But things do not turn out as expected. Mission after mission proves fruitless, and Connell finds his ability and his stomach for combat questioned by his fellow airmen: the brash wing commander, Imil; Captain Robey, an ace whose record is suspect; and finally, Lieutenant Pell, a cocky young pilot with an uncanny amount of skill and luck.
Disappointment and fear gradually erode Connell's faith in himself, and his dream of making ace seems to slip out of reach. Then suddenly, one dramatic mission above the Yalu River reveals the depth of his courage and honor.
Originally published in 1956, The Hunters was James Salter's first novel. Based on his own experiences as a fighter pilot in the Korean War, it is a classic of wartime fiction. Now revised by the author and back in print on the sixty-fifth anniversary of the Air Force, the story of Cleve Connell's war flies straight into the heart of men's rivalries and fears.
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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.
He would sometimes recall, as if it had happened to another person, the compulsion to press close to death, to feel the purity that followed. He had always been respectful of the inner conquests of men and the rarefied, ascetic world they occurred in. He had traveled that world for a while, accomplishing he was not sure what, unless it was that he had learned a little of silence and perhaps devotion.
Friends on the outside were always asking why he stayed in, or telling him he was wasting himself. He had never been able to give an answer. With the fresh shirt on his shoulders still cold as ice, chilled from an hour in an unheated radar compartment at forty thousand feet between Long Beach and Albuquerque, the marks from the oxygen mask still on his face, and on his hands the microscopic grit of a thousand-mile journey, he had tried to find an answer sitting alone at dinner in the club filled with administrative majors and mothers talking about their children, but he never could. In his mind he carried Saturdays of flying, with the autumnal roar of crowds on the radio compass and the important stadiums thirty minutes apart and button-small, the wingmen like metallic arrows poised in the air above a continent, the last sunlight slanting through the ground haze, and cities of concrete moss; but never any reasonable reply. Or, sick of the stars and bored with speed on those nights in the great black sea, the surf of which was cities bubbling on the wave, listening to the others who were up, two unseen killers perhaps, calling themselves Butcher Red and seeking themselves in the darkness, he had tried to think of one — brief, understandable — but never could. It was all a secret life, lived alone.
One thing he was sure of: this was the end for him. He had known it before he came. He was thirty-one, not too old, certainly; but it would not be long. His eyes weren't good enough any more. With an athlete, the legs failed first. With a fighter pilot, it was the eyes. The hand was still steady and judgment good long after a man lost the ability to pick out aircraft at the extreme ranges. Other things could help to make up for it, and other eyes could help him look, but in the end it was too much of a handicap. He had reached the point, too, where a sense of lost time weighed on him. There was a constant counting of tomorrows he had once been so prodigal with. And he found himself thinking too much of unfortunate things. He was frequently conscious of not wanting to die. That was not the same as wanting to live. It was a black disease, a fixation that could ultimately corrode the soul.
He walked past some tennis courts with ice shining in patches on them and ivy like old string clinging to the fences, then came to the entrance of the club. It was warm inside. He looked about for a minute, feeling lost in the crowded room. Somebody against the far wall was beckoning to him. It was the lean man, eating dinner at one of the tables. Cleve sat down beside him.
"Have you eaten yet?" the lean man asked.
"It's a good meal tonight. Pork chops."
Cleve glanced at the menu and flipped it aside.
"Don't you like pork chops?"
"This waiting around is getting on my nerves."
"It can do that. I don't take you to be too high-strung, though."
"I'll be that way before long."
"How many days have you been here?"
"I've been here three weeks," the lean man said. "Three weeks and three days, if you want to count it out."
"Three weeks?" Cleve was astonished. "My God, I hope you're an exception."
"There wasn't much I could do about it. I came down with some kind of virus just after I got here, caught it in San Francisco I expect, because I was sick enough on the trip across. They put me right in the hospital. I just got out a few days ago. I'm due to see the doctor again tomorrow morning; and if he thinks I'm all right, he'll clear me to get my orders to go on to Korea."
While Cleve ate, the lean man talked in his tart, unruffled manner, mostly about his experiences in the hospital. He had been given a fresh pair of pajamas every three days, he said, and after a while he began to develop a real interest in whether or not he would be able to complete his convalescence before he received any with a single button on them.
