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Storm of the Sabres

Groza Seybrov: Luchshiy As Koreyskoy Voyny (Storm of the Sabres: The Best Ace of the Korean War) Book Review

By Cookie Sewell

Date of Review October 2006 Title Storm of the Sabres: The Best Ace of the Korean War
Author Igor' Seidov and Yuriy Sutyagin Publisher YaUZA Publishing (in Russian)
Published 2006 ISBN 5-699-16166-X
Format 573 pages, hardbound MSRP (CDN) $26.95 through East View Publications


When you ask an American who was the top ace in the Korean War, he will invariably (if a historian or fan) reply Captain Joe McConnell from the 39th FIS, 51st FIW. But if you ask a Russian or someone from another nation, especially one who has been studying the air war since 1990, he will either answer Colonel Yevgeniy Pepelyayev from the 196th IAP or more likely Captain Nikolay Sutyagin from the 17th IAP. Depending on source, Pepelyayev shot down 19 to 23 UN aircraft and Sutyagin 20 to 24. But other than some archival data and the seminal 1998 book "Red Devils Over the 38th Parallel" by Mr. Seidov and Askol'd German, a Russian language history of the entire air war viewed from the Soviet side, there is little available on Captain Sutyagin. (Pepelyayev has written his own biography, "MiGs Versus Sabres," and attended at least one meeting with American Sabre pilots.)

Seidov and Sutyagin's son have now solved this problem of the "mystery man" and presented it here for the first time, and in a remarkably complete text.

Nikolay Vasil'yevich Sutyagin was born in 1923 near Nizhniy Novgord. His parents were actors, and eventually they moved to the city of Gor'kiy when Nikolay was 11. Joining the Komsomol in 1939, Nikolay was then able to get into the DOSAAF program where he was exposed to flying in the Polikarpov U-2 biplane. In March 1941 he was conscripted into the Red Army, but was then sent to the VVS – the Soviet Air Forces.

Having had some flying experience, he then went to pilots' school, emerging as a pilot on 1942 where he was sent to the 5th Fighter Aviation Regiment (IAP) in the Far East. He remained in the Far East until the end of the war, acquiring some combat experience in the "war with Japan" – the short month in which the Soviets declared war on the Japanese Empire and VJ Day. After the war, Sutyagin learned to fly the P-63 Kingcobra and enjoyed the aircraft, also flying as an instructor in the Soviet-converted UTI P-63 two-seater.

In April 1947 Sutyagin jointed the 17th IAP, which was then part of the 190th Fighter Aviation Division (IAD) in the Far East Military District. But in 1950, the 17th was moved to the new 303rd IAD, which also had the 523rd IAP and 18th Guards IAP. This transfer was also used to retrain the entire division in flying the new MiG-15 jet fighter. Converting first to the Yak-17UTI to learn how to fly jets, Sutyagin had completed 54 flights in the MiG-15 before the division was ordered on a "secret tour" – it was reassigned to the 64th Fighter Aviation Corps at Mukden in Manchuria, with its regiments forward deployed to Myaogao and Antung airfields on the Korean border. The mission: defeat UN airpower over Korea.

Sutyagin went with the regiment, and they began combat operations in April 1951. When they left Korea in February 1952, Captain Sutyagin had been credited with shooting down 22 UN aircraft – 15 F-86 Sabres, 2 F-80 Shooting Stars, 3 F-84 Thunderjets, and 2 Gloster Meteors. Sutyagin was awarded the Gold Star medal and the title Hero of the Soviet Union, and soon promoted to Major. He continued in advancement and by 1970 was a chief instructor and Major-General of Aviation (US brigadier general equivalent.)

Sutyagin pulled one more "Combat" tour – this time as chief instructor for flight training to the Vietnamese Peoples Air Force. In 1970-1971 he taught combat tactics to the VPAF and specifically to the 921st and 923rd Fighter Regiments, flying MiG-21PF and MiG-17 aircraft. Suffering from the extreme climate differences in Vietnam, he returned to the USSR before the air war in Vietnam broke out anew in May 1972 and was sent to GSFG in East Germany to recuperate. Due to the impact of Vietnamese service on him, and his vision beginning to fail, Sutyagin was removed from fighter pilot flight status and relegated to either trainers or transports.

Nikolay Sutyagin retired in May 1978 when he turned 55, and spent the last eight years of his life with his family, dying in November 1986 at the age of 63. Over the course of his life he flew 20 different types of aircraft and logged more than 3,300 hours as a pilot.

This book has an absolute wealth of data about how Soviet fighter pilots lived, worked, trained and fought, as well as detailed descriptions of some of the dogfights in Korea and explanations of their tactics and terminology, so for any Russian linguist studying the Korean Air war (as I am) it is a great find. But for anyone looking for specific answers, the book unfortunately has to be based on Soviet sources, and as such there are some problems.

The parts based on Sutyagin's flight log and personal memoirs are excellent, and one observation is that he may have been the prototype for the legendary "Casey Jones" during the Korean war. Correlations of activities show that on at least half of the days Sutyagin logged a claim of an enemy aircraft shot down at least one of that type did go down in air-to-air combat, which is higher than with any of the other Soviet pilots and their claims.

Others do not match, and the problem is hard to pinpoint. So far few Soviet-era pilots have commented that the "books were cooked" on claims, other than later in the war more than a few mission reports look highly suspicious as the claims are always identical – "one Sabre shot down and one damaged." Such is not the case when Sutyagin was flying, and admitted losses versus claims on both sides during 1951 seem to both disconnect. Historically documents have been produced that show Moscow was suspicious of the claims coming in from Korea from the 64th IAK staff on their achievements, as very little seemed to be working in slowing down UN forces and efforts. More than once the 64th IAK commanders, such as Major-General Georgiy Lobov, the commander when Sutyagin was in China, were called to account for the disconnects and what Moscow saw as higher than expected losses.

Some of the events have been exposed as Soviet PR rewrites of activity. In a recent press item, for example, Serafim Subbotin, another Hero of the Soviet Union from Korea, noted that his "brave ramming attack on an enemy aircraft" was actually an accident; while in a dogfight with a 4th FIG pilot named William Crone, Subbotin lost Crone's Sabre and in a panic hit his speed brakes; Crone was right behind him and flew into the tail of Subbotin's MiG, possibly killing himself. Both aircraft then crashed, but Subbotin got out whereas Crone's body was found in the wreckage. 64th IAK reported it as a "Taran" (ramming attack) but when Subbotin tried to correct the records, the MGB (predecessors of the KGB) pulled him aside and warned him that "the big boys in Moscow do not make mistakes with heroes" and thus frightened off, Subbotin kept his mouth shut for 40 years.

Some claims at the time were specious and found to be so in the field; in one famous incident, on 6 October 1951 Colonel Pepelyayev shot down an F-86A that crash-landed in the mouth of the Yalu River, where it was recovered and sent back to Moscow. But another pilot also claimed the same kill; however, his gun camera footage showed him firing on it at a range of over 1300 meters; later he was discredited for claiming other pilots' victories or making them up and sent back to Moscow.

While this book may not solve some of the disconnects on claims – the Soviets alone claiming 1,097 aircraft shot down in air to air combat, with 650 of them being Sabres, as opposed to 78 to 103 actual losses and a total for all reasons of around 200 Sabres in Korea out of 700 rotated through the theater – it is still a good read and quite useful.