Exactly 65 years ago to the day when North Korea attacked South Korea, the embassy of the Republic of Korea held a commemoration ceremony at AFB Ysterplaat, Cape Town.
The event was to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War on the 25 June 1950 and the 62nd commemoration of the signing of the Armistice Agreement on the 27th July 1953.
When war broke out in Korea, the Union Government announced on 4 August 1950 its intention to place an all-volunteer South African Air Force (SAAF) squadron at the disposal of the United Nations.
2 Squadron, whilst equipped with Mustangs, flew 10,373 sorties and out of a total of 95 Mustangs acquired, no fewer than 74 were lost due to enemy action and accidents. Twelve Mustang pilots were killed in action, 30 missing and four wounded. A further 2,032 sorties were flown in Sabres jets, with four Sabres lost out of 22 supplied.
The Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to South Africa, His Excellency Choi Yeon-ho, said that he would like to “express our deepest gratitude to our heroes, the Korean War veterans, for their sacrifice and contribution.”
South Korea was eternally grateful that South Africa joined the United Nations forces and that “the young South African pilots and ground crew came to Korea to save the South Koreans from the communist attack.”
Of the approximately 816 Airforce members that went to Korea, 34 made the ultimate sacrifice.
Choi noted that after the war, the Korean government had launched several programmes to express their gratitude to the Korean War veterans and that the relatives of the veterans should be proud of what their husbands, fathers or grand-fathers did.
For the people of South Korea, the Korean War has not ended as the two Koreas are still technically at war. “It has not ended,” Choi said, “Our heroes will live and be remembered in the hearts and minds of Korean people forever and forever. Everlasting heroes.”
Col DJ Louw, President of the South African Korean War Veterans Association and himself the son of a Korean War veteran, noted that in comparison with the rest of the United Nations forces, South Africa suffered a tremendous loss, given the size of the South African Air Force.
During the ceremony held at the Korean War exhibit at the SAAF Museum, wreaths were laid around the miniature replica of South African Air Force Memorial that was erected in Pyongtaek by the South Korea government. With many veterans and family members attending, the sounding of the Last Post by a lone bugler of the South African Army Band, followed by two minutes of silence, was particularly poignant.
According to the book Tumult in the Clouds, Stories from the South African Air Force by Dean Wingrin, 2 Squadron (the Flying Cheetahs) sailed for Japan on 25 September 1950. Following conversion onto the F-51D Mustang supplied by the USAF, 2 Squadron served as one of the four squadrons of the USAF 18th Fighter-Bomber Wing and flew their first mission in Korea on 19 November 1950.
The SAAF flew with the distinctive Springbok in the centre of the roundel, introduced when 2 Squadron was sent to Korea. Their role was close air support against enemy positions to soften them up for ground attacks, interdiction against the enemy’s logistic and communication lines, providing protective cover for rescue operations, reconnaissance flights and to a lesser extent, interception of enemy aircraft.
In January 1953 the squadron received USAF F-86F Sabre jet fighter-bombers and the sturdy Mustangs were returned to the USAF. The first Sabre mission was flown on 16 March 1953. This marked the entry of the SAAF into a new era of jet warfare. The Flying Cheetahs thereafter took part in fighter sweeps along the Yalu and Chong-Chong rivers as well as against ground targets.
The war ended on 27 July 1953. Prior to the SAAF members returning to South Africa in late 1953, the Sabres were returned to the USAF.
During their time in Korea, 34 SAAF pilots had lost their lives and eight taken prisoner of war, including the future Chief of the Air Force, General Dennis Earp.