Wings of Valor

Wings of Valor

Honoring America’s Fighter Aces

Nick Del Calzo and Peter Collier

Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2016, 264 pages

Book Review published on: March 8, 2018

Twenty-year-old Clarence Borley, a naval aviator, shot down four enemy aircraft in aerial combat over the Island of Formosa on 12 October 1944. Having shot down another two days prior, Borley became the U.S. Navy’s youngest ace. Borley and his flight leader then made a strafing run in their F6F Hellcats against more enemy aircraft on an airfield. During the attack, the young ace felt his airplane shake from a hit by enemy antiaircraft artillery and saw flames emerge from the engine. Borley headed for the sea to avoid capture and parachuted into the water. Another Hellcat pilot destroyed an enemy patrol boat headed for Borley and dropped an inflatable life raft. Borley drifted seventy-five miles for four days and survived a passing typhoon before a U.S. Navy submarine happened across him. Two days later, Borley thought he was going to die in the submarine during a depth charge attack by enemy warships, but he and the submarine crew survived. He continued to serve in the Navy after World War II, eventually retiring as a commander.

Borley and eighty-one other American aces are chronicled in Nick Del Calzo and Peter Collier’s Wings of Valor. Over the course of four years, the authors compiled personal interviews of the few remaining American aces living in the United States. The book is a significant work in that the chance of meeting a fighter ace is rare nowadays. Most were veterans from World War II and many have passed on, and those still alive are over ninety years old. A couple of aces featured in the book died before their interviews were completed, and several more passed away prior to publication. Many of the aces interviewed in this project are those who earned their mark in World War II, with six from the Korean War and one from Vietnam.

The interviews with the older aces present an interesting view of U.S. military fighter pilots of World War II. Many of them came from humble backgrounds, growing up during the Depression era. Several cited Eddie Rickenbacker and Charles Lindbergh as their heroes and inspiration; others were simply captivated by seeing airplanes flying by their hometowns. Some learned to fly through the Civilian Pilot Training Program. After the U.S. entered World War II, the men gained entrance in the services’ pilot training programs due to being college students or for scoring well on aptitude exams. A couple of men in the book became pilots in the Royal Canadian Air Force and were later integrated with the U.S. Army Air Forces. One ace, Frank Gailer, tells an amusing story of how he avoided flying bombers by telling the commander of his training squadron that he was not strong enough to handle the controls of a large airplane.

The men’s accounts of their service are remarkable and some almost seem implausible. Borley’s four aerial victories in one battle is bested by Alexander Vraciu, also a Navy pilot, who downed six enemy airplanes during the Battle of the Philippine Sea on 19 June 1944. Ralph Parr, a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot, attacked several Mig-15s on 7 June 1953 over North Korea and soon discovered that he was up against sixteen enemy fighters. He managed to shoot down two and damage another. Not all flew with impunity however; nine of them were also shot down. Billy Edens, a U.S. Army Air Force and Air Force pilot, was shot down four times in World War II, and once during the Korean War.

Several prominent aces are featured in the book. One is Clarence “Bud” Anderson who shot down sixteen enemy aircraft in World War II. Two marines, Joseph Foss and Robert Galer, fought with the Cactus Air Force in Guadalcanal. Foss shot down twenty-six enemy aircraft, and he himself was shot down. Galer shot down thirteen enemy aircraft and survived being shot down three times. Both were awarded the Medal of Honor and retired as brigadier generals; Foss later served as governor of South Dakota. Edward Freightner fought in three wars as a naval aviator; he flew with the Blue Angels and retired as a rear admiral. Brig. Gen. R. Stephen Ritchie scored five victories during the conflict in Vietnam, and he was one of the last American fighter pilots to earn the distinction of being an “ace.”

The American Fighter Aces Association’s website lists over six hundred aces for World War II, forty-five for the Korean War and two for the Vietnam conflict. The authors managed to locate eighty-two of these aerial warriors and noted that current trends in aerial warfare have marked the end of the fighter aces’ era in history. To read these men’s thoughts about a period of aerial warfare that has passed makes Wings of Valor a prize for anyone’s library.

Book Review written by: Dirk C. Blackdeer, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas