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Authors: James Salter

The Hunters

BOOK: The Hunters
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Table of Contents
Also by James Salter
The Arm of Flesh
A Sport and a Pastime
Light Years
Solo Faces
Dusk and Other Stories
for W
who was my friend
The Korean War, in which the action of this novel takes place, was fought from 1950 to 1953. The geography of Korea and the sort of fighting that took place there were then familiar matters. Jet fighters were newly operational and the first combat between them occurred when pilots and planes from the Soviet Union were sent to support the communist armies of China and North Korea. They were opposed mainly by United States jets.
The Russian planes were swept-wing MIG-15s, well-designed and armed with rapid-firing cannon. There were many of them, flying out of airfields in China that for political reasons were never bombed. They were opposed by a smaller number of F-86s, a roughly equivalent aircraft, at the time the best in the U.S. Air Force.
The F-86 could not fly quite as high—to about 45,000 as against 48,000 feet—and its performance at high altitude was not as good, but lower down it was slightly superior. It carried machine guns with enough ammunition for—to give an idea of the brevity of the aerial engagements—only eleven seconds of firing, but a burst of two or three seconds in a fight could be quite sufficient. There were no missiles in those days; these came a few years later.
The basic combat formation was two planes and was called
leader and wingman, meant to be inseparable. The wingman, usually a little less experienced, was a kind of bodyguard. His duties were nothing less than sacred: to serve as a lookout, especially when the leader was engaged with the enemy, and if needed, to support him with fire. Wingmen who had lost their leaders and vice versa were to immediately withdraw from the combat area.
was made up of two elements and was the normal minimum force, although in a fight it often could not remain intact and broke into elements of two planes each. A squadron mission might involve three or four flights.
The chief defensive maneuver was a hard turn, the hardest possible, called a break, to keep another plane from getting into firing position behind.
“Break right!”or “Break left!”
was the urgent call when enemy fighters were closing in. Fighters don't fight, as Saint-Exupéry wrote, they murder, and the act was usually done by getting on the tail of the other plane, as close as possible, even point blank, and firing.
Aces are pilots who have downed five airplanes. They are champions. There were thirty-nine American aces during the Korean War. Their immortality was not as great as believed. At least one was himself shot down and killed. Others died afterward in crashes. Many of the aces were squadron, group, or even wing commanders, men often in the lead, aggressive and bold. Commanders were also shot down, at least five of them to my knowledge.
A small red star painted on the side of a pilot's plane, just below the cockpit, was the symbol of a kill. Discreet, almost invisible in the air, a row of five was a mark of highest honor, greater than any trophy or prize.
It was said of Lord Byron that he was more proud of his Norman ancestors who had accompanied William the Conqueror in the invasion of England than of having written famed works. The name de Burun, not yet Anglicized, was inscribed in the Domesday book. Looking back, I feel a pride akin to that in having flown and fought along the Yalu.
A winter night, black and frozen, was moving over Japan, over the choppy waters to the east, over the rugged floating islands, all the cities and towns, the small houses, the bitter streets.
Cleve stood at the window, looking out. Dusk had arrived, and he felt a numb lethargy. Full animation had not yet returned to him. It seemed that everybody had gone somewhere while he had been asleep. The room was empty.
He leaned forward slightly and allowed the pane to touch the tip of his nose. It was cold, but benign. A circle of condensation formed quickly about the spot. He exhaled a few times through his mouth and made it larger. After a while he stepped back from the window. He hesitated, and then traced the letters C M C in the damp translucence.
It was a large dormitory room. There were ten double-deck beds and, as in all such places it seemed to him, no shelves, closets, hangers, or other furniture of any kind. The ceiling lights were protected by little wire cages, like those in a gymnasium. The building itself had evidently been a warehouse at one time. Its vast interior was filled with such rooms—the walls of bare concrete, the doors of riveted steel and set half a foot off the floor like those in a ship. He had come back from Tokyo a few hours before and, tired by a day of walking about and the seventeen-mile
drive, had lain down for a few minutes before dinner. Sleep had taken him quickly. When he woke up, it was in the darkened room, alone. He felt beyond the inhabited world, isolated from all its life and activity. He stared through the steel-trussed panes of glass with weightless eyes, watching nothing. Night was coming quickly. The bare, thin trees were vanishing in the gloom, and lights were appearing in windows. He saw a pair of figures walking down the street side by side, not talking. They turned a corner and passed from his field of vision.
Cleve had spent four days in this replacement center, waiting for the orders that would send him on to Korea. All the time it had been among strangers, many of whom had just come from the war and were on their way, as lighthearted as children, back to the States. They passed him in loud, satisfied numbers. During his four nights, perhaps fifty different men had slept in the room, or at least dropped their bags there before heading for Tokyo. That was where most of them were now, he guessed. They left in the evenings and did not come back until the following day.
