The Navy's Aerial Oscar

By David Sears

Embellished, but Fact-Based

Several years ago, when I began writing a book about the U.S. Navy’s Korean War aviation role, I researched the factual roots of Michener’s novella about an anguished naval aviator facing a high-stakes low-level bombing mission. The protagonist is Lieutenant Harry Brubaker, a Denver attorney and Navy reservist recalled to combat duty as his stateside peers safely pursue their lives and careers. The sounding board for Brubaker’s anguish is a blunt-spoken carrier task-group commander named Admiral George Tarrant.

In the book’s early pages, after ditching his aircraft and being hauled from the frigid Sea of Japan, a disgruntled Brubaker confronts “Tyrant” Tarrant with a timeless wartime plea: “Why don’t we pull out?” Tarrant’s prompt rejoinder: “All through history free men have had to fight the wrong war in the wrong place. But that’s the one they’re stuck with.” At the novel’s conclusion, after the loss of Brubaker and the crew of a helicopter dispatched to rescue him, Tarrant watches aircraft launch from the carrier’s deck and ponders: “Why is America lucky enough to have such men?” 1

Trying to pin down the true-life identities of “such men” via primary and secondary sources (including records of Michener’s notes and manuscripts archived in the Library of Congress) proved equally rewarding and elusive. Although Bridges was his fifth book and third novel, Michener at the time was primarily a journalist on assignment to cover the Korean War for the wire services and popular magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and Reader’s Digest . In the winter of 1951–52, Michener spent considerable time covering the Navy’s war from the decks of aircraft carriers—including the USS Essex (CV-9) and Valley Forge (CV-45)—and escorting cruisers and destroyers. He was one of the few civilian journalists who covered the Navy’s vital but often thankless role. 2

The time frame of Michener’s seagoing war correspondence bounded the claims of just “who, what, and where” were Bridges ’ factual inspirations. Even so, what my legwork found was essentially this: While many participants “knew” with certainty the real-life characters, events, and locales, nearly as many had widely different versions. In the end I concluded that Michener, like many novelists, used composites—factual elements borrowed, mixed, and embellished to construct a compelling story arc. While documentation points to some direct equivalents, most of Bridges is the product of Michener’s creative (albeit fact-bolstered) imagination. 3

What many of my sources agreed on, however, was that Michener souped up his narrative to spotlight the combat role of jet aircraft. In the book version of Bridges , Brubaker and his squadron mates fly McDonnell F2H Banshees. Indeed, during Michener’s stay on board the Essex , the powerful “Banjos” were being combat-tested by Fighter Squadron (VF) 172, but the more likely—and certainly more prevalent—jet protagonist would have been the Grumman F9F Panther. 4

After combing Michener biographies and archives (and reading an article written by VF-194 veteran Dick Kaufman who had done likewise), I was persuaded that the bombing mission depicted in The Bridges at Toko-ri was substantially a conflation of many sorties during a hectic and costly day of air-to-ground combat in February 1952. And while “short-legged” jets undoubtedly figured in these sorties, the heavy lifting was done by the “props”: F4U Corsairs and AD Skyraiders. 5

Not surprisingly, jet aircraft (and helicopters) held more allure for 1950s readers than did World War II–vintage Corsairs or even the new and powerful Skyraiders. And so it would be when Bridges was brought to the screen. For the film, Cag (the fictional air group commander, undoubtedly based on Air Group 5 CAG Commander Marshall U. Beebe), Brubaker, and others would be flying Panthers. And in this case, at least, I had some leads on precisely who might have contributed to re-creating the aerial drama of what proved to be a very popular, and Academy Award–winning, adaptation of The Bridges at Toko-Ri .

