William Holden as LT Harry Brubaker, bitter U.S. Navy Reserve aviator
Off the Korean coast, November 1952
Film: The Bridges at Toko-Ri
Release Date: December 1954
Director: Mark Robson
Costume Designer: Edith Head
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Mid-century flight must be my subconscious theme heading into the new year given my last few posts about Frank Sinatra’s jet-setting style and then Sean Connery’s charcoal traveling suit in Goldfinger. Let’s at least move forward from the fuselage to the cockpit where William Holden sits at the controls of his Grumman F9F-2 Panther in The Bridges at Toko-Ri as military aviator LT Harry Brubaker, flying for the U.S. Navy during the Korean War.
January 1911 was a landmark month for the U.S. Navy’s fledgling aviation program. On January 27, aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss flew the first seaplane from the water at San Diego Bay and, the next day, Curtiss’ student LT Theodore G. Ellyson became “Naval Aviator No. 1” when he took off in a Curtiss “grass cutter” plane.
More than 40 years after these pioneering flights, this heritage of naval aviation was featured front and center in The Bridges at Toko-Ri, produced in close cooperation with the U.S. Navy. Well-received by critics and audiences alike, the film was awarded the Academy Award for Best Special Effects given its impressive aerial sequences and battle scenes, some effectively intercut with actual combat footage. The experience must have been particularly personal for William Holden, not only due to his own wartime service for the U.S. Army Air Forces but also because his younger brother, Robert W. “Bobbie” Beedle, was a U.S. Navy fighter pilot who was killed in action in January 1944. It may have been this personal connection to naval aviation that led to Holden’s insistence that, were he to appear in the film, it would retain the downbeat ending of James Michener’s source novel without adding a “Hollywood” happy ending.
Holden stars as LT Harry Brubaker, a civilian attorney and Naval Reserve aviator called to return to active duty during the Korean War, flying the Grumman F9F-2 Panther (replacing the McConnell F2H Banshee fighter-bombers flown by Brubaker’s squadron in Michener’s novel.) The Panther was one of the Navy’s first successful carrier-based jet fighters with nearly 1,400 produced between the aircraft’s first flight in November 1947 and their withdrawal from front-line service in 1956. In a display of his dedication to portraying the role realistically, Holden reportedly learned how to taxi a fighter on the deck of an aircraft carrier.
We catch up with the reservist during the opening scene at sea when LT Brubaker is forced to ditch his battle-damaged Panther in the water and escape to be recovered by Chief Petty Officer Mike Forney (Mickey Rooney) and Airman Nestor Gamidge (Earl Holliman) of Task Force 77, the main battle group of the U.S. Navy Seventh Fleet. The incident has Brubaker questioning his life, wondering why he allowed himself to be pulled back into service once he had settled down after World War II, establishing a law practice and beginning a family with his wife, Nancy (Grace Kelly). Despite Rear Admiral Tarrant (Frederic March) offering Brubaker the avuncular admonishment that “war is no place for women,” Brubaker arranges for his wife and children to meet him in Japan, where his ship delivers him three days later for a week of liberty with his family.
When Brubaker’s ship departs, he leaves his family behind and is forced to face the reality of the dangerous mission ahead of him: bombing the heavily defended bridges at Toko-Ri in North Korea.
What’d He Wear?
The Bridges at Toko-Ri is a visual treat for fans of classic naval aircraft and the iconic leather flight jackets that have dressed American pilots for nearly a century.
Leather flight jackets trace their origins back to the early days of American aviation during World War I when military pilots began wearing heavy-duty leather jackets with high necks, wind flaps, and fur trim to keep them warm while seated in the often unenclosed cockpits of early aircraft. The practice was standardized with the formation of the Aviation Clothing Board in 1917, shortly after the U.S. entered the war, kickstarting an era of flight jacket optimization that led to the development of some of the most iconic and enduring men’s outerwear. American stuntman and parachute pioneer Leslie Irvin introduced the sheepskin “Irvin flying jacket” that would dress the Royal Air Force for decades to follow, while the U.S. Army Air Forces introduced its own A-1 flight jacket with a knit collar and cuffs, button-flapped pockets, and a button-up front. In 1931, it was succeeded by the famous A-2 jacket with its shirt-style collar, zip front, epaulets, and snap-flapped pockets.
Throughout the 1930s, naval aviators had increasingly worn fur-collared leather jackets that the U.S. Navy would designate as the M-422 in 1940 (re-designated the M-422A the following year with the addition of a pencil slot to the left pocket), essentially a precursor to the cowhide G-1 that would be introduced in 1947 and immortalized four decades later by Tom Cruise in Top Gun. General Henry “Hap” Arnold was so impressed with the Navy’s jacket that he ordered production of the A-2 discontinued in 1943 and issued a slightly trimmer version of the M-422A to U.S. Army Air Forces officers, redesignated the AN-J-3 (Army Navy Jacket 3).
You can read more about the differences between the M422-A, G-1, and AN-J-3 in this forum at Vintage Leather Jackets.
Although the G-1 was a newer jacket at the time of the Korean War, the more expert eyes in another forum at Vintage Leather Jackets have identified LT Brubaker’s blouson as the older M-422A, possibly retained from his previous wartime service and pressed back into action when he returned to active duty.
Constructed from tough pebbled goatskin in dark brown, the M-422A is detailed with a dark mouton fur collar with a throat closure latch, “action back” shoulder pleats and a half-belted back, and knitted cuffs and hem. Button-up flight jackets were already antiquated by the time that the M-422A was developed and standardized, so the jacket closes with a brass Talon zipper reinforced with a half tab behind it. The jacket retains the patch hip pockets found on other flight jackets, mitred in the lower corners and closed with scalloped single-button flaps. Aero Leathers currently makes M422-A jackets based on the original specifications.
LT Brubaker is attached to the real-life Fighter Squadron 192 “Golden Dragons” (now VFA-192) aboard USS Oriskany, both represented by patches on his M422-A flight jacket. Activated in March 1945, VF-192 was indeed deployed in Korea from March to November 1952 (though aboard USS Princeton rather than Oriskany), flying Vought F4U Corsair fighters though some F9F-2 Panthers had filtered through the squadron the previous year.
The USS Oriskany patch, a large yellow-bordered circle that depicts the Essex-class carrier at sea, is worn on his upper right arm. On the right side of his chest, Brubaker wears the distinctive “Golden Dragons” patch. Reproductions of both the Oriskany and the “Golden Dragons” patches are available from Gibson & Barnes.
Each aviator’s issued flight jacket has a russet leather name tag on the left breast, bordered in gold with the gold aviator wings printed above each officer’s name, rank, and branch. In LT Brubaker’s case, his name tag reads:
On his upper left arm, LT Brubaker wears the shield-shaped patch of Carrier Air Group 19, originally commissioned in August 1943 during World War II. As with his other patches, a reproduction of this too is available from Gibson & Barnes.
The rest of LT Brubaker’s uniform that he wears with his flight jacket adheres to the Aviation Winter Working Uniform regulations, casually known as “Aviation Greens”. (You can read more about the history of this U.S. Navy dress code at United States Military Uniforms of World War II, Naval History and Heritage Command, and the U.S. Naval Institute’s Naval History Blog.)
During the early days of naval aviation before World War I, American fliers borrowed items from Marine Corps uniforms and adapted them for more sky-friendly apparel than the blues and whites their Navy brethren wore at sea. Starting in the fall of 1917 with the expansions of the Navy’s air arm, the Marines’ forestry green tunic and trousers were briefly authorized as a winter uniform until 1922 when it was discontinued in favor of all U.S. Navy service members dressed in the same manner, regardless of their roles. The decision was reversed only three years later when the aviation greens were again authorized, this time as a winter working uniform based on the existing khaki summer uniform, remaining in service for nearly a century until the unpopular decision to discontinue aviation greens in the late 2000s.
Brubaker wears the khaki-colored wool shirt authorized as part of the winter service working uniform, detailed with a large point collar, front placket, button cuffs, and two patch pockets on the chest that each close with a single-button flap. Above the left pocket, he wears the gold winged foul anchor badge of a U.S. Naval Aviator.
In the years leading up to World War II, naval aviators increasingly favored their leather flight jackets over the official forestry green uniform coat. However, the officers’ rank insignia were only presented on the coat sleeves and shirt shoulder boards, which would remain covered by flight jackets. So that a wearer’s rank could be easily discerned, the Navy did away with the stiff shirt shoulder boards and authorized shirt collar devices. Brubaker’s rank of lieutenant carries the U.S. pay grade of O-3, consistent with the captain rank in the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps; thus, LT Brubaker’s collar insignia is the same twin silver bars worn to signify those ranks.
LT Brubaker occasionally wears his regulation black necktie, likely made of wool or a synthetic blend, though the fact that he wears his flight jacket rather than the green uniform tunic matching his trousers makes the tie less necessary to complete his working uniform. It may be the same black necktie that Harry also wears with his blue service dress uniform.
LT Brubaker wears a pair of flat front trousers that appear on screen to be a taupe brown but are likely the “forestry green” wool elastique fabric used to construct the popular Aviation Winter Working Uniform described throughout this post. Correctly worn with a khaki web belt, these trousers have belt loops around the waist with double sets of loops in the front. The side pockets are gently slanted, and the left of the two jetted back pockets buttons through a loop tab. The bottoms are plain-hemmed.
