Aerial Com­bat Be­came Very Per­sonal, Very Quickly

Flight Journal - - CONTENTS - By Eric Ham­mel

Harold Ed­ward Fischer Jr. was born May 8, 1925, in Lone Rock, Iowa, and grew up in Swea City, Iowa. He joined the U.S. Navy in World War II and be­came an avi­a­tion cadet in 1944, but he was dis­charged from the ser­vice at the end of the war, be­fore he could com­plete flight train­ing. As soon as he had com­pleted two years of col­lege at Iowa State Univer­sity, Fischer per­suaded the U.S. Army to com­mis­sion him as a sec­ond lieu­tenant of in­fantry in Fe­bru­ary 1949. Upon grad­u­a­tion from an in­fantry course, Fischer si­mul­ta­ne­ously re­ceived or­ders to Korea as a pla­toon leader plus or­ders to be­gin flight train­ing. Faced with al­ter­na­tives, 2nd Lt. Fischer did some “in­ven­tive pa­per wran­gling” to trans­fer him­self to the Air Force as a pi­lot trainee. He won his wings in De­cem­ber 1950 and made his way al­most di­rectly to Korea, where the war was in its sixth month.


Lt. Fischer's ini­tial com­bat ex­pe­ri­ence was fly­ing Lock­heed F-80 Shoot­ing Star jet fighters with the 8th Fighter Wing’s 80th Fighter-Bomber Squadron. He flew an oblig­a­tory 105 mis­sions in F-80s, then served a stint as a staff of­fi­cer at Far East Air Force head­quar­ters. He then re­quested an­other com­bat tourand­wasas­signed­tothe51stFighter-In­ter­cep­tor Wing at Su­won on the west coast, fly­ing North Amer­i­can F-86 Sabres. Dur­ing 70 mis­sions with the 39th Squadron, he was cred­ited with down­ing 10 MiG-15 jet fighters be­tween Novem­ber 26, 1952, and March 21, 1953.

Be­gin­ning in early April 1953, U.S. in­tel­li­gence re­ported that the Chi­nese were mass­ing jet bombers in the Muk­den area of Manchuria. The news gen­er­ated fear that United Na­tions air­fields might come un­der sur­prise at­tack. The Al­lied re­ac­tion to the Com­mu­nists—Chi­nese and their Soviet al­lies—fly­ing twin-en­gine medium bombers near the Yalu River caused the United Na­tions’ forces to ex­pend tremen­dous re­sources and en­ergy to ferry their war­planes to more-dis­tant air bases ev­ery evening and re­turn them to their home bases ev­ery morn­ing.

The task for (then) Capt. Fischer was to es­cort some evening flights to Taegu or Kun­san and re­turn to his base, K-13, the fol­low­ing day. The tran­sient quar­ters at Taegu and Kun­san were aus­tere, depriv­ing ad­e­quate sleep for the ferry pi­lots, who also had to fly com­bat mis­sions dur­ing the work day.

A Bad Day: The Sum of Small De­tails

Af­ter es­cort­ing a flight to Kun­san on April 6, 1953, Fischer spent a rest­less night. The next morn­ing, fog blan­keted the field at Kun­san, and the es­corts from K-13 had to de­lay their take­off un­til it cleared.

When Fischer raised the land­ing-gear han­dle, the Sabre’s wheels did not retract. On re­flec­tion, the pi­lot re­al­ized that he had ne­glected to reposition the switch in the nose-gear com­part­ment dur­ing his preflight check of his F-86. That was only the be­gin­ning of a very bad day.

When Fischer ar­rived at K-13 with the gear al­ready down, he landed and went di­rectly to the base op­er­a­tions hut, where he found that he had re­ceived an ap­pli­ca­tion for a Reg­u­lar Air Force com­mis­sion. He had to fill it out and hand-de­liver it to a gen­eral at USAF head­quar­ters when he was re­lieved of flight duty that day. He wanted a reg­u­lar com­mis­sion, but when the pa­per­work was in front of him, he was re­luc­tant to com­plete it.

Fischer’s flight of four F-86s, with him lead­ing, was sched­uled for an af­ter­noon mis­sion over the


bor­der with North Korea. The pi­lots were briefed to break up into two-plane el­e­ments as soon as they ar­rived in the pa­trol area.

Af­ter start­ing his en­gine, Fischer tax­ied to the end of the run­way and waited for his wing­man, who had missed join­ing up when the flight leader tax­ied past him. The er­rant pi­lot had to be told by the sec­ond-el­e­ment leader to taxi out, which made the flight late for join­ing the rest of the group. The quar­tet thus burned pre­cious fuel on the ground and took off late.

As the flight climbed into its pa­trol area, the pi­lots noted cir­cling con­trails in the cen­ter of Korea. Oc­ca­sion­ally, two con­trails broke off and headed north. Fischer called the sec­ond-el­e­ment leader and re­quested that he in­ves­ti­gate while the first el­e­ment held its al­ti­tude. By the time the Sabres ap­proached the con­trails, the Com­mu­nist war­planes had climbed up and dis­ap­peared from the con­trail level.

As Fischer flew north­ward, he spot­ted a flight of four MiGs, all pulling con­trails, as it came across the bor­der. The Sabre pi­lots at­tacked as the MiGs passed 2,000 feet be­neath them. As the Amer­i­cans pulled into po­si­tion, the MiGs re­acted to the threat, but be­fore the Com­mu­nist air­men gained the ad­van­tage, Fischer fired his six .50 cal­ibers as the MiGs passed 200 feet to his right.

The Sabre’s guns had not been bore­sighted in the wake of its pre­vi­ous mis­sion, even though it was a mat­ter of pol­icy to bore­sight all guns af­ter ev­ery mis­sion when the guns were fired—specif­i­cally to pre­vent what Fischer’s guns were do­ing on April 7. The air­plane had been ran­domly as­signed to Fischer, and he had ac­cepted it be­cause no spares were avail­able. The only thing Fischer could do was curse and face the con­se­quences of his de­ci­sion to fly.

Be­fore Fischer could cor­rect for the mis­align­ment by ad­just­ing his sight pat­tern, the F-86s were at­tacked by four other MiGs that had ar­rived un­seen from above the con­trail level.

There was noth­ing the Amer­i­cans could do ex­cept break off. They all turned, then re­versed so that they could bring their guns to bear on the MiGs. It was a nice idea, but the Com­mu­nist fighters were trav­el­ing too fast, so the Sabres set course for the mouth of the Yalu and then headed to­ward K-13.

Along the way, Fischer’s wing­man called to say that one of his wingtip fuel tanks was not feed­ing cor­rectly and he was run­ning out. Be­fore Fischer or his other pi­lots could re­act to the news, three MiGs flashed by their noses, head­ing north­ward. It was an ex­cel­lent gun­nery setup; Fischer in­stinc­tively called a bounce. As he went af­ter the MiGs, the wing­man once again sang out that he was low on fuel. Fischer’s re­sponse was ill ad­vised; he told the oth­ers to break for home while he bounced the MiGs.

Of the three MiGs, two were lead­ing the third, which was strag­gling. Drop­ping lower, Fischer closed in on the strag­gler at a tremen­dous rate of speed. He got off a burst, made a huge lag roll around his prey, and fell onto the MiG’s tail. The MiG ac­cel­er­ated, com­ing even with the two lead­ers, while the F-86 con­tin­ued to close in. Fischer rolled over on the num­ber two MiG in the for­ma­tion and fired a long burst—on tar­get, thanks to his hav­ing prop­erly ad­justed his gun­sight. The bul­lets stopped the MiG’s en­gine. Mean­time, as the stalled MiG dropped back, Fischer switched to the lead Com­mu­nist fighter and hit it with all his guns at about 1,200 feet. The Com­mu­nist jet was torn to pieces that flew past Fischer’s F-86. He in­stinc­tively ducked as the de­bris shot by.

Fischer now faced two im­me­di­ate al­ter­na­tives: go down be­neath the next MiG or go over it. He de­cided on the sec­ond choice be­cause he did not want to wind up in front of it.

The Gods of Com­bat Made His De­ci­sion

Be­fore the F-86 ace could put his plan into mo­tion, the throt­tle came back into his hand. A glance at the in­stru­ments re­vealed that the Sabre’s en­gine was dy­ing, and the speed fell off so rapidly that


the pi­lot’s body had to be re­strained by his shoul­der straps. He had been hit by an un­seen MiG.

There was a chance of reach­ing the mouth of the Yalu River, where Fischer might be res­cued, but he quickly cal­cu­lated that he would ar­rive at zero al­ti­tude in an air­plane that was way more likely to sink if it were ditched than to float long enough for Fischer to exit the cock­pit. Nev­er­the­less, Fischer found ditch­ing more ap­peal­ing than bail­ing out over en­emy ter­ri­tory, where there was no chance of res­cue.

Hav­ing just de­cided to ride the F-86 into the waves, Fischer sud­denly smelled and saw smoke as it in­fil­trated the cock­pit. The dy­ing Sabre was on fire.

That left no room for choices. For any chance of liv­ing, Fischer had to eject be­fore the jet blew up—prob­a­bly in a mat­ter of a few sec­onds.


The luck­less pi­lot reached down for the han­dle that jet­ti­soned the canopy. Then he pulled an­other han­dle up, leaned back in his seat, placed his feet in a pair of stir­rups, and squeezed the trig­ger. The Sabre was at 2,000 feet, trav­el­ing at 450 knots.

A 37mm shell blew the ejec­tion seat up­ward at a ter­rific ve­loc­ity, caus­ing Fischer to mo­men­tar­ily black out. As he re­cov­ered, he and his seat were ro­tat­ing rapidly in space.

Fischer pulled his rip­cord and braced for a jolt from the de­ploy­ing parachute. But he felt noth­ing. Then the parachute de­ployed with a slight jar. Fischer looked up to check the pan­els, which were all fully de­ployed, save one. Good enough, given the al­ter­na­tives.

In­stinc­tively, Fischer scanned the sky around him. He saw a MiG that was trail­ing a long stream of flame as it turned lazily to­ward him. He thought for sure that the MiG pi­lot would fire on him, but the MiG turned lazily away, per­haps be­cause the pi­lot was in­ca­pac­i­tated or dead, or had al­ready aban­doned his air­plane.

Fischer next turned his at­ten­tion to land­ing. The ter­rain below was rocky, hilly scrub­land. Trees grew be­side rocky crags. Land­ing was go­ing to be ugly. He was drift­ing to­ward the side of a small hill. The still­ness of the land was sur­pris­ing. Fischer could hear voices shout­ing from the ground, from all di­rec­tions. He had been seen and was about to have com­pany.

His land­ing was cush­ioned at the last mo­ment when the parachute canopy caught in the branches of a scrub tree. Af­ter re­leas­ing the chute har­ness, he as­sessed his sit­u­a­tion. There was a lot of blood on his scarf, so he gin­gerly felt his ear. His hel­met was ripped off dur­ing the ejec­tion, tear­ing the flesh. He was soaked with sweat and bathed in cold air. A feel­ing of com­plete ex­haus­tion over­came him as his sup­ply of adren­a­line ran out. He wanted to climb the hill and hide, but he could not make his body get up. About all he could man­age was a tired crawl. He checked his watch: 1720 hours. He felt that, if he could hide out un­til dark, he might be able to elude pur­suers, whom he could hear all around his hill.

