“Race of Aces”: A Review by Craig Martin

“Race of Aces”: A Review by Craig Martin

John R Bruning’s Race of Aces is a fast-paced, exposé of the contest to become America’s top fighter ace. The result of over 30 years of research using a variety of primary and secondary sources including combat reports, unit and individual diaries and extensive interviews with survivors. The book is set in the Southwest Pacific Theatre of Operations (SWPA) following the fortunes of the pilots of the Fifth Air Force based initially in New Guinea. The dreadful conditions the pilots and their ground staff had to endure in New Guinea are evoked. They were not only fighting the Japanese but the high humidity, heat of the tropical climate and hazardous wildlife.

American forces had been driven from the Philippines and were fighting for survival in New Guinea. The Japanese were in the ascendant with vastly more experienced pilots and better and more numerous aircraft. The Fifth Air Force commander General George Kenney needed a morale-boosting idea to incentivise his crews.  It came from Eric Rickenbacker, America’s leading fighter ace of WWI, whose idea it was to offer a case of bourbon for the first pilot to beat his score of 26 enemy aircraft destroyed. The book follows the story of how the pilot’s attempts to better his score would, over time, become almost as fierce a struggle as that against the Japanese. Bruning intricately follows the development of the race and the unexpected effects it had on the pilots, their colleagues and families.

General Kenney knew the SWPA was a low priority theatre of operations at the end of a long and tenuous supply line. Bruning book shows how he used the power of the press and the resulting public interest in his pilots to try and obtain more pilots and planes. In 1942 with the Japanese threatening to push the Americans out of New Guinea General Kenney knew he and the Fifth Air Force needed two things to win the air war in the SWPA more pilots and a better fighter aircraft. The latter was the Twin engined Lockheed P-38 Lightning and the author gives an excellent overview of this aircraft, comparing it to both the then-current American and Japanese fighter planes. The P-38 was a fast hard-hitting aircraft and he needed the right pilots to fly it. 

The core of the book is the human interest story revolving around General Kenney’s requirements for more pilots and their experiences in combat. The new pilots would ultimately compete for the honour of being ‘Ace of Ace’s’. Bruning explains how in WWII only 5% of fighter pilots became aces – that is they destroyed more than 5 enemy aircraft. However, these aces accounted for nearly 50% of all enemy aircraft claimed in air-to-air combat. This implies that a heavy burden of responsibility and duty fell on those few men. This was particularly true of the SWPA because of its lower priority compared to the European Theatre of Operations (ETO). General Kenney was forced to keep pilots and planes active for longer than normal. In practice this meant the pilots had to keep flying when they should have been granted leave, increasing combat fatigue and as the narrative shows causing additional stress that led to errors through their impaired judgement. It also meant that because of a lack of new aircraft and spare parts the ground crews had to cannibalise damaged aircraft to keep a few aircraft flying. This, in turn, resulted in the best pilots taking an ever-increasing share of combat flying.

Bruning’s book is at its best as it describes the intense combat between the American and Japanese pilots. The pace and terror of combat are conveyed in a straight forward and clear manner. The need for the American pilots to maintain speed and height for ‘slash and dash’ attacks and not engage in following and manoeuvring with their lighter and more nimble enemy is explained. The other golden rule of fighter combat was to look after your wingman, they would protect you whilst you engaged the enemy and vice versa. The problems and losses that came from not following these simple rules are demonstrated frequently in the combat narrative.

Bruning’s book follows the trials and tribulations of such pilots as Richard Bong, Tommy McGuire, Neel Kearby, Charles MacDonald and Gerald Johnson. They fell into two categories Richard Bong, Tommy McGuire and Gerald Johnson were new recruits whilst Neel Kearby and Charles MacDonald were experienced pilots from the pre-war Army Air Corps.

The eventual winner of the race and title of America’s top fighter ace of WWII was Richard Bong. Bruning follows this shy and naïve young pilot from his humble rural background to national hero. Bong was supposed to have been posted to the ETO  but minor misdemeanours resulted instead in his posting to the SWPA. He explains how these probably saved his life, his former colleagues suffered terribly against the Germans, whilst he had time to improve his understand of the P-38 flying characteristics before his eventual posting to the SWPA. This, combined with an instinctive hunter’s knack of sizing up his opponents quickly led to him gaining ace status. However, it also came with a poor reputation of putting himself first. Bruning relates how three of his wingmen were lost during his first combat tour, many of his colleagues blaming him for their deaths. He explains how Bong’s habit of internalising these and other loses inflicted on his unit caused deep resentment amongst them. Thanks to the publicity he received  Bong was eventual set home to recover from his combat fatigue and was involved in morale-boosting public relations duties. His second tour would see him beat Rickenbacker’s total but again Bruning relates how his determination to win the race would further alienate him from his fellow pilots. He details a mission led by Tommy McGuire involving four aircraft during which Bong sighted some Japanese aircraft and without informing the others he dived down to attack them. He would shoot down two but this breaking of formation and flying discipline should have seen him grounded. Instead, no sanctions were taken against by order of higher authorities. After reaching his eventual total of 40 Japanese aircraft destroyed he was awarded America’s top military honour the Medal of Honor and sent home for good. In February 1945 he married, his fame being so great they had to shut the doors to prevent the public from crashing it. He was again involved in more public relations work and became a test pilot. Bong was killed whilst testing a new jet aircraft and as Bruning shows his public profile meant it was immediately covered by the radio before his wife could be informed. Indeed his death made the front pages of most newspapers in America eclipsing in some the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Bruning contrasts Richard Bong with the experiences of Tommy McGuire the man who would finish second in the race of aces. McGuire was a brasher and more acerbic personal character but was arguably a better pilot and certainly the better leader. The book follows McGuire and his knack for getting into trouble with his acid tongue and manner of looking down on others alienating his fellow pilots. Yet it also relates how he became a better leader of his fellow pilots than Bong ever was. McGuire had an excellent reputation of husbanding new pilots and looking out for others. He frequently features in Bruning’s narrative diving down to help bomber or fighter pilots set upon by multiple Japanese fighters getting in between them to save the plane and its crew. The book also explains how Bong was favoured over him because Bong better fitted the propaganda image of the ideal American war hero.  This would even see McGuire grounded to prevent him from overtaking Bong’s score and later contributed in part to his death in combat trying to beat it.

The third new recruit featured in the book was Gerald Johnson following through training and combat to be a friend to both Bong and McGuire. It shows him as a different character to both, indeed he combined the virtues of both with few of the vices of either. Johnson was another who excelled as a leader and is shown to have the foresight to ultimately pull back from the race refusing to let it cloud his professional and personal judgement. He would tragically die when he gave up his parachute to save the life of a passenger on a military transport flight to Japan

Bruning features the story of two more mature pre-war Army Air Corps aviators who challenged the others for the title ‘Ace of Aces’. Neel Kearby was unusual in that he flew the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, this aircraft was a thoroughbred single-engine fighter which lacked the range of the P-38. The narrative relates how Kearby was determined to win the race and developed tactics to get the best out of his aircraft, winning America’s highest bravery award for a mission in which he destroyed six Japanese aircraft. This led to his being assigned to headquarters and mostly administrative duties but Kirby kept flying ‘off the books’ combat missions and it was during one of these he was shot down and killed.  Charles MacDonald was another pre-war Army Air Corps pilot and ultimately the only one to survive WWII. The book again contrasts and compares McDonald not only with the newer wartime pilots but pointedly with Neel Kearby. A quiet and more reserved character than Kearby he became a good leader and excellent fighter pilot who would not put the race before his duties. MacDonald ended the war as the third-highest rank Army Air Force Fighter Ace and had a successful post-war military career.

Bruning’s book features an interesting two chapters that feature America’s greatest pre-war aviator Charles Lindbergh. Due to his pre-war attitude towards Germany being pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic and non-interventionist Lindbergh remained a civilian. His views had brought him into conflict with president Franklin Roosevelt. Having surrendered his commission in the Army Air Force the president would not allow him to rejoin. The narrative relates how he came to be in the SWPA seeking knowledge of the war and the chance to fly combat missions. Lindbergh ingratiated himself with pilots of the Fifth Air Force whilst secretly writing in his diaries his distaste for what they had to say, this would much later cause controversy when published decades later. The contrast between the suave cultured Lindbergh who wanted for nothing and who never faced privations of actual combat and the hard-bitten combat fatigue pilots faced is exposed. Bruning here highlights the gap that invariably exists between those that fight and those that do not. Lindbergh is seen to take moral umbrage at his fellow American’s and what he thought was their total disregard for their opponents. He never questioned the way that the Japanese conducted themselves. In this, he failed to understand the basic truths of front line combat and particularly against an opponent like the Japanese. Lindbergh is shown to impose on his country for what was essential battlefield tourism even though the army warned that not all areas were safe. Then there was his desire to gain real combat experience against the Japanese an experience that had nearly fatal consequences for him. Taken on patrol he was bounced by Japanese fighters and in the ensuing confusion not only was he nearly shot down but he nearly shot at his own wingman. When higher authorities found out what had happen his flying activities were curtailed with Tommy McGuire ensuring he was well protected whilst flying on safe ‘milk run’ missions. Bruning questions the legality when on one such mission he shot down an enemy aircraft as a civilian given Lindbergh’s comments about his fellow American’s attitude to combat.

Bruning’s book shows how public adulation derived from their success at times intruded into their private lives and placed additional pressures on their families. It finishes with a summary terrible effects the race had on the various families, the Kearby family who lost their second and last son to the war; the tragedies of  Neel Kirby’s three sons in air crashes of. The widowing of young wives, several of whom made bad second marriages and the enduring pain from the loss of family and friends.

In summary, Bruning excels in exposing the unintended consequences of a morale-boosting idea, it shows how humans, under extreme pressure, can and do make poor judgements. The race drove these men to surpass not only Rickenbacker but each other, which at times brought out the best and the worst in their characters. Fighting as they were, not only a fanatical and ruthless opponent under taxing conditions but also themselves in their drive to be the ‘Ace of Aces’.

Economic historian and numismatic consultant

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