While U.S. Navy surface officers had long been wearing black leather shoes, in part to hide the soot that accumulates aboard ship, naval aviators have a long tradition of differentiating themselves with brown shoes. This practice originated during the pre-World War I era as fliers sought footwear less prone to revealing dust picked up from the airfields and was made official on November 13, 1913, when the Navy Bureau officially approved brown shoes with brown high-top leggings as part of the aviation officer’s uniform for the next six decades. As with other popular parts of naval dress over the 20th century, the brown shoes were briefly discontinued only to be revived with considerable fanfare. (You can read more about the naval air arm’s brown shoes at The Brown Shoes Project, an initiative dedicated to telling the stories of American naval aviators across the mid-century era from the Korean War and Vietnam through the latter years of the Cold War.)
LT Brubaker thus wears russet brown leather derbies which appear to have five lace eyelets and a plain toe. He wears tan cotton lisle socks, one of the two prescribed colors with this uniform code alongside a darker brown.
Two different caps were prescribed with the Aviation Winter Working Uniform, a peaked officer’s cap with a forestry green cloth cover and the optional soft garrison cap prescribed for overseas assignments that was authorized for private purchase. Also known as a side cap, flight cap (appropriately enough), or field service cap (in the UK, the folding garrison cap first dressed the heads of American service members when it was issued to Army “doughboys” and Marines fighting in France during World War I. It wasn’t until a quarter-century later, during World War II, that the Navy followed suit, first authorizing the garrison cap for aviators before expanding to all officers and chief petty officers. You can read much more about WWII garrison caps worn by U.S. Navy service members here.
Apropos the rest of his uniform, LT Brubaker wears a garrison cap in forestry green wool elastique. His O-3 silver bars are pinned to the right side of the front, overlapping the “envelope” flap. Officers and chiefs were prescribed to wear service insignia on the left side; for officers, a miniature version of the shield insignia found on the front of the peaked caps and, for chiefs, a smaller version of the gold fouled anchor with “U.S.N.” in silver. Aviators wore a smaller version of the gold wings badge, though Brubaker seems to be wearing the standard officers’ shield insignia despite wearing an “aviation green” cap.
LT Brubaker keeps his jewelry minimal and essential, wearing only a square-cased gold watch on a gold bracelet on his left wrist as well as his gold wedding band.
For his aerial missions, LT Brubaker wears a green nylon flight suit with a yellow Mark 2 survival vest, brown roughout combat boots, black gloves, and brown leather shoulder holster like those issued to Navy flight crews at the time.
The Mark 2 pneumatic life vest is made of rubberized fabric with rubber air bladders and plenty of pouches and pockets. Strapped to the right side of his chest is a CO2 gas canister while the left side is populated with his brown leather knife scabbard, black rubber inflation tube, and black whistle. You can view a yellow Mark 2 life vest similar to Holden’s screen-worn garment at the Air & Space Museum site.
To read more about flight equipment worn by U.S. Naval Aviators during this era, click here.
Also of note…
While not worn by William Holden as LT Brubaker, a natty pair of chocolate brown suede two-eyelet chukka boots appear in The Bridges at Toko-Ri, worn by one of the unnamed seamen who helps secure Brubaker into the cockpit of his Panther before he takes off on his final mission.
“Gun?” asks Commander Wayne Lee, upon realizing that Harry will need to ditch his plane. “I’ve got one…not that I’ve ever used it,” admits Harry. As the Grumman F9F-2 Panther grinds to a crash landing in the Korean countryside, Harry leaps from the smoldering plane with his revolver in hand, evidently pulled from the brown leather shoulder holster issued to U.S. Navy and Marine Corps aviation personnel for just this purpose.
The revolver appears to be a Smith & Wesson “Military & Police”, the .38 Special revolver that would soon be designated the Model 10 when Smith & Wesson began numbering its revolvers later in the 1950s.
In a patriotic show of support, Smith & Wesson redesignated these .38 Hand Ejectors during World War II as the “Victory Model”, and Military & Police revolvers manufactured from 1942 through 1944 had serial numbers that began with a “V” prefix. Aside from a few early examples, the Victory Model was finished in a “sandblasted” matte blue steel with smooth walnut stocks. The Victory Model was otherwise similar to the Military & Police/Model 10 with its traditional double/single action mechanism and six-shot cylinder.
More than half a million Smith & Wesson Victory Models chambered in the British .38/200 caliber were shipped to allies like the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa via the Lend-Lease program, though the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps issued more than 350,000 .38 Special Victory Models to its own air crews as their standard issue sidearms.
At the time, the John Browning-designed M1911 and M1911A1 semi-automatic pistols had been serving as the official service sidearm across all U.S. military branches for decades, and the increasingly antiquated revolvers were gradually phased out. By the time the Beretta M9 pistol was fully integrated during the 1990s, only a few Victory Models remained in service, fielded by the occasional USN security personnel.
