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The Heart-Stopping, Nerve-Shredding Race to Be America’s Deadliest Combat Pilot

WWII’s Elite Airmen and the Epic Battle to Become the Master of the Sky
By John R. Bruning

I’m amazed that Eddie Rickenbacker and Charles Lindbergh, who appear in “Race of Aces,” are stalwarts of my own aviation-heavy cultural literacy — yet the flying ace Dick Bong, the all-American hero at its heart, is new to me, and I suspect he will be to other readers, too. In his new book, John R. Bruning corrects this oversight. Whether he’s putting you in the middle of an intense air battle in searing heat and mosquito clouds, or taking you to watch a young aviator gamely repeat his marriage vows four times in a single day to accommodate the hungry media and an adoring public, Bruning celebrates a handful of larger-than-life World War II fighter pilots and brings them to our attention once again.

The plot of Bruning’s epic is straightforward. In 1942, Gen. George Kenney, the newly minted commander of the Fifth Air Force in New Guinea, found himself stuck with possibly the worst command position of the war. At the end of a long supply chain, plagued by weird tropical bugs and diseases, his fighter pilots were taking a beating from the airborne Japanese. A visit from the famous World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker gave Kenney the inspiration he needed to raise morale: He challenged his young aviators to beat Rickenbacker’s record of shooting down 26 enemy aircraft. Rickenbacker and Kenney each agreed to stand the winning pilot a case of Scotch, and the race was on.

The chief contenders are the main focus of Bruning’s book: Bong, Gerald Johnson, Neel Kearby, Tom Lynch and Tommy McGuire — with a shout-out to the journalists who kept score of their kills in a media frenzy that included spreads in Collier’s and Life magazines, making them household names back home. Bruning is at his best when he delves into the pilots’ anguish and obsessions. His telling is based on a dragon’s hoard of primary source material, including well over 1,000 interviews he conducted himself. Though the narrative’s testosterone-fueled slang can sometimes feel exclusionary and even baffling, the noir tone helps to make some of the blow-by-blow accounts of aerial combat a bit easier for the layman to dig into: “Kearby triggered his 50s. The guns spewed lead.”

The violence of the subject matter is indisputable. Just as Lindbergh was when he flew with Kenney’s aces, I was shocked by the wanton brutality of both the Japanese and the Americans in combat in New Guinea: the dismemberment of prisoners, the looting of bodies for souvenirs. Life for a fighter pilot in the Pacific was a grueling mix of poor health (thanks to diet and tropical diseases), relentless stretches of boredom between missions and sudden dazzling adrenaline highs in flight. As Bruning observes, “Combat dehumanized everyone.” Long after Kenney’s aces had smashed Rickenbacker’s record, they kept hunting, taking greater and greater risks to best one another — a vicious circle that could only, inevitably, end in death.

Bruning’s underlying theme is that the destructive pall of their combat experience didn’t stop with these few fighter pilots: In many subtle ways it also tore apart the social fabric of their communities back on American soil, as the press leaked news of violent deaths before families were informed, families mourned and young widows leapt too quickly into rocky new marriages. For me, the tension in “Race of Aces” is driven not by the race to surpass Rickenbacker, but by the desperate hope that some of these personable young men will survive and make it home.

There are no happy endings here, though. Bruning’s work is a testament and a memorial not just to a handful of tragic heroes, but to those left bereft by this unique and explosive competition on the other side of the world.

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