Men of the Fighting Lady (1954)





Director:  Andrew Marton.

Starring:  Van Johnson (Lt. (jg) Howard Thayer), Walter Pidgeon (Comdr. Kent Dowling), Louis Calhern (James A. Michener), Dewey Martin (Ensign Kenneth Schechter), Keenan Wynn (Lt. Comdr. Ted Dodson), Frank Lovejoy (Lt. Comdr. Paul Grayson), Robert Horton (Ensign Neil Conovan), Bert Freed (Lt. (jg) Andrew Szymanski), Lewis Martin (Comdr. Michael Coughlin), George Cooper (Cyril Roberts), Dick Simmons (Lt. Wayne Kimbrell).

Air war in Korea. 


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

The navy welcomes aboard famous writer Jim Michener.  Michener gets to see the new planes of the U.S. Navy.  They go see Dr. Commander Kent Dowling, who is going to tell Jim the unit's Christmas story, while Jim takes notes. 

The pilots are getting ready for a mission.  The briefing officer, Lt. Comdr. Paul Grayson, comes in to tell the pilots that their target is the old familiar railroad marshalling yards at Won Song Nee.  Comdr. After the briefing Dowling calls Lt. Howard Thayer over to him.  He says that Thayer didn't report his altitude.  This irritates the pilot.  The other pilots suggest to Thayer that, because of his cold, he shouldn't go on this mission.  They say it's better if he played it safe.  Thayer doesn't want to hear it.  He's going. 

The pilots are hauled up to the flight deck.  They get into their cockpits and then the engines are turned on.  The planes are catapulted off the deck. 

The planes reach their target area and one by one they peel off from the formation to start strafing the train cars and engines below.  They dive to a lower altitude, do their strafing and then go back up.  Grayson always hits the lowest altitude at 200 feet.  The formation makes a second run at the target.  And now they make a third pass and Lt. Comdr. Grayson says: "Let's make it good."  Grayson gets hit by anti-aircraft fire, but he thinks he can make it back home.  Grayson, however, has to eject himself out of his plane.  He lands in the waters of the Sea of Japan.  A helicopter is sent to pick him up.  They have only a half hour to save the man.  The water temperature is only 35 degrees Fahrenheit.

They shout to Grayson to grab the sling, but he is already too out of it to do so.  So a fellow named Sy Roberts jumps into the water and puts the harness around the pilot.  Grayson is lifted up out of the water and then flown back to the aircraft carrier.  Now the helicopter goes back out to retrieve Sy Roberts. 

Grayson and Roberts both recuperate in the infirmary onboard ship.  Roberts jokes with Grayson telling him to quit ditching his planes in the Sea of Japan.  He hates to go swimming, even if it's in a heated pool. 

There is a disagreement in the pilot ranks as to the leadership of Grayson.  Some says he tries to play Clark Gable and be a hero, which endangers the lives of all the other pilots.  Dodson is opposed to Grayson's style, while Thayer likes Grayson. 

They go out on another raid of the same target.  This time Thayer is hit.  He is going to come in for an emergency landing, but all the other planes have to land first.  Now it's Thayer's turn.  He comes in too high and is waved off.  So he circles around and tries again.  This time he lands.  Dodson counts the number of holes in Thayer's plane and tells Grayson that there are 59 holes in the plane. 

Grayson gets restricted.  Minimum altitude is now set at 1100 feet. The low altitudes at which Grayson has been flying has meant the loss of more planes than usual.  After another mission Grayson notices that they have lost a plane.  Dodson says he is going back to check.  Just then the other plane catches up with the formation and Dodson is hit.  He will have to come in for an emergency landing.  Dodson goes in for the landing, but when he hits the deck the plane breaks up and catches on fire.  Dodson is killed.

Dodson is survived by a wife and three children. Thayer is saddened by a photo of Dodson's family back home when packing Dodson's things to be sent back to the States.  Grayson asks the doctor why does a man like him, who has no one waiting for him, survive and a man with a big family dies?  The doctor doesn't know why either. 

Grayson at the briefing says they have hit the railyards 26 consecutive times.  They have to hit the target again, but then they are allowed to go after any target of opportunity. 

The squad hits the railway yards and now goes after any targets of opportunity.  One of the planes goes into a huge cloud bank.  Thayer goes after pilot Ensign Kenneth Schechter and gives him instructions, but the man doesn't respond.  The pilot has been badly wounded.  Kenny gets some blood into his eyes and shouts that he is blind.  Thayer gets Kenny to level his plane out, but when he tells Kenny to jettison his bombs, Kenny goes unconscious.  He regains consciousness and jettisons his bombs. 

Kenny goes unconscious again.  One problem they have is that they are going farther and farther north into enemy territory.  When he regains consciousness Thayer tells him to bail out, but Kenny can't since the bailing mechanism has been jammed.  Thayer then gets Kenny to take out his first aid kit and grab a shot of morphine.  Kenny thrusts the needle into his skin.  Time is running out for Kenny and Thayer.  And now with fuel running low, it occurs to Thayer that he could die along with Kenny. 

Kenny has been able to get more control of the plane and is going to be coming in for an emergency landing onto the flight deck.  The helicopter goes out.  The men on the aircraft carrier can see the two planes now.  Kenny comes in for a landing but is too high and has to pull up.  So Kenny and Thayer circle around to try the landing again.  Kenny lands.  One of the wings of the airplane is knocked off, but the rest of the plane slides along the deck until it is caught by the wire.  And now Thayer lands. 

It's Christmas Day.  They show film of some of the families wishing their relatives on the carrier a Merry Christmas.  Thayer gets to see his dad.  Dodson's family sings a Christmas carol for their husband/father.  Grayson leaves the room so he doesn't have to watch it.  Thayer is also upset a bit by the family scene.  Schechter's girlfriend tells him to come home soon.  She wants to get married.  Thayer has an audio tape of the Christmas party and he plays it for Kenny.  Schechter thanks Thayer for saving his life. 

The doctor tells Michener that that is the unit's Christmas story.


 The movie is okay.  It shows a lot about the life of navy pilots fighting in the Korean War (although it was referred to as a police action).  It shows some of the many dangers facing naval pilots. Of course, most of the danger came from enemy anti-aircraft fire.  In some ways the film could be seen as a rescue film, since very often other members of the naval family had to safe the lives of pilots whose planes have been damaged or the pilots themselves have been wounded. The enemy is never really seen, but nevertheless they do inflict damage on the pilots and their planes.  There are lots of good actors in the film and overall the acting is good.  Because the movie is short and there are so many characters, one doesn't really get to know any of the men well. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 



Historical Background:

See Field of Honor (1986).

The Korean War was the first war in which jet aircraft played the central role in aerial warfare.

In the early days of the war the P-80 Shooting Star, the F9F Panther, and other jets dominated North Korea's air force which was mainly composed of Soviet prop-driven Yakovlev Yak-9 and Lavochkin La-9s.

The situation changed with the intervention of China into the war and wth the introduction of the MiG-15 Fagot, one of the world's most advanced jet fighters.

The United States Air Force (USAF) counters the MiG-15 with the F-86 Sabre (arriving in December 1950).

UN air forces gradually gained air superiority.  The UN pilots had more experience and were better trained. 

The F-86 Sabre had a kill ratio in excess of 10:1. The Sabres shot down 792 MiG-15s and 108 other aircraft, while only 78 Sabres were lost to enemy fire.

U.S. warplanes dropped more napalm and bombs on North Korea than they dropped during the whole pacific campaign of WWII.

US Major General William F. Dean said that most of the North Korean cities and villages he saw while a POW were either ruins or snow-covered wastelands.


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