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Airpower at the Battle of Chipyong-ni

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Terrence G. Popravak, Jr
  • Special Operations Command Korea
As we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, one of the important battles that will be remembered is the Battle of Chipyong-ni in February 1951 which was a critical fight that helped blunt the Chinese Fourth Offensive. In early 1951, following the initial success of Chinese Communist Forces, Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung still believed he could drive United Nations Command forces completely off the Korean peninsula and meant to make another strong effort at doing so. Surrounded by elements of three Chinese Field Armies that employed parts of five Chinese Communist infantry divisions, the U.S. 2d Infantry Division's 23rd Infantry Regiment faced a grim situation, but successfully fought off the hordes in what was the first decisive victory by UNC forces over the CCF and helped turn the tide of the war in Korea. Credit for the successful defense of Chipyong-ni rightly belongs to the soldiers on the ground, but the contributions of Airmen in the skies overhead was an important force multiplier, force sustainer and key enabler to the victory.


In February of 1951, UNC ground forces under the leadership of Eighth Army Commander Lieutenant General Matthew Ridgway steadily moved northward, recovering territory lost to the CCF in their counteroffensives. At the same time, CCF units prepared for yet another counteroffensive operation. General Ridgway, however, was determined to take a stand against the Chinese. He believed that a unit could establish a perimeter, and supported from the air could withstand a Chinese assault indefinitely, in the process inflicting a high number of casualties on the attacking force. By virtue of time, location, and proven combat record, the 23rd Infantry Regiment, with other attached units (including the French Battalion and a Ranger Company) forming the 23rd Regimental Combat Team of some 5,000 soldiers, commanded by Colonel Paul Freeman, was tasked to occupy and hold a critical crossroads in central Korea at a place called Chipyong-ni. Of note, included with the regiment were personnel critical to the coordination between air and ground forces, essential to Ridgway's strategy. These included a U.S. Air Force Tactical Air Control Party, an Army Pathfinder attached to the Ranger Company, and the command and control capability for field artillery which was linked to ground based forward observers as well as to U.S. Army liaison/observation aircraft patrolling the battlefield by the unit.

By Feb. 10, the 23rd RCT was settling into Chipyong-ni. Col. Freeman directed aggressive patrolling to ensure he was not surprised by approaching Chinese. In the period leading up immediately before the battle, air forces helped patrols that encountered enemy forces, providing relief with air strikes. Very large troop movements approaching were noted by air observation, as the Chinese maneuvered elements of three field armies in the area. As the enemy often moved at night, some night bombing was conducted to interdict movement of enemy forces by radar-controlled B-26 Invader light bombers.

On the day just before the battle began the Chinese tightened their ring around Chipyong-ni, and drew sharp responses from the air forces. The Air Force observation plane operating with the RCT reported enemy groups moving towards the perimeter from the north and east. Observers called in, while the TACP directed 40 flights of fighters against other enemy groups beyond artillery range. During the day, some 23rd RCT patrols were pinned down by enemy fire and had to be extricated from contact with the enemy by artillery and air strikes.

The Battle

Despite the observation and attacks, and thus loss of the element of surprise, the Chinese positioned to attack Chipyong-ni and began their assault at night on Feb. 13. As the fighting continued into the early hours of Saint Valentine's Day, the 23rd RCT expended all kinds of ammunition, rifle, machine gun, mortar, at a prodigious rate, and leadership grew concerned at how long stocks would last against a sustained Chinese assault. Radio calls went out from the regiment to division and from division to Japan to engage the Japan Logistical Command. Japan-based C-119 Flying Boxcar transports of the Far East Air Force's Combat Cargo Command were loaded through the night so that air drops could be made the following daylight.

During the day of the 14th, Chinese forces rested from their unsuccessful assault and mostly remained low key, respecting the artillery and air support advantage of UNC forces. Poor weather in the morning lasted into the afternoon and delayed air missions in support of the 23rd RCT. It wasn't until mid-afternoon when, for over a 3 hour period, 24 C-119 transports of the 314th Troop Carrier Group delivered mostly artillery ammo, some rifle ammunition, C-rations and water cans. Later waves of transports flew across the drop zone at higher altitudes as enemy ground fire intensified against the lumbering transports, but the bulk of supplies were successfully delivered. Of note was the use of USAF T-6 Mosquito aircraft to help overcome a communications challenge between the regiment and the C-119s. The TACP had difficulty contacting the incoming cargo planes because of insufficient information concerning radio sending and receiving channels. This necessitated that Mosquito/artillery liaison planes be used to help guide the cargo planes to the drop zone. In addition, the Pathfinder with the Rangers was noted in helping in coordination for the air drops.

The weight of the Close Air Support effort that day was to the east of Chipyong-ni, at Wonju where UNC forces fought a hard action that included brazen daylight attacks by large concentrations of Chinese forces. Nonetheless, three flights of fighters arrived at Chipyong-ni and were directed to attack Chinese positions in the area.

