As I sit down to write this review, having flicked through the book to refresh my memory of the photos among other things, I am overcome by a slight sense of dread. As usual, it has been some months since I read Race of Aces. Indeed, it was late 2019 and I have been intending to write a review since then, initially to coincide with the book’s launch. Best laid plans and all that. The sense of dread comes from remembering how much is in John Bruning’s latest treatise on the Pacific air war and, to be honest, I don’t think a review begun as soon as I finished the final page would have been any easier. The ‘warm fuzzies’ are returning though. Why? It’s because this book, about the ‘race’ to become the top American ace, has few, if any, equals.
Besides the men featured in this 520-plus page book, one of the heroes of the tale is the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Perhaps more than any other Allied aircraft in the South Pacific, the Lightning is the fighter. Its success here overshadows its escort work in Europe and that’s mostly because it is always associated with the USAAF’s top ace, the man who won the race, Richard Bong. Add Tom Lynch, Gerald Johnson, Charles MacDonald and Tommy McGuire, not to mention a good number of other quality fliers, and the Lightning just about deserves the pedestal it has ascended to in modern times. Yet, it had serious issues early on, killing many a new, and some not quite so new, pilot as they worked up in California in 1942. Its complexities proved challenging in theatre too, not helped by a supply line stretching across the Pacific to Australia. That the pilots achieved what they did, upon finding their feet in New Guinea, speaks of the ingenuity, skill and determination that was common across Allied units during the dark days of late 1942.
The one outlier in the race was Neel Kearby, the hard-charging, redoubtable, freelancing P-47 Thunderbolt pilot determined to show the Lightning boys up. Sadly, like two of his colleagues above, he was killed breaking one of the golden rules of aerial combat, rules these men lived by and were the greatest proponents of. In the case of McGuire, the apparently prickly, aggressive and opinionated pilot who came closest to Bong’s score, the rules were broken to save a colleague. That’s the thing, they were just men. They were not invincible and were far from perfect as both aviators and individuals. Every single one of them, at least once, struggled home in a damaged aircraft, sometimes wounded. They were human, they had flaws. They made mistakes, but, for the most part, they had the skill to get away with it. Heroic men, yes, and they were clearly feted as such, but there is no gushing hero worship here. It’s not needed.
The origins of the race came from the challenge, created by General George Kenney, and inspired by the Great War ace Eddie Rickenbacker, to beat the latter’s tally of 26 victories. The Americans, with the Australians, had a foothold in New Guinea, but the Japanese aerial forces, stretched as they proved to be, were mostly free to raid Allied airfields with relative impunity, American and Australian fighters struggling to meet them on even terms, let alone remain in serviceable condition to do so. The idea of the race was what Kenney needed to inject some motivation, some esprit de corps, into his men. It helped highlight the struggles they faced to the people stateside too. The South Pacific conjured up idyllic images – palm trees, sandy beaches and the like – but the reality, while including those, featured mud, heat, humidity, malaria and rotting clothes as a part of everyday life. It was draining, on men and equipment, and made no easier by a logistical nightmare and supply lines still reeling from the retreat from the Philippines and Java.
This is the world into which the reader is placed immediately from the first page. It’s a taste of what’s to come, while the next few chapters concentrate on setting the scene in the US, as young men, soon to be giants, find their feet in the Army and in life. Ultimately, this world, that the author recreates beautifully, is one stretching from hometown America right across the Pacific to Australia, New Guinea and the Philippines (if New Guinea was hell, what on earth was fetid, putrid Tacloban?). It is a world both familiar and unimaginable. The exquisite snapshot of 1942 San Francisco, a particular literary highlight, is of a modern, vibrant and fashionable city (a stark contrast to the Port Moresby area some of the Lightning men found themselves in six months later), and is but a fond memory several hundred pages later when the author casts his eye over the same city after two years of war.
Those years of war, and beyond, in which we follow the fighter units and the grinding Allied advance, see supply issues slowly improve, living conditions slowly improve, and fighter pilots rise and fall. Journalists, ably assisted by Kenney and his staff, scramble to report on the latest victories, introducing men to the American public who quickly became household names, so much so that even events in their private lives become front page news. The reader, too, is equally invested because, as hinted above, their heroics are but the tip of the iceberg. Having followed the author's travelogue on social media as he visited archives across the country, it was clear, even then, he was going far deeper than just recording the combat careers of America’s greatest fighter pilots, far deeper than anyone before. While these men have been a decades’ long fascination for John Bruning (a partial outlet being his early 2000s Jungle Ace biography of Gerald Johnson), there was still much to discover, to learn, in order to bring these flyers back to life. This shows early on with a stunningly candid look at McGuire’s time in Alaska. You know who he is, what he will do, but he is hard to like. Similarly, Bong’s struggle to move on from losing wingmen, resulting in the quiet country boy withdrawing further into himself to the point he is completely misunderstood by many of his squadron-mates, is as painful and heart-wrenching as his love for Marge is joyous to behold. We can’t ever truly know these men now, but, such is the power of this book, you feel like you do.
The women, and families to a lesser extent, in the lives of the pilots figure strongly and it is pleasing to see three of them feature in the glossy photo section (that, I suspect, is probably about 10% of what was available). Indeed, the very last image used, when read with its caption, is once again moving. Too many widows.
The race, while initially a morale booster, became so much more. It pushed pilots to improve their skills, to fly extra missions and, with an eye on the score, to take risks beyond their normal operational duty into the realm of individual glory. Rickenbacker’s score was ultimately irrelevant and the race, somewhat fuelled by the interest from home, for some men at least, consumed them. These American airmen were not the only game in town, however. The Royal Australian Air Force, while not in the race per se, was competition when it came to finding enemy aircraft to destroy. There is a brief tip of the hat to them in that respect, but no mention of their involvement in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. The focus, for that particular event, is on the American fighter contribution, so that’s understandable and also brings us to the elephant in the room – the Japanese. Extensive access to Japanese records in recent years has revealed the true extent of their losses, proving both sides habitually overclaimed their aerial victories. While it is very likely a study of Japanese records would reveal, and perhaps has, a discrepancy in losses inflicted by the leaders of the race, such details are irrelevant to the race itself. The race was to be the first to 26 kills. Were the Americans checking the Japanese records to verify such things? Of course not! Claims were made in good faith, with eyewitness proof where possible. It is the effect of the race on these men, and their effect on morale in their units and stateside, that is the story here.
It is a story told in such a way that a stream of superlatives barely wouldn’t come close to expressing its qualities. I’ve tried to get that point across above without detailing a calendar of events and a blow-by-blow account as players appear on, and then exit, the main stage. To do so would mean an even longer review and, let’s face it, these things are long enough. There is so much in Race of Aces and all of it is good. No, exceptional. The narrative is beautifully crafted and was clearly considerably longer (oh, to get to grips with that!). You’d expect relative flat spots in such a long, detailed book, but there are none and that makes it an absolute tragedy when it has to be put down to get on with real life. I would not be surprised if some readers devoured this in one sitting. A masterful work, one of the greatest, befitting the remarkable men, and women, living between its covers.