Race of Aces Cover

Race of Aces

WWII’s Elite Airmen and the Epic Battle to Become the Master of the Sky

John R. Bruning

Hachette Books, New York, 2020, 544 pages

Book Review published on: July 17, 2020

In 2020, America will commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of World War II. This year will also commemorate another famous end, the end of the great race of aces, the competition to become the greatest American fighter pilot. In his new book Race of Aces, John R. Bruning recounts the great race that captured the hearts and minds of the Nation and brought the last names of Bong, McGuire, Kearby, MacDonald, and Johnson into the country’s living rooms and into our military’s Hall of Heroes.

The bet was a case of Scotch whisky to whomever could surpass World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker’s record of twenty-six enemy planes shot down. The gauntlet was laid down by Maj. Gen. George Kenney, the commander of the Fifth Air Force, to his fighter pilots and served as a positive light in what was otherwise a dark period in the Pacific War of 1942. The Japanese were still on the advance, continuing to add to their string of victories going back to the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Americans, fresh off the debacle of the Philippines, were barely holding their own in New Guinea, equipped with the poor performing P-39 Airacobras while fending off the veteran and victorious Japanese army with their unmatched Mitsubishi A6M Zero and Nakajima Ki-43 Oscar.

Bruning describes the perfect mating of machine and men, in late August 1942, when a fresh batch of pilots entered the Pacific Theater with a new plane, the P-38 Lightning, which could challenge the best of the best that Japan had to offer over the skies of the South West Pacific Area. As the chapters go by, the reader becomes captivated by the race to surpass Rickenbacker to become the ace of aces with the vivid descriptions of aerial combat, the personality clashes between the aces, the in-fighting with their chain of command, and the stress and poor living conditions with which the men had to deal with on a daily basis.

An interesting anecdote included in Bruning’s story is the aerial combat that Charles Lindbergh, famous for making the first solo transatlantic airplane flight in 1927, engaged in while touring the Pacific as a “tech rep” for United Aircraft Corporation. Fighting in a borrowed P-38, Lindbergh shot down a Ki-51 light reconnaissance bomber, killing the pilot and rear gunner, while almost being rammed and brought down himself by one of Japan’s senior aces.

Sadly, it is not a happy ending as four of the top five aces did not live to participate in the postwar celebrations. The toll on themselves and their families was great, but they played their part in the defeat of Japan. Time will tell if a future pilot will ever surpass America’s current ace of aces, Richard Bong, with forty kills, but the heroism, skill, tenacity, and legends of these masters of the sky will live on in our remembrance of World War II. Race of Aces is a fantastic read for those not familiar with this facet of the war against Japan.

Book Review written by: Col. Robert A. Law, III, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas