A Single Daring Act
Memoirs of Korea by an acclaimed novelist.
- By James Salter
- Air & Space magazine, November 1991
Colman’s arrival in the wing—in fact, there were two arrivals, the first having gone unnoticed—made him famous. He often told the story himself, in an awkward sort of way, laughing and revealing cigar-stained teeth.
He had been in a National Guard wing at a base in northern Japan—Misawa, I think. I have never been there, but I know the drabness, the cold of the mornings. They were flying dangerous, repeated raids on enemy supply lines. Coming back from a mission one day he had what he claimed was a mechanical problem and landed at our field. While the mechanics were unhurriedly attending to his airplane—it was an F-84, exotic to them, with straight wings and heronlike landing gear—he made his way to wing headquarters, not far from the line. There he asked to see the wing commander. For what reason, they said, and who was he? It was concerning a transfer. He was Captain Philip Colman.
The wing commander looked like a fading jockey and had the uncommon name of Thyng. He had piercing blue eyes and wore eagles that, because of his smallness, seemed doubly large. I can hear his voice as his plane suddenly whips over on its back, “MiGs below us, fellows!” Down we go.
Colman stood before him with a respectfulness untinged by the least subservience. He was, after all, only tossing the dice. He was that dauntless figure, a free man. Soldier, yes, but only occasional soldier. It was all somehow implicit in the crispness of his salute, his effort to be unsmiling, his stained flying suit. He was an experienced fighter pilot and an ace in China, which had been only seven years earlier. At the moment, he explained, he was in fighter-bombers, which was a waste of his talent; he would like to come to the Fourth.
Thyng was always on the lookout for able men. Did he have any time in the F-86? he asked Colman. Yes, sir, Colman said, about two hundred hours. He actually had none and had merely picked a figure that seemed probably. Thyng, impressed, told him to leave his name and other details with the adjutant and he would see what could be done.
A few weeks later orders for the transfer came through and Colman left for Korea carrying, at his own suggestion, his flight records with him. These records, sometimes sent separately, are a pilot’s full credentials and are sacred. They list everything—every flight, date, weather, type of aircraft. En route to Korea, Colman slid open the window of the transport plane and casually dropped his dossier into the sea. The pages, torn apart, slid under. Fishes nosed at the Japanese planes shot down, night flights in Georgia and Florida, railing cuts near Sinuiju, the entirety.
In the new squadron, the one I was soon afterwards to join, Colman was asked for his records. They were being mailed, he said blandly. In the meantime, for convenience, he offered a rough breakdown of his time, very close to the fact but including several hundred hours in the F-86. Like the bill in a fine restaurant, it was an impressive sum.
Airplanes are the same in the way that ships and automobiles are the same; they are similar but there are also specifics. On his first flight Colman climbed into the cockpit and after a few minutes beckoned the crew chief to him. It had been awhile since he’d flown this model and he didn’t want to make a mistake; why didn’t the chief show him the correct way to start the engine? he asked. The rest was easy—radio, controls, instruments, all these were the usual. He taxied out behind his leader and off they went on a local flight. They were carrying drop-tanks but Colman hadn’t found out how to turn them on. As they were flying along about forty minutes later, he saw every needle wilt. His engine had stopped.
He had a flame-out, he reported.
“Roger,” the leader said. “Try an air start.”
This was another gap in his knowledge. “Just so I do it right,” Colman said, “read it to me off the checklist, will you?”
Item by item they went through the procedure. Nothing happened. The engine was all right and there was plenty of fuel, but it was all in the drop tanks. They tried a second time and then declared an emergency. Colman would have to try and make a dead-stick landing.
He might have done it easily except he was a little short of altitude. Nothing can make up for that. At the end, seeing he was not going to make it, he picked out the best alternative he could, railroad tracks, and landed on them wheels-up, which was the correct way. He went skating down the rails as if they were a wet street, finally coming to a stop just inside a wire mesh gate which happened to be the entrance to the salvage yard. The airplane, damaged beyond repair, would have ended up there anyway. Eventually the fire trucks came, and an ambulance, and Colman, who had injured his back slightly, was taken to the hospital.
One of the first things noticed in the wreckage was that the drop-tank switches had not been turned on. The squadron commander was in a very unfriendly mood when he arrived at the hospital. As soon as he entered the room, Colman held up his hand defensively. “Major, you don’t have to say it,” he began, “I fucked up. I know I fucked up. But you have to admit one thing. After I fucked up, nobody could have done a better job.”
Impudence saved him. He was in disgrace but at the same time admired. You could not help liking him.
