Such Men As These: The Story of the Navy Pilots Who Flew the Deadly Skies over Korea

  • Published

Such Men As These: The Story of the Navy Pilots Who Flew the Deadly Skies over Korea by David Sears. Da Capo Press (Perseus Books Group), 2010, 432 pp.

Carrier aviation played an important role in the Korean air war, adding more weight to the American air effort as well as offering a number of other advantages. It filled in for range-limited Air Force aircraft, especially early in the war when South Korean airfields were unsuitable for Air Force jets. Moreover, throughout the conflict, carrier aviation furnished support against targets in northeastern Korea. Navy and Marine Airmen provided close air support superior to that of the Air Force in terms of accuracy, rapidity of response, loiter time, and proximity to friendly forces—and with fewer incidents of friendly fire. However, the Air Force flew 2.5 times as many combat sorties as did the carrier aviators, fighting and winning the most celebrated and best remembered aspect of the Korean air war—the battle for air superiority. These factors, coupled with the newly formed Air Force’s push for its place in the military establishment, have resulted in the junior service’s dominating the literature of the Korean air war.

David Sears’s Such Men As These will help correct this imbalance. He has quite a story to tell. The aviators flew off World War II carriers and employed mainly propeller-powered aircraft of that same vintage in the fight. The jets flew one-third, the stalwart World War II–era F4U two-fifths, and the World War II–designed AD one-quarter of the carrier combat sorties. They operated in a tough climate, over rugged terrain, and against considerable ground fire. Further, the pilots reaped little glory, for unlike the situation in World War II, Korea offered no ships of size to engage and few aerial victories. (Navy aviators claimed 13 enemy aircraft destroyed for five Navy and Marine aircraft lost in air-to-air combat.) Carrier aviators logged about the same number of sorties as in World War II although they dropped three-quarters more bombs.

The book tells the story of life on the carriers and the air battle as seen by Navy aviators. (Marine carrier Airmen are not included.) The author uses an anecdotal approach, writing of the Airmen’s background, exploits, and postwar experiences. He seeks “to tell human stories against the backdrop of history” (p. 349), and he does so quite well. The narrative includes not only the constant struggle but also the exciting moments—combat, death and damage, and accidents (some fatal, some not). Sears makes clear that the carrier air war in Korea was a factory-like process, day in and day out, unlike the peak-and-valley tempo of World War II operations. He is candid and not always complimentary. Along the way, he describes James Michener’s service as a war correspondent and the genesis of his classic book The Bridges at Toko-ri, the semifictional account of this action, including the models for Michener’s fictional characters in the novel. (The title of Sears’s book is a paraphrase from Michener’s.) Sears includes fighter pilots as well as attack and helicopter crews (those who made it back safely as well as those who did not) in all elements of the story—on shore; preflight; during launch, attack, recovery, and rescue; and postwar. The author does an excellent job of showing the flavor of the carrier air war from the individual’s viewpoint.

Readers seeking more will be disappointed. Although Sears covers the entire war in adequate (perhaps too much) detail, he devotes little attention to the aircraft or tactics employed and includes no analysis or general wrap-up. Written for a popular audience, the book in general is an easy read, but it provides few footnotes (and lacks citations even for direct quotations.) Some readers may find some of the vignettes drawn out, such as the Medal of Honor story regarding Tom Hudner (who attempts to rescue Jesse Brown, the first African-American naval aviator) and another aviator’s extended experience as a prisoner of war.

I highly recommend Such Men As These for readers interested in the human side of the carrier air war in Korea. (For balance, I suggest that they also read The Naval Air War in Korea, Richard Hallion’s more traditional and analytical version of the subject.) David Sears has produced an impressive book that adds to our knowledge of the air war in Korea. It shows American Airmen at their best in the neglected story of naval aviation during that frustrating and difficult conflict.

Kenneth P. Werrell

Christiansburg, Virginia

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."