My War in Italy
On the Ground and in Flight with the 15th Air Force
Keith W. Mason
University of Missouri Press, Columbia, Missouri, 2016, 216 pages
Book Review published on: June 2, 2017
My War in Italy is a microcosm of America’s “greatest generation” told from the point of view of an Army Air Force aviator. At its heart is a classic coming of age story; My War in Italy is an autobiography of one man’s journey from small-town, Depression-era America to combat operations over Italy. Along the way, Keith Mason provides keen insight into the blinding pace of technological change, the mechanics of early twentieth-century air power, and the psychological effects of war.
Mason opens his story with a reminder that the 1920s were an age of exploration. To a young man from small-town Iowa, every news story seemed filled with tales of Charles Lindbergh’s historic New York-to-Paris flight and Adm. Richard Byrd’s journey to the South Pole. Moreover, these feats were not constrained to the airwaves. The 1920s were also an age of barnstorming and travelling fliers. In My War in Italy, Mason describes how, for the price of a ticket, he joined his heroes in the “wonder of flight” and cemented his decision to become an aviator.
From this point, My War in Italy follows Mason’s early career in aviation, detailing the Army Air Force recruiting process, flight school, and various stateside postings. Along the way, the book delivers invaluable insight into the growth of the Army Air Force during World War II. Mason’s often humorous and always engaging stories provide context and personal insight into everything from the recruiting and training process to the lifestyle of a military aviator. These same stories document a personal narrative, demonstrating how the satisfaction derived from grooming the next generation of pilots and the introspection resulting from several close calls with death spurred the author’s spiritual and leadership growth.
Midway through, My War in Italy transforms into a war memoir as Mason transfers to an operations officer position in an overseas-bound combat squadron. Here, the author utilizes the backdrop of combat to dive into the realms of spirituality, leadership, and courage. Far from the glamorous ideal of the World War II aviator, Mason’s combat story begins with an antagonistic chain of command and several barely avoided disasters en route to Italy. Upon his arrival, the reader is treated to an entertaining and enlightening description of what Army Air Force units endured on the ground as they attacked Europe’s underbelly in the air. The story then shifts to aerial exploits, where the author struggles with fear, responsibility, and the knowledge of what his bombs are doing to the Italians trapped behind German lines.
Mason ends with several chapters in which he fleshes out unrelated aspects of the air war. Mixed between whimsical vignettes such as “Of Chickens and Italy” and the midnight appropriation of a British munitions shed are in-depth accounts of the author’s defining moments at war. In these crucial moments, Mason links how loss and fear can lead to spiritual and personal growth.
I highly recommend this memoir to both professional historians and anyone with an interest in leadership or aviation. For the professional, My War in Italy places the little-discussed Southern European air theater in a relatable historical context. Furthermore, Mason’s occasional digressions into technical matters provides valuable nuggets not easily found in historical records. Examples range from the consequences of pervasive deficiencies in instrument flight training to descriptions of stateside George Garbo air routing rules. My War in Italy is equally appealing to the layperson, combining leadership, spirituality, and aviation history into one easily read volume. All the while, Mason deftly alternates between thoughtful and humorous, engaging the reader throughout and avoiding the lulls endemic to many memoirs.
Book Review written by: Maj. Robert Nelson, U.S. Air Force, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas