Race of Aces Looks Anew at World War II

By Scott Spangler on February 10th, 2020

race aceWith the end of World War II lining up for its 75th anniversary celebration at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, one might think there was little new information about the pilots who fought it. I was one of them, until I read the review of Race of Aces: WWII’s Elite Airmen and the Epic Battle to Become Master of the Sky, by John R. Bruning. (It should be no spoiler that I’ve already asked the library to add the 522-page tome published by Hachette Books to the its stacks.)

The reviewer, Elizabeth Wein, is no stranger to aviation’s preeminent conflict. She wrote A Thousand Sisters: The Historic Airwomen of the Soviet Union in World War II, which is a finalist for 2020 award for excellence in young adult nonfiction writing. Yet the names of the racing aces, Dick Bong, Tommy McGuire, Neel Kearby, Gerald Johnson, and Tom Lynch were new to her. Already well read on the exploits of these Fifth Air Force pilots, on whom the book focuses, I was ready to dismiss the new book as regurgitated history.

Fortunately, I kept reading. To improve morale, after Eddie Rickenbacker visited the far Pacific outpost in 1942, Gen. George Kenny challenged his pilots to surpass Rickenbacker’s World War I tally of 26 kills. “Rickenbacker and Kenny each agreed to stand the winning pilot a case of Scotch, and the race was on.” This I did not know, had never heard, and I want to know more (hence the library request for the book).

Almost every warbird geek knows that Dick Bong was America’s leading ace with 40 victories, so he should have won the Scotch. And I’m sure Race of Aces will go into details about their telling dogfights. That’s not what I’m interested in because I’ve already read some version of what the book will share. My interest is learning more about the pilots beyond their combat experiences, and the review promises this.

Saying that Bruning, the book’s author, “is at his best when he delves into the pilots’ anguish and obsessions.” And “his telling is based on a dragon’s hoard of primary source material, including well over 1,000 interviews he conducted himself.” Since so few of these noted pilots survived the war, I’m curious to learn what new perspectives these sources have to share because they give shape to the human forms that fight in any conflict. – Scott Spangler, Editor

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