"How long are most people here?" Cleve asked.
"Oh, usually two or three days. Once in a while they're here longer. One fellow I heard of has been here over a month, but he's in Tokyo somewhere. They're still looking for him."
"He'd better hurry back or the war will be over."
"There's not much point in his hurrying now. He might as well take his time. He can't get in any worse trouble."
"I wouldn't think so."
"Some fool fighter pilot."
"Naturally, with that kind of independence."
The lean captain smiled.
"I guess I know what you fly" he said. "I was sort of hoping not. We might have ended up in the same outfit together."
"Not this war, I'm afraid," Cleve said.
"It was the same in the last one. You were in that, weren't you?"
"No? Well, wrong again. I'd have thought you were. A war is a war, anyway. I don't expect that there's much about them ever changes. I didn't really want to come to this one, but you know how it is. All the complaining. All the mothers and their innocent sons. It makes you go in spite of yourself."
The lean man went on talking. He seemed not so much soldier as wanderer, moving lightly through life with a sharp eye and a subdued sense of time. It was hard to tell about men like that, but Cleve could not help liking him.
They sat and smoked after the table was cleared and then, wordlessly agreeing, went into the bar. The crowd had preceded them. Slot machines rang with a continuous sound, and an uneven level of laughter and conversation supported some music being played at the far end of the floor where an orchestra was situated on a small stage. Japanese waitresses moved past in their neat uniforms, carrying trays of drinks. They were stocky girls, but graceful, with round scrubbed faces. A few were good-looking, and there was one who was exceptional, slender and well-formed. Her face had a rare calm quality. There was no way not to notice her.
"Not bad, is she, but she'd go hungry in Tokyo."
"What?" Cleve said.
"They have some mean competition there."
"I suppose so."
The orchestra was playing a medley of American musical comedy numbers. A few couples moved dutifully about the dance floor, as isolated as sails on a sea. The women were occidentals, all of them plain. One was buttoned in a prim blue uniform with a white patch of some sort on her shoulder and an overseas-type cap on her head. She appeared to be forty ormore and was dancing with a solemn lieutenant. A third person could, with some difficulty, have passed between them.
There was a wave of cold air from the door being opened. Cleve looked up. A group of five officers had come in and were standing near the entrance, surveying the club. They were all second lieutenants, and it was obvious that they had arrived only recently, that night perhaps. The assurance was missing. They stood close together, relying upon each other. After a few moments they chose a table and sat down nearby. Cleve watched with no real interest as they discussed what they wanted to drink and summoned a waitress.
They were all identical, like the staff surrounding the emperor on a grand nineteenth-century canvas. There was just one who was misplaced. He was paler than the rest. He stood out like a strip of lemonwood in cedar and somehow seemed, comfortably, to be conscious of the distinction. The girl who came to serve them was the one Cleve had noticed. She stood obediently waiting. The pale lieutenant watched her coolly as he gave the order. She wrote it down and then slipped off. He whistled admiringly.
"How about that?" he said. "How would you like to get into that?"
"I bet she'd do it for a pack of cigarettes, too."
"And you'd help her smoke them, eh, Doctor?
Cleve heard the rest when she returned with the tray of drinks. He was not watching any longer, but there was the sound of the glasses being placed softly on the table.
"What's your name?"
"Well, that's a new one anyway."
She did not answer.
"Don't you have another name, an American one?"
"How about Rita? That's a good name."
She was silent.
"How old are you?"
"Old enough, I'd say. What time do you finish work here, Rita?"
The lean man cleared his throat at this and turned toward the group.
"Say, friend," he said clearly, "lay off, why don't you?"
The lieutenant stared back through the dimness with bland eyes.
"What did you say?" he asked politely. The girl hurried away.
"I said that she'd lose her job if she went out with you. You wouldn't want that to happen to her, would you?"
"Are you the club officer or something?"
"I see. Just being helpful."
"That's right. She's not allowed to go out with any of the officers. It's a club rule. I thought you might not know about it."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Hunters"
Copyright © 1997 James Salter.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
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