man and told him both to go home. And then for number four, you close it up and fly with me. So now I had the new guy and we went up, I was hoping we could find a couple MiGs or something, get him into a little scrap or something and some kind of experience. And there wasn't anything going on. MiG alley was dead that afternoon. Nothing happeneding.

And finally, I decided to take him across into Manchuria and show him a couple of those airfields over there and give him some experience at that and tell him how to avoid the radar when he comes back over. And eventually we got down to the point where we had about... We were up around Fengtian, or North of Antung, well into Manchuria. And we were down to about 1,400 or 1,500 pounds of fuel. I said, "Okay, it's time to go home." So we turned back, and I had him out in a wide position like this and he kept falling back. We were still well north of Sinuiju in North Korea, and I see four MiGs above me, about 8,000 or 10,000 feet. And they're making a big sweep around, toward me, so I watched them to see what they were doing. In the meantime, we're going on and they came on around and leveled out on our line, and saw their elements spread out. And I thought, "Maybe these guys have read chapter two. That looks like a pretty good flight."

So I wanted to get out over the water as soon as I could. There's just the two of us. He's out in here and there's just the two of us. I didn't want him to get into a defensive fight, nor did I want to get in one with 1,500 pounds. So I started easing over... We were about 35,000. They were probably around 42,000- 43,000, and they were coming down. And so I started losing a little altitude to increase our air speed as well. And the MiG leader, I'm sure, anticipated the fact that we were going to get to the water before he got to us, and they didn't fly over the water. As soon as we crossed the coastline, they just turned away.

And there was a reason for that. If they got shot down over the water, our people picked them up and they were prisoners. They got shot down over land, their people picked them up and they're on another mission tomorrow morning.

So I think the MiG leader realized that, and he started firing his 37 millimeter cannon. Now they had three very good weapons on the MiG. They had a 37 millimeter cannon and then two 23 millimeter. And the 23 were okay. They were just like our 50 calibers. Stronger, a bigger weapon, but when they fired at you couldn't see it coming or going. All you knew was you'd just been hit. But the 37 was entirely different. It was like you used to see at the 4th of July shows when you were a kid and watched the Roman candle. Did you ever see the Roman candle? The guy fires it and you see it comes. It looks like a little ball of fire. You can see it coming and watch it and it goes right on by. And you see it coming both ways. And that's the way the ammunition was in that 37 millimeter gun.

So he knew he wasn't going to hit anybody, but he thought maybe he could scare my wing man, and the wing man was out over here. I'd called him twice and told him to close it up and he was a little slow doing that. But anyway, I was watching him and realizing that I had to take care of this guy. And the MiG leader started firing and the stuff was... His airplane was out like this. And the stuff was all dropping down, maybe 1,000 feet behind him, 800-1,000 feet. I knew that he wasn't going to close the distance because of what I had done, and because of the speeds we were going and what he was doing, but he didn't know that. And when he turned around and looked and saw that the guy was firing it, he can see this, this ball coming at him and he doesn't watch the same ball all the way and know that it falls short. He just sees that the guy's firing at him.

And the next thing I do, I get a call from him. And he says, "They're firing at me. I'm breaking left. And he breaks away, which was catastrophic. I mean, we didn't have the fuel to fight. We were a hell of a long way from home. And we were really not quite over the water yet. And it was not a good position. So as soon as he broke out to the left like that, of course the two MiGs start cutting him off in the turn and they're closing rapidly now. And so when they did that, I came around to trap those two MiGs between my wing man and myself. I wanted to get the two of them. And I called my wing man and said, put that sucker in a 4G turn and keep it there. Start diving and keep it in a 4G turn. And he just started a descending spiral with a lot of pressure on the stick coming back. And the two MiGs are behind him trying to do the same thing. And I'm behind those two MiGs. And I looked right after I got into a turn and started in on these guys. I took a look to see what the other element was doing and they're turning in on me. So we had a nifty little Daisy chain going down with a 1, 2, 1, 2 deal. And that went on down to about, somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 feet. The leader increased his turn to stay with my wing man who had apparently gotten a little bit ahead of him. I don't know, but the leader increased his speed, and then two kind of over-controlled a little bit and his airplane shuddered and he slid out to the right. And when he did that, I relaxed the Gs and on my airplane and lined him up in my gun site and took a shot at him and hit him. And a bunch of stuff flew off of him, some stuff out of the out of the engine puffed, and off he went. He took off. And within about two or three seconds, maybe three or four seconds, before I could even get around to the leader again, the leader broke off. So now at that stage of the game, I called my wing man and said, "Okay, you're clear. Roll out, climb to 32,000- 35,000 feet and go home. I'll be okay." And off he went, he got back all right.

In the meantime, when I relaxed to hit the number two man that gave the number three and four guys a shot at me, and I got a hail of stuff over my canopy. And the leader now had the two man had gone, the leader had gone. These two guys are back in here. And so I just ducked my nose, increased my rate of turn and these guys didn't stay with me. They went to the out side. And when they did that, I rolled, rolled over like this, and this guy could see what was going to happen. It's kind of like that thing bud got into, but they could see, I was going to go over the top and in about another two or three seconds, I was going to be behind the two of them. And when I was about here and they were in here, the guy rolled underneath and the two of them took off in the opposite direction.

But I was glad of that. I didn't want to fight. That was one of the few times when I really didn't didn't care to mix it up with them. I didn't have the fuel. By now I'm down to about 900 pounds, maybe a 1,000 pounds of fuel. I'm damn near 200 miles from home, and I'm already starting to calculate whether I can make it or not, whether the winds are going to be a factor here or what. And I'm down at about 7,000 feet, and I didn't have a hell of a lot of air speed either. And so I leveled out, looked around, a couple of these to be sure these guys didn't come back and were underneath me or something like that and I was all clear, the area was clear, and I started climbing out at about 300 knots. And I climbed up.

I was up around 9,000, I think, as I recall, around 9,000 or 10,000 feet, and I'm watching my fuel gauge and this kind of thing, and out of the corner of my eye, I see a MiG 15. And the strange thing about that... I've thought about this a long time ago. Well, I mean, I've thought about it for a long time. And it was the same sensation I got on my very first mission when I just landed that P-51. The visibility was terrible. My leader had gone out of sight. And I’m just to the point where I'm too slow to go around and too fast to ground loop, and out of the corner of my eye on the left, I see this truck coming across the runway, going... some important thing, like getting to the other side. And I'm thinking, "Nobody would be dumb enough to try to land in this kind of weather." And it was the same thing. Out of the corner of my eye, the crucial thing comes from left to right, again.

So I thought boy, school is really out. I can't even go one turn with this guy. I don't have the fuel. Above all, I've got to get out over the water. It hadn't been more than two weeks since Pyongyang Sally had been on the short wave radio and she said, "Ah, Major Blesse. I see you've got your eighth kill today, but we're going to get you. We're going to get you. And when we do, we're going to hang you from the Han river bridge." I said, "Dammit, I got to get to the water. I don't like hanging from bridges."

So anyway, I'm climbing up and I think this is really going to get bad. And he hasn't made a move. I just stayed where I was to see what he was going to do. I expected him to turn over maybe and take a shot at me or to turn, go up like this and come down. Didn't do anything. He was so content, and so intent, on getting himself back across the yellow river and over into North Korea to Antung or whatever air base he was going to, that while I'm down in here, he flies across from 12 o'clock, 11 to 12 and on down, flies right across there. And I can't believe this, you know? And I'm thinking, why does this happen to me when I go on mission after mission after mission, and I got all kinds of fuel and I can't find them, and here I am, when I don't barely have enough fuel to get to the water and here's somebody to fight with?

And I watched him go across, and he got about halfway over here, and it became obvious to me he didn't see me. And I looked at the fuel gauge. I looked at the altimeter, I calculated what altitude I thought I had to get to get home, and I said, "Oh, what the hell? Why not?" And I whipped it over into a turn and pulled up like this, got in close to him because he's letting down, not too fast, maybe 300 knots, not much different than I was, and came up underneath me. I don't think the poor guy ever saw me. I came up underneath him from this side like this and shot him down. Big explosion guy, punches out. I don't think the thing took me... It took me about not more than 150 pounds or 200 pounds of fuel to go from where I was down here to go over and shoot him down and then get back on course in about 25 seconds.

So he's gone and I'm still thinking I can at least reach the water. I got three alternatives right now. I would like to get all the way home. If that doesn't happen, if the winds are wrong, I don't have enough fuel, at least maybe I can get to Baengnyeongdo. There was an island out there where we had a radar site, Baengnyeongdo, and it had about 5,000 foot of very good straight hard Sandy beach. The only problem with it was it had about a 50 foot cliff on each end of the little thing that looked to me like it would be a landing strip. And 5,000 feet is kind of short for an F-86. But if you're looking at bailing out into the third-most shark infested bay in the world, or maybe taking a crack at that 5,000 foot runway, it doesn't look too bad. You come in a little slower and you try to do it a little bit better and land a little closer to the the cliff and see if you can do it. So that was my, that was my second alternative.

