USAF F-51 Mustang pilot Doug Canning recalls air war over Korea

F-51D Mustangs on the flight line of a Korean airfield in 1952. US Air Force photo 050428-f-1234p-019.jpg.

20 April 2011 | Maitland, Florida, USA. Some 61 years have passed since the United States entered the Korean War. Doug Canning, a retired pilot, participated in the conflict. Several months ago, Mr. Canning, who lives in Maitland, Fla., was a panelist during a Fantasy of Flight “Pacific War” symposium. Three weeks ago, Doug sat down to primarily discuss his experiences with the United States Air Force’s 35th Fighter Interceptor Wing’s 40th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron (FIS) during the Korean “Police Action.”

Doug Canning. Photo: John T. Stemple.

On June 25, 1950, the war began when communist forces boldly moved southward beyond the 38th Parallel. The 38th Parallel was the point of bifurcation that separated the two Koreas. The Republic of Korea was in danger of being overrun.

A Misawa Air Force Base, Japan, online document, titled 35th Fighter Wing Heritage, provides an outline of the wing’s history. The 35th Fighter Interceptor Wing (FIW) first became involved in the action on June 27 as Korean and American military personnel were evacuating civilians from Kimpo and Suwon airports. North Korean (Korean People’s Army Air Force) aircraft appeared over the airfields, and a 35th FIW pilot at the controls of a North American F-82 Twin Mustang shot down a Lavochkin La-7. This was the third aerial victory for United States Air Force (USAF) fighters in Korean skies.

Mr. Canning was, when fighting erupted, a United States Air Force (USAF) weather officer at Nagoya, Japan. He again became a combat pilot. This time he would initially be flying with the 40th FIS.

In June 1950, the 40th FIS prepared for action. The squadron’s Lockheed F-80 Shooting Stars began flying to Korea after staging from Ashiya Air Base, Japan. Quickly, the 40th FIS began retrograding. It relinquished its turbojets for older propeller-driven (powered by liquid-cooled reciprocating engines) North American F-51D Mustangs.

The Mustang, a legend in the role of escorting heavy bombers during World War II, again entered widespread service due to numerous factors. First, the type was plentiful and readily available. Additionally, Mustangs possessed great range. This reach translated into loiter time over targets that the jet types of the era could not match. Also, F-51s could fly from the shorter and rougher airstrips near the front. In addition, the airplane could carry a respectable load of ordnance. Finally, in the early months USAF commanders believed Mustangs could adequately counter the aircraft possessed by the North Korean air force.

The 40th FIS began reverting to F-51s but had to await the arrival of the aircraft carrier USS Boxer, which was transporting 145 F-51s, to fully re-equip. By August 7, 1950, the 40th FIS was at “K-3” Pohang, which was on the Republic of Korea’s southeast coast. The situation was becoming dire. Mr. Canning stated, “Soon, the Allies owned only a strip of land some 50 by 90 miles in size.”

At K-3 only F-51s were operating, although, Mr. Canning said, at “Taegu [K-2], there were F-80Cs and F-51Ds.” The Mustangs flew from the strip designated as “Fighter 3.” Doug fondly recalled Leroy Roberts, a fellow F-51D pilot at K-3, who was one of the famous Tuskegee Airmen.

Meals at the bases usually consisted of Spam, powdered eggs and fruit salad. In short order Doug consumed his fill of Spam. He flatly stated, “I have not eaten the product since leaving Korea.”

At K-2, Bob Hope put in an appearance. The Americans were then able to briefly escape from their worries and concerns. Fittingly, the popular comedian and actor departed K-2 in the front cockpit of a Lockheed T-33 trainer.

The squadron concentrated on the essential task of halting the North Korean advance down the eastern coast of the Korean peninsula. According to 35th Fighter Wing Heritage, the F-51s provided close air support. However, the “majority of the missions were armed reconnaissance focused on interdicting the reinforcements and supplies streaming south.”

With the Pusan perimeter shrinking as the enemy moved nearer, K-3 soon became untenable. The authors of 35th Fighter Wing Heritage described the situation at and around K-3 by stating the following: “Sortie rates soared as aircraft dropped ordnance within sight of the personnel who helped launch them. Maintenance personnel worked on the aircraft by day and defended the base from guerilla attack by night.” Finally, the 40th FIS relocated to Tsuiki Air Base, Japan, and continued operations over Korea.

After the successful Allied landings at Inchon and the resulting push inland, the 40th FIS was able to return to K-3 on October 7. On November 16, the 35th FIW moved up to Yonpo, which was a little south of the port city of Hungnam, North Korea. Designated as K-27, Yonpo and Hungnam were on the Sea of Japan. Mr. Canning indicated that there “were two squadrons of USAF F-51s and one, No. 77 squadron, of Royal Australian Air Force Mustangs at the base.” Doug commented. “The Australians were a good bunch.”

Doug emphasized the enemy’s brutality. He stated, “The communist leaders would order the roundup all the educated people and professionals, some 200 at a time, tie their hands behind their backs, take them out to sea on a boat and drown them.” He added, “During one mission, our flight of 4 F-51s saw that the North Korean soldiers did not hesitate to utilize women and children as human shields.”

Mr. Canning also noted the population’s seeming disinterest in the welfare of others. He said, “We would be strafing one side of a road and people on the other side did not seem concerned.” Doug found the behavior disturbing.

With F-51s being less than ideal for the types of missions they had to perform, attacks had to be creative to reduce exposure to anti-aircraft fire. For example, during one sortie North Koreans were coming up a hill. Large rocks, some 6 to 8 feet high, were between the Mustangs and the enemy. One F-51 came in from the front as Doug swept in from the side. On this sortie the F-51s were quite effective.

However, Mr. Canning recalled an incident that illustrated the Mustang’s greatest shortcoming. About 5 miles north of K-3, the North Koreans were advancing and one of their radar-controlled machine gun posts downed 5 F-51Ds. A 40th FIS pilot decided to go after the battery. Unfortunately, this pilot too fell victim. Doug, upset by his mate’s fate, also had a go at the site. He approached, diving down from 5,000 to 2,000 feet, in a fast attack. The enemy gunners found their mark yet again. Doug heard rounds impacting the engine. Almost immediately, the radiator temperature began to rise. He jettisoned the bubble canopy in preparation to bail out of the stricken airplane. Mr. Canning then spotted two naval ships that turned out to be U.S. Navy cruisers at sea about 5 miles distant. Doug thought about ditching near them but found the Mustang still controllable. Limping back to K-3, he landed the heavily damaged F-51D safely. Mr. Canning remarked, “The Mustang was too badly damaged for repair. It went to the boneyard as salvage.”

Doug, having commanded a squadron of Republic P-47 Thunderbolts in Mississippi, added the following comment: “We should have had Jugs because they could absorb a lot of damage. A single bullet in a F-51’s radiator could mortally wound a Mustang’s Merlin engine. After taking a hit, the pilot had only a very few minutes of flying time remaining.” By citing “Jugs,” Doug was referring to rugged air-cooled radial-engined Republic P-47 Thunderbolts that were so successful in tactical operations during World War II.

On November 27, 1950, Chinese Communist forces surprisingly came to the aid of their beleaguered North Korean communist brethren. American troops were quickly fighting for their lives in an effort to break out of the Chosin Reservoir area. Yonpo was immediately south of the planned escape route. So, the 35th FIW necessarily provided close air support.

Doug recalled several memorable days. On one occasion, 8 Mustangs took off on a mission. Doug flew in the second section of 4 F-51s to attack elements of 11 Soviet-trained North Korean army divisions. On an airfield, Mr. Canning strafed a Soviet-made twin-engine transport, a single-engine fighter and a third plane. Another pilot shot up a munitions dump. Later, Doug attacked a train, blowing up the locomotive, and he subsequently shot up a railroad tanker car. The bullets from his plane pierced the car’s fuel tanks and incendiary rounds set alight a 100 foot trail of gasoline. The car exploded and the smoke column rose to 5,000 feet.

Another time, Mr. Canning lost track of his wingman. Proceeding on, he flew over a North Korean division and strafed several staff cars. The occupants died. Afterward, he flew just beyond the coast and strafed a sloop at the waterline. Doug watched the crew abandon the two-masted vessel in rowboats. After a few minutes, the North Koreans rowed back to the ship and re-boarded. However, the sloop soon sank. Ironically, in the early 1970s Mr. Canning met a former Marine in Orlando who had been on the beach and was a witness to the event. This man photographed the sloop and showed Doug the image.

