Toko-Ri: An All-Time Favorite Film

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During the evenings, our cable channel box is pretty well locked on The Military Channel because I'm kind of a one-trick pony when it comes to viewing habits. The other night, one of my top, all-time favorite aviation movies appeared and even though I picked up the action in the middle, I knew instantly that it was The Bridges at Toko-Ri, James Michener's classic Korean-war story.

Any pilot who sees it would have to agree that for a 1950's film, it's terrific and the flying scenes hold up to contemporary scrutiny. Why is that? Because the Navy lavishly supported the production and allowed Paramount crews to film flight ops extensively aboard a real carrier, the U.S.S. Oriskany. For his book, Michener had actually been aboard the Essex and the Valley Forge, where he had been a magazine correspondent in 1952. (The movie was shot a year later.)

One reason the Navy was generous with its access is that it had wised up about value of PR with the public. Three years earlier, the Navy had suffered a disastrous setback when the Air Force skillfully outmaneuvered it in Congressional budget battles. This became known as the Revolt of the Admirals (PDF).

A major new carrier, the United States, had been cancelled and there was even discussion of eliminating the Navy entirely, in favor of the Air Force's then omnipotent B-36 Peacemaker bomber. Even a military leader no less august than Omar Bradley argued that there would never again be need for amphibious landings. Such was the hubris and myopia of the post-nuclear cold-war era.

The onset of the Korean war saved the Navy's carriers, for they could do what the Air Force could not: provide sustained air support on the Korean peninsula. Still, early in the war, the Navy was underfunded and under equipped, which is why in Toko-Ri you see the early jets recovering on wooden-planked straight-deck carriers. The angle deck had been invented and so had steam catapults (credit the Brits) and the optical landing system. The Navy just hadn't had time—or money—to deploy these improvements.

So in Toko-Ri, you see some great footage of hydraulic cat launches and straight-deck recoveries. In one scene, the one where Brubaker lands with the recovery crane acting as a temporary barrier, you get a brief glimpse of the straight-deck configuration. The Navy—and Paramount—was great at filming the landing aircraft from the deck looking aft. What you don't see is what the pilots saw from an approach speed of about 120 knots in the F9Fs: about 550 feet of open deck in front of barriers behind which were parked dozens of airplanes. In those days, there were traps and wave offs, but bolters would have to await the arrival of the angle deck.

I have to think those pilots were made of pretty stern stuff to do that and to do it as well as they did. In those days, the decks had 12 wires and three barriers, versus four wires on a modern angle-deck carrier. In the film and this narrated video, you can see that the approach they flew was almost flat. Over the ramp, the LSO would give the pilot the cut command and the airplane would drop into the wires, just as they had done with piston airplanes during World War II.

The jets were flying approaches about 30 knots faster than the pistons were and given the physics of must-do arrestments, you'd think they'd have a terrible accident rate. And they did. In this paper (PDF), VADM Robert F. Dunn points out that the Navy had an unsustainable accident rate during those early jet years. But it wasn't necessarily because of botched carrier landings.

I found the Oriskany's combat action reports (PDF) for October 1952 to April 1953—close to the film shooting period—the Oriskany reported 6984 arrestments, but only 34 got past all the wires and into the barriers, most of them jets. That's only 3.5 percent and a lot better than I would have guessed. Barrier landings didn't necessarily wreck the airplane, but deck crews had to hustle to clean them up.

If those pilots thought flying jets onto an obsolete deck was madness, they sure were good at it.

CORRECTION: The barrier arrestment rate is .4 percent, not 3.5 percent.

Also, an addition I forgot to mention. The Air Force during this period wasn't dormant on the PR front. It devoted its own promotional efforts toward Strategic Air Command starring Jimmy Stewart, then an active colonel in the reserves. This film prominently features the B-36 and, against Toki-Ri's dark tragedy, it's a cold war tale of the relentless struggle with evil Soviets.

Although Toko-Ri was a fabricated place, Michener based the story on an actual series of attacks in Korea. Similarly, the rescue is based on a real event, although not related to that mission. And there really was a Lt. Harry Brubaker.

Comments (26)

Apologies...I didn't pay much attention to the carrier ops. Couldn't get past Grace Kelly.

Posted by: M D | December 20, 2012 7:22 AM    Report this comment

Thanks for posting the link to the narrated was great!

