Reviewed by Col. Curt Marsh, USMC (Ret.)
The author, David Sears who is a former U.S. Navy officer and Vietnam War veteran with service aboard destroyers, has presented a well researched book that chronicles the important contribution of naval aviation to the Korean War effort. Sears’ research relied heavily on the notes that James Michener wrote in 1951 while imbedded with the Navy carriers to research for the classic novel/movie The Bridges at Toko-Ri. Fortunately he took his research much further in seeking out the actual men behind the characters in the novel to tell the actual story of their exploits and bravery.
The book traces the journey of several men from their youth, through their training to be naval aviators and onto their service in combat launching off aircraft carriers in the cold waters of Sea of Japan to strike targets in North Korea. By following these individuals the history of naval aviation is illuminated from the close of World War II through combat in Korea.
America’s military was not very well prepared for war in June 1950 when the North Koreans invaded the South. After a significant demobilization following World War II, the Navy struggled to maintain a quality pipeline of new officers and pilots. The “Holloway Plan” named for Adm. James L. Holloway Jr., then Chief of Navy Personnel, was instituted along with the NROTC program to provide both active and reserve officers in addition to the Naval Academy. (Adm. Holloway was also the father of Adm. James L. Holloway III, former CNO and Chairman of the Naval Historical Foundation.) Most of the pilots in the book were products of “The Holloway” including Jessie Brown the first black Naval Aviator, future astronaut Neil Armstrong, and Joe Akagi whose father was Japanese-American. Most ended up in Reserve Squadrons that were mobilized for the Korean War flying World War II era Corsairs.
The Korean War witnessed numerous technological changes for naval aviation from the employment of helicopters for search and rescue (SAR) to the introduction of jet aircraft on carriers. The exploits of these pilots reveal the special difficulties of fighting a war from carriers. Most missions involved critical airstrikes against Communist supply lines or supporting the Marines as they fought their way out of the Chosin Reservoir. The book points out how several key individuals instituted significant innovations in SAR helicopter operations that dramatically improved the safety of diver and pilots in the freezing cold waters. Aircraft improved from the World War II era Corsair to the A4D (A-1) Skyraider, which was the pinnacle of propeller driving attack aircraft, and then to the Grumman F9F Panther jet. The book also provides the chilling details of several men who became Prisoners of War and how they survived their brutal treatment.
Part of the story is about how James Michener observed the war and the men fighting it while on the carriers Essex and Valley Forge. The book which was developed into the movie The Bridges at Toko-Ri staring William Holden, Grace Kelly and Mickey Rooney was commended by the CNO Adm. Arleigh Burke “as a meticulously accurate depiction of the naval air war and the best Navy war film ever.” Then Commander James L. Holloway III also led the Navy “stunt pilots” during the filming of the movie flying the F9F Panther jet. He also who wrote the Forward to the book noting his two combat tours in Korea and his support for the film.
Overall this is a good read that tells an important story of the contribution of naval airpower in the Korean War. The life stories and combat service of the individual pilots are presented in a clear manner. The high quality of the research by the author is evident in the notes and appendixes at the end of the book to include chapter notes, a glossary, post war biographies of those who survived, and a detailed listing of all the ships and squadrons in the carrier air groups along with their respective Commanding Officers.
It is interesting to consider the changes in tactics over time, but what is clear was the dedication of the pilots to accomplish their missions as best they could under the circumstances. Michener’s fictional Admiral provides the title for the book when he exclaims, “Where does America get such men?” Indeed. This is a book worth reading by any student of naval history.
Curt Marsh is a retired Marine Corps officer and Naval Aviator who flew the A-4M Skyhawk. He is now a contractor supporting the FAA.