Revell (Monogram) 1/48 F-84E Thunderjet
The war the fighter-bombers engaged in during the Korean War was a bloody one, a war unrelieved by opportunities for the kind of public acclaim the Sabre pilots received. Writing in “Officers in Flight Suits, The Story of American Air Force Fighter Pilots in the Korean War,” author John Darrell Sherwood stated:
"The life of a fighter-bomber pilot was hazardous and often short. Typically, fighter-bomber pilots flew lower-performance planes and exposed themselves daily to more hostile ground fire than the typical fighter-interceptor. Overall, only 147 Air Force planes were lost in air-to-air combat; by comparison, over 816 planes were shot down by ground fire. As Raymond Sturgeon, a pilot with the 35th squadron of the 8th Group, put it, ‘I had friends in 86s who never saw a MiG their entire tour, but we got fired on every mission with high-powered guns that shot golf balls at you.' Sturgeon's squadron lost ‘a pilot or two' every week, and losses like these were not unusual. Perrin Gower, another pilot in Sturgeon's squadron, claimed that five of the ten pilots he shared his hut with were killed, and Howard Heiner, a pilot in the 12th Squadron of the 18th Wing, remembers one week when seven pilots in his squadron were shot down.
In addition to the difficulties of life as a fighter-bomber pilot during a mission, life on the ground was only better in that one was not being shot at. One pilot of the 8th group recalled life at Suwon in the winter of 1951-52: “We lived in Quonset huts that had never been painted and had no insulation or covering of any kind on the inside walls; all you saw or felt was the cold, corrugated steel. There was one flight of four pilots to a hut. The hut was heated with fuel oil furnaces made of 55 gallon fuel drums, two of them in each hut. We slept on canvas Army cots with lots of blankets. The only women on base were either Korean or a few nurses. The nurses had their own hut of course, inside a fenced-in compound with one other house that was used by the group commander and hospital commander. The bath house sat off by itself about 100 yards from our hut (we were the closest) and it had the commodes too. There was nothing like taking a hot shower and then running 100 yards through snow and zero degree weather to get back to your warm hut.”
By the summer of 1951, the F-84 Thunderjet was the most important fighter-bomber type used by the Air Force in Korea. In June 1951, the 49th Fighter Bomber Wing handed over its Shooting Stars to the 8th wing and began converting to F-84E Thunderjets once the Air Force had approved the transfer of 75 F-84s to Korea. The Thunderjet force continued to grow. The 136th FBW, an Air National Guard unit from Texas, had arrived in Korea in May. They were followed by the 116th FBW, composed of squadrons from the Georgia, Florida and California Air National Guard in July. Strategic Air Command regained control of the 27th escort wing, following their departure from Korea at the end of June; before they left, the 27th provided transition training for the 49th wing and operational training for both the 49ers and the pilots of the 136th wing.
On September 19, 1951, 16 F-84E "Thunderjets" from the 9th Fighter Bomber Squadron of the veteran 49th Fighter Bomber Group were headed north from their base at Taegu (K-2) at 12,000 feet, each airplane loaded with two 500-pound bombs. The 9th FBS, alongside sister squadrons the 7th and 8th, were briefed to dive bomb the main rail line between Sinanju and Pyongyang at a "choke point" just south of Sukchon where the line went through a marshy area between two hills, making it the most difficult place for the enemy to make repairs. The target was right in the middle of MiG Alley.
Leading the 9th's Purple Flight was Major Willie Williams, the squadron commander. One of the most experienced pilots in the 49ers, Williams had joined the 49th shortly after the Inchon landings in September 1950. Williams' element leader, Purple Three, was Major James F. Sprinkle, with Captain Kenneth L. Skeen, the 9th's new squadron executive officer, flying his third F-84 mission as Sprinkle's wingman, Purple Four. Williams recalled, "We had transitioned to the Thunderjet by late August, and had been back in Korea for about a week at the time of this mission."