Posted by: R. Doe | December 20, 2012 8:52 AM    Report this comment

Paul, I agree, I really like this movie. Something about the cinematography is appealing; it may be the vivid blue Kodachrome-like images of the F9Fs against the barren landscape, or the stately pace of the movie without all the booming and crashing sounds of modern flicks. It's much more of a thinking movie than say, Top Gun (I cringe at the comparison).

But the scene I remember most is at the end, when all the high technology fails and he finds himself stranded in a muddy ditch with only a pistol against a platoon of advancing North Koreans. Where do we find such men? May God Bless the United States Navy and all our armed services. Have a Merry Christmas courtesy of these brave souls.

Posted by: A Richie | December 20, 2012 8:59 AM    Report this comment

There is a good article in the Jan 2013 edition of Air & Space magazine (The Ordeal OF VF-653) that touches briefly on the incident that James Michener based his novel on. Also, some associated photographs showing the straight deck configuration.

Posted by: Marion Seckinger | December 20, 2012 9:03 AM    Report this comment

The cockpit point-of-view flight through the triple A is so well done, I can't think of a better one since. The superb rescue sequence obviously had input from someone with experience. Those Navy ADs would be back doing it again in Vietnam as A-1s.

The shocking thing (by today's standards), especially with a Navy PR film, is the absence of a happy ending (contrasted with that other PR film mentioned above and every other modern movie). New viewers would think it is an anti-war film! Time to add it to the DVR wishlist.

Posted by: Harold Moritz | December 20, 2012 9:15 AM    Report this comment

That loss rate against the barriers is more like one half of one percent (34 out of nearly 7000).

Posted by: Larry Martin | December 20, 2012 9:20 AM    Report this comment

You're right. I corrected that math. Not sure how I cam up with 3.5.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | December 20, 2012 9:23 AM    Report this comment

Thanks, Paul. I've been a fan of the movie since seeing it on the big screen during its first run in December 1954. Of course, as an 11 year old, I had no idea what the pilots were experiencing, but now after 40 years of flying, I'm amazed at their skill. The idea of putting an airplane down on such a tiny spot in the ocean, using an approach speed that rivals the cruise speed greater than many GA singles, is boggling.

Thanks also for the video clip--enjoyable.

Posted by: Cary Alburn | December 20, 2012 9:32 AM    Report this comment

Ha ha, watching the video of the F9F-6 Cougars brought back a flood of memories (including that long forgotten metal and paint smell). I never flew an F9F-6 nor was I in the Navy. However, I did spend many hours in the cockpit of one after it was delivered to our local city park in the 1960s! Kids today are really missing out.

Posted by: A Richie | December 20, 2012 9:58 AM    Report this comment

Great article as always Paul, but you need to check your math (again). It's 0.48% (just about half of one percent as Larry said), not .004%.

No matter how you look at it, the landing accident rates are shockingly low when you look at the circumstances!

Posted by: ROBERT JOHNSON | December 20, 2012 10:14 AM    Report this comment

$#%$^&! Fixed it again. This time correctly.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | December 20, 2012 11:06 AM    Report this comment

My dad was a WWII TBF combat veteran and skipper of a naval reserve squadron during the Korean War. At Christmas time in 1951 he was advised that he would shortly be activated and sent to Korea to replace a squadron commander KIA. My Mom was facing the possibility of being solely responsible for raising four boys ranging in age from 9 years to just a few days old. As it turned out Eisenhower took office a month later and canceled all movement of reserves to Korea. My dad told me this story after Mom passed away in 2000.

Posted by: WILLIAM WRIGHT | December 20, 2012 1:08 PM    Report this comment

Thanks for shining a spot on one of my all-time favoutite aviation films! Aside from the brilliant real-life (no CG) flying and carrier scenes, I am struck by the sheer number of skilled personnel that it takes to put a brave aviator on-target, on-time and, for the most part, recovered safely aboard. "Where do we find such men?"...indeed.

Posted by: Rob Hughes | December 20, 2012 1:37 PM    Report this comment

So happy to see others enjoy this great movie. I have watched Toko-Ri and "12:00 High" many, many times. I think it's the real footage, the story, and the situation Brubaker found himself in...responsible person doing the right thing when you know it could be bad.

