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Kenneth Rowe, who left North Korea on his jet, dies at 90


Two months after the Korean War armistice, North Korean Air Force Lieutenant No Kum-Sok broke away from his 16-plane patrol near the nation’s capital, Pyongyang; infiltrated undetected into South Korea in his Soviet-built MIG jet fighter; and landed at a military airfield occupied by United States Air Force and Airmen from Allied nations.

A veteran of more than 100 combat flights, the 21-year-old climbed out of his swept-wing silver plane, adorned with a red star and bristling with machine guns, as astonished airmen surrounded him. He had realized his dream of fleeing communism, and he brought a gift to the US Air Force: — the first intact MIG to fall into his hands.

A year later, he had a new name – Kenneth Rowe – and a new country, having started life in America as a student.

When Mr. Rowe died at age 90 on December 26 at his home in Daytona Beach, Florida, he was remembered for giving America an intelligence boon with his headline-grabbing flight in a MIG- 15bis, a late version of the model. fighters who fought a duel with American F-86 Saber planes during the Korean War.

His death was confirmed by his daughter, Bonnie Rowe.

Mr Rowe had become a member of the Communist Party of North Korea and “played the Communist fanatic”, as he put it, while serving in the Korean War. But he had been influenced by his anti-Communist father and his mother’s Roman Catholic upbringing to aspire to life in a democracy. He had been thinking of a way to get to America since Korea was divided after World War II and Soviet-backed Kim Il-sung imposed communist rule on what became North Korea.

When he landed at Kimpo Airport on the morning of September 21, 1953, he had apparently managed a flawless escape. But disaster almost struck. As his wheels touched the runway, an F-86 that had just landed came roaring towards him from the opposite end. The two pilots brushed against each other, narrowly avoiding a collision.

“I took off my oxygen mask and breathed fresh air for the first time in my life,” he recalled in his memoir, “A MiG-15 to Freedom” (1996), written with J. Roger Osterholm.

He parked in the middle of a group of US warplanes, ripped a framed photo of Kim Il-sung from his dashboard, jumped out of his cockpit and threw the photo to the ground.

And then, as he recalled, “all hell broke loose around the airbase.” Dozens of airmen rushed to reach it, and Fifth Air Force commander Lt. Gen. Samuel E. Anderson rushed to the base.

“Nobody seemed to know what to do,” recalls Mr. Rowe. “I yelled ‘Motorcar, motorcar, motorcar,’ which was about the only Englishman I remembered from high school, hoping someone would bring an automobile to drive me to headquarters.”

Two pilots put him in a jeep; told him to return his pistol to semi-automatic, which he gladly did; and brought him into a building for questioning. The incident has become a major news story.

“Red Lands MIG Near Seoul and Surrenders to the Allies,” The New York Times reported in a Page 1 headline.

Seeking to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the MIG in anticipation of future conflicts with the Soviet Union and its allies, the Air Force sent some of its most accomplished test pilots, including Major Chuck Yeager, who rose to prominence in 1947 as the first airman to break the sound barrier – to subject the MIG-15 to arduous maneuvers. Their verdict: the F-86 was the superior warplane.

Kenneth Hill Rowe, as he was nicknamed, was born on January 10, 1932 in a town of 10,000 people in the northern part of the Japanese-occupied Korean Peninsula. His father, No Zae, was a director of a Japanese industrial conglomerate in Korea. His mother, Veronica Ko, was a housewife.

He became a naval cadet in 1949 in order to complete a free college education – and perhaps one day be lucky enough to defect to a foreign port. He later transferred to the Air Force and received jet fighter training from Soviet airmen in Manchuria. He got his wings at 19.

Eight weeks after the Korean armistice, he broke away from his patrol, reached an altitude of 23,000 feet and turned south for a 13-minute flight through the demilitarized zone to Kimpo.

Luck was with him. The American air defense radar just north of Kimpo had been shut down for routine maintenance, and neither American aircraft in the air nor anti-aircraft crews had spotted it.

During the later stages of the Korean War, the Air Force had dropped leaflets over North Korea offering a $100,000 reward to the first North Korean pilot to defect with a MIG. Mr Rowe maintained he knew nothing about the award and said he had simply wanted to live a free life. But he accepted it.

He came to the United States in May 1954 and was something of a celebrity. He was introduced to Vice President Richard M. Nixon, was interviewed by Dave Garroway on NBC’s “Today” show, and appeared on shows for Voice of America. He earned an engineering degree from the University of Delaware, became a US citizen in 1962, and worked as an engineer for major defense and aerospace companies. He later served as a professor of engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.

Besides his daughter, Mr. Rowe is survived by his wife, Clara (Kim) Rowe; his son Raymond; and a grandson.

When Mr. Rowe arrived in the United States, his MIG-15bis was also brought in for further flight testing by the Air Force.

Seven decades later, this plane still exists and resides in the National Museum of the US Air Force near Dayton, Ohio.

Her red star repainted, she is displayed alongside an American F-86 Saber plane, a memento of Korean War dogfights in the strip of sky known as MIG Alley.

Alex Traub contributed report.

nytimes Gt

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