As the Thunderjets crossed the bomb line north of the Main Line of Resistance along the 38th Parallel, the weather changed from the clear skies in the south to broken clouds that became a heavy undercast by the time the 48 F-84Es passed east of Pyongyang. "I heard the group commander call out MiGs above us at seven o-clock, and saw the contrails. I told the rest of the squadron not to pickle their bombs if they made a pass on us unless it was life and death. At our altitude, the MiG was not that good, and I was pretty sure we could turn away from them with our ordnance. I knew they wouldn't stick around that low with 48 of us wanting to take a crack at them." While the MiG-15 had demonstrated its superiority over the Thunderjet in air-to-air combat, with an experienced pilot in the cockpit the big Republic fighter could hold its own at lower altitudes against the lesser-trained Communist pilots. By the fall of 1951, the 49th Fighter Bomber Group was a collection highly experienced flyers, with most pilots having flown at least 50 combat missions.
"I watched the MiGs above us, and saw them head down. They were coming right after the four of us in the lead, so I very reluctantly called for Purple Flight to salvo their bombs. I broke hard to the right as I saw them set up on their firing pass and they overshot. I reversed the turn to the left, and saw Ken Skeen pulling up high to my left and falling behind as I came around into the MiGs before they could get away to set up another pass. I got off some shots at two of them, and then warned Jim Sprinkle that he had one on his tail. Suddenly the MiG on Jim's tail caught fire and was trailing smoke. Then Ken Skeen called to break right, because I had another one on me. Ken had shot the one on Sprinkle's tail, and he kept at it till it blew up."
While the mission was unsuccessful, inasmuch as the MiGs had managed to catch The 49ers without their Sabre escort, forcing them to jettison all bombs in the melee that resulted, there was an appropriate celebration back at Taegu that night, since Skeen had scored the group's first MiG kill with the F-84. "The next day, I had each airplane in the 9th painted with a red star to celebrate that kill. It became part of the squadron insignia for the rest of the war."
By November 1952, Williams had flown 300 missions in two years, the equivalent of three complete tours, but had no plans to leave. "I knew Don Blakeslee, and I knew how he had doctored his books in England during World War II, listing any mission that didn't contact the enemy as a training flight, any mission flown with another unit as orientation, things like that. I did the same thing myself. I know it may not sound particularly right, but the flying we were doing in Korea was very satisfying to me and I didn't want to stop."
By the end of the Korean War in July 1953, Willie Williams was the high-time Air Force pilot of the war in terms of missions flown and hours logged over the course of nearly three years of combat flying. Looking back on two years of combat in the Thunderjet, Williams liked the airplane. "It was a maintenance hog, and the TBO on the engine was horrible until we got to the G-model. Everything you've ever heard about the airplane taking every inch of runway to get airborne is true. But as far as jets were concerned, it was about as rugged as the old Thunderbolt. We got chewed up by flak, and by MiGs, and brought them home with some pretty big holes in them. The ground crews managed to put them back together and they kept on flying. I never knew a pilot who didn't think the Thunderjet would get him home as long as the wing hadn't been shot off."
I had the privilege of knowing Willie Williams out at Planes of Fame during the 1990s. This model of "L'il Butch" of the 9th Fighter Bomber Squadron of the 49th Fighter Bomber Wing was one of the F-84Es he flew in Korea.
Monogram originally released the F-84G in 1999 in the ProModeler line. The F-84E was released in 2002. Comparing the Monogram Thunderjets with the Tamiya kit, the Monograms come out on top. They are easier to build, since you don't have to fiddle with closing up the gun bay in the nose (the part doesn't fit closed without a lot of fiddling) and the outline shape is more accurate, with the Tamiya fuselage being just too deep to be noticeable. Did I mention that the Revell-Monogram kit, at around $22, is a lot cheaper than the Tamiya? There were a lot of decals for Thunderjets released by Aeromaster and Cutting Edge, and you can still find them on eBay at decent prices. This model was finished using an Aeromaster sheet.