The clues came through interviews with former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral James L. Holloway III. During the Korean War, Holloway had been the operations officer and then the executive officer for Panther-equipped VF-52. He and his squadron mates had flown combat tours from the decks of the carriers Valley Forge (during the period when Michener was on board) and Boxer (CVA-21). Following VF-52’s post-truce return to NAS Miramar in late 1953, Admiral Holloway recalled, Navy brass had approved the use of VF-52’s equipment and personnel for the Bridges filming. He recounted some of the intriguing details. This episode got only passing mention in the book; subsequently, however, using a VF-52 roster supplied by Admiral Holloway, I decided to dig deeper.

Stars on Deck

The Bridges at Toko-Ri’ s flight-deck, aerial, and shore-leave scenes were actually captured in widely separated locales. In the fall of 1953, Paramount production personnel, along with actors William Holden (cast in the lead role as Brubaker), Fredric March, Mickey Rooney, and others, were airlifted from Tokyo to the flight deck of the USS Oriskany (CVA-34), then operating in the Yellow Sea. A year before, the Oriskany and her airmen and sailors had already had star turns in the filming of The Men of the Fighting Lady , an MGM production about Korean War naval aviation based on factual events. During his tour on board the Oriskany , Holden learned how to taxi a Panther aircraft for flight deck close-ups. 6

The F9F-2 and F9F-5 aircraft used in this portion of the filming belonged to the VFA-192 Golden Dragons. (In the wake of their participation in the filming of both The Men of the Fighting Lady and The Bridges at Toko-Ri , the Golden Dragons became the “World-Famous Golden Dragons.”) After nine days at sea, the actors and film crews relocated to Tokyo and Yokosuka for six more weeks of shooting.

As the year turned, however, production shifted stateside for Hollywood soundstage work, special-effects production, and the all-important filming of the combat scenes over the rugged terrain of “Korea.”

When it came to movie stunt flying, the go-to resource was 50-year-old Hollywood veteran Paul Mantz. He had once been a student cadet at the Army’s flight school at California’s March Field, but Mantz’s military aviation career was cut short when, during a cross-country checkout flight just a day before his scheduled 28 June 1928 graduation, he buzzed a railroad train carrying several high-ranking Army officers traveling to attend the ceremony. 7

Mantz eventually rebounded from this misstep by breaking into the lucrative but risky world of Hollywood stunt flying. His entrée was a hair-raising low-level pass through a narrow Hollywood Hills canyon for The Galloping Ghost , a silent film about football hero Red Grange. He subsequently performed aerial stunts for a string of 1930s films with titles like Grand Central Airport , Air Mail , Night Flight , Ceiling Zero , Men with Wings , and The Bride Came COD .

Stunt Daredevil ‘Simply the Best’

When America entered World War II, Mantz joined the Army Air Forces for the duration, this time as a 40-year-old lieutenant colonel. He headed up the “Culver City Commandos” of the First Motion Picture Unit, an outfit whose ranks included luminaries such as Clark Gable, Van Heflin, Alan Ladd, George Montgomery, and Ronald Reagan. But it was after the war that Mantz’s career reached its zenith.

He began by scooping up an entire Stillwater, Oklahoma, airfield inventory of surplus military war birds. After the quick and profitable sale of most of his “air force” of nearly 500 aircraft for scrap and the aviation fuel stored in their tanks, Mantz retained and meticulously refurbished just three. Two of them were Mustangs, which he used in aerial racing (Mantz was a three-time winner of the Bendix Trophy, a point-to-point time-and-speed race from Los Angeles to Cleveland). And the third plane he salvaged and made pristine again was a B-25 Mitchell. 8

The luxuriously appointed Mitchell was rechristened the Smasher (according to Paul Mantz Jr., the name was a nod to his father’s hard-drinking ways), and it became the flagship of Mantz’s postwar Hollywood comeback. It was through its Plexiglas nose that a camera captured the opening scenes of the 1946 classic The Best Years of Our Lives : a bomber ferrying homeward-bound GIs hedge-hopping across an American landscape. During the 1950s, the Smasher would mount the three massive 35-mm cameras used to film dramatic aerial scenes for widescreen Cinerama movies. 9

Oddly, while Mantz’s biography details several of his postwar filming exploits—including his solo crash-landing of a B-17 bomber for 1949’s Twelve O’Clock High —it makes no mention of his work on The Bridges at Toko-Ri . Nor does his name appear in the film’s production credits. Nonetheless, VF-52 sources are emphatic that Mantz was at the controls of the Smasher for the aerial scenes filmed over the rugged interior mountains of Southern California and the coastal Pacific near La Jolla.

For example, retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Lester R. (Bob) Smith—at the time a lieutenant (j.g.) and the veteran of two war cruises and 132 combat missions—recalls seeing Mantz at the almost daily preflight briefings and postflight debriefings. Joining Mantz, and riding with him on board his B-25, was Marshall Beebe, who served as the film’s technical adviser. Bob Smith learned that Mantz owned an airfield near El Toro and commuted from his Balboa Island “home,” a luxury 63-foot sailing yacht named the Adoré. 10 On separate occasions, Smith, a bachelor, and Jim Holloway, along with his wife Dabney, dined on board the Adoré as guests of Paul and Terry Mantz.

Smith took note not only of Mantz’s lavish lifestyle but also the way he ran his production company. On one occasion, just before a day’s filming, the Smasher experienced a spark-plug problem in one engine. Instead of disrupting the schedule to troubleshoot and isolate the problem, Mantz simply ordered a full set of fresh plugs flown to Miramar Naval Air Station. His trusty B-25 was ready to roll in two hours.

Realizing that all this had to be costing Paramount Pictures a bundle, Bob Smith asked others in the production crew how they could possibly afford it. “They told me that Mantz was simply the best,” he recalled. “Paramount knew they would get the footage needed in the shortest time.” 11 In short, cost was not a problem, but time was.

Memories of a Brush with the Movie Biz

Not surprisingly, full details of the filming of The Bridges at Toko-Ri have been somewhat dimmed or obscured by the intervening three-score years. For example, when I interviewed Dick Brunner, at the time a VF-52 lieutenant (j.g.) and a Boxer cruise veteran with 44 combat sorties, his sole specific recollection of the film shoot was of piloting a Panther marked “OO” as it made aerial passes for the benefit of the Smasher ’s rolling cameras. 12 Brunner’s flight log points to a “photo” flight on 4 February 1954. This may well have been the Cag-piloted aircraft glimpsed in the aerial sequences before and after the movie’s famous strike-mission scene.

Admiral Holloway recalls having received the prepublication galleys of Michener’s book from his father, Admiral James L. Holloway Jr., who was then serving as chief of the Bureau of Naval Personnel. “Triple Sticks” knew of the Navy’s commitment to the project. Among his particular recollections of the Bridges flights were the challenges faced by both the Mantz crew and VF-52 aviators when the Smasher flew lead.

For those hops, a camera was mounted on a pedestal in the Mitchell’s tail turret. Without the protection of a Plexiglas canopy, the camera operator, “bundled like an Eskimo,” stood waist-high in the plane’s slipstream. Meanwhile, with the Smasher lumbering along at roughly 200 knots, the VF-52 pilots struggled to keep their jets trimmed. “If we dropped below 175 knots,” Holloway said, “our flaps would have to be down, which just wouldn’t look right.” 13

He also remarked on the dispatch with which Mantz got the shots he needed. “We’d fly a short sequence and then offer to do it again,” but Mantz “would almost invariably tell us ‘that’s a wrap.’” Owing to the Paramount/Navy teamwork, “we ended up beating the hell out of the production budget.” 14

By contrast, Admiral Bob Smith remembers a slightly more turbulent process. Lieutenant Commander Virgil Irwin, VF-52’s new commanding officer, had just come aboard along with many “first tours.” Irwin sometimes balked at the film production’s disruptions, not to mention its occasional scripted departures from tactical doctrine.

Smith particularly remembers Irwin’s frustration over the climactic Toko-Ri bombing scene. In most instances Marshall Beebe’s presence kept the film people from straying far from reality. But for this scene, instead of having the three Panther divisions involved stage a coordinated attack, the unit director insisted that all 12 aircraft peel off in a single diving column. The shot added drama, but for Irwin and others it subtracted credibility. When pressed on the matter, production personnel simply argued that they always staged aerial attack scenes that way—and had since “the [1926–27] filming of Wings.” 15

Because XO Jim Holloway was awaiting transfer, his substantial involvement in the film flights was a natural way to lift the burden from CO Irwin’s shoulders. Smith was also awaiting transfer, so he too became “expendable.” Over the course of two to four weeks, he flew film sorties almost daily. He vividly recalls the four days it took to capture the low-level flying sequence in which Brubaker and Cag scout a crash-landing site amid mountainous terrain.

To simulate distress for the Brubaker jet, a telltale mist of fuel was supposed to trail from the Panther’s fuselage. As Smith recalls, VF-52 mechanics jury-rigged hoses to run from the Panther wing tanks through the wings and into the fuselage; Smith could activate a cockpit switch that released a spray of fuel through inspection apertures in the fuselage belly. On the first day’s takes, while the low-level ridge-hopping was a visual success, the leaking fuel wasn’t: It simply didn’t show up well on the day’s rushes.

They tried again the next day, this time loading each 120-gallon wing tank with brown-tinted water-soluble paint. This time the “fuel” stream showed up—only too well. On the third try, the producers and camera people got more imaginative, opting to use 240 gallons of cow’s milk. (Another dramatic flight, but still not right.) It took a fourth day and a fourth try to arrive at the ideal solution: a shift to 240 gallons of chocolate milk. Smith’s mother had once worked as a private-branch-exchange operator at Paramount. “She wasn’t at all surprised at the gimmicks Hollywood producers resorted to,” Smith said. “But she simply couldn’t understand wasting all that milk.” 16

On to Tinseltown

If the Navy’s reward for cooperating in the filming was measured in favorable and invaluable publicity, the recompense for officers and men of VF-52 was some Paramount-sponsored partying. While the studio catered a weekend picnic for the enlisted personnel and their families, there was an even bigger treat for the aviators: an all-expenses paid four-day stay in Hollywood.

The studio dispatched a private railroad car to transport the officers and spouses; limousines ferried them to plush quarters in the Roosevelt Hotel. Among the events was a visit to a stadium-size soundstage that housed an Olympic-size pool. They watched the filming of the scene during which William Holden is rescued by helicopter from the “frigid clutches” of the “Sea of Japan.” As a huge overhead fan whirred to simulate rotor downwash, Holden and fellow actor Earl Holliman (playing Nestor Gamidge) waded midway into the shallow pool to a spot where dye marker had been released. Stagehands positioned on the sides of the pool used what looked to be snow shovels to add “chop” to the tepid pool water. In quick order, a helicopter’s rescue horse-collar was lowered by winch and Holden was plucked from the water. 17

At one point during the stay, Holloway and first-tours Grant Dean, Art Labelle, and Bill Thompson were taken on a field trip to Mint Canyon, about ten miles northeast of Los Angeles, where a special-effects set, roughly 200 feet on a side, had been excavated to simulate the bridges, rail lines, outbuildings, and terrain of the fictional Toko-Ri. For the visitors’ benefit, film technicians demonstrated some of the set’s crude but ingenious special effects—miniature F9-Fs models swooping along wires with pyrotechnics used to simulate flak fire. 18

The elaborate models were the work of 52-year-old John P. Fulton, like Mantz a Hollywood veteran. Fulton’s earliest film credits included Frankenstein , The Invisible Man , and Son of Dracula , but he also had created effects for Air Mail , one of the early aviation potboilers for which Mantz flew stunts. Not incidentally, Fulton was also a pilot, the product of flight instruction by Paul Mantz and their joint friend Amelia Earhart.