He was, in many ways, incomparable. I was a member of his flight and we flew together many times. In place of a regular plastic helmet, he wore an old leather one he had brought with him, probably from China days. His head, as a result, looked very small in the cockpit. Like rivulets feeding a stream, the planes would join the main body as it moved towards the runway. The mission was forming. One of the ships seemed to have a mere child piloting it. Who was that? the colonels asked. “Colman.”
He also, for a time, carried binoculars. Someone had suggested they might be a help for distant sightings and he rounded up a pair. We were encumbered in the airplanes—heavy clothing, life vest, pistol, flares—and on top of all this and his knotted, white scarf, the binoculars hung. They were not very practical; their field was small and the sky they jerked across, immense. He pretended they were useful. He was like Nelson holding a telescope up to his blind eye. In any situation he was ready to engage. In this he was like Quixote with whom he shared certain characteristics, though he was not, like the knight, a deeply serious man.
In the air he was imperturbable and, rarer, magnanimous. We were in many fights together, often uneven fights, but his mere presence, he felt, made any odds equal. He was not methodical. He fought the way a man does who has a few drinks and sits down to play poker, the cards may be running right. Cigar in his mouth, he enjoys the game, and if he finds himself over his head can still smile and say good night, or as a famous black champion once addressed reporters, having lost the bout of his life, Gentlemen, I have had a most entertaining evening and I hope that you have, too.
One day I watched him turn, in a huge tilting circle, with the leader of a flight of two MiGs. He had hit him earlier, but at long range, and was trying to finish him off. The wingman had disappeared. Into and out of an enormous sun that seemed to burn black in the sky, we flew. In crossing from side to side to stay in position I had moved slightly ahead and called to Colman that it was me passing in front of and beneath him—there had been cases of mistaken identity. “I’m between you and the MiG.”
“Go ahead,” he replied. “You take him.”
It was a lavish gesture, though no more than I expected of him. It would have been a victory we shared. I had already damaged a MiG a week or two earlier and discovered they were not untouchable. I knew, with the confidence that assures it, I would have many, entirely my own. “No, you’ve got him,” I said.
I was looking behind. It all seemed very leisurely. After a while I heard, “Do you still have him, Two?”
I looked to the front. Nothing.
“I seem to have lost him,” Colman remarked offhandedly.
The sickening losses of nearly forty years ago. The leaders have died have died of old age, the fights along the river in the dusk are forgotten. I still I see it clearly, the silvery fleck that is his plane, the string of smoke that trails from it as he fires, the serenity of it all, the burning fever.
We traveled far together, sometimes to forbidden places, deeper and deeper into Manchuria, almost to Mukden, looking for them in the sanctuary, so high that the earth seemed neuter. It was a great, barren country, brown, without features. The Yalu was behind us, no longer even in sight. Farther and farther north. Every minute was ten miles. No one would know what had happened to us, no one would ever hear. My eye returned to the fuel gauge again and again. The needle never moved but then it would be lower. How much do you have? he asks. Nine hundred pounds, I reply. Two brief clicks of the mike: he understood. Finally, giving up, we turned.
It was not duty, it was desire. Duty would not search with such avidity in the fading light, coming down the river one last time, the earth already in darkness that was rising slowly, like a tide, the heavens being the last to go. The things I had thrown away, given up—this was what I had thrown them away for, to be here and do this, to be one of them. Along the river a last time. Near its mouth the darkened earth beings to light up, first in one place and then another, like a city come to life. Soon the entire ground is flashing; they are firing at us far below. Black shellburts, silent, appear around us, some showing an unexpected red core.
It was victory we longed for and imagined. You could not steal or be given it. No man on earth was rich enough to buy it and it was worth nothing. In the end it was worth nothing at all.
We had many aces: Thyng himself, Asla, later shot down, Baker, Lilley, Blesse. In our squadron along there were Love, Latshaw, Low, and Jolley, as well as latent others with four victories, ready on any day to climb down from their plane in triumph, grinning, genuine at last. For me, though, for reasons I cannot fully explain, Kasler was the nonpareil.
He was in our flight, together with Low. I cannot remember exactly how he looked, and yet in a way I can. The image is like a dream just at the moment it begins to be lost in the light of day. He had a round head, thin lips, cold uninquisitive gaze. He was laconic; the words barely slipped from his mouth. He had dignity, from what I don’t know; it had been given to him, I believe, just in case. Skill, of course, great natural as well as acquired skill together with nerve, and a burning patience like that of a lion lying flattened in the tall grass. Crowning it all was the unsentimentality of a champion. He had served a long apprenticeship; he had been a B-29 tail gunner and was older than the others when he got his wings. He was an obscure lieutenant when he came. He left renowned.
