The Obama administration, as one of its final acts, bans three-way light bulbs.
We’ll put an end to our Korean War gaming similarly to the end of the Korean War fighting. Rather than a great battle to determine victory and settle the peace, we’ll simply peter out and move on to something else.
The theme for this article is the Bridges at Toko-Ri, and several games which address the subject.
Chronologically speaking, the first to deal with it is the series of scenarios created for IL-2 which I started in my earlier article. One of the battles created for the 1950s F9F Panther scenarios features said bridges, but is set in 1950.
The real life events that James Michener used in his novel are amalgamated to make a single story. The heroic helicopter pilot, plated in the movie by Mickey Rooney, is based on partly on posthumous Medal of Honor recipient John Kelvin Koelsch, who was shot down and captured by the North Koreans in July of 1951. He died while a prisoner of war in October of that same year. Details of the missions where taken from attacks taking place on February 8th, 1952 and missions flown against railroad bridges at Majon-ni and Samdong-ni in North Korea. The CMANO scenario models this historical battle.
Finally, the movie takes place sometime in the late November or December of 1952.
Best Special Effects
I’ll start, as I did myself, with the movie.
The movie can be evaluated in several contexts. First from a purely technical standpoint, as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did in giving it the 1955 award for Best Special Effects. It can also be looked at purely as a story told on film. Finally, it is also worth looking at it as a contemporary Korean War commentary.
The parts of this movie that use actual footage of U.S. navy operations is superb. The editing of actual aircraft with models is occasionally obvious to the modern eye, but is still excellent, even after nearly 65 years. It’s this that makes the movie worth watching – a picture of what was then state-of-the art naval warfare portrayed on film. A Top Gun for the 1950s.
While the movie came out after the armistice was in place, the story was published in the book shortly before the cease fire.
I have not read the book, so I can’t speak to what parts of the story are from the book and what was added by Hollywood. I can guess, and I’ll probably be wrong at least some of the time.
As just a movie, devoid of context, the story would be somewhat weak. The basics are pretty glum – and I’m going to give away the entire movie here. We meet two characters, one enlisted – an irreverent helicopter pilot who is loved by the pilots because he pulls them out of the water – and one an officer, a World War II pilot who was called away from his Law practice to serve in Korea. After some standard Hollywood characterizations, and some nice flight footage, we see some scenes between the father-figure Admiral (who sees in our pilot his own son, killed in combat in the earlier war). He warns the pilots wife about facing the reality that is the dangers of combat because if she is confronted, unprepared, with the death of her husband, it could destroy her. Then everyone dies.
Within the context of when it was made, however, it takes on more meaning. The key mission, the bridges in the title, is known to be potentially deadly but necessary because it may bring about the end of the war. In 1952, when the action supposedly takes place, this probably wasn’t a reality (although one supposes it is always a hope). In 1953, when the book was released, the situation may have been very true. In any case, it addresses that horrible feeling that any warrior has, as war nears its end; “Why should I risk my life now when the war is all but over anyway?” The movie’s answer is, basically, because that is what good men do.
It also addresses an oddity of the Korean War, when compared to the Second World War that preceded it, where life in the United States (and most of the world) continued on oblivious to the fighting, killing, and dying going on in Korea. In one scene, the men on the (fictional) aircraft carrier take a break and listen to a football game in Los Angeles over the speakers. Clearly those fans have little sense of being in a country at war. It’s this that makes sense of the rather depressing story. The movie is looking at this phenomenon where a few men (and families) were ripped away from their normal lives to fight in Korea while, in fact, most of the country continued on as if nothing was happening.
In this way, the movies questions, and answers such as they are, are very topical to today. To the families whose members are in Iraq or Afghanistan, or Syria (oh, don’t kid yourself) these “wars” are an all-consuming fact of life. To the rest of us, it is an occasional mention in the newspaper. The country is not “at war” in the sense that we were in the 1940s, or even in Vietnam. We just have a segment of our population off fighting and dying while the rest of us go on with our lives.
The Big Picture
To get a nice look at the operation that events of the film might be, we can start with the user-made scenario in Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations (CMANO).
This scenario gives a better overview of what is going on, certainly compared to a movie but also compared to the flight simulator missions, below. In the scenario, a carrier group is provided for preparing the area surrounding a pair of railroad bridges for bomber attack by suppressing the air defense guns. Unlike the film, the naval ground-attack aircraft did not carry the kind of heavy ordinance for destroying the bridges, and thus were relegated to the suppression mission.
Again, not having read the book, I can only compare to the movie. If I misrepresent what was included in the novel – apologies.
The CMANO scenario takes place on the date of the actual attacks upon which the book was based. If I understand, it is a mix of real, fictional, and simplified for game purposes data. This scenario corrects one glaring misrepresentation of the movie. In the film, the attack (on the bridges themselves) is carried out by 3 squadrons of F9F Panthers. In reality, the fighter/bomber jets used were McDonnell F2H Banshees. The Panthers were used for fighter cover, not ground attack. In fact, the range of aircraft on the carriers also includes a number of F4U-4 Corsairs and AD-2B Skyraiders armed for ground attack.
In stark contrast to the previous scenario I looked at, this scenario does not showcase scenario design. In my first play through, I’m losing a lot of aircraft during ground attack, which at this level seems like just watching a random number generator. I haven’t figured out any strategy to it; I send in my planes loaded with bombs and maybe they hit their target and maybe they get shot down. I did make a huge mistake when two planes I had on Combat Air Patrol ran out of fuel unexpectedly. While I was waiting for refueling, an IL-28 snuck in a sunk a destroyer.
Slightly more engaging, I often have radar lock on a few communist airplanes in the distance. When one starts to get close in (and they seem to come one or maybe two at a time), I divert my fighter escort (4 Panthers) and see how the dogfight works out. As a rule, it seems like the MiG-15s can usually knock one or two Panthers down in a four on one engagement before eventually going down themselves. Even the IL-28 managed to drop a Panther before I was able to bring it down.
As before, the losses are much higher than in the historic operations. Obviously, the book was written and the movie made because our guys were shot down, but I’m losing not only ground attack aircraft to enemy guns, but also losing my fighter cover fending off the technically-superior aircraft of the Russians. I’d think in planning an operation like this one, the first order of business would be to secure air superiority. Or at least attempt to do so. I also am left wondering if the combat is more deadly due to the modelling. Reading accounts of various battles, it seems that the norm was for aircraft to make it home after sustaining battle damage. Even this story in particular is about pilots who tried to make it, and had to ditch and be rescued. The fights in CMANO seem to almost always result in a kill. Could it be that the guns are modeled to be overly deadly, or maybe just the engagement algorithms keep fighting unto the death, rather than retreat to fight another day.
The Small Picture
I also opened up the IL-2 scenario included as part of the Jet Age mod.
The year aside (probably altered simply to fit in the timeline with the campaign), the setup is very much like the CMANO scenario – except for the Panthers. Like the movie, but for a different reason, the player is flying an F9F Panther loaded for the attack on the bridges themselves, with the prop-planes targeting anti-air suppression. In part, the problem is the the Jet Age mod does not include the F2H Banshee. The other obvious problem is that, if the player is to be part of a carrier strike, history dictates that he miss out on the money shot – the actual demolition of the bridges.
As I’ve indicated before, I’m just not that great of a simulated pilot. And like the CMANO scenario, there seems to be certain luck of the dice when it comes to this scenario. Initially, the player’s flight of Panthers come in high over the targets. Each of several times I played through, at least one of the squadron was lost to ground fire, and including several times my own plane. Not much to do about that.
It is also interesting that, although the scenario is slated for 1950, the model of Panther is designated as a 1951 availability. It appears the scenario designer was attempting to add as much flavor from the scenario as possible, without be completely anachronistic. For example, when the enemy planes do appear, they are the propeller aircraft of 1950, not the MiG-15s of 1952.
Given that the fun part of the CMANO scenario was the 4-on-1 fights between the Panthers and the MiGs, that was an easy scenario to set up with a quick mission.
Once again, I am handicapped by my inability to play the game. But once again, the results from the IL-2 simulation come in on par with what I saw playing CMANO. I ended up losing one of my compatriots before getting an awesome tail shot on the enemy as he attempted a second kill. Alas, I missed. However, I’m pretty sure that the actual U.S. pilots of the Korean war would have made the kill.
… and Sabres
Of course, one wonders whether pilots would have been forced maintain air superiority with technologically inferior aircraft. Could the Air Force have put up some Sabres to counter those MiGs?
