Dogfight Over the Sea of Japan — The Cold War Air Battle That Officially Never Happened

On Nov. 18, 1952, U.S. Panther jets like this one found themselves in a fight to the death with Soviet MiGs over the Sea of Japan. The entire incident remained top secret for years. (Image source: WikiCommons)

On Nov. 18, 1952, a formation of U.S. Panther jets like this one found themselves in a fight to the death with Soviet MiGs over the Sea of Japan. The entire incident remained top secret for years. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“It seemed as if the fliers involved might be firing the first shots in a whole new conflict — World War Three.”

THE COLD WAR wasn’t always that cold. In fact, on a few occasions it got downright hot.

One of those instances occurred on Nov. 18, 1952 over the Sea of Japan when a brief but furious dogfight broke out between a flight of four Soviet MiG-15s and an equal number of F9F-5 Panther jets from the carrier USS Oriskany.

The incident, which was officially denied by both U.S. and Soviet governments for years afterwards, happened about 50 miles south of the Russian port city of Vladivostok.

The encounter began as the Oriskany, part of the U.S. Navy’s Task Force 77, steamed north along the east coast of North Korea. Since arriving in those waters a month before, aircraft aboard the 904-foot-long Essex class carrier had been flying missions in support of UN troops operating along the 38th Parallel. But as the events of the day unfolded, it seemed as if the fliers involved might be firing the first shots in a whole new conflict — World War Three.

As the American vessels crept towards Russian waters, radar operators on board picked up a string of bogeys racing out of Soviet airspace. Alarmingly, the targets were flying straight for the U.S. carrier group.

Not taking any chances, the Americans scrambled four Panthers from Navy squadron VF-781 “the Peacemakers” to fly a protective screen around the task force.

Soviet MiG-15s like this one attacked jets from the USS Oriskany.  (Image source: WikiCommons)

Soviet MiG-15s like this one attacked jets from the USS Oriskany. (Image source: WikiCommons)

As the inbound aircraft closed to within visual range, the Panther pilots identified them as MiG-15s. The intruders immediately began making close passes on the much slower and less nimble Grumman jets, possibly in hopes of driving the Americans planes off. Twenty minutes into the encounter, and without warning, two of the MiGs opened fire. The U.S. planes turned their guns on the attackers and the fight was on.

Over the next eight minutes, a furious four-on-four dogfight raged high above the ocean. Despite the speed and agility of the MiGs, the American pilots kept pace and even managed to splash one of the Soviet aircraft, while another limped from the area trailing black smoke. The other two bandits broke off and sped for home. The entire incident was over as suddenly as it began.

A lookout on an American escort destroyer spotted a chute from one of the Soviet planes, but no rescue was mounted. Fearing a retaliation, the U.S. vessels put about and began steaming south. There was no response from the Russians. In fact, neither country even acknowledged the incident in the days that followed. It was only in 1961 that news of the encounter was declassified by the Pentagon.

Surprisingly, the dogfight wasn’t the only instance in which American and Soviet planes traded shots. On at least 17 other occasions between 1950 and 1970, U.S. aircraft engaged Russian jets or were themselves attacked. One of the more serious cases took place in January 1964, when two Soviet fighters brought down an unarmed military trainer on a run along the border between East and West Germany. The American aircraft, a USAF T-39 Sabreliner, drifted into communist airspace and within minutes was destroyed by Warsaw Pact interceptors. Three American personnel died. Washington immediately condemned the attack; Moscow claimed that NATO jet had ignored the MiGs’ warning shots and that the pilots reacted properly.

To see all of the incidents, visit here.

(Originally published on MilitaryHistoryNow.com on June 21, 2012)

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