World War I Flying Ace
Samuel J. Wilson
McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2016, 276 pages
Book Review published on: October 11, 2019
As the highest scoring U.S. ace of World War I, Eddie Rickenbacker is a well-known figure. Rickenbacker returned from the war to celebrated notoriety as an automobile manufacturer, owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, comic strip author, president of Eastern Air Lines, and advisor to the U.S. military during World War II. Everyone remembers Rickenbacker, but who remembers the American who was the number two scoring ace, Bill Lambert?
Why is Lambert not remembered? He had more victories than either Raoul Lufberry, top scoring ace of the Lafayette Escadrille and later the 94th Aero Squadron, or Frank Luke, who flew with the 27th Aero Squadron. Why is Lambert such an obscure figure? For starters, Lambert flew for the British Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Air Force (RAF), not the Americans. He never transferred to a U.S. unit, and he finished the war with the RFC. Lambert disappeared into relative obscurity after World War I, barnstorming for a few years and then settling down as a husband and family man.
Samuel J. Wilson examines Lambert’s obscurity and its causes, as well as some notoriety he earned during his lifetime. Wilson’s research is thorough, and in some cases, depending on the perspective of the reader, his presentation of his research is excruciatingly thorough. For example, a major portion of the text is devoted to cross-walking Lambert’s book, Combat Report, with official records in the RAF (successor to the RFC in April 1918) archives. Discrepancies are rare and minor but they exist, and Wilson does a thorough job of explaining why those discrepancies might exist. For a dyed-in-the-wool historian, it is a good demonstration of exhaustive research. For others more interested in the story than the historical research technique, the detailed presentation may be tedious.
The author also digs deeply into the personality and behavior of Lambert, positing a thesis that Lambert’s experiences in World War I had a lifelong debilitating effect on him due to posttraumatic stress disorder. Wilson’s evidence is circumstantial rather than clinical. Clearly, Bill Lambert did not enjoy the fame and success of Eddie Rickenbacker upon his return from the war, but Lambert apparently did not seek such recognition until quite late in life. Instead, he settled into a quiet, moderately productive life as an artist, draftsman, inventor, and independent businessman. Was Lambert a curmudgeon, especially late in life? Some narrative evidence would support that conclusion. Was he a curmudgeon because he suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder? That is a different question deserving a different kind of research to support a valid conclusion.
Historians who love the details of thorough research should appreciate Wilson’s work. Others who are more interested in the environment of early air combat through the eyes of an American who flew fighters for the RFC and the RAF are likely to find the work tedious.
Book Review written by: Thomas E. Ward II, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas