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OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — Although the 51st Fighter Wing has been based in South Korea for decades, the combat in which it earned its battle honors was sometimes so hot that the wing had to fly its Korea missions out of Japan.

The wing, then known as the 51st Fighter Interceptor wing, entered the Korean War in September 1950, just after U.S. forces slipped behind North Korean forces with the amphibious landing at what is now called Incheon. Taking off from Itazuke Air Base in Japan, the wing’s F-80C Shooting Star aircraft supported forces breaking out of the "Pusan Perimeter," pouncing on retreating North Korean forces, said John Okonski, 51st Fighter Wing historian.

The planes would take off from Itazuke, fly their assigned missions over the peninsula, then fly to Daegu Air Base, Korea, which remained in United Nations hands throughout the conflict. There, ground crews would refuel and rearm the fighters and they’d take off for a second mission, then head back to Japan.

In the first 14 months of the war, the wing’s pilots flew close support for U.N. ground troops, attacked enemy ground targets and flew armed reconnaissance flights. At times they also flew escort for B-29s on bombing missions.

The wing based itself in Korea for a time, at Kimpo Air Base near Seoul in October 1950, after U.N. forces had driven the North Koreans out of South Korea.

But the massive entry of Chinese forces on the side of North Korea sent U.N. forces into headlong retreat. The communists once again overran Seoul and got as far south as Pyeongtaek — where Osan Air Base and Camp Humphreys are now located.

That forced the wing to once again operate from Japan, this time from Dec. 10, 1950, to mid-January 1951.

By then, a U.N. counteroffensive pushed communist forces back north of Seoul to about the 38th parallel.

Once again it was safe to base the wing on the peninsula. It began operating from Suwon Air Base in October 1951 and remained there until July 1954, when it was redeployed to Japan.

In November 1951 the wing had begun flying the F-86 Sabre, Okonski said. "Then they became purely an air-to-air mission, fighting against the MiGs."

The wing has been based at Osan Air Base since November 1971.

F-86E Sabre jets of the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing line the parking ramp at Suwon Air Base during the Korean War. The wing, now known as the 51st Fighter Wing and based at Osan Air Base, was activated Aug. 18, 1948, and is marking its 60th anniversary with a yearlong round of observances.

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