He picked up his towel and toilet articles and stepped across the corridor into the shower room. It was usually crowded in there, with a row of men standing before the steamy mirrors while water condensed in heavy drops on the ceiling and fell down upon them; but now it was empty except for a lean, towheaded man who could have been twenty-eight or thirty-eight, in the shower bin, singing away. His shoes, stuffed with socks, were on a bench just outside the bin—black, well-wrinkled flying boots. He stopped his song.
“Howdy,” he greeted Cleve.
The spray was bouncing off the floor with a comfortable sound.
“How's the water,” Cleve asked, “hot?”
“Hot as you'd want it. It feels pretty good on my old chilly bones, I'll tell you that.”
“I'll bet it does.”
“It'll soon put you right,” the lean man explained amicably.
Cleve hung his towel on a hook and began to undress.
“What weather,” he commented. “It's cold enough to wear your clothes in the shower.”
“It's murder. Have you been to Korea yet?”
“No, I'm just going. How is it there?”
“I don't know. I'm on my way there myself. If it's like I think, though, we'll be missing this hot water.”
“Among other things, I imagine.”
Cleve stepped under the shower just as the lean man got out and began vigorously to dry himself. When he had finished, he slipped his bare feet into the boots, wrapped a towel about himself, and picked up his discarded clothes.
“See you,” he said cheerily.
Cleve spent a long time allowing the warm flow to batter his shoulders and torso and make of his hair a thin, sodden cap. He felt both cleanliness and security, standing beneath the water, things that traveling deprived one of the soonest. Finally he turned the shower off, dried, and went back to the room to dress for dinner.
It was colder inside that vault than he remembered. He turned on the lights as he went in. Outside the windows it was full night, frozen and clear. Shivering a little, he took clean clothes
from his bag and stuffed everything dirty into a compartment that was already almost full. Although he had been frugal with his laundry, he was close to running out. There was one clean shirt remaining, besides the one he had withdrawn to wear, and two changes of everything else. The only plentiful item was handkerchiefs. He put on his uniform, then his overcoat, and left the room, not bothering to turn out the light. He looked at his watch. It was almost seven, and he was very hungry. He strolled down the empty cement corridor, descended a flight of stairs, and walked out.
The night was illuminated by a bright moon that paled the stars, but despite this there was a thin haze, as if of frost, over everything. The buildings gleamed artificially through it. Every light was crowned with a delicate coronet. His footsteps splintered along the sidewalk, and his breath streamed in the air like silver evanescent smoke. This was a strange earth, Japan, and a brilliantly portentous heaven that covered it. He felt as if he were walking through a page of history. It was a disquieting sensation. He was moving in a current of destiny, quite alone, as alone as a man dying.
He had come a long way to this place. In the stale, crowded cabin of a transport he had sat for hour after hour while the night became day and the miles fell behind, unnoticed, so that it was like traveling through nothing but unbending time. From one horizon of the world to the other he had come, across endless waters, feeling continually more mortal and insignificant as he went, like a swimmer moving further and further from shore. Now he did not look back. The trip behind was a bridge gone. There was no returning. He had crossed to the war, and a great sense of excitement was on him.
Men often know what their destiny is to be, and perhaps Cleve knew his. If not, perhaps his eyes alone had seen it, for they were unusual eyes. They could be deeply, almost sadly, receptive, or as impervious as marbles. They were the most striking feature in a face that had composure, but of the mildest sort. Cleve wore no mask against the world. He had a mouth that smiled easily, a brittle nose, and a certain renown that seven years in fighters had given him.
It was a reputation based on achievement. One year, in the gunnery meet at Las Vegas, he had taken the individual air-to-air honors. He'd been on an acrobatic team, too, sweating doggedly through the monomania of formation loops and rolls too close to the ground. Afterward, there had been congratulations by generals and continued performances at the bar in the clubs, with more pilots than he could remember standing around listening to the talk. There was always a crowd, and singing and drinking. It was an exciting business, and nice to be pointed out.
It had gone quickly though, like the year of a first love, the delirious April suddenly a cool November. It had been a life like being at school, regulated and protected. There had been the moments of danger that could not be looked at too closely, and all the rest had been a swift passage of days. He was a natural flyer, not a cultivated one, and he had always known it: the ability had been there from the start; the amount of effort required to convert it into excellence had been small. It was like being a boy with a good memory in a history class. That was something you could be proud of, but never haughty.
BOOK: The Hunters
7.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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