While exploring the issue, I found a great download package called The Korean Files. It is a set of missions, packaged as a campaign, going throughout the Korean War and covering a wide range of different aircraft. This includes Sabre versus MiG battles, other jet combat fights, and propeller-plane showdowns as well.
Each battle in the package is based on actual historical encounters. Included documentation details the background of each scenario. There are also several scanned documents covering aerial combat in the Korean War. Wonderful stuff that really fills in the details about the “Forgotten War.”
The crisis in Iran in the early fifties is something that still resonates through international events today. Many in Iran justify their blood feud with the United States on the basis of the CIA’s intervention in their government, propping up the Shah back in 1953.
The game The Cat and the Coup was created to tell that story, and from that particular angle. It is a game that receives pretty high praise on the internet, probably not least of which because it is a free offering. It is quite different from anything else I’ve talked about on these pages, but it the subject matter and timeline fits very well within my Cold War theme.
It is a simple 2D puzzle game with very fanciful graphics illustrating the historical events in question. It’s not a genre with which I have a lot of familiarity, but it immediately reminds me of Samorost (also free) in tone, feel, and play style. It is considerable shorter and simpler, though, than Samorost. Like other games of its genre, part of the “puzzle” is figuring out what you’re supposed to be doing in the first place. There are no instructions, no back story, except that “you” can move (the cat) to coax the former Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh out of each room. We also find him on his deathbed.
The game is charming in its simplicity. You won’t be needing to google up walk-throughs to solve this one. Each puzzle uses similar mechanics, and has the same goal (moving from one “room” to the next). There’s no ability to save, perhaps because the game itself is so short. In reality, the game is unrelated to the “history,” and it is the latter that is the point of this exercise.
On this one, I try not to spoil the experience. If you want to see what the game is like, just play it. It’s short and its free.
The detail here are the scenes surrounding the game as Mosaddegh and his cat progress through it. In them are depicted the events that made up the crisis in Iran. It is a one-sided telling (justified or not); Mosaddegh is the only personage portrayed accurately as human. The CIA, for example, is a giant lizard and President Truman as a rabbit and the American Military (perhaps?) as a giant, mechanized pig being driven by a Nazi-hat wearing eagle, begin controlled by an English bulldog.
While the modern interpretation of events certainly does not put the West in the best of light, it is worth noting that Mosaddegh himself came to power after the assassination of the previous Prime Minister by a radical Islamist group, Fadayan-e Islam. Prime Minister Haj Ali Razmara was something of a moderate figure. Although a former General and appointed by the Shah, he proposed a plan for both decentralization and modernization. He managed to anger both the right and left; the former by cutting government patronage and the latter for failing to get good enough concessions in contracts with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the British owned controller of Iran’s oil which was seen by the left (and many if not most Iranians) as profiting at the expense of the poor of their country. A particular thorn was it was known that other countries, such as Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, were operating under better terms.
After the assassination, Mosaddegh was appointed by the Shah, a long-time political opponent, with the backing of the Parliament. His policies emphasized social reforms benefiting the working poor and a reduction in the power of the Shah. On May 1st, 1951, Mosaddegh nationalized the Iranian oil industry, long a goal of his party the National Front, with an improbably unanimous support of the Parliament. This lead to a stand-off with the British government, who prevented Iran from selling its oil internationally without them.
The oil embargo had a terrible impact on the Iranian economy, and the political situation in that country rapidly deteriorated. Immediately preceding the coup, Mosaddegh attempted to dissolve the Parliament to give himself direct law-making powers. This was used a pretense for supporting his overthrow. While today most agree that the CIA had stepped out of bounds with its “Regime Change,” the events are hardly as clean as the modern interpretation would have it. Policy makers at the time saw the Soviet Union’s hand in an increasingly radical Socialist moving coming to power, and I’m not sure they’ve been proven wrong.
Within the greater Cold War contest, the success of the operation in Iran was probably a catalyst for future CIA operations throughout the world. Within a year, the CIA engineered the removal of Colonel Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán who had nationalized the land of the United Fruit Company in Guatemala.
All that aside, the Cat and the Coup is an nice little artistic piece telling a story about which most of its target audience (the English-speaking, first world game players) have little or no knowledge. Whatever shortcoming it may have, it was worth the time to play through.