When Lightning Strikes: Race of Aces
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Thread: When Lightning Strikes: Race of Aces

  1. #1
    Tiller of Soil MaskRider's Avatar
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    When Lightning Strikes: Race of Aces

    Pretty good article from last weekend's WSJ

    When Lightning Strikes: Race of Aces
    By John R. Bruning Hachette, 522 pages

    Wall Street Journal, Saturday, 01/11/2020, Books
    BY WINSTON GROOM

    The race to become America’s highest-scoring fighter pilotwas sparked by a new-model plane and a case of Scotch.




    IN 1942, the conditions under which the war was being fought by Gen. Douglas Mac Arthur’s forces in the South Pacific were abominable— mud, constant rainstorms, oppressive heat, more mud, bugs, snakes, enormous mountains, impenetrable jungles. And still more mud. Many of the surrounding natives were cannibals. And the bureaucrats managing their supplies weren’t much of a help either, hoarding essential supplies and equipment in a warehouse in Melbourne, Australia, instead of sending them to the front. Of the 40 P-39s sitting on the runway at Seven Mile Drome in Port Moresby, New Guinea, only 10 were airworthy. MacArthur’s troops were supposed to be protecting Australia from Japanese invasion, but they were sitting ducks whenever a squadron of Japanese fighters flew in for a bombing raid.



    Troop morale was at a breaking point. But as John R. Bruning tells us in “Race of Aces: WWII’s Elite Airmen and the Epic Battle to Become the Master of the Sky,” two events helped spark these boys back to life. The first was the arrival of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning (“P” stood for “pursuit,” a throwback to the nomenclature of World War I). This was a radical new design for a fighter plane. It was twin-engined and twin-boomed, meaning there were two fuselages leading to a twin tail. It had a remarkable rate of climb, a high ceiling and a top speed of 400 miles an hour. Armed with this innovative aircraft, the pilots believed they could finally outmatch the highly maneuverable Japanese Zero, which until then had been getting the better of America’s planes.



    The second spark was a visit by Eddie Rickenbacker. This was exactly the boost the pilots needed. Not only was Rickenbacker a war veteran who went on to become the millionaire president and head of Eastern Airlines, but during World War I he had became America’s “Ace of Aces” and received the Medal of Honor. (An ace is a pilot who has shot down at least five enemy aircraft.) To help motivate these highly competitive flyboys, Rickenbacker offered a case of Scotch to any fighter pilot who could top his record of 26 enemy planes.



    At the time, America had never heard of Richard Bong, Gerald Johnson, Neel Kearby, Thomas Lynch, Charles MacDonald or Tommy McGuire. But within a year of Rickenbacker’s challenge, and with the race to become America’s new Ace of Aces updated almost daily in the newspapers and on the radio back home, theirs quickly became household names across the country.
    The mission of the Fifth Air Force included escorting bombers to their targets, patrolling for enemy planes, and attacking enemy airdromes, installations and resupply convoys. They flew these missions every day, weather permitting. Many men died in the process, but from the beginning it was apparent that the P-38 was superior to all the other fighters in America’s arsenal.
    The P-38 soon established its dominance over the Japanese Zeros, Oscars, Kates and other fighters, but the secret was to get in and out quickly and not give the enemy pilots a chance to use their superior maneuverability in a dogfight.

    Pilots would dash in from above and behind enemy fighters, shooting short bursts from the P-38’s machine guns and cannons, then just as quickly zoom upward and away. The motto was “one pass, haul ass.” Before long, a handful of young American pilots began making names for themselves by racking up their kill numbers.



    Bong, a farm boy from Wisconsin, dropped out of teachers college to join the Air Corps. He was assigned to fly P-38s in 1942 and sent to the Pacific that September, becoming an ace four months later when he made his fourth and fifth kills shooting down enemy planes that were accompanying a resupply convoy. Bong, according to Mr. Bruning, was the unlikeliest of aces. Quiet and self-contained in person, he was “the antithesis of the ego-driven, aggressive, and arrogant type A character whose swagger on the ground matched his skills in the air. Bong had no swagger.” But in the air, Bong was a “wild man”: “unpredictable, intuitive, liberated,” he used his superior endurance and physicality and “became ferociously aggressive, pushing his Lightning just a little further out to the edge of its envelope than others dared to do.” During mock dogfights, his flight mates “figured they’d make easy meat of the shy kid. Instead, he feasted on them.” By the time Bong departed the Philippines in late 1944, he had shot down 40 enemy planes and wore every aerial decoration, including the Medal of Honor. He remains, to this day, the Pacific War Ace of Aces.
    McGuire was in his final year at Georgia Tech when he left to join the Air Corps training program. “Reckless, wild, and supremely aggressive,” we are told, the pilot would often return to base “with an overstressed airframe, having pushed the plane beyond its g-limits.” Over New Guinea he became an ace in two days, shooting down three enemy fighters one day and two the next. He flew whenever possible, ultimately shooting down 38 Japanese planes, second only to Bong.