On December 3, the Fifth Air Force command ordered the 35th FIW’s withdrawal because communist troops were threatening Yonpo. The 35th FIW moved down to K-1 Pusan-West, from where it continued to resist the communists’ onslaught. The work 35th Fighter Wing Heritage testified as to the group’s effectiveness: “In February 1951 alone, the wing’s aircraft expended 12 tons of bombs, 3,400 five-inch rockets, 144,000 gallons of napalm, and 639,000 rounds of .50-caliber ammunition. This firepower inflicted massive destruction on the enemy, destroying or damaging an estimated 1,700 buildings, 127 vehicles, 15 tanks, 21 pack animals, 17 bridges, 36 artillery pieces and 1,300 communists troops.”

The U.S. Marines and Army G.I.s fought valiantly and ultimately successfully stabilized the situation. Mr. Canning also praised the Turkish soldiers. “The Turks did a good job. They fought hard and helped to stop the Chinese.”

The fighting in Korea was very unpleasant. On one mission Doug recalled having to shoot at a large number of enemy troops that were threatening to encircle a smaller force of U.S. Marines. The enemy soldiers were utilizing women and children as cover for their movements. Doug did not want to fire for he knew civilians would die. He radioed the forward air controller about the presence of noncombatants among the enemy. The controller replied. “If you don’t shoot a lot of Marines will be killed or taken prisoner. You will be court-martialed if you don’t shoot.” Doug made a strafing pass and poured .50-caliber machine gun fire into the ranks of hundreds of North Korean soldiers and their innocent pawns.

In total, Doug stated, “I probably killed 2,000 people during the time I flew in the wars.” Mr. Canning added the following: “When the Chinese came into the war American soldiers lot of feet due to frostbite while retreating many miles over the snow covered ground.” The foregoing illustrates the terrible human cost of warfare.

Mr. Canning recalls that the Wing had casualties totaling 24 pilots and 100 F-51s. Doug further stated, “Of my 8 initial tentmates, 5 were killed, 1 had to bail out twice and another had to take to the silk three times. The latter quit flying and was appointed to be a decorations officer.”

After being ordered to a new job, Doug began flying Douglas B-26 Invader bombers on weather flights. To perform one of the unit’s 3 missions, he would circle above each American airfield in his assigned sector and radio weather conditions in the combat area. Additionally, on occasions he flew over North Korean and Chinese waters to gather climate data. Also, at times he flew from K-2 to Shanghai, China, at 25 feet, to send weather information to Weather Central in Tokyo, Japan. In total, Mr. Canning flew 37 missions in F-51s and 68 in A-26s.

Mr. Canning’s favorite military assignment was commanding an Air Force Reserve Officer Training Command unit at Ole Miss. At the university he earned a doctor of jurisprudence degree and created an “Angel Flight” for females. Two “Miss America” champions would come from this organization, one of who was his step-daughter Patricia. Adopting his example, other Angel Flights came into existence. After a time, the Air Force allowed women into the service and Angel Flights went by the wayside.

There would be interesting footnotes to Doug’s legacy. When the United States began building up its forces in South Vietnam, Mr. Canning eventually found himself flying turboprop Douglas C-133 Cargomaster flights into the country. His first load consisted of 187,000 pairs of combat boots. Additionally, in 1973 and prior to the Yom Kippur War, Mr. Canning received orders to deliver a tank by air transport to Jordan. He duly flew the armored vehicle to the country. Doug assumed the delivery was part of a diplomatic effort to prevent Jordan from joining in any attack on Israel.

After a military career spanning 29 years, Mr. Canning retired in 1969 at the rank of lieutenant colonel. He confessed the following about his service through three wars: “Even though I saw and went through a lot, if I could be young again I would do it all again. It was a great life.”


The author (John T. Stemple) wishes to thank Doug Canning for graciously granting him an interview.

Responses from readers:

Brian Pritchard says:
03/01/2013 at 20:50

As a young boy in the 1970 s Mr. Canning taught me the world of R/C aircraft which I still enjoy today . I was in my 20s when I red the story of the Yommato Rade .now at 50 this story. Truly a great american aviation hero proud to have known him.

Jerry Lamp says:
10/10/2014 at 15:28

When we lived in Wayne NE I was friend of his brother Dick and occasionally he or his brother Bev would fly over Wayne and buzz Main Steet and stage mock dog fights over us. It was one of those things a person always remembers. Just last month a classmate and I were remoricing about that very thing I also remember reading a book in which one of the Canning brothers were mentioned.

Jerry Lamp