Air war pulp magazines introduced a generation of action-hungry Americans to drama on the wing.
The Germans came in fast, stair-step, the Spandaus on their cowls yammering. The Yank’s face was taut, frozen; the Hisso snarled upward into the hail of death, giving as good as it was taking—the Boche, trying to double back, was caught in the middle turn, and Hamilton was giving him hell from the back seat. —G-8 and His Battle Aces, “Ace of the White Death”
Boys often smuggled them under the covers after “lights out,” reading by flashlight, carefully shielded from prying parental eyes. Far from factual, and just as addictive as cigarettes, the pulp magazines of the 1930s and 1940s featured machine gun–paced prose topped off with flashy covers that would knock your socks off.
There was a pulp (so-called because of the cheap pulp stock on which they were printed) magazine for all tastes: Western, science fiction, romance, detective, horror, railroad adventures and so forth—the subject matter was endless, but the style was familiar across the board. Within the genres there were dozens of different publishers and titles. Of the approximately 50 different war titles, better than 40 were devoted to World War I air battles. The air war genre would remain popular, in fact, until the realities of World War II combat overshadowed the fictional versions.
The lurid yarns in each issue were hawked in the table of contents. A couple of examples show how it worked:
The Dead Won’t Help You: The Germans were already toasting their certain victory—but they reckoned so without Jeff Carver. Get a fighting fool of a Yank ace, give him enough plane, and anything can happen.
We’ll Drink to the Living: McNamara and Molloy, a pair of wild-flying giants who hurl their Spads around with the same hair-trigger skill and reckless abandon as their rock-sized fists, are out for vengeance and destruction.
While the writing style remained constant throughout the interwar years, air war pulp villains, formerly almost universally Teutonic, morphed into America’s newfound enemies after the attack on Pearl Harbor. For example, in “Seahawks From Hell,”“December 7, 1941, two hate-filled warbirds batter each other while Japanese destroyers prowl the Pacific,” showing that the pulp air wars had evolved, moving from Spads and Fokkers to Mustangs, Lightnings and Flying Fortresses.
Included in each of the air war pulps was a section devoted to reader commentary and also a story billed as “nonfiction,” such as those printed in SkyFighters’ “Caterpillar Club.” A May 1938 SkyFighters story, for example, was hailed as describing “One of a series of famous parachute leaps as compiled by Lt. Jay Blaufox.” This tale concerned a pair who claimed to have parachuted out of a Goodyear blimp over downtown Chicago. The veracity of such accounts was highly questionable at best. In all probability they were based on films or novels rather than real life.
Pulp writers were an interesting breed of cottage-industry hacks who could quickly transform an old Western plucked from their files into an air war yarn. With apparently little difficulty a cowboy became a pilot, a trusty old mare was transformed into a Spad, a ranch turned into an aerodrome, a six-gun showdown on a dusty street morphed into an aerial battle against azure-blue skies—until the rusty old Western was ready to ship off to Dare-Devil Aces. Some of the most popular air war pulps featured a series hero such as Terrence X. O’Leary or Bill Barnes—Air Adventurer. Barnes even had a magazine devoted entirely to him. He usually managed to outmaneuver and outshoot the enemy because he developed unique prototype aircraft that could down any enemy plane in the skies. For example:
The BF-4D is a low-wing, all-metal, twoplace fighter. It is powered with the Barnes twin diesel motor, developing 3,000 horsepower at 20,000 feet….Drives two triplebladed, automatic-pitch propellers which revolve in opposite directions, thus neutralizing torque.
Dusty Ayres and His Battle Birds took the air war into the next generation with such stories as “The Telsa Raiders,” in which the enemy has developed a weapon capable of “cleaning the allies out of the skies”—a mysterious Telsa cannon that shoots a ring of fire, which envelops doomed aircraft.
The most popular of the air war pulps was G-8 and His Battle Aces, starring a character who fought epic battles with some of pulpdom’s strangest villains:
On silent wings of night came a weird bird of doom—and to hear its voice meant to die a madman’s death! While all civilization lies sentenced to this monstrous fate, G-8 and his Battle Aces roar into the death-laden skies to stop the fiend whose dreadful secret holds the fate of the world in his hands.
Ah, but fear not—G-8 was on the job:
Then, with a rush, angry orange burst around the Jerry’s belly, swallowing the center of the fuselage. The green ship rocked off on one tip and the nose pitched down. In a dozen seconds more it was caught in the first deadly spiral of a spin. The greasy black smoke scarred the sky as it fell.
The imaginative villains in G-8 stories surely accounted in great part for the long publication run of that magazine. All the G-8 adventures were penned by one man, Robert J. Hogan, a World War I pilot who reportedly wrote more than 200,000 words per month during G-8’s heyday. According to one latter-day pulp aficionado, “G-8 was wild even for a medium—pulp magazines—that has been called the most outrageous literary phenomenon of all time.”
G-8 himself not only needed to outfly and outshoot his antagonists, he also had to demonstrate the superior intellectual skills that had earned him the title “master spy” in order to overcome his unique pulp adversaries. One such villain was Herr Feuerhammer, whose lightning machine, mounted in a Gotha bomber, was an invincible weapon that electrocuted or paralyzed his victims. Another arch nemesis, Herr Geist flew a helicopter with giant slashing blades that decimated Allied planes. Each helicopter was radar-guided, and a skeleton seated in the cockpit executed remotely signaled commands. Then there was Herr Feuer, a pyromaniac who hurled fireballs at Allied aircraft.
Perhaps the strangest of all G-8 villains, Herr Grun was described by the doctor who delivered him as “apelike.” As a child, Herr Grun enjoyed torturing animals; as an adult he derived the same pleasure from torturing humans. When in pursuit of a victim he would run on all fours, his nose to the ground. Herr Grun was a man who loved his work:
Sehr gut! I had an opportunity to test a new technique for killing Englanders. I yank them from their cockpits in midair. They scream like women. G-8 and His Battle Aces saw a long run in pulp magazine form, a shorter run in paperback reprints in the early 1960s and a one-time comic book issue in 1991. But like the rest of the air war pulps, G-8 caught a volley in the engine cowling during the 1940s. The venerable pulp’s last issue was published in June 1944.
Soon these colorful magazines all but disappeared from the newsstand. The paper shortage in the early 1940s marked the beginning of their decline, but by the end of WWII the air war pulps had nosedived into a permanent grave.
It’s not hard to understand their demise, given the real-life horrors of combat and POW camps that filled newspapers as well as the airwaves as WWII ground to a conclusion. By that time Americans who had not experienced war’s atrocities firsthand had relatives or friends who had. It was a case of reality burying fiction.
But the pulps were fun while they lasted.
John Dinan is a long-time researcher of pulp magazines and has written hundreds of magazine articles on the subject. He has two pulprelated books in print: Pulp Western and Sports in the Pulp Magazines. For further reading on G-8, see The Great Pulp Heroes, by Don Hutchison, or visit Chris Kalb’s excellent Web site, http://members.aol.com/battle aces/home.html.
Originally published in the July 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.