Cold War Era

Skyraider pilot recalls the mission that inspired James Michener’s The Bridges at Toko-Ri

“James Michener, author of The Bridges at Toko-Ri, was briefed in a similar way to the pilots who would be flying the mission, being shown pre-strike photos of the anti-aircraft guns that surrounded the bridges in the target complex,” Lt Cdr Paul Gray, VF-54’s CO, during the Korean War.

‘Where do we get such men?’ So asked the fictional admiral in James Michener’s The Bridges at Toko-Ri, marvelling at the fine quality of the naval aviators who carried out the dangerous daily strikes in Korea. Naval aviators who had experienced World War 2 and led missions during the Korean War noted that the strain of almost daily combat missions – sometimes two or three in one day –  exceeded the strain of the episodic strikes of World War 2.

A claim confirmed by Lt Cdr Paul Gray, VF-54’s CO, who recalled in Richard R Burgess and Warren E Thompson’s book AD Skyraider Units of the Korean War, a mission of Dec. 12, 1951 that would subsequently be immortalised both in print and on film;

VF-54 Skyraider

`On a cold, grey December morning, I was called to the flag bridge by Rear Adm “Black Jack” Perry, the carrier division commander, who told me that he had a classified request from UN Headquarters to bomb some critical bridges in central North Korea. These bridges were vital to the flow of most of the essential supplies from the North. The admiral asked me to take a look at the targets and let him know what we could do about taking them out. My intel officer handed me the pre-strike photos and the coordinates of the target. These bridges were defended by 56 radar-controlled anti-aircraft guns.

`That same evening, the admiral invited the four squadron commanders to dine with him and author James Michener, who was embarked in Essex. We discussed our missions, and the planning for them, with him. We also talked about an impending attack on railway bridges near the town of Toko-Ri. Indeed, Michener was briefed in a similar way to the pilots who would be flying the mission, being shown pre-strike photos of the anti-aircraft guns that surrounded the bridges in the target complex. The pilots scheduled for this raid had in fact participated in the mission planning. We also explained to Michener that the 56 radar-controlled guns defending the bridges were strung right along the flight path we would have to fly to get to the target.

`These bridges supported railway tracks about three feet wide. To achieve the needed accuracy, we would have to use glide-bombing runs. These types of approaches were longer and slower than a dive-bombing run, which would make us sitting ducks prior to us reaching the bridges. We had to knock those guns out before we could bomb the target. There were four strategies discussed to take out the radar sites providing guidance for the guns. One was to fly in on the deck and strafe them, but that idea was dismissed because the area was too mountainous. The second was to fly on the deck, then fire rockets into the sites, but that too was ruled out because the rockets didn’t have enough killing power to disable the radar sites. The third strategy was to come in at high altitude and drop conventional bombs on the radar sites. This would normally have done the trick, but this strategy was discarded in favour of an “insidious modification” we had thought up especially for this mission.

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F9F-5 Panther VF-111 Sundowners, V131 / 126213 / 1953

`We decided to come in high and drop bombs fused to explode in the air directly above the gun and radar sites. We would use 12 aeroplanes [eight Skyraiders and four Corsairs], each of them carrying a 2000-lb bomb with a proximity fuse set to detonate the weapon 50-100 ft in the air. We hoped the shrapnel from these big bombs would be devastating to the exposed gunners and radar operators. The flight plan was to fly in at 15,000 ft until over the target area and make a vertical dive, dropping the proximity-fused bombs on the gunners. Each pilot had a specific target to hit, and they were individually identified by recently taken photos.

`As we approached the target, we started to pick up some flak, but it was all too high and behind us. At the IP [initial point], we separated and rolled into vertical dives. Now the flak became really heavy. I rolled in first, and after I had released my bomb, I pulled out of the target area and waited for the others to join up with me. One of our Corsairs reported he had been hit on the way down, and he had to pull out before dropping his bomb. Three other aeroplanes suffered minor flak damage, but nothing serious.

‘After the join up, I detached from the group and flew back over the area to see if the enemy had anything down there that was still firing. One 37 mm gun position was still active, so I called in the backup Skyraider that had been held in reserve and told the pilot to put his bomb squarely on that site. His 2000-lb weapon exploded right over the target, after which things went very quiet. The shrapnel from his bomb must have been deadly for the gun crews. We never received another burst from any of those 56 guns!

`From then on, it was just another day at the office. Only sporadic machine gun fire and small arms was encountered. We made repeated glide-bombing runs and completely destroyed all of the bridges. We were even able to obtain gun camera film to prove that the bridges had been taken out. After a final check of the target area, we joined up, inspected one another for damage and headed home. These railway bridges had been built in rugged terrain, and they would prove difficult to repair. This made the mission all the more worthwhile. All of the pilots returned to Essex, our recovery being watched by Michener and a huge number of the ship’s crew from “Vulture’s Row” as the LSO [Landing Signal Officer] brought all of us in.

`This raid was just one of many pulled off by CVG-5 during the Korean War, but with James Michener on board, it formed the basis of the novel The Bridges at Toko-Ri and subsequent film that were popular with the American public.’

AD Skyraider Units of the Korean War is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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