Top Ace of U.S. Naval Aviation in World War II
David Lee Russell
McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2019, 273 pages
Book Review published on: November 1, 2019
David Lee Russell, retired naval intelligence officer and author of six books including Oglethorpe and Colonial Georgia: A History, 1733–1783 and Eastern Air Lines: A History, 1926-1991, explores the life and career of Capt. David McCampbell, U.S. Navy. McCampbell was the Navy’s top ace during World War II, downing thirty-four confirmed Japanese aircraft, and the leader of Air Group Fifteen, the most successful naval air group in combat during the war. McCampbell would receive the Medal of Honor for actions during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in September 1944. His thirty-one-year military career involved diverse leadership and service assignments including senior naval aviation advisor to the Argentine Navy, command of the Naval Air Technical Training Center at Jacksonville, Florida, commander of the USS Severn and the USS Bonhomme Richard, and assistant deputy chief of staff for operations to the commander in chief of Continental Air Defense Command. David McCampbell opens describing the pivotal moment when McCampbell, assisted by another fighter, intercepted and attacked a formation of sixty Japanese aircraft approaching American forces. McCampbell would account for nine of the fifteen downed aircraft, and the Japanese formation was forced to abandon its attack of the American fleet. The book concludes with appendix C, which provides the narrative of McCampbell’s Medal of Honor citation.
McCampbell’s military career started on a circuitous path. He attended Army ROTC at Staunton Military Academy in Staunton, Virginia, earning himself an Army commission as a second lieutenant. He then attended Georgia Tech where he played football, was a member of the swim team, and joined Navy ROTC. While at Georgia Tech, McCampbell applied to and was selected as a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. While at the Naval Academy, he developed into a talented diver, winning numerous regional swimming and diving championships. He would have represented the Naval Academy and the United States in diving in the 1932 Olympics but a failing grade in Spanish precluded his participation. McCampbell was commissioned in the Navy Reserve following graduation and returned home to work in the family business in Bessemer, Alabama. He then accepted an invitation for active duty, where he would serve in the Engineering Department aboard the heavy cruiser USS Portland. McCampbell received orders for flight training at Navy Air Station Pensacola, Florida, where he received his naval aviator wings on 23 April 1938.
Russell describes two interesting events that occurred while McCampbell was assigned as a landing signal officer aboard the carrier USS Wasp. The Wasp participated in trials launching Army P-40 aircraft to test the viability of Navy carriers to ferry Army aircraft overseas. They were the first Army aircraft to fly from an aircraft carrier. The second event occurred when the Wasp ferried British Spitfires to Malta. Royal Canadian Air Force pilot Sgt. Jerrold Alpine Smith accidently released his auxiliary fuel tank as he climbed to two thousand feet. Without a fuel tank, Smith could not make it to Malta and so had the option of returning to the Wasp or ditching in the water. Smith decided to execute a carrier landing without a landing hook. McCampbell safely landed Smith after a couple of rough attempts to learn that Smith had only 127 hours of flying experience, had never flown a Spitfire before, and had never witnessed a carrier landing before.
Russell goes beyond traditional biographies in providing context of historical content of key naval engagements, naval strategy, and capabilities of naval aircraft. This provides the reader a far richer understanding of the nature of aerial combat in the Pacific theater of operations. It makes McCampbell’s accomplishments even more amazing given that he scored his first of thirty-four kills on 11 June 1944 when Japanese aircraft were increasingly grounded by the lack of repair parts, replacement pilots, and fuel shortages. Japanese pilots quickly realized the fallacy of Japanese propaganda about the superiority of Japanese aircraft when they engaged the Navy’s Grumman F6F fighter for the first time. Russell also provides a glimpse of service aboard carriers and of the challenges faced by naval aviators and their crewmen. Water rationing; cramped odorous quarters; and stifling heat below and above deck made enduring career life for all ranks a test of endurance.
The strength of David McCampbell includes background information, maps, images, appendices, and a writing style that is straightforward and easy to read. The book is more than a story of the career of America’s top Navy fighter pilot during World War II; it is an insider’s view of naval operations in the Pacific and an unparalleled narrative of a pilot and his wingman who daringly counterattacked a formation of sixty Japanese aircraft and succeeded in breaking up their attack. It is a must addition for anyone with an interest in naval aviation, war in the Pacific, or World War II.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas