The author of The Hunters drew from personal experience when writing his celebrated Korean War novel
Captain James A. Horowitz was a young man doing what he loved best during the Korean War—flying airplanes. A graduate of the West Point Class of 1945, the handsome pilot with jet-black hair served with the 335th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing. After the war, Horowitz changed his name and parlayed his flying experiences into a new career as a writer. As James Salter, he would write one of the most famous and influential books to emerge from the Korean War, The Hunters, which 20th Century Fox adapted into a major motion picture in 1958.
In July 2014, I had the privilege of interviewing Salter on the back porch of his home in Bridgehampton, Long Island. I had written him a letter requesting an interview, and he graciously answered back within a few weeks. “I would be willing to talk about writing and the Korean War,” he wrote, “though not about the shooting down of a MiG, which is only a fly-speck of an event. It would be embarrassing to go on about it.” Salter died less than a year later, on June 19, 2015.
When I knocked on his front door, Salter met me with a reserved smile and handshake. He was a consummate gentleman, and I shall never forget the few fleeting hours we spent together. I was fascinated by his flying stories and by the story he hadn’t yet revealed in full—of his own MiG kill.
Salter flew the North American F-86 Sabre, the hottest jet in the U.S. Air Force inventory in the early 1950s. “Everybody admired it,” he said. “It had a distinctly fighter appearance, and of course pilots fell in love with anything they fly to some extent. It was an instant mythic airplane from the first.”
Asked about his first combat mission in Korea, Salter rose from his chair and told me he was going to retrieve his wartime journal from the other room. He soon returned with a black moleskin journal filled with handwritten pages.
On February 23, 1952, Salter flew his first combat patrol. In his journal he had written that he was “slightly nervous.” He explained that he saw no MiGs on that first patrol, but then, with a touch of irony, read the last line of his journal entry on that first day: “The last ninety-nine missions, they say, are the hardest.”
Despite what he’d said in his letter, I asked Salter to tell me about his MiG kill on July 4, 1952. He had spoken to few people about that day, and was reluctant to discuss the details of it still. He had great respect for the other fighter pilots with whom he had served, and felt that their accomplishments and victories were more important than his. “There had been so many MiG kills,” Salter noted. “Who was this kid? Some pilots had three, four, five, even 10.”
Regardless of his reluctance, Salter reached for the timeworn moleskin journal and read aloud his July 4 entry, reflecting deliberately on his words. He was back in the skies over Korea, if only for a few moments:
“First good weather in a week. There’s been rain, low ceilings. Sky is blue. My 89th mission….We’re at 25,000 [feet], watching the fighter-bombers move evenly across the green earth and hills. Trains being called out—the mission is max effort, the air is flashing with F-86s. Suddenly, MiGs are called out along the river. Then [2nd Lt. James] Low calls them at 30,000. Heading along the Yalu. We drop tanks and start climbing, through a layer of scattered cirrus.
“All at once, the MiGs are on us, coming in from 8 o’clock, slightly high. [Captain Troy] Cope is to my right; we break into them. They pass behind us and are immediately lost from sight as we continue to turn and roll out at about 22,000. By this time, MiGs are being called everywhere, the UHF [radio] is cluttered with cries—someone says there are many south of the Mizu at 24,000. We head that way, -86s all around; we search for three or four minutes. We’re turning north when we see two MiGs to the west, heading south. We turn in behind them, falling back and rolling out a mile or so in their wake. We’ll never catch them, but then they chandelle up to the right and we gain on them by Immelmanning up between them and the river.” While he talked, Salter re-created the dogfight with his hands.
“I’m behind and slightly underneath the leader, about 1,500 feet back, barely closing. He turns to the right. I duck my head, but can’t find the gunsight reticle. We’re pulling Gs and it’s off the glass. As we level, it swims into view. I fire a burst at about 1,400 feet; the tracers fall short. He begins to climb and turn and I cut him off, firing and closing.
“At about 1,100 feet some hits in his right wing and a few minutes later, at less than 1,000, I get a solid burst into his fuselage. Very bright flashes. He rolls over, I push forward, still shooting, hitting him a little. Suddenly, his canopy flies off. A second later the pilot, a compact bundle, comes out.
“I shout to Cope, ‘Did you see that?’
“We watch the MiG spin down from 30,000 feet, very leisurely, until finally, in some wooded hills, its shadow comes up to meet it. It hits and explodes. We see no more MiGs, we’re below bingo [fuel—just enough to get back to base], with 200 gallons and head back.
“My first MiG, after all these months of heartache and trying. It was a great thrill.”
As Salter explained, “It was all about the MiGs.” They were the obsession that drove and haunted the pilots, sometimes with fatal consequences. “A man who feels himself superior and gets MiGs is essentially unchanged, a little more smug, perhaps, or patronizing,” he once wrote. “But someone who feels himself inferior and gets them…becomes very different, divorced from himself, living in two worlds, the ordinary one and an abnormal, triumphant one. In neither is he bearable.”
He looked up from the journal and remarked, “There were some awful days in the sky over Korea, with massive formations of MiGs sent up to fight the Sabres. Some days there were many, many MiGs, trains of them. Naturally, you were keyed up…electric.”
Returning to the journal, he read: “August 5, 1952. One more mission to go. I’m afraid this was just not my war.” The final mission was uneventful and routine: “My 100th, the weather was good. MiGs being called aloft in droves…I’m aware it’s the last chance for them as well as me—makes me feel a bit vulnerable. We never see the MiGs, however, and neither does anyone else. So it ends.”
As the afternoon sun was getting lower over the backyard tree line at Salter’s house, I asked him if he would ever write another flying story. He paused, contemplated and replied, “I don’t think I’ll write them, but I know them.” I wonder how many more stories of Sabres and MiGs dogfighting danced within his writer’s mind before he flew West.
This feature originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Aviation History. Subscribe here!