A Single Daring Act

Memoirs of Korea by an acclaimed novelist

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


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