Fischer dis­carded his life vest and moved away from where he had landed. He dragged his parachute from the small tree that had snagged it so that its stark white color would not give him away to searchers. He did keep his chrome-plated .45-cal­iber pis­tol.


Fischer crested the ridge in a di­rec­tion to get him away from the land­ing site with­out be­ing seen, crossed a ravine, and ap­proached the crest of the next hill. He looked for a place to hide or dig in, but the ground was open in all di­rec­tions and of­fered no haven.

He pre­pared to crest the sec­ond hill but stopped in his tracks when he heard a voice from the other side of the hill. He crouched down and waited. Shortly a sun-tanned Asian man in farmer’s garb ap­peared along the ravine Fischer had just crossed. The man ap­peared to the Iowa-raised pi­lot as if search­ing for a lost cow. See­ing that the farmer was un­armed, Fischer low­ered his pis­tol. There was no threat, and in this area, he might be a friendly agent who might help get Fischer to safety.

The farmer very cau­tiously stepped to within 20 feet of Fischer be­fore he saw him but gave no in­di­ca­tion of be­ing sur­prised. He made some mild mo­tions with his hands, re­in­forc­ing the pi­lot’s hope that he was a friend.

Fischer made an in­stant as­sess­ment: The man would lead him to shel­ter. Putting all his trust in the farmer, he fol­lowed him down the ravine.

At the bot­tom of the ravine, the pair was sud­denly con­fronted by a large group of peas­ants car­ry­ing ev­ery type of agri­cul­tural tool imag­in­able and a few old ri­fles. Fischer knew then that he had been cap­tured.

The group of about 30 Chi­nese milled around and in­spected Fischer as if he were a crea­ture from an­other planet, but they ex­hib­ited no hos­til­ity, just wari­ness and cu­rios­ity. Af­ter they lifted the au­to­matic from Fischer’s im­mer­sion suit, they es­corted him to a small hut near the bot­tom of the ravine. Once in­side, they di­rected him to lie down and rest.

While giv­ing way to his own cu­rios­ity, Fischer con­cluded that they thought he was a Soviet pi­lot. Us­ing the hia­tus to good pur­pose, the Amer­i­can


for­mu­lated a plan that might ex­ploit the con­fu­sion. He de­cided to make it as plain as he could that he wanted to go to the near­est air base, Dapu, which he knew was just a few miles away. To­ward that end, he sim­ply got up from the bed and set out on his own. When the peas­ants protested, he in­sisted by sign and word that he was go­ing. Act­ing on pure bravado, he thus man­aged to get 50 or 60 feet ahead of the lo­cals, who re­luc­tantly fol­lowed him. A num­ber of chil­dren fol­lowed him more closely than the adults.

At length, Fischer con­sid­ered run­ning down the road, but the im­mer­sion suit pre­cluded this; he would over­heat in no time, and the tight gar­ment also re­stricted his mo­tion.

En­ter the Chi­nese Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army

Shortly there­after, an­other group, ev­i­dently mili­tia, ap­proached the pro­ces­sion and got into an ar­gu­ment with the farm­ers. The civil­ians wanted Fischer to con­tinue on in the di­rec­tion of the air­field, but the mili­ti­a­men wanted him to go the other way. Both groups be­gan to push him, and for a mo­ment, the is­sue was de­bated more vi­o­lently than he de­sired. When one of the mili­ti­a­men, ev­i­dently the leader, se­cured some wire, the pi­lot was sure he was go­ing to be strung up, so he ac­qui­esced and sat down by the side of the road. Two of the mili­ti­a­men, who car­ried ri­fles, po­si­tioned them­selves un­com­fort­ably close to Fischer. Es­cape was out of the ques­tion.

An Amer­i­can-type jeep with four Chi­nese Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army sol­diers ar­rived from the di­rec­tion of Dapu. With more force than was nec­es­sary, Fischer was tossed into the back seat. The driver then turned in the di­rec­tion of the air­field to which the crowd on the road had been headed mo­ments ear­lier. About a mile far­ther along, the road was blocked by the re­mains of Fischer’s F-86.