Cold and remote in manner, “Hard Way” Fulton was noted for his meticulous attention to detail. He had already garnered five Best Special Effects Academy Award nominations and a 1945 Oscar. Fulton eventually filmed the bombing run in Bridges from an actual low-flying aircraft—a small helicopter from which dangled a spherical camera-mounted transparent “8-ball” designed jointly by Mantz and Fulton.

The remote setting facilitated the helicopter flight simulation. It also enabled the use of the peaks of the Santa Susana Mountains as a realistic scenic backdrop. The model’s 1:12-scale bridges were eight feet high, part of an entire valley landscape complete with buildings and a working O-scale model railroad. Fulton’s then-teenage daughter Joanne, who visited the site on weekends, recalls her sheer delight at “being able to walk between the bridge arches with ease.” She also inspected the small rooms built into the Toko-Ri cliffs to conceal technicians who set off the flak pyrotechnics as the Panther models swooped through. 19

Given subsequent developments in computer-generated movie effects, Mantz’s 1950s film trickery seems somewhat crude today. The real-time flight scenes staged by the VF-52 aviators stand up better. Nevertheless, it was that trickery that garnered Bridges (and, by extension, the U.S. Navy) an “Aerial Oscar.” The film came out on top in the Special Effects competition paired against The Dam Busters , a British war film depicting the Royal Air Force’s World War II “bouncing bomb” attack on the Ruhr dams in Germany.

Of Shy Stars and ‘Script Girls’

While in Hollywood, the VF-52 aviators also got their chance to hobnob with film celebrities. Smith remembers that a number of them shared a commissary lunch with Holden. Somewhat disappointingly, Smith found the actor reserved, even awkward and introverted.

At any rate, Smith and the other squadron bachelors had more immediate interest in the bevy of gorgeous young script girls who populated the sets. On one occasion, Smith and another fellow sidled up to one demure but particularly fetching script girl who sat off to the side wearing horn-rimmed glasses. They found her friendly, warm, and engaging—so much so that the smitten aviators barely paid attention to the filming they’d come to witness.

It turned out that Jim and Dabney Holloway also had an opportunity to visit with this particular young woman. In fact, Dabney knew her; the two shared a set of friends and experiences from their school days in Philadelphia. And she was no script girl. She was the movie’s female lead.

Her name was Grace Kelly.



1. James A. Michener, The Bridges at Toko-Ri (New York: Fawcett Books, 1973), 34, 36, 126.

2. David Sears, Such Men As These: The Story of the Navy Pilots Who Flew the Deadly Skies over Korea (Cambridge, MA: DaCapo Press, 2010), 359–361.

3. Ibid., 324–26.

4. Ibid., 171.

5. John P. Hayes, James A. Michener: A Biography (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1984), 106. Stephen J. May, Michener: A Writer’s Journey (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009), 109–110. Richard F. Kaufman, “Behind the Bridges at Toko-Ri,” Naval Aviation News , March–April 2002, 18–23.

6. Bob Thomas, Golden Boy: The Untold Story of William Holden (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1983), 96.

7. Don Dwiggins, Hollywood Pilot: The Biography of Paul Mantz (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1967), 46.

8. Ibid., 186–87.

9. Ibid., 216.

10. Ibid., 183–84.

11. Phone interviews with RADM Lester (Bob) Smith, USN (Ret.) 12, 14, 18 October; 15, 22 December 2012.

12. Phone interview with Richard Brunner, 25 September 2012.

13. Phone interview with ADM James L. Holloway III, USN (Ret.), 12 December 2012.

14. Ibid.

15. Smith interviews.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid. Phone interview with Grant Dean, 6 September 2012.

19. Tom Weaver, “Special Effects Wizard John P. Fulton,” Monsters from the Vault , no. 24, 33. David Sears phone interview with Joanne Fulton Schaefer, 12 December 2012.

 

 
 

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