1st Lt. Rex Anderson fought Russian MIG-15s in his F-86 over Yelu in Korea

1st Lt. Rex Anderson (Ret.) of Burnt Store Isles tangled with Russian MIG-15 fighters over the Yalu River in dogfights during the 100 combat missions he flew in an F-86 “Sabre Jet” during the Korea War. The commendation accompanying the second Air Medal he received doesn’t tell the whole story.

“Anderson distinguished himself by meritorious achievement while participating in aerial combat as a pilot of an F-86 aircraft, 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, 5th Air Force, flying missions against enemies of the United Nations force 1 August 1951 to 9 October 1952,” his commendation reads in part.

What it doesn’t say is he was flying in an F-86 on Sept. 16, 1952 with Capt. Troy Cope and Capt. Karl Dittmer and a third pilot whose name he can’t recall. They took on a half-dozen enemy MIG-15 jet fighters over the Yalu River, separating North Korea from South Korea.

Dittmer was flying wing man for Cope. Lt. Anderson was protecting the fourth member of the flighter group.

“Capt. Cope was our commander. He was a good guy,” Anderson recalled a half century later.

The two captains had the spiffier model F-86s. They flew F-86Fs and he and the other lieutenant were piloting F-86Es that were slower.

“We were about 100 miles north of our base at Gimpo south of the DMZ,” Anderson said. “Because I was a kid, only 20-years-old at the time, I was flying on the other fellow’s wing.

“We ran into the Russians over the Yalu and we separated into two groups. The F-86Fs went one way and we went the other. When we regrouped and started to go home one of our jets was missing. It was Capt. Cope’s. He had been shot down by a MIG-15,” he said.

It was known that Cope ejected from his doomed F-86 as it burst into flames 58 years ago. The captain was never heard from again. He was listed as Missing In Action,

Just by chance, an American visiting a Chinese war museum in Dandong, China found a display about an American fighter jet shot down during the Korean War with artifacts. Among the items he discovered was a set of dog-tags with the name “Capt. Troy Cope” on them.

He took a rubbing of the dog-tags and gave the rubbing to officials at the U.S. Embassy. This launched an on-going investigation in 1999 to find Cope’s remains.

The year Anderson spent in Korea he flew an F-86 “Sabra Jet,” one of the hottest planes in the Air Force in its day. He returned to the United Sates, was sent to Fort Knox, Ky. to fly outdated P-47 “Thunderbolt” propeller-driven fighters from the World War II era for a short while.

Anderson was in the 166th Tactical Fighter Squadron, Air National Guard flying an F-84 “Thunderjet” out of Rickenbacker Air Force Base in Columbus, Ohio when he was photographed. Photo provided

Eventually, Anderson returned to Columbus, Ohio where he grew up. He got out of the Air Force and joined the Air National Guard. When he wasn’t going to school or farming he was flying F-80s” in the guard.

“We had five airplanes loaded and ready to go in our squadron. NORAD was playing war games,” he said. “I was working in the fields one day when my mother came and told me they needed me at the base right away.

“I still had my work clothes on when I arrived at base. They handed me a helmet and a chute and I took off after a B-47 bomber making the final approach on a simulated attack on Columbus,” Anderson said.

In 1961, when John Kennedy was president the U.S. was having trouble with the Communists in Berlin.

“The president called all the F-84 fighter jets up to fly to Europe and confront the Communists. Our squadron was to go,” he said. “We headed for Europe by way of Bangor, Maine, Newfoundland and the Azores. We requested air-to-air refueling, but Gen. Curtis LeMay said we weren’t experienced enough to refuel in the air.

Gus Grissom, the ill-fated astronaut who died with two other astronauts in a launch pad fire at Cape Canaveral, Fla. years later, stands beside a Jeep in Korea. He flew in Anderson’s fighter squadron. Photo provided

“The average guard pilot had 5,000 hours of flying time and the average Air Force pilot had maybe 350 hours,” Anderson explained.

“The first two flights of F-84s were in the air headed for Europe when all 300 fighters were recalled. Then they decided to send tankers up to refuel the two airborne squadrons. We wasted a lot of time and fuel getting to those tankers only to find out the refueling equipment wasn’t compatible.

“When we landed in the Azores we were lucky to make it. Jets ran out of fuel taxing,” he said. We never lost a jet. Talk about divine guidance!”

In 1968, during the USS Pueblo crisis when North Korean gun boats captured an ancient American spy ship and its crew off the enemy coast, it sparked an international incident.

Anderson’s Air National Guard unit was called up and sent to South Korea. He spent a year over there flying for Chuck Yeager who was Anderson’s wing commander during this deployment. Yeager was the first pilot to break the sound barrier years earlier.

It was about this time, during the Vietnam War era, Robert McNamara took command of the Defense Department and almost wrecked the U.S. fighter command.

“He didn’t want our fighter planes to have guns on them. That”s why the Air National Guard had to be sent to Vietnam. They were flying fighter planes that still had guns,” Anderson said.

He switched to the Air Force Reserve in 1971 and flew multi-engine transports for three years until he retired from the military with the rank of lieutenant colonel after 24 years in the service. By then he had been working as a civilian pilot flying executives around the country and the world on business trips.

Anderson was headed for Korea during the Pueblo Incident in 1968 when he and his wife, Helen’s, picture were taken in front of his fighter jet. Photo provided

In 1999 he retired altogether and he and his wife Helen moved to Burnt Store Isles. They have two grown daughters, Tina and Robin.

Anderson’s File

Name: Rex Mann Anderson
D.O.B: 15 May 1929
Hometown: Columbus, Ohio
Current: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: 1950
Discharged: 1974
Rank: Lt. Colonel
Unit: 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, 5th Air Force in Korea
Commendations: Three Air Medals
Battles/Campaigns: Korea

This story first appeared in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, May 23, 2011 and is republished with permission.

Click here to view Anderson’s Collection in the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.

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  1. Mr. Moore, I am seeking photos of Gus Grissom for a biography forthcoming from Purdue University Press. Do you still have a print of the photo of Grissom in Korea published with this story? Or could you put me in touch with Rex Anderson or his family?

    I can be reached at gleopold@gmail.com. Thanks,

    George Leopold

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