There are certain indestructible people—stalwarts, leaders of squadrons and their best followers, mechanics numb-fingered in the cold, bleak colonels with eyes reddened by late hours—all having one thing in common, they are the dikes that stand against aimlessness and indifference, that hold back the sullen waters that would otherwise mingle and flood. Kasler was one of these. I flew on Colman’s wing; Kasler, in turn, flew on mine.
Darkness, silence, the dawn mission getting up and appearing, dull with sleep, in the lighted mess hall, gloomily looking into the empty steel pitchers. “Where’s the bunja juice?” I hear Kasler ask coldly. The Koreans call the canned orange juice, punch. “Hava-no,” they say helplessly. We eat in silence, looking at the tray, and ride in silence down the flight line.
Two hours later we are over the river. There is the reservoir, the ice of its wide surface crazed with dark lines. It looks like death invading the tissue; all is disorder, all has failed. You can gaze at it for only a few seconds. The sky seems dead, too, abandoned, but can come alive at any moment with fateful glints.
Then it is late in the day again and there has been action. We are looking for them desperately—radar is continuing to report enemy flights—the sun is sinking, the earth beginning to be awash. We fly and see nothing. They’re up by the mouth of the river! someone calls. Heading there, the sky remains maddeningly empty and then, in an instant, there are planes everywhere. The impatience, the frenzy—everyone we come close to is friendly. A minute or two later we have somehow passed from among them into emptiness again.
Suddenly a plane flashes by beneath: huge tail, red stars, incredibly close. I turn after it, glance quickly behind, my heart pounding. It’s clear, but Kasler cries, “Check your right! Look right!”
Not two hundred feet away, plain, foreign-looking, is the wingman. I turn hard towards him and begin to “S” back. He seems fixed, frozen there, like a hare in the headlights. I’m nearly behind him. It will be point-blank. Before I can fire there are four of them almost on top of us, coming in from the other side. “Break left!” Kasler is calling. They turn with us, like cars on a speedway, and we are going down; I can’t see if they are firing. Then we are alone; they’ve broken off when we didn’t see it. It’s over. Above us, the contrails are already fading.
Every six weeks or so we were given a few days in Japan. In Tokyo, it was different. We came in from what amounted to the front, unsophisticated, raw, and found the city in the possession of those who were stationed there and had everything—cars, comfortable billets, telephone numbers. It was the life of conquerors, brothels and floor shows, nights of the gods. The taxis were ancient and took you wherever you liked, down ill-lit boulevards and nameless streets.
The Imperial Hotel, the eastern palace Lloyd Wright designed that survived the great earthquake and the war, was standing then. Horizontal, deep-eaved, with green-tiled tubs and the feeling of a ship, its very bricks had been specially made. In its rooms and lounges were civilians, dignitaries, Red Cross girls. They were indifferent to the war in Korea, at least to its unconfirmed heroes. Their interests lay in the capital and the life they were arranging. Looking at them, talking to them, seeking information from them, you saw that it was true; they had everything, but there was on thing they did not have, as the Arabs say: they did not have the truth—that was in the Stars and Stripes one morning in early April. I read it sitting in the lobby of a hotel, hotel without a name and day without a date though they had them then: Kasler had gotten his first. It was strange how I suddenly lacked all interest in anything; envy can do that. Coming back from Tokyo it was as if I had never been away, but there was a void, three days during which the war had gone on and which were irreversible.
Something starts and you have your run, like a player at the table or a batter. Kasler’s second I actually saw, by chance, hit the ground in the bright splash during a big fight. I was with Colman at the time; we were chasing two but never got close. In the debriefing afterwards I recognized a new contender, one hand bending abruptly behind the other to show how he had done it, the sooty marks of the oxygen mask still on this face. We had been among the countless, he and I, and I watched as if from afar.
At the beginning of May, Colman and Kasler each got their third. I saw them landing afterwards, the planes sleek and bare.
The fourth and fifth I will tell about later.
It was May when Colman flew what only he knew would be his last mission. He had four victories by then, and that day, in a fight near the Yalu, Kasler, leading an element, got his fourth as well and then got behind another MiG and followed it down to the deck. They roared across the mud flats wide open, needles crossed, clothes black with sweat, the MiG like a beast of legend fleeing ahead. Kasler strove to get closer. The controls were stiff. The ground was rushing beneath them. Destiny itself, unrehearsed, shimmered before his eyes.
They were coming to the open water, the delta where the river widened, and suddenly the MiG pulled straight up, climbing, and continuing around. Colman was above with his wingman, watching it all. In his pocket, figuratively speaking, was a telegram he had received that morning—his father was gravely ill, he must come home—when the MiG rose in front of him, the long sought fifth, entire and slow. It was his final chance.
“May I?” he said politely.
Kasler, blood pulled from face, did not answer. He passed by himself, up, up, and brilliantly over, fierce with lust, heading down again. At the bottom the MiG, going too fast, misjudged and hit near the water. Kasler barely pulled out.
