The Forgotten Heroes of Korea

Sixty years ago, the United States was just beginning its long course in global geography. Thanks to our involvement in the Korean War, Americans were learning about places like Osan, Pusan, and Inchon.

The country was also learning the difficulty of waging war where there would be no clear victory or immediate benefit to the U.S. In a pattern that was to be repeated in many of our foreign conflicts,  popular enthusiasm quickly faded, and the war seemed almost forgotten.

Certainly this is how James Michener saw it. Writing for the Post in 1952, he said that even among Americans who knew better—

American men are dying… in the barren wastes of Korea, with a heroism never surpassed in our history. Be­cause they are so few, we forget that they contribute so much.

They seem to fight in a vacuum, as if America didn’t care a damn.

The Post had commissioned Michener, who was already a nationally recognized novelist at the time, to write about the war. So, in 1952, he sailed aboard the carriers USS Essex and Valley Forge. In his article, Michener introduced readers to the pilots who were flying the Navy’s fighter jets and rescue helicopters.

One of these extraordinary men was Lieutenant Sam Murphey, whose plane was shot down over enemy territory. Murphey was determined not to become one of the North Koreans’ prisoners of war. So he decided to fly to the coast, “even if I cracked up doing so.”

He cracked up all right. A mile inland, his plane roared down through trees, high-tension wires, and into a rice paddy. It burst into flame, but by that time Murphey was walking away. He was at the edge of a communist village. And he was much worse off than he knew. For his mates aloft, watching the amazing landing and the flaming wreckage, were sure he was dead. They headed home.

Lt. Sam Murphey after his escape from North Korea.

Seeing the villagers starting toward him over the frozen fields, Murphey lay down in an irrigation ditch, “resting on one elbow, trying to survey the situation. I believed I had been seen by the men of my squadron. I believed they would come back to rescue me pretty soon, and that my job was to evade the communists for, say, ten minutes. So I got up and started to run.”

It was a long ten minutes. From the crowd of villagers, two soldiers ran forward with rifles and started firing. Murphey continued running across the rice paddies. He ran for an hour. After the first few minutes, he thought his lungs would explode, but whenever he looked back, there were the two communist soldiers. His big boots cracked through the ice at every step. When he fell, he pitched his face into manure. And the rifle fire kept getting more accurate. Finally one of the bullets passed clean through Murphey’s neck. But by one of those unbelievable miracles of war, this bullet, although passing right through his neck, had hit only loose skin.

He took time out to look back, and there were the two communists, coming steadily.

Suddenly it occurred to Murphey to set off a flare.

“Don’t ask me why I didn’t do it sooner”… his fellow pilots saw him, an aston­ishing four miles away from his burning plane. But Murphey’s run had taken him into a terribly dan­gerous spot. He was now pretty well surrounded by antiaircraft guns. When our people back on board the Antietam plotted Murphey’s position, they could not command any helicopter pilot to fly in there to get the pilot. That would be suicide. But one helicopter man, Jack Stultz, of San Diego, radioed back: “All you have to do is give me cover. I’m going in.”

For any kind of gun, a helicopter is an absolutely dead duck. But somehow Jack Stultz pushed his ‘copter down into the rice paddy where Murphey was still running away from the two communist soldiers. The rescue was made. A few days later, with a patch about his neck, Murphey was flying again.

Michener declared these pilots—

as heroic as any men who have ever fought for the United States. They are as brave as the marines on Guadalcanal or the tank crews in Nor­mandy.

I hold their heroism to be great… for [those soldiers] could feel that his entire nation was behind him, dedicated to the job to which he was dedicated… today the fighter in Korea cannot feel this sense of identification with his own nation.

What kept these pilots aloft and fighting, Michener believed, was their own sense of integrity, their mutual support, and their patriotism.

It is difficult in these cynical days to state in simple words that young men fly dangerous missions to sometimes certain death because they believe that what their country is doing is right. But that is the simple truth.

[In one fighter] group every pilot wears a wed­ding ring, every one has children. Most of them were recalled unwillingly from civilian jobs they had built up painfully after long years in service last time. I doubt if you could find men less eager for war—more acutely aware of what they have surrendered to participate. But they go out day after day over the icy seas, over the high mountains.

They still go out these days, flying or marching into distant, hostile countries. And they continue fighting our wars, even when the public enthusiasm fades.