Bombing Ranges off the West Coast of Korea (1946-1948) 거첨도

미국공군 폭격연습장 거첨도 (1946-1948)

Korean West Coast Bombing Ranges.

    In addition to the gunnery and bombing ranges in Japanese territory and at Dokdo, American occupation authorities designated an island and later a large section of open sea space off Korea´s West Coast as authorized target areas for US Air Force planes.   These ranges were different from the target range at Dokdo, in that the XXIV Corps in Korea approved their use; not authorities in SCAP.   These ranges were used primarily by the 432nd Fighter Squadron, the only USAF combat unit to stay on duty at Kimpo Air Base in Korea throughout the entire occupation period (1945-1948). The 432nd flew P-38 Lightning aircraft until their conversion to P-51s in November 1946. As the P-38s that the 432nd initially flew were ideally suited to dive-bombing and strafing, the unit conducted several aerial tours of the adjacent west coast of Korea in search of a gunnery and bombing range in March of 1946.   The result was the establishment of the "Kimpo Air Base Air to Ground Range," a practice-target area consisting of a rocky island just 9 kilometers north of Incheon harbor and 24 kilometers west of Kimpo Air Base, and is cited in USAFIK documents as "Koch'ung-do (Kokyo-to [in Japanese]) [sic]".   The actual name of the island is "Koch´umdo" or "Geocheomdo" (거첨도).   This island is now the location of the current Sampyo Pier in the Incheon North Port.

A 1968 CORONA spy-satellite photo of the area around Incheon, before the surrounding islands were reclaimed from the sea. Koch'umdo is circled.

A 1968 CORONA spy satellite photo of the area around Incheon, before the surrounding islands were reclaimed from the sea. Koch'ungdo (Koch'umdo) is circled.(View a detailed map from 1945, and a modern aerial view.)
The island was officially approved as a strafing and bombing range in June 1946 and was used for over two years.   The actual use of Koch´umdo as a bombing range, however, began at least as early as April 1946.   That month, a pilot named Robert E. Bartlett flying a P-38 (# 44-26214) failed to bail out of a fatal dive-bombing run on Koch´umdo; perhaps the victim of a high-speed compressibility stall, a situation to which this particular aircraft was prone, in which the control surfaces would lock up in dives approaching speeds of 500 mph.   The 432nd Fighter Squadron not only used Koch´umdo for such dive-bombing practice runs, but also skip-bombing, gunnery, and napalm bombing throughout 1946 and 1947.   In fact, the 432nd´s unit history states that the "adjacent mud flats bore visual evidence of several inaccurate passes," with 228 500-pound General Purpose bombs being dropped in October 1946 alone, while "an unlimited supply of bombs were available to the squadron" in May 1947 in order to obliterate a circular target that was inscribed on Koch´umdo.

The Kimpo Air Base Air to Ground Range at Koch´umdo preceeded the opening of the controversial Koon-ni Aerial Target Range (1952-2005) at Maehyang-ri by six years.   Koch´umdo now exists on land that has been partially reclaimed from the sea, just 1.5 kilometers northwest of the Youngjong (Incheon International Airport) Bridge Memorial.

The commander of Kimpo Air Base finally deleted the Kimpo Air to Ground Range from the US Air Force list of designated bombardment ranges by early 1948 due to its failure to meet Air Force saftey standards for target ranges (although "dangerous richochet conditions" were known to exist at the island since at least October 1946).   The proximity of Koch´umdo to shipping lanes was cited as one reason for its deletion from the Air Force list.

By May of 1947 the occupation authorities in Korea were making plans to create an aerial gunnery range for the P-51s that the 432nd Squadron was flying by then.   This one was established further out into the Yellow Sea just a few weeks after the air-to-ground range at Koch´umdo closed in March 1948.   The new range consisted of a rectangular area 32 miles North-South and 21 miles East-West over the open ocean just off the West Coast of Korea (see map).   Use of this new range evidently did not last very long, as the Commander of Kimpo Air Base ordered all firing on the range to be cancelled on April 19, 1948.   By July 7, 1948 the American occupation commander, General Hodge, ordered that the Korea Aerial Gunnery Range be officially abandoned, with the instruction to USAMGIK that "No publicity will be given this matter."   This policy decision was most likely brought about by the recent bombing incident at Dokdo and the desire on the part of the occupation forces to avoid any further such incidents.

