Upward and Onward, 70 years ago

19 November 1950: “A pilot of the Flying Cheetahs, the South African Squadron fighting in Korea with the Unified Forces, getting ready to take off for a mission.”

Flying Cheetahs, the South African Squadron fighting in Korea P-51 188081

UN Media Photo # 188081

You’ll note the pilot is at the stick of a P-51D Mustang, the “Cadillac of the Sky” during WWII. However, just a half-decade later the renowned dogfighter was obsolete at best when compared to the early jets of the day and in the USAF had been relegated to second-line service with the Air National Guard in favor of the P-80 Shooting Star.

Nonetheless, the South Koreans flew the Mustang and the U.S. Navy, using the carrier USS Boxer as a ferry, carried a deck load of the aircraft to the theatre just a couple months after the balloon went up, for use not only with the ROKAF but also with UN forces– such as the Royal Australian Air Force’s No.77 Squadron and the South African Cheetahs– in need of a supportable tactical fighter still capable of mixing it up with North Korean Yak-9s while able to drop rockets and 500-pound bombs on things below.

The Cheetahs, officially No. 2 Squadron, SAAF, was only a decade old in 1950 but had flown Hurricanes, P-40s and Spitfires in World War II, seeing plenty of action across North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and Yugoslavia.

Deploying to South Korea in September 1950, they picked up loaned American P-51Ds at Johnson AFB in Japan and landed in Korea, 49 officers and 206 men strong, two months later. Their first combat sortie staged from K9 Airfield on 19 November– 70 years ago today– and it would be the first of many. They would soon switch to K13 and K10, operating from the latter through December 1952.

North American F-51D Mustang fighters of No. 2 Squadron of the South African Air Force in Korea, on 1 May 1951.USAF Photo HD-SN-98-07604

Used primarily for interdiction missions while attached to the 18th (U.S.) Fighter Bomber Wing, the standard per aircraft loadout against road and railway targets was two 500lb bombs, six 5-inch (127mm) HVAR rockets, and a maximum load of .50-cal ammo.

For attacks on supply areas and for close support missions the bombs were usually replaced with two 110-gallon drop tanks filled with napalm and fused with modified white phosphorous grenades.

The Cheetahs were considered “mud movers” due to the amount of dirt they threw in the air on ground attacks and, likely due to the airfields they worked from.

THE SOUTH AFRICAN AIR FORCE DURING THE KOREAN WAR (KOR 641) Leading Air Mechanic J J Dauth, Air Mechanic P H A Reilley and Sergeant L F Bussio working on an F-51D Mustang, during a spell of poor weather when rain and low cloud grounded the aircraft of 2 Squadron, South African Air Force. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205194937

As noted by the SAAF, “While equipped with Mustangs, the squadron flew 10,373 sorties and out of a total 95 Mustangs acquired, no fewer than 74 were lost due to enemy action and accidents. Twelve pilots were killed in action, 30 missing and four wounded.”

South African Air Force No 2 Squadron Korean War. Lt H. Joyce’s F-51D No.334 (ex USAF 44-74757)

Finally jumping to the jet age, the Cheetahs transitioned to (loaned) F-86F Sabres in January 1953 and began missions from K55 two months later. “The squadron flew a total of 2 032 sorties in the Sabres. Only four Sabres were lost out of 22 supplied,” notes the SAAF.

A South African Air Force North American F-86F Sabre from No. 2 Squadron at Tsuiki Air Base, Japan, in 1953. National Museum of the U.S. Air Force photo 100608-F-1234S-027

They earned over 420 individual decorations as well as Presidential Unit Citations from both the U.S. and South Korean governments.

Leaving Korea on 31 October 1953, the Cheetahs gave their Sabres back to Uncle Sam but, after returning to Waterkloof AFB, would later be equipped with Canadair Sabre Mk.6s until transitioning to Mirages in the 1960s, although some lingered on into the early 1970s.

10 Dassault Mirage IIIs, four F-86 Sabres, three Buccaneers, and four Canberras of the SAAF on the tarmac in the 1970s. At the time the force was heavily involved in various bush wars both officially and unofficially. 

Today the Cheetahs of 2 SAAF fly Swedish-made JAS 39 Gripens.

Their motto is Sursam Prorsusque, “Upward and Onward.”

As for the Mustang’s legacy in the country, today, the SAAF Museum at Swartkop Air Force Base maintains a former Swedish & Dominican Air Force P-51D, SN 44-72202 –”Patsy Dawn” the only such aircraft preserved in Africa.

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