The third alternative was to bail out, just to punch out of the thing if I didn't I couldn't get home. It was obvious to me very quickly. I knew right after I shot this guy down and started climbing again. I knew I was never going to be able to fly the airplane home. I was down to about six or 700 pounds then, and in order to get home I would've had to get to 35,000 feet and have 300 pounds left. Then I knew- and I had done this before- I knew I could shut the engine off. And glide at 180 knots and glide the other... It's about 125 miles from Pyongyang to our base here at Kempo. I knew I could do that and then get down, restart the engine at 2000 feet and make a circle and use the 300 pounds that you got left to be sure you didn't end up short of the runway or something. That was a good procedure. We had used it on occasion, but the key to it was getting to 35,000 when you went over Pyongyang, and I couldn't do that.

So I called Dumbo. We had Dumbo on alert, SA-16 Grumman flying boat, and he was always on scene. I got over on his channel, called him, said, "Here's the situation: I'm heading for Ch'o-do, I don't know if I'm going to make it or not. Wherever you are, head for Cho'o-do." He said, "Roger," and he started on up. I kept on going, and when I got to about 17,000 feet, I was down to 300 pounds. I shut it down, I gave it up right there, made it turn to the right, and started over toward Baengnyeongdo.

I was gliding 180 knots, and that coastline was beginning to look flatter, and flatter, and further, and further away. I thought, "Well, this is it. There's no sense in going in with 300 pounds of fuel left in the airplane." I fired it up and climbed up to about 11,000 before it quit, and then I nosed it over, picked up 180 knots again, and kept going. I got over the coastline. Oh, I took a tremendous amount of fire. I crossed a main supply route that was about 30 miles short of the beach, and I got a lot of anti-aircraft fire. Usually you would jink and do this sort of thing to keep him from hitting you, but I just got down behind the damn thing as far behind as I could in the cockpit and just kept flying it on instruments, and watching where I was going. I had contact with the Dumbo, and I crossed the coastline about 3000 feet. I got down to 2000 feet so quickly that when I looked around it still looked like I was just barely over the water. I called the Dumbo and said, "I'm going to have to punch out. Have you got me in sight?" And he said, "Roger, we got you." I said, "Okay, watch my airplane. There's no real way to know where that's going." "Rog, we got you." Right about that time I said, "Okay, if you're all set I'm punching out”.

And right then something happened to me that was one of the nicest things. Something I'll never forget. It was one of the nicest things that ever happened to me in the air force. Something good about everything, and this was probably the only thing I could think about this mission that was good. I was messing with straps and stuff like that, and making sure I was all in good shape, and there was a radio in Ops and it was a Group Ops. Whenever there were guys in the combat area, if your squadron was one of the ones that was in the combat area the guys who were not flying on that mission would usually end up in Ops listening to what happened to see who was in contact with the MiGs, and who's doing this, and who's doing that, just get a feel for the mission.

My squadron, we were the only ones up there by this time. There were a bunch of my people, the people in my squadron that were up there in the Ops and just about ready to punch out, and I hear this voice, he said... I think the first one said, "Take it easy, good luck. We'll keep a place open for you at supper," and the next guy grabbed the mic and says, "You little bugger, you owe me five bucks! Get your butt back here!" And the next guy says, "Good luck, buddy." It was just a series of calls. The guys just saying good luck, nothing else, whatever they could think about at the moment. This still kind of chokes me up thinking about it. It was a very, very emotional moment for me, and I remember after the last guy stopped I sat there for a full eight or 10 seconds, and I thought, "God, what a bunch wonderful bunch of guys." And out I went.

I had already undone my safety belt because I had read in some of the intelligence manuals that if you're down close to the ground you can get hung up in the seat. It takes too long for the automatic mechanism to release the seat, and then get the parachute to drag the seat away from me, and all that. So, I undid my safety belt before I went out. The minute I got in the slip stream the air pressure pulled the seat away from me, opened my parachute, and took care of everything. I got out maybe about 1500 feet, something like that. I was up a lot higher than I was when I bailed out of that P-47 because I had time to reach down and make sure that the dingy was all set, and all that kind of stuff, and got in the water and undid the thing. Unzipped it, laid it out in the water, and it all worked. I lost a lot of maps and some other things that I had in the pockets when I hit the water. I lost my helmet. I unzipped the thing, laid the dingy out in the water and pulled the right strings, and it played it a nice little boat. It was a nice day. This was in about, as I recall, it was a 3rd of October of 1952. The water was not cold. It wasn't warm either, but it was a nice, refreshing dip in the ocean. I swam over and picked up my maps, I got my helmet, threw those into the dingy, and then climbed up over the side and got in the dingy myself.