After CPO Mike Forney (Mickey Rooney) has his helicopter shot down during an attempt to rescue the trapped Brubaker, he joins Harry in the ditch and arms them each with an M1 Carbine he grabbed from the downed Sikorsky.
“You know how to fire a carbine, sir?” Forney asks. “Just release the safety there and squeeze the trigger, it fires automatically.” Brubaker responds: “I’m a lawyer from Denver, Colorado, Mike. I probably can’t hit a thing.”
Despite Brubaker’s hesitations, Forney is correct that the lightweight M1 carbine would have been relatively simple to use. Following the adoption of the full-length M1 Garand as the U.S. military’s standard service rifle in the 1930s, the need for a lighter carbine arose to equip support troops, sending American arms manufacturers scrambling to compete to develop a weapon before the inevitable war to follow. Winchester emerged as leader of the pack, seeking to integrate the innovative short-stroke gas piston system developed by their latest hire, David Marshall Williams.
A North Carolina bootlegger and convicted killer, Williams had recently completed a prison sentence for the murder of Alfred Jackson Pike, a 63-year-old deputy sheriff who had been part of a raid on one of Williams’ stills. Williams’ mechanical abilities hadn’t gone unnoticed while in stir and, shockingly, the man who would be known as “Carbine” Williams (thanks to a 1952 film of the same name starring Jimmy Stewart) began wiling away his remaining sentence by designing semi-automatic firearms, including four different rifles that he built… while in prison!
Having already impressed Colt Manufacturing Company, Remington Arms, and the U.S. War Department in the decade since his release, Williams was swiftly hired by Winchester on the advice of Major General Julian Hatcher of the U.S. Ordnance Department. The mercurial ex-convict was dismayed at the quick pace at which Winchester worked, but the rifle that would be eventually be designated United States Carbine, Caliber .30, M1 was ready for submission and quickly adopted into service by the fall of 1941, just months before the United States officially entered World War II after the bombing at Pearl Harbor.
The proprietary .30 Carbine round, essentially a rimless .32 Winchester Self-Loading cartridge, was developed specifically for the M1 carbine and was loaded from 15-round box magazines. Less powerful than the M1 Garand’s .30-06 Springfield round but more powerful than the Thompson’s .45 ACP round, the .30 Carbine proved to be an effective intermediate weapon, practical for combat within 100 to 200 yards, though troops specifically engaged in the Pacific theater complained of the weapon’s relatively decreased stopping power.
With more than six million manufactured, the cost-effective M1 carbine was the most produced small arm for the U.S. military during World War II, surpassing the 5.4 million M1 rifles and 1.3 million “Tommy guns” produced. In addition to Winchester, manufacturers ranged from General Motors’ Inland division and IBM to the Underwood typewriter company.
In response to the automatic weapons fielded by enemy troops, particularly the German Sturmgewehr 44 rifle, the U.S. Ordnance Department returned to their original vision for a selective-fire carbine and introduced the new M2 carbine as well as 30-round magazines. The M2 carbine was late to World War II, first issued to American troops in April 1945, but it had generally replaced the submachine gun in U.S. service by the time of the Korean War.
In Korea, the M2 carbine received a lesser reception than its predecessor, with troops reporting that the carbine was prone to jamming in cold weather, hardly accurate at greater than 50 yards, and that the automatic fire was difficult to control. Still, the lightweight weapon with its high-capacity magazine was satisfactory for night patrols, and the M1 and M2 carbines remained in increasingly limited service throughout the Vietnam War.
LT Brubaker’s Flight Jacket Working Uniform
Before there was Maverick, there was Brubaker… though William Holden’s ace Navy pilot in The Bridges at Toko-Ri is a little more by-the-book, sporting the iconic flight jacket per regulations over his khaki shirt, black tie, and “aviation green” trousers.
- Dark brown pebbled goatskin leather M-422A flight jacket with mouton fur collar, zip front, patch hip pockets with scalloped single-button flaps, knit cuffs and hem, and bi-swing “action back” with half-belted back
- Khaki wool service uniform shirt with point collar, front placket, two chest pockets (with single-button flaps), and button cuffs
- O-3 (LT) double silver bar collar devices
- Black wool necktie
- Forestry green winter service working uniform flat front wool elastique trousers with straight/on-seam side pockets, jetted back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Khaki cotton web belt with brass knurled-bar box buckle
- Russet brown leather plain-toe 5-eyelet “low quarter” derby shoes
- Tan cotton lisle socks
- Forestry green wool elastique garrison cap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
Wrong war in the wrong place, and that’s the one you’re stuck with.