Aug 3

Jimmy Thach and Close Air Support, Korean War

Wednesday, August 3, 2011 12:01 AM


They were “the best orders anybody ever received,” attested Captain Jimmy Thach commanding officer of the USS Sicily (CVE-118): “Render all possible support to ground forces. Direct air support or interdiction at your discretion.” It was the desperately dark summer of 1950, American and South Korean defenders of South Korea were squeezed into the Pusan Perimeter by the North Koreans. Captain Thach’s escort carrier had aboard a squadron of Marine F4U Corsair fighter/bombers, VMF-214, the Black Sheep, whose main purpose was to provide close air support to the Marines of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade.

Thach, his Sailors and the Marines of the Black Sheep squadron made an impressive team. They flew their first strikes on 3 August off Korea’s south coast where the threat was greatest, a couple of days later Thach took the Sicily, up the west coast of Korea and the Black Sheep struck North Korean targets around Inchon and Seoul. By 8 August however, they were back in position off the south coast of Korea, ready to provide close air support to the Marine infantry of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade who closed with the enemy that day for the first time of the war. Thach parked the Sicily close to shore, the best place to be; there were no land bases available in Korea for air operations.

From that day until the Marines were pulled out of the Pusan Perimeter the Sicily-based Black Sheep were ever ready and overhead with effective CAS for the Marine grunts. When fighting was intense, such as around Pohang, Thach parked his carrier within twenty miles of the coast, putting targets just 12 minutes away, the Marine pilots could carry another bomb or napalm tank instead of a fuel tank.

The CAS provided by the Navy/Marine Corps team stood in direct contrast to the chaotic command and control situation that prevailed earlier. Captain Thach, aboard the Sicily, listened to the air strikes on the radio: “It was a beautiful thing,” he recalled, “like going from confusing darkness into bright daylight…. You should have seen those pilots when they came back. He’d sigh a big sigh of relief and say, ‘Now we’re doing what we’re supposed to do in the right way.’” 

  • USNI Archives

    If you are interested in reading more about Jimmy Thach, the Naval Institute published his reminiscences as part of the USNI Oral History Program:

  • Admiral Thach was bemused by the almost total focus on his fighter tactics. He considered his CAS and ASW contributions at least as significant.

  • Woody Sanford

    Did fighter pilots use the “Thach Weave” after WWII? Also, What other assignments did he have as Captain and Admiral? Woody

  • Jim Valle

    It’s at least possible that Navy pilots would have found the Thatch Weave useful in Korea since they faced the same problem that the Wildcat pilots of 1942 did. The Russian Mig 15 was faster and more agile than all the navy fighters in use in Korea including the Panther and the Cougar. Only the Air Force’s F-86 was more-or-less on equal terms with the Migs.

  • R. J. Gorman

    There is film (“Screaming Banshee: The McDonell F8H Goes War” available at showing that during the Korean War navy jet pilots at least flew in the “beam defense” formation (Thach Weave). Whether they actually used it in combat is unknown to me. I think the higher speeds of jet fighters made deflection shooting very difficult which might have lessened the usefulness of the Weave.

  • Woody Sanford

    Jim Valle mentioned the F-86 Sabre in Korea. In movies of that war,the pilots dropped their wing tanks prior to dogfights. Was that just for safety or were there other reasons? I think that was shown mainly in “Sayonara” with Marlon Brando, Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki. Thanks, Woody

  • Marine6

    External fuel tanks significantly extend aircraft range, but they degrade performance because of increased drag. That degradation reduces speed and maneuverability. Therefore, it is a standard practice to jettison external tanks when air to air combat is imminent.

  • Jim Valle

    All fighters going into combat situations drop wing and belly tanks in order to get rid of the extra weight and drag the tanks impose on the aircraft. Speed and manuverability improve significantly once the tanks are gone.

  • Jim Valle

    Early in the Korean War the air battle was conducted by piston engined aircraft as much as by jets. The Air Force’s P-51 Mustang and the Navy’s F4U Corsairs engaged in some very traditional dogfighting with Russian Yak-9s and Il-2 “Sturmovik” ground attack planes. The Russian aircraft were very effective in their respective roles but the North Korean pilots were poorly trained and led so the American aircraft racked up some pretty good scores against them.

  • raymond monte

    i was attachedto 8075 agl co. based in souel had an angry rig with each division. attached to all k station and 5th airforce . had time with 2nd ROK and 5thair force g3 allways felt this was an imortant phase of the war seems we cant do much with out good air no matter who supplied it thaks ray monte