The Bridges at Toko-Ri: the true mission behind the movie

The Bridges at Toko-Ri: the true mission behind the movie

“After a final check of the target area we joined up, inspected our wingmen for damage and headed home. Mr Michener plus most of the ship’s crew watched from Vultures Row as Dog Fannin, the landing signal officer, brought us back aboard…,” Capt Paul N Gray, CO of VF-54

The feature film The Bridges at Toko-Ri was based on a story written by James A Michener, who had been aboard one of the U.S. Navy carriers when the real raid took place. The mission was planned and led by Capt Paul N Gray, the Commanding Officer (CO) of VF-54 and his version of events was later submitted to the U.S. Naval Academy and recently appeared on on Key Publishing special publication Korean War.

“On December 12 1951 when the raid took place, Air Group 5 was attached to USS Essex, the flagship for Task Force 77. We were flying daily strikes against the North Koreans and Chinese. God, it was cold!

“The main job was to interdict the flow of supplies coming south from Russia and China. The rules of engagement imposed by political forces in Washington would not allow us to bomb the bridges across the Yalu River where the supplies could easily have been stopped so we had to wait until they were dispersed and hidden in North Korea and then try to stop them.

“The Air Group consisted of two jet fighter squadrons flying [McDonnell] Banshees and [Grumman] Panthers plus two ‘prop’ attack squadrons flying [Vought] Corsairs and [Douglas] Skyraiders. To provide a base for the squadrons, Essex was stationed 100 miles [161 km] off the East Coast of Korea during that bitter winter of 1951 and 1952.

“I was CO of VF-54, the Skyraider squadron. We started with 24 pilots but seven were killed during the cruise. The reason 30% of our pilots were shot down and lost was due to our mission – the targets were usually heavily defended railroad bridges and we were also frequently called in to make low-level runs rockets and napalm to provide close support for the troops.

“Due to the nature of the targets assigned, the attack squadrons seldom flew above 2,000ft [610m]; and it was a rare flight when a ‘plane did not come back without some damage from anti-aircraft (AA) or ground fire.

The Bridges at Toko-Ri: the true mission behind the movie
Douglas AD-4 Skyraider from Fighter Squadron 54 (VF-54)

The single-engine Skyraiders we flew could carry the same bomb load that a four-engined B-17 Flying Fortress carried during World War Two; and after flying from the carrier, we could stay on station for 4 hours and strafe, drop napalm, fire rockets or drop bombs. The Skyraider was the right ‘plane for this war.

“On a grey December morning I was called to the flag bridge and Admiral ‘Black Jack’ Perry, the Carrier Division Commander, told me he had a classified request from UN headquarters to bomb some critical bridges in the central area of the North Korean peninsula.

“The bridges were a dispersion point for many of the supplies coming down from the North and were vital to the flow of most of the essential supplies. The Admiral asked me to take a look at the targets and see what we could do about taking them out. As I left, the staff intelligence officer handed me the pre-strike photos, the coordinates of the target and told me to get on with it.

“That evening the Admiral invited the four squadron commanders to his cabin for dinner. James Michener was there. After dinner, the Admiral asked each of us to describe our experiences in flying over North Korea. By this time, all of us were hardened veterans of the war and had some hairy stories to tell about life in the fast lane over the country.

“All of the pilots scheduled for the raid participated in the planning. A close study of the aerial photos confirmed 56 radar-controlled AA guns surrounded the bridges. Eleven radar sites controlled the guns. They were mainly 37mm guns with some 5in heavy artillery and all were positioned to concentrate on the path we would have to fly to hit the bridges. This was a World War Two air defense system but was still very dangerous.The Bridges at Toko-Ri: the true mission behind the movie

“The bridges supported railway tracks about 3ft [0.91 m] wide and to achieve the needed accuracy we would have to use glide-bombing runs. These are longer and slower than dive-bombing runs and we would be sitting ducks for the AA batteries. We had to get the guns and the radar before we bombed the bridges – but how? We discussed four potential strategies.

“One was to fly in on the deck and strafe the guns and radars. This was discarded because the area was too mountainous.

“The second was to fly in on the deck and fire rockets into the gun sites. This was discarded because the rockets didn’t have enough killing power.

“The third was to come in at a high altitude and drop conventional bombs on the targets. This is what we would normally do, but it was discarded in favour of an ingenious modification…

“The method we thought would work the best was to come in high and drop bombs fused to explode ‘over’ the gun and radar sites. To do this we decided to take eight Skyraiders and four Corsairs, each carrying a 2,000lb bomb with a proximity fuse set to detonate about between 50ft and 100ft [15m to 30m] in the air. We hoped the shrapnel from these huge bombs going off in mid-air would be devastating to the exposed gunners and radar operators.

“The flight plan was to fly in at 15,000ft [4,572m] until over the target area and make a vertical dive bombing run dropping the proximity-fused bombs on the guns and radars. Each pilot had a specific complex to hit.The Bridges at Toko-Ri: the true mission behind the movie

“As we approached the target we started to pick up some flak, but it was high and behind us. At the initial point we separated and rolled into the dive. Now the flak really became heavy. I rolled in first; and after I released my bomb, I pulled out south of the target area and waited for the rest to join up. One of the Corsairs reported that he had been hit on the way down and had to pull out before dropping his bomb. Three other ‘planes suffered minor flak damage but nothing serious.

“After the join up, I detached from the group and flew over the area to see if there was anything still firing. Sure enough there was heavy 37mm fire from one site so I got out of there in a hurry and called in the reserve Skyraider to hit e remaining gun site. His bomb exploded right over the target and suddenly things became very quiet. We never saw another burst from any of the 56 guns.

“From that moment on, it was another day at the office. Only sporacic machine gun and small arms fire was encountered. We made repeated glide bombing runs and completely destroyed all the bridges. We even brought gun camera pictures back to prove the were destroyed.

“After a final check of the target area we joined up, inspected our wingmen for damage and headed home. Mr Michener plus most of the ship’s crew watched from Vultures Row as Dog Fannin, the landing signal officer, brought us back aboard. With all the pilots returning to the ship safe and on time, the Admiral was seen to be dancing with joy on the flag Bridge.

“From that moment on, the Admiral had a soft spot in his heart for the attack pilots.”

Here is a clip showing some highlights from the movie. Enjoy!!

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

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