- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 4, 2010



By David Sears

Da Capo Press, $25, 335 pages

Reviewed by Robert F. Dunn

David Sears has assembled a fascinating reprise of the naval air war over Korea, based in no small measure on extensive interviews of the men who were there and did the flying but also with extensive research into other sources. His extensive bibliography and notes reflect just that. Nor does he tell a boring, straightforward, chronological story. Instead, he devotes considerable discussion to the parallels and, indeed, depictions of real-life events in James Michener’s “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” and the movie “The Fighting Lady,” both based on the naval air war over Korea, as well as clear descriptions of life on the storm-tossed carriers of the 7th Fleet and the hazards involved in flying from those aircraft carriers into those hostile skies.

When the North Koreans crossed the 38th parallel in June 1950, both the South Koreans and the United States were caught woefully unprepared. In fact, American defense planners and politicians alike had long before agreed that the American nuclear shield would deter any adventures by either the Soviet Union or its client states. Thus, American occupation forces in Japan were few in number and not nearly a match for the North Korean forces. Air power was sorely needed to support the beleaguered Allied ground forces, but the Air Force in Japan was limited in numbers and at the outer edge of its range capability, while the Navy had only one aircraft carrier in all of the Western Pacific that might carry the war to the enemy.

Those air forces did the best they could, but it was more than obvious that more was needed. Thus, the Navy resorted to calling up its reserve aviation units, men and ships that had been demobilized five years before.

An essential ingredient in any armed force, but particularly something as technical as aviation, is recent experience. Because of the need to mobilize, experience was in short supply in 1950. Exacerbating that situation was the ongoing Navy transition from prop to jet aircraft and the introduction of helicopters into combat. Thus, the Navy was forced to throw into the fray a mixture of recalled reserves, World War II pilots called from desk jobs and recent graduates of naval training, none of whom had experience in jets and with even less experience flying from and landing on aircraft carriers.

Embark that mixture on a World War II-type straight-deck carrier (the much-safer, angled deck wasn’t to come until after the Korean War), in night and bad weather, provide leaders whose only experience was a different kind of war, and there was an obvious recipe for mishaps and losses. Between 1950 and 1952, those mishaps and losses were among the highest naval aviation ever encountered.

Mr. Sears describes those problems and events with a reader-friendly and fluid writing style, taking pains to eliminate jargon, thus making the book a joy to read. He also describes the day-to-day heroics of those young pilots as they supported Allied troops in close contact with the enemy and tried to disrupt North Korean and, later, Chinese efforts to supply their own troops. In their eagerness, they made multiple passes at the same target and pursued targets at extremely low altitudes, giving anti-aircraft artillery gunners plenty of opportunity.

Consequently, far too many American aircraft were downed, but operational accidents also accounted for many losses in both aircraft and lives. Flying from a straight deck carrier in winter weather in the Sea of Japan was guaranteed to produce losses, and it did. No wonder Michener quoted the fictitious admiral in “The Bridges at Toko-ri” as asking, “Where do we get men such as these?”

Michener was embarked in several carriers during the Korean War and learned firsthand of the difficulties faced by the aircrews flying over North Korea. From his experiences, and based on real people and events, came the aforementioned book and movie. Both of these are good yarns, but, as Mr. Sears points out, there was considerable literary license. For example, the “Bridges at Toko-ri” were actually another set of bridges knocked down by propeller-driven Skyraiders and Corsairs rather than jets. Howard Thayer, portrayed by Van Johnson as a jet pilot, was actually a Skyraider pilot who guided Ken Schecter to a landing on an unprepared airfield just south of the bomb line, not aboard a carrier.

Still, literary license notwithstanding, Michener did a good job of portraying the life and difficulties of flying in the Korean War. However, the kudos for bringing the real story of that air war to us goes to David Sears, not James Michener. It takes special effort to outdo an author like Michener, but Mr. Sears has done it, and he did it the old-fashioned way: by telling the facts - in this case, at least, much more powerful than fiction.

Mr. Sears also describes in some detail the experiences of American airmen prisoners of war during the Korean War. Their torture and interrogations at the hands of their North Korean and Chinese captors might not have been as constant as it was for their younger colleagues in the Vietnam War, but the intense cold, hard work, untreated disease and only occasional thin gruel for food made life for them at least as bad. They were heroes, each of them.

The war continued long after Michener left the Sea of Japan, and the losses continued as well. It wasn’t until Rear Adm. Jocko Clark took command of the task force in 1952 that more sensible rules were imposed. By then, the close air support for friendly troops was better handled by land-based aircraft from fields in South Korea; thus, the Navy’s role became one of interdicting communist supply lines and depots. Recognizing this, Clark ordered aircraft to make no more than one pass at one target and set minimum altitudes to which to descend in hostile territory.

Combat losses thereby were somewhat reduced without significant impact on the accomplishments of Task Force 77 aircraft, but unfortunately, the operational losses continued. They were to continue until the Navy got the angled deck, steam catapults, an optical landing system and more reliable aircraft and engines; but that all came after the cease-fire in Korea in July 1953.

Mr. Sears ends his narrative with discussion of the peace negotiations at Panmunjom and other machinations at the international level on the part of the communist powers. This is moderately interesting but doesn’t contribute to the real story he has told: the dedication, the perseverance and the heroism of the pilots and crews who flew and fought in one of the most hostile sea, air and weather environments ever faced by American airmen. He has done a service to them, their families, those who followed in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, planners of future wars and those who like to read a good and well-researched history. His effort is commendable.

Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn served aboard a destroyer during the Korean War and is a veteran of the air war over North Vietnam. He resides in Alexandria and is president of the Naval Historical Foundation.

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