THE BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI: The Real Story by CAPT Paul N. Gray, USN, Ret, USNA ’41

Recently, some friends saw the movie "The Bridges at Toko-ri" on
late night
TV. After seeing it, they said, "You planned and led the raid. Why
don't you
tell us what really happened?" Here goes.

I hope Mr. Michener will
forgive the actual version of the raid. His
fictionalized account certainly
makes more exciting reading.

On 12 December 1951 when the raid took place,
Air Group 5 was attached to
Essex, the flag ship 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
have been stopped. We had to wait until they were dispersed and hidden
North Korea and then try to stop them.

The Air Group consisted of two jet
fighter squadrons flying Banshees and
Grumman Panthers plus two prop attack
squadrons flying Corsairs and
Skyraiders. To provide a base for the squadrons,
Essex was stationed 100
miles off the East Coast of Korea during that bitter
Winter of 1951 and

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

Due to the nature of the targets assigned, the
attack squadrons seldom flew
above 2000 or 3000 feet; and it was a rare flight
when a plane did not come
back without some damage from AA or ground

The single-engine plane we flew could carry the same bomb load that a
carried in WWII; and after flying the 100 miles from the carrier, we
stay on station for 4 hours and strafe, drop napalm, fire rockets or
bombs. The Skyraider was the right plane for this war.

On a gray
December morning, I was called to the flag bridge. Admiral "Black
Jack" Perry,
the Carrier Division Commander, told me they had a classified
request from UN
headquarter 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 said to get
on with it. He didn't mention that the bridges
were defended by 56
radar-controlled anti-aircraft guns.

That same evening, the Admiral invited
the four squadron commanders to his
cabin for dinner. James Michener was there.
After dinner, the Admiral asked
each squadron commander to describe his
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 North Korea.

When it came my time, I described how we bombed the
railways and strafed
anything else that moved. I described how we had planned
for the next day's
strike against some vital railway bridges near a village
named Toko-ri (The
actual village was named Majonne). That the preparations had
been done with
extra care because the pre-strike pictures showed the bridges
surrounded by 56 anti-aircraft guns and we knew this strike was not going
be a walk in the park.

All of the pilots scheduled for the raid
participated in the planning. A
close study of the aerial photos confirmed the
56 guns. Eleven radar sites
controlled the guns. They were mainly 37 MM with
some five inch heavies. All
were positioned to concentrate on the path we would
have to fly to hit the
bridges. This was a World War II air defense system but
still very

How were we going to silence those batteries long
enough to destroy the
bridges? The bridges supported railway tracks about three
feet wide. To
achieve the needed accuracy, we would have to use glide bombing
runs. A
glide bombing run is longer and slower than a dive bombing run, and we
be sitting ducks for the AA batteries. We had to get the guns before
bombed the bridges.

There were four strategies discussed to take out the
radar sites. 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. Discarded because the rockets
have enough killing power. The third was to come in at a high altitude
drop conventional bombs on the targets. This is what we would normally
but it was discarded in favor of an insidious modification. The one
thought would work the best was to come in high and drop bombs fused
explode over the gun and radar sites. To do this, we decided to take
planes; 8 Skyraiders and 4 Corsairs. Each plane would carry a 2000
bomb with a proximity fuse set to detonate about 50 to 100 feet in the
We hoped the shrapnel from these huge, ugly bombs going off in mid air
be devastating to the exposed gunners and radar operators.

The flight
plan was to fly in at 15,000 feet 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. 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

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 37 MM
from one site, I got out of there in a hurry and called in the
Skyraider still circling at 15,000 to hit the remaining gun site. His
pound bomb exploded right over the target and suddenly things became
quiet. The shrapnel from those 2000 lbs. bombs must have been deadly for
crews serving the guns and radars. We never saw another 37 MM burst from
of the 56 guns.

>From that moment on, it was just another day at the
office. Only sporadic
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 bridges were destroyed.

a final check of the target area, we joined up, inspected our wingmen
damage and headed home. Mr. Michener plus most of the ship's crew
watched from
Vulture's 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. I think his
fatherly regard for us had a bearing on what
happened in port after the raid on
Toko-ri. The raid on Toko-ri was
exciting; but in our minds, it was dwarfed by
the incident that occurred at
the end of this tour on the line. The operation
was officially named

The third tour had been particularly savage for VF-54. Five of our
had been shot down. Three not recovered. I had been shot down for the
time. The mechanics and ordnancemen had worked back-breaking hours
medieval conditions to keep the planes flying, and finally we were
for Yokosuka for ten days of desperately needed R & R.

