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Three F-86s flying in formation over Korea. (USAF)

A Single Daring Act

Memoirs of Korea by an acclaimed novelist

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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.

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