Race of Aces by John R. Bruning

This book is really a fascinating look at the competition among the top pilots of the 5th Air Force.

I would guess most visitors to this site know that the top two American Aces of World War II came from this otherwise under-reported force.  Maybe we all even know a little more; like Richard Bong, the American Ace of Aces with 40 kills, was a shy farm kid from Wisconsin.  His chief rival, Thomas McGuire (38 kills) was notoriously cocky and abrasive.  Many of us have seen the ace lists, and maybe even know some of the other challengers to the title.
When I first became interested in World War II I read a couple books on General Kenny and his 5th Air Force.  Many years later, I started reading more serious minded books and came to realize what a liar and braggart General Kenny was, I became much less interested in his forces.  But this book proved to be a good excuse to take another look.

I’ll start by saying this new book is exciting and well written, largely from a pilot’s eye perspective.  Its a grown up version of the books I first loved as a kid.  It also offers a modern perspective on things and first rate research for blow by blow accuracy.  Sort of like, if John Lundstrom was writing a movie treatment.
General Kenny is sort of the over-arching main character, and we get a good look at some his specific challenges (working at the end of a long supply chain, in a theater the Army Air Force was officially not very interested in, and under the shadow of Douglass MacArthur).  When he was given the command at the end of 1942 everything was worn out, living conditions were horrible, and morale was rock bottom.  So he set out to comprehensively re-build the force, with very limited prospects.  But one of his advantages was coming from tactical aviation.  Even if that was NOT an advantage to his career, it did mean he operated in different circles than much of the top leadership.  In particular, he knew fighter pilots and aircraft.  He was able to get some P-38s, and some pilots with experience in them.
Then he contacted Eddie Rickenbacker.  That was the American Ace of Aces from World War I with 26 kills.  He arranged for him to visit his command and make a morale boosting tour of the forward bases.  Rickenbacker’s visit could be a book in its own right, including surviving a B-17 crash and being lost at sea for 22 days and surviving on a diet of seagulls and rainwater.  That was before the morale tour started.  Eddie Rickenbacker was a master story teller, and interacted with ground crews and pilots alike.  At this point, Marine ace Joe Foss had tied Rickenbacker’s record, but the best pilot in the 5th was Buzz Wagner with 8.  And Buzz had already rotated home.  General Kenny threw out the challenge that the first pilot to break Rickenbacker’s record would win a case of Scotch.  Not to be outdone, Rickenbacker doubled the offer.  And the race was on.

Due to limited supplies of P-38s, the race ultimately settled on three squadrons in different groups that did get the type.  Later, in a visit to the US, Kenny was able to out-politic the Air Force brass and get FDR to agree to sending another new Fighter Group with a modern type to his forces.  But, perhaps to spite him, General Arnold decided not to send another P-38 group but rather a P-47 group (the 348th Fighter Group).
Add to that, one more P-38 Group Kenny was able to piece together from replacements (the 475th Fighter Group).  Through 1943 and until late in 1944 that was the entirety of the 5th Air Forces “modern” fighter force (excluding P-39s, P-40s and Australian types).
Equipment and supplies got so bad at times that the three independent P-38 squadrons had to convert to P-40s or P-47s on occasion. Only the 475th was always a P-38 force.

So against this backdrop was launched an epic contest.  And that is the fun of this book.  Its an exciting look at a number of pilots, mostly the names are familiar; but here the personalities, their situation and their deeds are fully fleshed out.  Not just Bong and McGuire, but Tommy Lynch, Neel Kearby, Gerald Johnson, Charles MacDonald and Charles Lindberg all play a part.
A few stray thoughts, the author clearly thinks most highly of Lynch, Johnson and MacDonald.  All come across as great pilots and leaders.  McGuire, Kearby and Lynch all lost their lives as they abandoned their own basic combat principles in the hubbub involving the ace race.
The author does not think highly of Charles Lindberg!  He really has some harsh comments about the harmful role the “killing tourist” played in his time with the 475th Fighter Group.
Charles MacDonald was the only one of the top aces and leaders to survive the War, and his career was basically ruined by letting Lindberg fly combat missions with his group.  Just an amazing cost for this PR race was payed by the top pilots of the 5th Air Force.
The contrast between Bong and McGuire is interesting, and not what I expected.  Bong was beyond shy, he wanted no command or leadership responsibilities at all and often functioned as a hired gun.  He’d drop in for the shooting, then disappear elsewhere.  Kenny enabled this by assigning him to “5th Fighter Command” with no squadron or group commitments.  McGuire prided himself in being a leader.  In spite of the fact no one seemed to like him much (!), he wrote a tactical manual, trained his pilots and led a squadron for a significant period.  He had pretty much just rotated into a position like Bong’s when he was killed in action.
Bong and Johnson were both killed in flying accidents outside of combat, which emphasizes the danger of service, and flying in general at this time.

And wow, I wrote a lot more here than I expected to!  Fun book, painful at times.

I expect I’ll have a completed Zero up next, probably early next week.

~ Dave  

About atcDave

I'm 5o-something years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I was an air traffic controller for 33 years and recently retired; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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13 Responses to Race of Aces by John R. Bruning

  1. Jeff Groves says:

    Nice review Dave, I’ll have to pick this one up!

  2. Ernie Davis says:

    Rickenbacker was indeed an interesting character with a storied life. I did a report on him back in high school so I’m familiar with his story. In WWI the British suspected him of being a spy because of a story that he was the bastard son of a Prussian nobleman (a story to enhance his colorful image as a race car driver, the origins of which remain murky). In WWII, after his Pacific tour he toured the Soviet Union, basically as an unofficial spy for the US, but still managed to gain unprecedented access to many Soviet officials and facilities. He was so successful he met with Churchill after his “tour”. His relationship with FDR was more rocky (initially over some new deal policies that nationalized Air Mail contracts with the less experienced Army Air Corps pilots taking over, leading to numerous deaths that he blamed on FDR) so he never met with the president. He was also slightly tainted by his brief association with the same “America First” movement that so harmed Lindbergh, but his whole hearted support of Britain in the Battle of Britain saved his reputation form the worst of it.

    His going missing at sea for 22 days was actually the second time the press declared him dead.

    Sorry to hijack the discussion, but Rickenbacker is a fascinating character in the history of both military and civilian aviation, often overlooked among his contemporaries.

    • atcDave says:

      That’s awesome! I didn’t know any of that. Well, I knew he’d been a race car driver; but not how it affected him later. That’s too funny.
      Apart from sort of launching the ace race he wasn’t discussed much in this book. But I did like the image of him capturing an audience everywhere he went. Of course everyone in aviation at this time surely knew his name and deeds. It would be an encounter with a childhood hero for most of them.
      Much like Lindberg, but Lindberg comes across far more unsavory, selfish.

    • Ernie Davis says:

      In the immediate aftermath of the war he was a huge celebrity, getting offers for movies and books and all the rest. He did have two ghost-written autobiographies (one around this period for a very lucrative advance and a more reflective one later in life).

      His star started to fade a bit when his car company failed and he was a defense witness in the Mitchel court martial. He also bought and greatly improved an obscure little track called the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, right around the time some guy named Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic Ocean. But yes, while his public star had faded a bit he was still a star in both the aviation and auto worlds well into WWII.

      • atcDave says:

        Being a defense witness in the Mitchel trial would further enhance his esteem in aviation circles too. And of course, all the top Air Force brass in the War were Mitchel disciples.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        Certainly true in the long run. Mitchel was vindicated and his acolytes basically invented strategic and tactical air warfare. At the time though it was a quick way to get on the wrong side of some powerful people.

  3. Pierre Lagacé says:

    Got no notification from WordPress Dave!

  4. Pierre Lagacé says:

    I miss also Amateur Airplanes who stop posting in 2018.

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