Race of Aces: WWII’s Elite Airmen and the Epic Battle to Become the Master of the Sky, by John R. Bruning, Hachette Books, 2020, $30.
Bestselling author John Bruning begins his massive, exhaustively researched and fast-paced account of the competition for the title of American ace of aces in World War II with a startling statistic: Almost half the enemy aircraft destroyed in air-to-air combat were felled by the less than five percent of fighter pilots who had achieved ace status. It was a harrowing race to the top as the crack gunslingers grappled with the conflicting forces of duty and personal glory.
The competition kicked off when World War I’s highest-scoring American ace, Edward Rickenbacker, visited a fighter unit protecting Port Moresby, New Guinea, around Thanksgiving 1942. Somebody present offhandedly remarked that it would probably be a long time before anyone matched Captain Eddie’s score of 26 aerial victories. Then Fifth Air Force commander George Kenney chimed in that he would give a case of scotch to the first pilot to beat the old record. Rickenbacker himself offered to provide a second case, and the race was on!
The author crafts vivid profiles of the Army Air Forces fighter pilots flying mostly P-38 Lightnings in the Southwest Pacific theater who were in contention for the honor: Richard Bong, Tommy McGuire, Thomas Lynch, Neel Kearby, Gerald Johnson and Charles MacDonald. Their struggles, both personal and military, are movingly told. Sadly, all except MacDonald would die in airplanes by the end of 1945, two while taking risks in bids to increase their scores.
Exquisitely polished prose alternately describes the dogfighting above remote jungles and relationships with sweethearts back home. Prodigious digging into mission reports, old newspaper dispatches, diaries and correspondence plus extensive interviews of survivors and family members contribute to a sweeping narrative that is likely to be the definitive history of the Rickenbacker-inspired contest. Highly recommended.
This article appeared in the July 2020 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here!