As we steamed
up the coast of Japan, the Air Group Commander, CDR Marsh
Beebe, called CDR
Trum, the CO of the Corsair squadron, and me to his
office. He told us that the
prop squadrons would participate in an exercise
dreamed up by the commanding
officer of the ship. It had been named

The Corsairs and
Skyraiders were to be tied down on the port side of the
flight deck; and upon
signal from the bridge, all engines were to be turned
up to full power to
assist the tugs in pulling the ship along side the dock.

CDR Trum and I
both said to Beebe, "You realize that those engines are vital
to the survival
of all the attack pilots. We fly those single engine planes
300 to 400 miles
from the ship over freezing water and over very hostile
land. Overstressing
these engines is not going to make any of us very
happy." Marsh knew the
danger; but he said, "The captain of the ship, CAPT.
Wheelock, wants this done,
so do it!"

As soon as the news of this brilliant scheme hit the ready rooms,
operation was quickly named OPERATION PIN HEAD; and CAPT. Wheelock
known as CAPT. Wheelchock.

On the evening before arriving in port, I
talked with CDR Trum and told him,
"I don't know what you are going to do, but
I am telling my pilots that our
lives depend on those engines and do not give
them more than half power; and
if that engine temperature even begins to rise,
cut back to idle." That is
what they did.

About an hour after the ship had
been secured to the dock, the Air Group
Commander screamed over the ships
intercom for Gray and Trum to report to
his office. When we walked in and saw
the pale look on Beebe's face, it was
apparent that CAPT. Wheelock, in
conjunction with the ship's proctologist,
had cut a new aperture in poor old
Marsh. The ship's CO had gone ballistic
when he didn't get the full power from
the lashed down Corsairs and
Skyraiders, and he informed CDR Beebe that his
fitness report would reflect
this miserable performance of duty.

The Air
Group Commander had flown his share of strikes, and it was a shame
that he
became the focus of the wrath of CAPT. Wheelock for something he had
not done.
However, tensions were high; and in the heat of the moment, he
informed CDR
Trum and me that he was placing both of us and all our pilots
in hack until
further notice. A very severe sentence after 30 days on the

Carrier Division Commander, Rear Admiral "Black Jack" Perry a personally
and considerate man, but his official character would strike terror
into the
heart of the most hardened criminal. He loved to talk to the
pilots; and in
deference to his drinking days, Admiral Perry would reserve a
table in the bar
of the Fujia Hotel and would sit there drinking Coca cola
while buying drinks
for any pilot enjoying R & R in the hotel.

Even though we were not
comfortable with this gruff older man, he was a good
listener and everyone
enjoyed telling the Admiral about his latest escape
from death. I realize now
he was keeping his finger on the morale of the
pilots and how they were
standing up to the terror of daily flights over a
very hostile land.

Admiral had been in the hotel about three days; and one night, he said
to some
of the fighter pilots sitting at his table, "Where are the attack
pilots? I
have not seen any of them since we arrived." One of them said,
"Admiral, I
thought you knew. They were all put in hack by the Air Group
Commander and
restricted to the ship." In a voice that could be heard all
over the hotel, the
Admiral bellowed to his aide, "Get that idiot Beebe on
the phone in 5 minutes;
and I don't care if you have to use the Shore
Patrol, the Army Military Police
or the Japanese Police to find him. I want
him on the telephone NOW!"

next morning, after three days in hack, the attack pilots had just
marching lockstep into the wardroom for breakfast, singing the
prisoners song
when the word came over the loud speaker for Gray and Trum to
report to the Air
Group Commander's stateroom immediately, When we walked
in, there sat Marsh
looking like he had had a near death experience. He was
obviously in far worse
condition than when the ships CO got through with
him. It was apparent that he
had been worked over by a real pro.

In a trembling voice, his only words
were, "The hack is lifted. All of you
are free to go ashore. There will not be
any note of this in your fitness
reports. Now get out of here and leave me

Posters saying, "Thank you Black Jack" went up in the ready rooms.
The long
delayed liberty was at hand.

When writing about this cruise, I must
pay homage to the talent we had in
the squadrons. LTJG Tom Hayward was a
fighter pilot who went on to become
the CNO. LTJG Neil Armstrong another
fighter pilot became the astronaut who
took the first step on the moon. My
wingman, Ken Shugart, was an
all-American basketball player and later an
admiral. Al Masson, another
wingman, became the owner of one of New Orleans'
most famous French
restaurants. All of the squadrons were manned with the best
and brightest
young men the U.S. could produce. The mechanics and ordnance
crews who kept
the planes armed and flying deserve as much praise as the pilots
for without
the effort they expended, working day and night under cold and
conditions, no flight would have been flown.

It was a dangerous
cruise. I will always consider it an honor to have
associated with those young
men who served with such bravery and dignity.
The officers and men of this air
group once again demonstrated what makes
America the most outstanding country
in the world today. To those whose
spirits were taken from them during those
grim days and didn't come back, I
will always remember you."


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