As the jeep rolled to a stop, a sol­dier whom Fischer pegged as a Rus­sian of­fi­cer came along­side, with a look of pure ha­tred on his face. Back­ing him up were four Soviet en­listed men, who had been load­ing F-86 scrap aboard a Soviet-style mil­i­tary truck. The four Chi­nese sol­diers who had ar­rived aboard the jeep held Fischer down while the Soviet of­fi­cer searched his pock­ets, un­til he found the Amer­i­can’s iden­ti­fi­ca­tion pa­pers.

As soon as the of­fi­cer had Fischer’s ID, the jeep drove to a small vil­lage, which Fischer pegged as the head­quar­ters of the Chi­nese army in the area. None of the Chi­nese sol­diers wore stars on their caps, which meant they were on their way to Korea.

The four guards guided their pris­oner into what ap­peared to be a large meet­ing hall. The pi­lot was placed in the cen­ter of the room, on a chair that stood on a packed-earth floor. At one end of the room was a tele­phone, which he sure would be used to help de­ter­mine what to do with him. Chi­nese sol­diers peered in through win­dows and doors.

One of the sol­diers, braver than most, brought out Fischer’s por­ta­ble oxy­gen cylin­der and at­tempted to ask the pi­lot what it was for. When Fischer pulled the ac­ti­vat­ing pin, the sol­dier al­most dropped from fright and made a fran­tic at­tempt to shut it off but to no avail. Fischer also spot­ted his .45 on the hip of a Chi­nese sol­dier, ap­par­ently very proud of the weapon.

Af­ter in­nu­mer­able tele­phone calls, a squad of Chi­nese sol­diers ar­rived and in­di­cated that Fischer was to leave with them, and they all ex­ited to an­other Amer­i­can-type ve­hi­cle, a car­ryall. Squeezed in be­tween two sol­diers, Fischer was driven to var­i­ous vil­lages so that the pop­u­la­tion could view the Amer­i­can pi­lot who had been shot down and cap­tured. Con­spic­u­ous among the vil­lages were the youth groups, Com­mu­nist “pi­o­neers.” The pi­lot un­der­stood that he was al­ready a po­lit­i­cal pris­oner.

The car­ryall’s fi­nal des­ti­na­tion was Dapu, the air­field that Fischer had at­tempted to reach on his own. If he had con­vinced the Chi­nese that he was a MiG pi­lot, he might have found a way to es­cape, per­haps by steal­ing an air­plane. He had no de­sire to be a pris­oner of a hos­tile, un­governed mob.

They all en­tered a large bar­racks area, where Fischer was blind­folded, then moved on to a large build­ing, where he was re­manded to a dor­mi­tory in which many Chi­nese sol­diers lay on beds or sat at ta­bles. An in­di­vid­ual who seemed to be in charge in­di­cated to Fischer that food was avail­able and that he would not be shot. A sol­dier who spoke some English asked the pi­lot the num­ber of his air­plane. Fischer gave them a num­ber that sat­is­fied them. An omelet ar­rived shortly, and Fischer found it very sat­is­fy­ing. Cu­ri­ous sol­diers made such a to-do gawk­ing at the for­eign pris­oner that fi­nally the win­dows had to be cov­ered over.

Even­tu­ally, a sol­dier ar­rived to ask Fischer to re­move his un­der­shirt. Fischer did this with as­sis­tance from the guard, then put it back on, with no idea in the world what that re­quest was about.

Next Fischer was taken across the street to a room with a bunk. The Chi­nese sol­dier or air­man


on the top bunk woke up, then went back to sleep. The pi­lot was given a blan­ket and told to go to bed while a guard sat on a chair in the mid­dle of the room. Fischer thought it would be im­pos­si­ble to sleep un­der those cir­cum­stances, but sleep be­came a form of es­cape for him.

A Po­lit­i­cal Pris­oner

Be­cause he was over Chi­nese ter­ri­tory when shot down, Fischer was even­tu­ally con­victed of “vi­o­lat­ing the sa­cred ter­ri­to­rial air of China.” He was in­car­cer­ated in Muk­den, (Manchuria) China, with three other pi­lots for two years, un­til June 1955. He spent most of his cap­tiv­ity in soli­tary con­fine­ment.

Upon his re­turn to the United States, Fischer earned a bach­e­lor's de­gree in in­dus­trial ad­min­is­tra­tion and a mas­ter's de­gree in in­dus­trial psy­chol­ogy at Iowa State, where he re­mained with the ROTC pro­gram. There­after, most of his as­sign­ments were in the fields of in­tel­li­gence and hu­man fac­tors. He served in Viet­nam as chief of an Air Force ad­vi­sory team at Bien Hoa Air Base, fly­ing Repub­lic of Viet­nam Air Force he­li­copters as well as jet and pis­ton fighters on nu­mer­ous com­bat mis­sions. He re­tired with the rank of colonel in May 1978.

In April 1994, Fischer trav­eled to Ukraine to meet for­mer Soviet Air Force pi­lots from the Korean War. Dur­ing the re­union, he met one of those he en­gaged on April 7, 1953. The for­mer Soviet pi­lot told Fischer that his bul­lets hit the MiG-15 pi­loted by Se­nior Lt. Konstantin Ugramov 22 times in the rud­der, right wing root, and fuse­lage. Ugramov man­aged to land (though with great dif­fi­culty), but the num­ber of gun­cam­era hits cited were enough to count as a kill un­der the U.S. Air Force rules in force at the time of the en­gage­ment. Fischer also learned that he was shot down by Capt. Gre­gory Bere­lidze, a six-vic­tory ace who was him­self shot down and killed be­fore war’s end. Based on in­for­ma­tion Fischer ob­tained from his for­mer ad­ver­saries and other sources, it ap­pears that on his last mis­sion, he downed one of the three MiGs he di­rectly en­coun­tered and se­verely dam­aged an­other.

Hal Fischer passed away on April 30, 2009, at the age of 83.


Promi­nently fea­tured above the in­stru­ment panel of the F-86F Sabre is the A-1CM gun­sight, cou­pled with the APG-30 radar to com­pute range au­to­mat­i­cally. Ejec­tion­seat han­dles are marked with yel­low and black bands. (Photo by Brian Sil­cox)

This early F-86E-1 from the 51st FIS be­fore the ad­di­tion of the checker­board tail mark­ings. The early “E” model was es­sen­tially an F-86A with an all-fly­ing sta­bi­lizer. (Photo cour­tesy of Stan Piet)

A fine aerial view of a late­war F-86F-30 Sabre from the 25th FIS based at K-13 (Su­won). (Photo cour­tesy of Stan Piet)

“Nancy” was a late-model F-86F from the 334th FIS of 4th FIW. The 4th brought the Sabre to war in De­cem­ber 1950. (Photo cour­tesy of Stan Piet)

The 51st FIW was as­signed to sup­port the 8th Army break­out, with its F-80Cs ini­tially op­er­at­ing from Itazuke, Ja­pan, in Septem­ber 1950 and mov­ing in the­ater a month later. (Photo cour­tesy of Stan Piet)

Capt. Hal Fischer, USAFR. (Photo cour­tesy of Eric Ham­mel)

The 4th Fighter Wing F-86s were read­ily iden­ti­fied by the yel­low tail stripes, while most Korea-based Sabres had fuse­lage chevrons. The Fight­ing Ea­gle em­blem dates back to the Ea­gle Squadron roots of the WW II 4th Fighter Group at Deb­den, Eng­land....

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