19 April 2020

Race of Aces - John R. Bruning

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.

ISBN 978-0-316-50862-9

18 April 2020

A Spy in the Sky - Kenneth B. Johnson

As I’ve often lamented on here, and ABR’s Facebook group, a new memoir is quite special these days. It’s got to the stage that it really would be worth re-visiting, en masse, older memoirs to breathe new life into them (see Carrier Pilot, for example). With A Spy in the Sky we have a new memoir and, especially, it’s by a former photographic reconnaissance pilot. Certainly not something you see every day and, dare I say it, maybe the last one we will see. That perhaps makes it more valuable than if it was published, say, a decade ago. It also means more care and attention needs to be paid to putting the whole thing together. 

The author enlisted in early 1941. Straight off the bat, he gets the point across he is from an average background and expecting to see out the war sweeping hangars. He is surprised, therefore, to enter the aircrew training pipeline. In turn, he decides he can’t possibly be trained as a pilot, but is perplexed, yet grateful, when that’s what happens. Despite his constant amazement and apparent belief he is not capable of much more than manning a broom, he proves quite the aviator, extricating himself from tricky situations in the air many new pilots find themselves in and applying his growing knowledge and intuition to overcome obstacles, such as poor depth perception affecting his landings. Naturally, there is no mention of being ‘a good pilot’, but the detailed explanations of various exercises and, well, adventures in the air, leave the reader with a clear opinion.

Moving from Tiger Moths, to Miles Masters, and then to the Hurricane, the path he's on is clear. Despite being mystified about attending a general reconnaissance course (a brief, rare account of flying Blackburn Bothas), those familiar with the way these things go can see his path to a PRU, or perhaps even an Army Co-op unit. Operational Training Unit soon beckons and throws up more challenges, among them the vagaries of Scottish weather, the author handles with his usual aplomb and logic. Naturally, he ends up at RAF Benson, PRU central, and begins flying ops over France and Belgium. Several fighter interceptions aside, luck remains on his side and his growing operational experience soon extends to Germany.

Despite not putting his hand up to serve overseas, feeling he had been trained for the operational conditions specific to north-west Europe, again not seeing himself as anything more than run-of the-mill (a run-of-the-mill PRU pilot, no less!), Kenneth is recalled from leave to test two Spitfires. They’re both Mk.XIs, an aircraft the author amusingly refers to as taxiing like they’re down in the mouth (if you’re familiar with the nose profile of the Mk.XI, you’ll chuckle too!), and both are destined for Africa. As a result, so is Kenneth. Still being a non-commissioned officer, but having completed his application for a commission, contributes to his general feeling of being of less value to the RAF as a whole, hence, apparently, why he is being sent out of the way. While that doesn’t make sense when applied to the flying officer in the other Spitfire, this belief rears its head en route to Gibraltar when said officer doesn’t appear to heed Kenneth’s advice, several times, until it’s almost too late. The end result was two Spitfires at Gib’, but only one fully serviceable. That Spitfire disappears the next morning, with the flying officer at the controls, and Kenneth hitches a lift to Maison Blanche, Algiers. He joins 682 Squadron under the umbrella of the Americans and the North West Africa Photographic Reconnaissance Wing. Here he discovers a different world. The Americans are more relaxed, but so are his fellow RAF types, and it is all very refreshing. The aircraft, however, have had harder lives and his first op, while completed easily, proves worthless due to camera failure. The communal mess, that common equaliser pioneered by the Desert Air Force, appeals to Kenneth and his desire to feel worthy. His commission eventually catches up to him, but the conditions and operational activity combine to wear the nineteen-year-old down to the point where he is actually quite ill, including passing out at the controls at one stage, while still flying ops. The gremlins never really leave either with some decidedly ropey aircraft doing their best to do him in. Each time, however, the clearly talented aviator, evades the odds against him and always makes it home (or at least back to a safe landing).