Air activity included rotary wing assets as well as fixed wing jet and propeller-driven aircraft. Beginning on the 14th, Detachment 1 of the 3rd Air Rescue Squadron, pioneer aviation unit to develop aeromedical evacuation operational procedures, flew H-5 helicopters into Chipyong-ni to deliver blood plasma and medicine. On the return leg of their flights they evacuated 52 critically wounded soldiers.

As night approached, the 23rd RCT prepared for the next Chinese assault. The battle was joined in earnest again, and due to shortages in illumination rounds for mortars, the 23rd made an urgent radio call for illumination support, which came in the form of a C-47 flareship, called a Firefly. Overnight on Feb. 14 and 15, the Fireflies came in relays, one after the other when flares were exhausted. They dropped flares lighting up the ground below almost like daylight and stayed overhead most of the night while another ferocious series of ground engagements took place. Col. Freeman said that they "...helped save our skins as much as any other gadget of the grim business of night fighting."

As the 23rd anticipated more fighting after another largely successful night defense of the perimeter, late in the morning of Feb. 15, 30 C-119 Flying Boxcars again dropped supplies and ammunition, mostly artillery ammo, and continued resupply drops through the day.

And with pressure lessened at Wonju, CAS missions for Chipyong-ni began in earnest. On Feb. 15 the 23rd RCT received 131 CAS sorties, the most ever for a single regiment. At first light the air was dark with fighter planes. A Forward Air Controller flying over Chipyong-ni code named Mosquito Spirit recalled: "We had F4U Corsairs, F-51s, Douglas AD Skyraiders (our favorite), F-80s, F9Fs, A-26s and of course our own T-6." Flights circled in the air awaiting their turn to strike, with the concentrated air support called in by the TACP. Every high hill around the perimeter was hit again and again. This was the best air support that the 23rd Infantry ever had. The CAS was heavy in the afternoon, as soldiers on the south side of the perimeter fought fiercely to regain a hill the Chinese had taken in relentless assaults the previous night. Four air strikes pounded this area with napalm, rockets and .50 caliber machine guns, with excellent results. Lt. Curtis of the 23rd's 2d Battalion said "they came in so low over the (2d BN) CP you felt you could reach up and touch them." Shortly after these strikes, American soldiers charged up the hill, reaching the crest and going over onto the reverse slope, not to be pushed back again. "At times during these strikes napalm was dropped as close as 75 yards in front of the friendly troops. The enemy was so concentrated that one napalm bomb killed 60 (counted) enemy in one position. Such close support was only possible through direct communication with the platoon leaders by phone and direct observation of the target area by the TACP."

In the mid afternoon of Feb. 15, a 5th Cavalry Regiment armored relief column called Task Force Crombez moved out from friendly lines to the south and headed north to reach Chipyong-ni. Planes strafed and bombed enemy positions along the route of march before the armored column took off. Liaison planes circled overhead, keeping contact with the advancing tanks. By late afternoon the combination of air strikes, artillery, combined arms maneuver by the 23rd to outflank the Chinese on the south hill and the approach of Task Force Crombez broke the Chinese positions on the south of the perimeter. This heralded the Chinese withdraw in defeat from Chipyong-ni.

Although it appeared the Chinese had abandoned some parts of the battlefield around Chipyong-ni, it still seemed possible they would attack again. So late on Feb. 15, 19 more C-119s flew a night air resupply mission, delivering sorely needed mortar and small arms ammo as truck headlights outlined the drop zone. All would soon realize that the siege at Chipyong-ni was over.


As the soldiers fought the hard fight, Airmen in the skies above and working around the clock at the air bases across the theater ensured that friendly forces enjoyed all the advantages that result from achievement of air superiority. Far to the north and unseen from the battlefield, F-86 Sabre fighters on daily patrol in MiG Alley kept communist air forces at bay, well away from the battlefield. A variety of bombers and fighter-bombers interdicted enemy supply and transportation routes, making it difficult for the Chinese to move even what little artillery they had and indirectly limiting Chinese military resources available for the battle. In and near the immediate battle area, air reconnaissance denied the enemy surprise, and provided friendly ground forces critical situational awareness. Aerial resupply delivered 420 tons of supplies and ensured the troops could continue the fight once it began, while aeromedical evacuation speedily removed the most seriously wounded to give them the best chance of surviving, even amidst a siege. Aerial illumination missions enabled the 23rd to see in the night and effectively engage the enemy. Close Air Support punished and demoralized the enemy and helped ensure they could not benefit from any tactical gains they achieved on the battlefield. It is possible that without the contributions of these many facets of airpower that the 23rd RCT might eventually have been overwhelmed by superior numbers of Chinese forces at Chipyong-ni. But with airpower stunning the dragon in this joint, combined forces battle, that did not happen, and the Chinese suffered their first significant defeat from the UNC in the Korean War.


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