The management and ultimate demise of these USAFIK bombing ranges on Korea´s West Coast provides an interesting counterpoint to the management and ultimate fate of the "Liancourt Rocks Air to Ground Range" (Dokdo).   While USAFIK´s knowledge of the local area and consideration of saftey standards brought about the abandonment of the target ranges on the west coast of Korea, the bombing range at Dokdo evidently did not receive the same scrutiny until after the June 8th bombing incident.   Indeed, the one key condition at the West Coast ranges that resulted in their abandonment was also in existence at Dokdo: The common presence of Korean commercial shipping.   Even after the events of June 1948 had established the fact that Korean fishermen used and depended on the fishing grounds at Dokdo, it was only after the fallout from the September 1952 bombing (which had almost reached the proportions of an international incident for the United States) that the military finally decided to permanently abandon the use of Dokdo as a bombing range. Unlike the ranges on the West Coast, it is still not clear what the American occupation authorities in either Korea or Japan knew about the saftey of the bombing range at Dokdo prior to the bombing incident of June 8, 1948, or if warnings were ever issued to Korean nationals.

(See the documents below pertaining to the West Coast ranges)

This radio communique from January 2, 1948 gives notice to units of the XXIV Corps of air to ground firing taking place at the Kimpo Air Base Air to Ground Gunnery Range at the island of "Kochung-do (Kokyo-to)[sic]" at 37° 32'N, 126° 36'E.

January 2, 1948 radio message.

In this radio message, the commander of Kimpo Air Base announces that, as a result of an investigation citing saftey concerns, he is asking that the Kimpo Air Base Range be deleted from the 5th Air Force list of bombing and gunnery ranges.   What precipitated an investigation of the safety of this range is unknown.   What is important to note here is that the Air Force was responsive to safety concerns in this case.   Was the Air Force similarly aware and/or concerned of the safety of gunnery and bombing practice at Dokdo?

Radio message dated January 1948

This letter from the CO of Kimpo Air Base to the XXIV Corps requests that the gunnery range on Koch´umdo (the Kimpo Air Base Air-to-Ground Range) be relocated to a "more suitable location".   The reason for abandoning the Koch´umdo range is because of the "location of the island in relation to nearby land and commercial fishing lanes".   If occupation authorities were aware of land and sea-space uses on the West coast of Korea, were they not also aware of the use of Dokdo and its surrounding sea space by Korean fishermen?

Kimpo AB letter to XXIV Corps, February 13, 1948.

This radio message is the first indication that a new aerial gunnery range, known as the Korea Aerial Gunnery Range, had been established further out to sea.   The location of the corners of the new rectangular range are cited clearly here in latitude and longitude (see map above for the location of the range in relation to the coast of Korea).

Rado Message from March 20, 1948.

This document is a June 14, 1948 update on the bombing ranges available to units of the U.S. Fifth Air Force in and around both Korea and Japan.   This document was found in USAFIK files, and therefore the occupation authorities in Korea were evidently informed of Dokdo´s use as a bombing range.   The "Liancourt Rocks Air to Ground Range" (Dokdo) and the "Korea Aerial Gunnery Range" are listed on this page.

Radio message dated June 14, 1948.

This letter from General Hodge orders USAMGIK to abandon the Korea Aerial Gunnery Range.   Written one month after the June 8th bombing incident at Dokdo, the abandonment of this newly-established range was most likely an effort to avoid a repeat incident involving civillian shipping.   Hodge also orders that "No publicity will be given this matter".


This radio message is another notice that the Korea Aerial Gunnery Range is to be "abolished".   It adds that "All references to this range as a danger area will be deleted".