Life in North Africa continues, but is interrupted by a brief return to the UK to defend against accusations caused by an administrative error with his pay and bak account. Kenneth returns to Africa, but is soon sent home and spends until late 1944 instructing at an OTU and flying with 519 Squadron (a meteorological unit flying Lockheed twins at the time). He continued flying post-war, Catalinas in Canada on geophysical work, and developed a successful career in the aerospace industry (it would have been great to get several chapters covering this part of his life). So much for not measuring up!

This is a funny little book. The author breaks ‘the fourth wall’ a number of times, by asking the reader a question, and the narrative occasionally feels as though it’s directed towards a younger readership. It is, however, an enjoyable ramble through his wartime career. ‘Ramble’ is key here as, although his service is largely presented chronologically, there is little reference to the passage of time. Indeed, after the date of enlistment is mentioned, on the first page of the first chapter, I didn’t make note of another date until page 142. Excluding the first two ops from Benson, all of the photo sorties were carried out in 1943. Based on various events mentioned, indeed even the targets being photographed, a reader 'in the know' could hazard a decent guess at a rough timeline. A very helpful prologue (weirdly placed at the end) and appendix detail the sorties flown and service timeline respectively (the only mention of 519 Squadron is in the latter) and, if they're not read with the narrative, suddenly put everything into context and in fact reveal Kenneth was in North Africa for ‘only’ four months. It certainly feels longer.

Just like the book, Kenneth is a quite the funny character. As mentioned, he is quite the flyer. He is confident, accomplished even, in flight, but doubts himself everywhere else, and does so ad nauseum. It gets to the stage when you expect him to mention, yet again (and does), that he only joined the RAF to escape the shooting war as he expected to spend it sweeping out hangars. While certainly not a unique appreciation of one’s abilities, but eminently endearing to the point the reader revels in his obvious skill in the air (and occasional ‘wins’ on the ground), there's a recurring feeling of ‘Okay, I get it, you’re self-doubt is bottomless, but you just landed a Spitfire, without brakes, at night.’ Perhaps this is what helped him survive. There was never an inkling of over-confidence, never an attitude of superiority, but a definite trust in the training he received (despite regular doubts as to the logic employed by the RAF). However, this is where the narrative should have been tightened. Repetition appears within long, rambling sentences as well and another technical edit would have picked up basic things like ‘UFO shows’ (USO), confusion over Miles Master configurations and marks, and certainly improved consistency. This refining of the narrative would not have lost Kenneth’s voice, but it would have removed the reader's twinge of frustration that mostly lingers before the posting to North Africa. 

A typically attractive hardback from Pen & Sword, albeit not a huge one as the final entries of a good index appear on page 158, the requisite glossy photo section is a bit of a let-down. These fifteen photos are referred to as the narrative progresses, hence their titles ‘Plate 1’, ‘Plate 2’ etc, and the four images featuring personnel, and two of Kenneth’s PR targets, are of a good standard and interest. The aircraft photos, though, leave a lot to be desired. Three are modern images, and clearly low resolution, while another two have been colourised, almost comically so. Recent titles from Pen & Sword, although this is from their imprint Air World, have been exceptionally well-illustrated and, significantly, have done away with the glossy photo section to embed images within the narrative. All of the photos used, because they are referred to in the text, would have greatly enhanced the read if they were embedded.

At the end of it all, what this book does best of all is define Kenneth’s character and, to an extent, highlight the attitude of thousands of aircrew at the time. They knew they were a small cog in a behemoth of a machine and there was nothing they could do about it. They all accepted their fate and the vast majority, like Kenneth, were just happy to survive. So many didn’t. The ‘one man in the great scheme of things’ has perhaps never been more strongly, repeatedly, enforced as it is in A Spy in the Sky. That in turn reflects the work of the photographic reconnaissance pilot: alone in an unfriendly sky. While it will remain a funny little book, it will always be the memoir of an unassuming, self-doubting aviator who, despite himself, proved to be pretty bloody good.

ISBN 978-1-52676-156-9