About that time the PB Wide had landed, and he had taxied over fairly close to me. They had a rescue line. You fire it out with a pistol, and it goes out and shoots a thing over the top of you, and you grab the rope.

He pulled me over in the dingy, and now I'm right underneath a big open door. The guy that had the gun, he's there with two other guys in the door, and before I knew what he was doing, he pulled me out of the dingy and they pulled me up into inside. I said, "Hey, wait," and the airplanes start taxiing away. He starts taxiing out over the water and leaving my dingy. I ran up the aisle and I hit the pilot and I said, "Hey, wait a minute, wait a minute." I said, "My dingy is still back there and I got a lot of stuff in it." I won't tell you exactly what he said, but he uttered some profanity and said, "I don't really care about your dingy." He described it in great detail, "I don't care about that damn dingy." And he said, "They're firing at me from the shore, and we're getting out of here as fast as we can get out." So, I lost the dingy and everything. Well, there were two aspects of this. It looked like I was going to lose my 10th kill because all my films and everything is going to the bottom of East China Sea, and what actually happened was as we got into trouble and about the time I called Dumbo, they scrambled the alert flight. They always had a flight on alert in case somebody got in trouble. They scrambled the alert flight, and to my delight Robbie Robinson was the flight commander of that alert flight. Now, he and I had known each other for years. Robbie had five kills at the time, and he got three more later on, but he had quite a history. 15 years later when he and I were both in Vietnam, he got shot down, spent seven years in a prison camp, wrote a nifty book called Passing of the Night. He found his religion over that. I'll tell you, it was really good.

Anyway, Robbie was there. It was a beautiful clear day. When that airplane exploded you could have seen it for 100 miles. These guys were only about 20 miles short of where I was. They all had it, and I got four confirmations of my kill, and then they came back. They came back and strifed and sunk my dingy so that nobody could pick up any information or anything out of that. The flying boat took off, we went back. About an hour later I was back at the base, and the guys were all there. They said, "Hell, we're not going to the mess hall, we're all going to the club." The whole squadron went up in the club. We had a big party. I never did any drinking, but I had a glass or two of wine that night after. It was a pretty nice evening.

Chapter 2

We had tactics manuals and other things like that, and my expression was, "An inexperienced fighter pilot never got to chapter two in the book, and he over doing dumb things." And so, I think it was Brown was with me, we jumped a flight of 12 just the same way Davis did, the same damn thing. In fact, I thought about it when it happened. But we jumped these guys, and I told him, I told Brown when we rolled in on them, I said, "We're going to jump this last flight and if they pull up to the right and stay there, we'll know they read chapter two and we're getting out of here. We aren't going to be here very long."

Because there's two here, there's two here and two here. When you come in, if these guys see you coming, they pull off like this. And if they don't want to fight, they just keep right on turning and go home, which is what they did. But what I was afraid of, was that they'd come up like this and gain some altitude, reverse their turn and parallel the other two down here. Now, if I continue on in these guys would come in and got a shot at us. So, that's a guy who's read chapter two.

Leaving as the Leading Ace

When I went home then I had 10 kills. I was a leading Ace in the theater until somebody else broke my record about, they, the records, my record was okay until around about March of the next year. It was good for about five or six months. But then they got in the F-86F, which had two 20-millimeter cannons in it, instead of the six guns, six .50 calibers, which gave it a lot more firepower. It had a thousand pounds more thrust in the engine, and it had a different or slat arrangement, which allowed them to turn a lot tighter. And most of the kills they got, they got from March of 1953 until July '53, when the war ended.

If you go back and look at all the Aces, and I think there were 11 of us that got 10 or more, Davis, and I were the only two that got them in the old airplanes, and the next guy to get them, I think, was baker. He was flying Fs and so on. All those guys that flew from March were there from March until July, they flew the best airplanes and the MIGs were flying and they were all shooting them down. It was, it would've, I'd like to have been there during that period.


Ken Harbaugh:

That was Major General Frederick “Boots” Blesse. Next time on Warriors In Their Own Words, we’ll hear Blesse explain how his motto “No Guts, No Glory” was taught as doctrine throughout the Air force, and how dogfighting has changed over the years.

Thanks for listening to Warriors In Their Own Words. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We’re always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more, follow us on twitter at Team_Harbaugh.

And if you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to rate and review.

Warriors In Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with The Honor Project.

Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Brigid Coyne is our production director, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer.

Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

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