Among the most significant “firsts” achieved by the “Fourth But First” was James Jabara becoming the world’s first all jet ace in the Korean War. Not only was this an accomplishment that garnered Jabara eternal fame in world history, he achieved this distinction in the most difficult of circumstances.
James Jabara was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, Oct. 10, 1923. He was first generation American, his family was from Lebanon. He was raised in Wichita, Kansas, and said to be a patriotic American with a great work ethic. Jabara worked in the family grocery store and earned the rank of Eagle Scout with the Boy Scouts. Young Jabara probably never realized that his amazing future was hurtling at him at supersonic speed.
With World War II underway, Jabara entered flight school as a teenager and earned his wings in 1943. He flew a P-51 Mustang in the 363rd Fighter Group of the 9th Air Force in Europe. Jabara flew more than 100 combat missions, was credited with destroying 1.5 German planes, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. After the war Jabara remained in the Air Force and became a jet pilot.
Capt. Jabara was assigned to the 334th Fighter Interceptor Squadron of the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing. The 4th, which had been the highest scoring fighter group in World War II, was now in route to becoming the highest scoring fighter wing in the Korean War. On April 3, 1951 Jabara shot down his first MiG. Two days later, he shot down his second. By April 22, 1951 Jabara had shot down four MiGs and was America’s leading scorer.
To become an ace, a pilot had to shoot down five planes. The German jets had shot down a lot of planes in World War II, but they were piston engine aircraft. No one had ever shot down five jet aircraft. Jabara was trying to be the first. Unfortunately, he went almost an entire month without seeing another MiG.
Finally, on May 20, 1951 Jabara was flying a fighter sweep when calls went out announcing 50 MiGs in the area. The order “drop tanks” was given. The F-86 Sabres carried external fuel tanks to increase their range but the tanks were dropped when they went into combat to give the jets greater maneuverability and speed. Another flight had been jumped by the MiGs and they were calling for help.
Jabara recalled, “We climbed to 35,000 feet and promptly dropped tanks, all except me. One of my tanks wouldn’t come off. Orders were that if you had a ‘hung tank,’ you were to beat it for home. But I wasn’t about to lose what may be my last shot at becoming an ace. I called Kemp, my wingman, and told him we were joining the fight.”
Despite the hung external fuel tank Jabara fought the enemy. Half a dozen MiG-15s were attacking Jabara’s formation when another three MiGs joined the fray. Jabara described what ensued, “They overshot me as I turned into them. Two broke away, but I latched onto the tail of the third. He tried everything in the book to shake me, but he couldn’t. I closed to within 1,500 feet and gave him three good bursts. I saw my rounds hit his fuselage and left wing. He did two violent snap rolls and started to spin. At 10,000 feet, with Kemp and I circling him, the MiG pilot bailed out. It was a good thing he didn’t wait longer, because the MiG exploded a few seconds later.”
Jabara had shot down his fifth MiG to become the world’s first all jet ace. Despite the hung tank he continued the fight, “I climbed back to 20,000 feet and spotted six more MiGs. I was in a good position, so I bounced them. Picking one of them out, I closed the range and got off two good bursts, scoring heavily both times on the fuselage and the tail surfaces. He flamed out right away, and smoke starting pouring from his exhaust. One more burst caught him in the middle and he caught fire. Quickly, I cut the power and popped the speed brakes, following him down to 6,500 feet. I made sure he hit the ground.”
When he returned to base Jabara was chewed out by the Wing Commander, Col. John Meyer, for flying into combat with a hung tank, and then awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The newly-crowned all jet ace was sent back to the U.S. to experience the joys of being a celebrity. There were parades, newsreels and interviews in the newspapers.
Jabara returned to Korea and the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing in 1953 and went back into action. His final kill total was 15 MiGs, making him the second highest scoring ace in the Korean War. Unfortunately, Col. James Jabara was killed in an automobile accident in 1966.
The “first” achieved by Jabara places him high in the pantheon of heroes of the 4th Fighter Wing. What he accomplished was unique in the world. Jabara overcame great adversity to become the first all jet ace. Like all the men and women who have served in the “Fourth But First” through the decades, Jabara’s career exemplified service, sacrifice and dedication.
Editor's Note: This article is part of a series celebrating the 4th Fighter Wing's 75th Anniversary and the great heroes associated with the unit.