A Single Daring Act

Memoirs of Korea by an acclaimed novelist

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


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