    Johnson also came to flying through the cadet training program, and was considered “one of the finest pure pilots in V Fighter Command.” Following MacArthur in his island-hopping campaign from New Guinea in 1943 to the Philippines in 1945, Johnson, a soft-spoken Ohioan, had 22 confirmed kills and another 21 probables. By the end of the war he was a 25-year-old lieutenant colonel and the commander of his air group.



    Lynch, a Pennsylvanian whom the newspapers back home dubbed the “champion Zero killer,” was credited with shooting down 20 enemy planes. Kearby, a Texan and career officer, flew single-engine P-47s, which the P-38 pilots considered un- suitable for aerial combat with the Japanese, but he flew them well enough to shoot down 22 enemy planes and receive the Medal of Honor.
    MacDonald, another career officer, learned to fly in the Air Corps training program after graduating from Louisiana State University in 1938. He shot down 27 enemy planes and, as a group leader, bunked and flew P-38s with Charles Lindbergh, of Spirit of St. Louis fame, during the former Air Corps colonel’s visit to Seven Mile Drome in 1944. At the time, Lindbergh went to the South Pacific as a civilian to see for himself how American fighter planes shaped up in action. He nevertheless flew multiple combat missions in P-38s and got a kill while flying near Ceram Island.



    “Race of Aces” fascinates because of its attention to detail and strong characterization of these remarkable men. Mr. Bruning, the author of the best-selling “Indestructible: One Man’s Rescue Mission That Changed the Course of WWII,” has been studying these pilots for two decades. We get to know their strengths, their driving ambitions and their foibles, as well as their loves and hopes in their private lives, so that they come across as real, three-dimensional individuals—not easy to pull off with a collection of 20-something young men, most of whom were killed before the war was over.

    MacDonald, in fact, was the only one to survive the war, going on to a successful military career. McGuire, Kearby and Lynch were shot down after violating their own axiom of “one pass, haul ass.” Bong died in California, on the day of the atomic blast on Hiroshima, during a test flight for a new jet fighter. Johnson died a month after the Japanese surrender, when the B-25 he was piloting ran into horrid weather over Japan, becoming hopelessly lost and without radio contact. The bailout order was given after the plane ran dangerously low on fuel, but two passengers had not brought their parachutes aboard. Johnson and his co-pilot gave their chutes to the passengers and perished trying to find a place to land.



    Gen. George C. Kenney, Johnson’s commander back on New Guinea, told Johnson’s father that his son was “the bravest man I ever knew, and the bravest thing he ever did was the last thing, when he did not need to be brave.” Mr. Groom is the author of “The Allies: Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, and the Unlikely Alliance That Won World War II.”






    "The nice part about being a pessimist is that you are constantly being either proven right or pleasantly surprised."

    - George Will


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  2. #2

    MR............

    .ironic that you should post this as I was just looking at this book at a BJ's. Thought of getting it but then but decided not to. My two legged conscience, who was with me, reminded me that I have four books stacked that I bought and have to read.
    As to Lindbergs' visit to the PTO, I remember reading somewhere that Lockheed was not to happy with him going as it would really be a catastrophic event if something happened to him. As it was, it seems that some of the pilots were not utilizing the a\c full capabilities and he imparted his knowledge , and imparted it, to the pilots thus, IIRC, that is when the kill rate improved.

    Also there was another interesting book titled " The destroyers that won WW2". Looked like another good read but being a former Tin Can rider I may be biased

  3. #3
    Not a member of BJ's. I wonder if it is also at Costco.

  4. #4
    Tiller of Soil MaskRider's Avatar
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    Icon22

    Quote Originally Posted by Fibber View Post
    Also there was another interesting book titled " The destroyers that won WW2". Looked like another good read but being a former Tin Can rider I may be biased
    As would I!

    Cheers,
    MR
    "The nice part about being a pessimist is that you are constantly being either proven right or pleasantly surprised."

    - George Will


    MR Downloads at SOH
    MR Scenery SlideShows (View with IE) MR Albums at SOH MR Web Site

  5. #5

    Icon14 Reply...

    MaskRider,

    Thanks for sharing. Fantastic, I will have to read this!
    "Rami"

    "Me? I'm just a Sea of Tranquility in an Ocean of Storms, babe."

    My campaign site: http://www.box.net/shared/0k1e1rz29h
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  6. #6

    Errata.........

    ..wrote the wrong title for the second book. This is a link to the real title, and the book, at Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Tin-Cans-Grey.../dp/1621576477

    As a former Greyhound flea I should have remembered the title better. Mea Cupa, Mea Cupa, Mea Mas cupa

  7. #7
    I think I posted this a while back as another good read. About the Grumman aircraft and men who flew them in WWII battles you guys would be familiar with.

    It was dedicated to Alex Vraciu.
    "Pacific Air" by David Sears
    Pacific Air: How Fearless Flyboys, Peerless Aircraft, and Fast Flattops Conquered the Skies in the War with Japan
    Da Capo Press
    Copyright 2011

  8. #8
    Winston Groom has written a slew of books. Fiction and non-fiction both. His big hit one being "Forrest Gump." This past year I read two of his books I strongly recommend: "The Allies,...Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin." And "The Generals,...Patton,Marshall, and MacArthur." Both super reads and are page turners. Looking forward in reading about the P-38's in the PTO.
    ..."He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose" -Jim Elliot

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