AIR FORCE HISTORY: Capt. Joseph McConnell Jr., Triple Ace of the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing

  • Published
  • By Howard E. Halvorsen
  • Air Force Sustainment Center Historian

The leading jet ace of the Korean War was Capt. Joseph McConnell Jr., who scored his first victory on Jan. 14, 1953. In a little more than a month, he gained his fifth MiG-15 victory, thereby becoming an ace.

On the day McConnell shot down his eighth MiG, his F-86 was hit by enemy aircraft fire, and he was forced to bail out over enemy-controlled waters of the Yellow Sea west of Korea. After only two minutes in the freezing water, a helicopter rescued him. The following day he was back in combat and shot down his ninth MiG. By the end of April 1953, he had scored his tenth victory to become a “double ace.”

He scored his last victories on May 18, 1953. That morning McConnell shot down two MiGs in a furious air battle and became a “triple ace” with 15 kills. On another mission that afternoon, he shot down his sixteenth and final MiG-15. During his tour, he flew at least three F-86 Sabres: an F-86E and two F-86Fs. He named the airplanes Beauteous Butch, after his wife’s nickname.

On Aug. 25, 1954, McConnell crashed to his death while testing an F-86H at Edwards AFB, California.

A personal account from Captain McConnell Jr. on Jan. 31, 1953 follows:

“I encountered four MiG 15s at 46,000 feet. I turned left into them, then reversed my turn on the first two. I then broke right into the second two and again reversed my turn and lined up on the No. 2 MiG of the first element. I hit the MiG, it rolled over and dived for the ground. I followed, firing occasionally. Finally, the MiG crashed.

“In the process of chasing the first MiG, his leader got on my tail. After the No. 2 MiG crashed, I pulled into a very high “G” turn. He slid to the outside and I reversed, rolling over the top. I completed the roll ending at six o’clock on the outside of the turn. The MiG continued turning and I again pulled a very high “G” and pulled lead on the MiG and again started firing, hitting the engine. He had an engine explosion. The MiG rolled out and I started firing from passes descending and ascending up and down through his smoke and jet wash.

“At one time, while coming up through the MiG jet wash and smoke and firing, the MiG pulled up. When I came out of the smoke I was about to collide with the MiG. I pulled up over the tail and half rolled to keep the MiG in sight. The MiG pilot looked up at me and pulled up into me as though to ram me. I pushed forward violently to avoid hitting him and finally rolled out at 6 o’clock again. The MiG pulled up and opened speed brakes as though to bail out. I had to leave because of fuel shortage; in fact, I glided the last 90 miles. The MiG was confirmed by another flight that observed the crash.”

Of air combat in general, Captain McConnell said, “It’s the teamwork out here that counts. The lone wolf stuff is out. Your life always depends on your wingman and his life on you. I may get credit for a MiG, but it’s the team that does it, not myself alone.”

Other 51st FIW United States Air Force aces of the Korean War flying the F-86 Sabre jet include: Capt. Harold E. Fischer (10), Capt. Cecil G. Foster (9), Lt. Col. George I. Ruddell (8), 1st Lt. Henry Buttelman (7), Col. Francis S. “Gabby” Gabreski (6.5), Maj. Donald E. Adams (6.5), Maj. William T. Whisner (5.5), Col. Robert P. Baldwin (5), Capt. Iven C. Kincheloe (5), Capt. Robert H. Moore (5), Capt. Dolphin D. Overton (5) and Major William Westcott (5).

Oddly enough, there is one more 51st FIW ace of the Korean War who flew the F-86 Sabre jet – but he was not in the United States Air Force. United States Marine Maj. John Bolt flew with “Dog” Flight of the 39th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing during the Korean War through an exchange program. He shot down six MiG-15s and even took over “Dog” Flight when McConnell was ordered home. Previously in World War II he had shot down six Japanese planes with VMF-214, “The Black Sheep,” whose commanding officer was the famous Pappy Boyington, earning Admiral Halsey’s praise for a “one man war on Japanese shipping.”

At the time of the Korean War, the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing’s motto was “Deftly and Swiftly.” They are now the 51st Fighter Wing with a motto of “Leading the Charge,” which they are ready to do at the sharp end at Osan Air Base, Korea. They and the 8th Fighter Wing Wolf Pack at Kunsan Air Base are the two fighter wings that make up the Seventh Air Force, whose first commander was Oklahoma’s own, Clarence Tinker.

After McConnell’s tour in Korea was up, he was stationed at George AFB, Calif. The local townspeople had built a little house for the war hero in the center of the town just north of Calif. Hwy 18. During the time period after the ranking ace of the Korean war was home, Hollywood was filming “The McConnell Story,” starring Alan Ladd as McConnell and June Allison as Butch. The film was almost completed when the shocking news broke of Capt. McConnell’s death while testing an F-100 at Edwards AFB. The film’s ending had to be rewritten.

 Excerpts taken from the website.