A Single Daring Act

Memoirs of Korea by an acclaimed novelist

Three F-86s flying in formation over Korea. (USAF)
Air & Space Magazine

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.”


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