Posted by: Rick Larson | December 20, 2012 3:35 PM    Report this comment

writers wanted to change Mitcheners ending but Holden (who lost a brother in WW2 said no

Posted by: Edward Mulligan | December 20, 2012 6:53 PM    Report this comment

This film offers a true to life parrallel in that many times we go through life worrying about one thing and the reality is that something else entirely becomes a real problem that we did not see coming.

Posted by: ALTON JARMAN | December 21, 2012 9:15 AM    Report this comment

If only Hollywood had the interest and funding to make a similar film about today's heroes while minimizing the CGI - now that would be something.

Posted by: Ken Holston | December 21, 2012 11:17 AM    Report this comment

Saw this movie when I was ten, got my NAVY wings when I was 23 and married a Pan Am stewardess (who looked just like Grace Kelly) when I was 27. Good grief, watch out what movies you take your kids to.

Posted by: Joseph Thomas | December 21, 2012 2:04 PM    Report this comment

For an excellent book on the Navy air war in Korea, including the background (and the real people) behind the characters in Michener's book I highly recommend "Such Men as These" by David Sears.You will not be disappointed.

Posted by: C. R. | December 21, 2012 11:27 PM    Report this comment

Saw "The Bridges..." in San Antonio during an open post while in AvCad preflight at Lackland AFB in late 1955.
Considered SIEing because I didn't want to think about dying that way.
Finally got realistic and rational, changed my mind, finished AvCad in Mar 1957, Flew B-47s and B-53sin the lastwar we won - the Cold War - ,served 25 years active and Air Guard, and retired in 1995.
And am STILL having a great life!

Posted by: Jack Woodhead | December 24, 2012 5:46 AM    Report this comment

Another movie of carrier ops during the Korean conflict is "Men of the Fighting Lady", with a plot based on the day-to-day "routine" of an F9F squadron.
For added suspense, a pilot blinded by a flak hit is guided by voice aboard the carrier by Thayer, the main character. (Though the book "Such Men As These" by David Sears, p. 259, relates the actual incident of Thayer guiding Schlecter to K-18, but the landing was at a small dirt airstrip known as Jersey Bounce).

Posted by: James Hanson | December 24, 2012 8:47 AM    Report this comment

If I remember correctly, this movie was mentioned in Neil Armstrong's auto-biography. He considered the movie authentic and had had similar experiences. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

Posted by: Lee Denham | December 24, 2012 12:38 PM    Report this comment

Though I was the only person who remembered this flick. Still recall with emotion Frederick March's ending line, "Where do we get such men" from when I saw it at 14.
And I still compare the CAG in TOKO-RI to the one in TOP GUN. "Rubber dogshit," indeed!

Posted by: Wash Phillips | December 24, 2012 4:11 PM    Report this comment

My first ship right out of "Boot Camp" was the Essex (Skivy 9). Watched many F-9-F's and Skyraiders land on that straight deck. Later served on the Yorktown, "The Fighting Lady, or as we referred her as the "Battling Bitch.) Went on to serve on 3 other Carriers, but your first ship is always your favorite. Saw the movie while aboard the Essex and thought it was very truthful to carrier life. Another movie of the same genre was one filmed aboard the Essex, "Air Attach" with Mae Wind and Richard Denning.

Posted by: David Montgomery | December 24, 2012 4:30 PM    Report this comment

I was a LTJG pilot in RVAH13(an RA5c Vigilante squadron) aboard USS ENTERPRISE when this movie was shown in our readyroom the night before my very first combat flight over North Vietnam. Needless to say, after the heroes got smoked in the movie, I did not sleep well that night. The next day at FEET DRY the radar and missle launch warning equipment in my VIGI started alerting and did not stop for about 20 minutes till we(Me and my F-4) escort got feet dry.
Determined that I was not going to join Lt. Brubaker I moved that VIGI all over that sky. My recon pictures were not very good that mission cause the wings were very seldom level with the earth. To end the story, I found out later that the equipment in my aircraft was too sensitive and the EA-6B jammer was causing the alerts. I will always remember that movie!!!!

Posted by: russ campbell | December 25, 2012 1:39 PM    Report this comment

Sort of like showing Airport as an inflight movie. The morale officer must have had a sense of humor.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | December 25, 2012 3:29 PM    Report this comment

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