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.”