REVIEW – Race of Aces: WWII’s elite airmen and the epic battle to become master of the sky

2 mins read
John R Bruning
Hachette Books, £25 (hbk)
ISBN 978-0316508643
John R Bruning
Hachette Books, £25 (hbk)
ISBN 978-0316508643

Thirty years of research and hundreds of hours of interviews have resulted in this fast-paced book seeing the light of day – a book so captivating that it reads almost like a pacy and well-researched novel.

Although the story of the race to be the top ace in the USAAF runs throughout the book – especially in its second half, as combat kills mount – there is much more here than just that aspect of the air war in the South- West Pacific Area (SWPA).

The descriptions of the dogfights fought by the P-39 Airacobra, P-38 Lightning, P-40 Warhawk, and P-47 Thunderbolt aircraft are second to none and hold the reader entrapped in the detail and almost feeling the G-forces.

Equally the description of the water-soaked, disease-ridden conditions in which the aircrew and their dedicated and hard-working groundcrew often had to live, made worse by incessant Japanese nuisance night-bombing raids, are hard-hitting and evocative.

Race of Aces follows the fighter pilots from their training at home in the States, concentrating in the main on the twin engine P-38 with its unreliable Allison power plants and lack of a trainer variant, and moves on to the war in the SWPA, initially at airstrips in the Port Moresby area of Guinea, where tactics are evolved to combat the more agile single-engine Japanese fighters.

While in Guinea, our heroes were visited by America’s Ace of Aces from the Great War, with 26 confirmed kills, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, a brilliant raconteur, who talked shop with them and matched the Air Commander General George Kenney’s promise of a crate of whiskey to the first pilot to match Rickenbacker’s tally. The prize was duly won, but, by now back in the USA, Rickenbacker could, at the insistence of temperance groups, only send a crate of Coke!

Another leading aviator of yesteryear to feature in the book is Charles Lindbergh, now a civilian, who had been sent to the combat zone to learn how twin-engine aircraft performed against more conventional fighters. Way beyond his brief, and completely unofficially, Lindbergh talked himself into P-38 cockpits and flew operational missions – not always as per the book and the tactics of the day.

Morale had slipped badly as atrocious living conditions, poor aircraft serviceability, and even a backlog of mail from home built up, but excellent leadership and the changes of the fortunes of war in the SWPA rapidly led to these inspired pilots taking the war to the enemy and achieving quite remarkable kill rates. These guys were truly artists of the dogfight and impressive slayers of bombers.

As 1944 marched on, the contest of five pilots to become the Ace of Aces intensified, the embedded press corps personnel writing many column inches for the newspapers ‘back home’ and turning them into national heroes. Eventually, a winner emerged – but you will have to read the book to find out who it was.

Sad to say, only one of these aces survived the war years, and reading of the demise of individual pilots adds a great sense of pathos to the book, as do the post-war tales of those they left behind.

One nice touch in Race of Aces is the layout of the photographic section, for the pictures carry a detailed description alongside them rather than the more usual single line of text. There is only one shortfall in this otherwise excellent book – the lack of a map of the battle zone.

In summary, a well thought out and excellently and vividly presented book which, even more than 70 years since the events occurred, makes for true edge-of-the-seat reading.

Review by Colin Pomeroy

This article was published in the August/September 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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