I had landed half an hour earlier from a mission which encountered nothing, and was standing by the barracks watching when they came back. The first thing I saw was that they were without droptanks. They turned off the runway at the near end, close to the road. I could recognize Colman’s head, small, like a bird’s, in the first ship. His gun ports were clean. So were his wingman’s. The other two planes had just reached the ending of their landing roll. Theirs were black—they had been firing.
Kasler had gotten two and his wingman one. The single daring act—it was hard to imagine the enormous distance that it placed between us. The fifth was more than just another; it was a step across the gulf. I had flown this very flight myself, on the tail of another plane at top speed, closer than one dared, not knowing the other pilot or what he would do, down to the tops of the trees, to the fatal earth; it had been my initiation, but I hardly imagined repeating it in war. Kasler had his fifth, but more than that, he reordered the state of things: he had begun like me, as a gunbearer, and now was where boldness had placed him, on the other side.
Colman left that same day. In the wake of his leaving I realized that I knew very little about him. He was married and I think had children. He was lighthearted and self-promoting. Day-to-day truth was probably not in him, but a higher kind of integrity was, a kind not wasted on trivial matters. He had an infectious spirit. We were unalike. I adored him.
The farewells were the briefest. He merely picked up and left as if the game had meant little to him, walking out without a backward glance. It was over.
I have forgotten when Kasler left, sometime later and after another victory; the MiGs had come down south of Anju during the early mission. He saw them low, but couldn’t catch them and then it developed there was one behind him. His sixth.
I went to find him as he was getting ready to leave. I had a flight of my own by then and other loyalties, but part of me had stayed behind. We said goodbye. He was somewhat taciturn, as usual. I wondered if he was yet aware of what he had won and would have for a long time thereafter, the luster of those hunting days when his name became storied.
Later he came by to say a few words—to console me, I think. There would be other chances. Of course, I said. We would see each other sometime, we agreed. It was heartbreaking to see him go, not for the slender friendship we had, but for the achievement he was carrying off with him. I saw his name one other time, in an article all down a column of the Times during the Vietnam War. He was flying there. He was known, it said, by name in the war room of the White House itself.
I know how they appeared to me, and I try to step aside for a moment to observe myself, how I seemed to them. Even now I cannot be sure—a marked figure, certainly, convivial and aloof at the same time, not uncourageous, driven, a bit unlucky, or was it unwise? They may sometimes have wondered what happened to me. Did I go on, did I rise?
The first good weather in a week. The fighter-bombers are going north again in strength, to someplace up near the border. The briefing room is crowded and electric. It’s maximum effort—everything that can fly.
Far beneath us the silver formations were moving slowly, it seemed, across barren hills. Enemy flights were being announced, one after another, and then someone saw them along the river at thirty thousand feet. Blood jumping after the idle days, we dropped tanks and began to climb. We broke through a thin layer of clouds and into complete emptiness.
Moments later, coming from nowhere, they are on us, four of them at eight o’clock. We turn into them, they pass behind and disappear.
The flight has split up, we’re in two’s. By this time MiGs are being called out everywhere. The radio is brimming with voices, among them someone calling out MiGs south of the river at twenty-four thousand feet. “How many?” someone asks. “Many many!” We head that way and see two, far out, sail past us on the left. We turn to follow, and they climb and begin to turn themselves. The sky is burning blue, a sky things seem black in. I am on my back, Immelmanning up to get between them and the river, rolling out slightly beneath the leader who is turning hard to the right and cannot see me. I duck my head and try to find the gunsight which is an image projected onto a thick, slanted piece of glass that serves as the windshield. There’s nothing there—turning has pulled it off the glass. The MiG begins to level out and the sight drifts into view. About a thousand feet back I press the trigger. The tracers fall behind him. He begins to climb again and I am cutting him off, closing, glancing quickly back to see if my wingman is still there, firing again. A few hits in the right wing, then tremendous joy, at closer range a solid burst in the fuselage. The flashes are intense, brilliant, as of something vital shattering. He abruptly rolls over and I follow, as if we are leaping from a wall. He begins to pull it through. I am still shooting and something flies off the plane—the canopy. A moment later a kind of bundle, the pilot, comes out.
“Cope! Did you see that?”
“Roger,” my wingman says. He may have been talking to me all along, telling me I was clear, but this single word is the only one that remains.
The MiG, now a funeral craft that bore nothing, was falling from thirty thousand feet, spinning leisurely it its descent until its shadow unexpectedly appeared on the hills and slowly moved to join it in a burst of flame.
Six enemy planes were claimed on this mission and two of our own were lost, an ace and his wingman. The leader was rescued but the wingman drowned.