Race of Aces, by John R. Bruning****

What kind of nerve does it take to go up alone in a fighter plane and duel with an enemy? Race of Aces is an account of the best Allied fighters in the South Pacific during World War II. My thanks go to Net Galley and Hachette Books for the review copy. When I missed the publication date, I obtained a copy of the audio book from Seattle Bibliocommons. This proved to be a very good thing.

John R. Bruning does a fine job introducing each of the best fighters to us, and when he begins with a young man from Portland, Oregon, which is where I grew up, I was instantly engaged. There are five fighters whose stories are told here: Portlander Gerald Johnson, Richard Bong, Tommy McGuire, Neal Kearby, and Charles MacDonald. The framework for the story is a competition for a prize offered by the iconic pilot, Eddie Rickenbacker, who promised a bottle of excellent bourbon to the first pilot to break his record of 26 planes shot down. The men’s heroism—and sometimes recklessness—makes for a compelling narrative for readers of military history.

I begin by listening to the audiobook as I make dinner, following up later each day by going over the digital review copy. However, I soon discover that the detailed descriptions of noteworthy dogfights are impossible to envision unless I do both at the same time. Soon my routine is to listen to the passages in between battles, knowing that whatever I am doing, I’d better drop it and grab my tablet so I can follow along once the pilots take to the air. When I do this, I am rewarded with a clear mental movie of what is unfolding. Some of these fights are breathtaking in their intensity.

A flying ace is someone that shoots down five or more enemy planes. The vast majority of World War II flyers were competent and may at some point have shot down a plane or two, but the aces were few and far between. They were often working with substandard equipment—with the best American machinery reserved for the war in Europe. One noteworthy statistic caught my attention. “Fewer than 5 percent of combat fighter pilots achieved acehood, but they accounted for 47 percent of all the enemy planes knocked out of the sky.”  

Again and again, I read instances in which the Allied fighter pilot plays a game of chicken with his opponent, flying straight at the enemy plane; usually the enemy veers off at the last minute, and once in awhile it’s the Allied fighter. There’s one noteworthy instance when they fly so close that the American pilot’s wing knocks into the Japanese plane; they find a smear of green paint on it after he lands. And so I kept wondering, what if nobody blinks? Of course, my mindset is diametrically opposite that needed for warfare; I think like a teacher. Don’t run with scissors. Slow down. Watch where you’re going, young man. Don’t wave your pencil or you’ll put somebody’s eye out. These guys, on the other hand, were warriors:

“Carl held his course and refused to break first. Blev watched in horror as he flew straight into a Zero, the two planes exploding with all the violence of a 500-mile an hour collision.”

Despite short rations at times, missing mechanical tools and parts of planes, and a number of other challenges, these men crippled the Japanese air corps in this part of the world, and because of this, the five aces were particularly loathed by the Japanese pilots. One of them is shot down toward the end, and although he survives the crash, he is shot repeatedly after he goes down. It’s just as well that he’s dead by the time they get to him:

“After he fell to the jungle floor, the Japanese stripped everything off him, including his boots, watch, clothes, jacket, and dog tags. They left his naked body unburied, sprawled facedown at the base of the tree, his parachute still entangled in its branches like a canopy for his anonymous grave.”

It’s a weird sort of compliment.

The audiobook frees me to check details not provided in the book itself. There is a description of the different aircraft available to the men, and as I listen. I search for images of them and find some diagrams; there are parts of the craft mentioned and I have no idea what they are. Hopefully those that pick up the finished copy may find some photographs or illustrations, but I have none, so I run some searches.

Ultimately, I don’t care at all who wins the bottle of bourbon, and I have trouble remembering who is who, apart from Gerald Johnson. But that doesn’t bother me; I am not in this thing for individual biographies of the pilots, or because of the Rickenbacker contest. I want to know more about the World War II pilots, and the contest between the five men provides an excellent framework for that information.

The audiobook, while useful, does have some small glitches. The narrator should have taken the trouble to find out how to pronounce place names. The story begins in Oregon, and every time the word “Willamette” is used—Willamette Valley, Willamette River, and so on—the mispronunciation sets my teeth on edge. I catch myself snarling at the reader as if he is there in the room with me. His general manner while describing the military aspects of the book, which of course is most of it, has a documentary feel to it, and it works well, but now and then we veer into the private lives of the pilots, and when more sensitivity and nuance are called for, the reader is still using that clipped documentary voice you’d associate with a movie shown in your high school social studies class. Because of these things as well as the complexity of the fight scenes, I recommend the printed version over the audio. However, if you can swing it, the best way of all is to use them both simultaneously.

Nobody can dispute that Bruning knows his material, and copious research was done to produce this book, at least on the American side of it. It is a bit longer than it needs to be, and my own preference would be to edit it down a bit. Also, although the “J” word is only used in quotations, it shouldn’t be used at all. Those that squawk about authenticity should try inserting the “N” word, which was also freely used during this time period, into the quotes, just to test the assertion, and then it’s obvious that of course no reputable author should publish such a thing. Racist terms, no matter how common to the time described, have no place in any reputable history publication, and he should have worked around them.

With these caveats, I recommend this book to those that enjoy military history.

Vicksburg, by Donald L. Miller****

4 stars plus. Donald Miller’s treatment of Vicksburg is one of the best I’ve seen to date; it’s clear, easy to read, well documented, and in parts, vastly entertaining. Thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The siege and battle of Vicksburg was the single most significant event in the American Civil War. When the Union emerged victorious, it seized control of key arteries of commerce, food, and military supplies by capturing access and use of the Mississippi River as well as an important railroad that ran east to west. It liberated vast numbers of slaves, and it dealt a savage blow to the morale of diehard Southerners who believed the city and its fort unassailable. The fall of Vicksburg cut the Confederacy in two, and it made communication between the two halves slow and difficult. It also sealed President Lincoln’s election and provided him with a second term he might otherwise not have gained. I knew all of these things before I began reading Miller’s work, but I found a tremendous number of details I didn’t know about, and more importantly, I gained a much solider sense of context.

Many prominent works on Vicksburg are also Grant biographies, and that usually suits me fine, because Grant is one of my greatest heroes. However, those that read about Vicksburg solely within that framework lose out on the progress made—and sometimes lost again—by the Union Navy and others. Though I had read James McPherson’s work on the Union Navy, there is a lot more detail provided here by Miller. The rivers that surrounded Vicksburg are confusing as heck, and this played a big role in lengthening the fight, but at the same time, it can also confuse readers. It certainly did me. For example, when those traveling on rivers go “above” a certain point, what does that mean? I always assumed it meant north, but sometimes it doesn’t. I had never heard or read the term “Brown water navy,” (or if I did, I had thoroughly forgotten it), and this is a key aspect of the story. For the first time I have a solid grasp of the route used by the Union navy and army.

Readers should know that Miller is fond of including gore. I don’t know whether this is because college students are easily bored, and the consideration of Grant calmly conveying orders while spattered in brain matter is just more attention-getting than the same information without the gore, or whether Miller feels compelled to use these details to drive home the horror that heroes were forced to look beyond in order to be effective, but there it is, and so if you are inclined to take a book with you on your lunch break, you may want a different one then.

One of the aspects I appreciate most is the emphasis Miller places on the role of slaves during this critical time. If the waters were inscrutable, the land was little better in places, with thick, tropical foliage, snakes, leaches and other hazards. Those that lived nearby had an incalculable advantage, but local whites used this knowledge to confuse and obfuscate troops they considered to be enemies. Slaves, on the other hand, understood how important a Union victory would be, and they provided information that would have taken a lot longer to obtain without them. This is material that other writers often mention briefly but treat as a side issue. Miller goes into specifics, gives concrete examples, and shares the respect that Grant gained for his newly emancipated spies, guides, and soldiers.

The chapter titled “The Entering Wedge” is where good prose and information become solid gold. During this section of the book and the chapter after it, I did a lot of rereading for pleasure. There are excellent quotes throughout the book, and the author wisely focuses on those that are little seen in other books, providing a freshness and you-are-there quality at times that I haven’t seen for a long time.

At one point, during a passage discussing the caves that housed soldiers as well as local families affected by shelling, I realized that these must surely be part of the national park dedicated to this event, and I searched the web for images of them; sadly, because of the very soft earth in and around Vicksburg, (most likely the same soft earth that enabled the river to continuously change course,) those caves are all gone, washed away by hard rain. There’s a photo of a modern version based on the information available, but that’s not the same thing. Rats.

I nearly gave this book five stars, but there’s a surprisingly disturbing part toward the end that left me deflated and scratching my head. There are pages and more pages devoted to ugly rumors that seem to begin and end with Cadwallader. Although the author repeatedly reminds us that these statements are “unsubstantiated” and “controversial,” he nevertheless devotes a whole lot of time and space to them, and what’s more they are near the end, where the reader is most likely to recall them. Overall, he seems harder on Grant than most are, but up to this point he was fair, weighing his weaknesses while acknowledging his strengths. Why he would do a hatchet job on this iconic hero in closing is a mystery to me. Then the very end of the book is given to a Confederate.

Nevertheless, this is a strong work for those that know the basics and want the details. I don’t recommend it to those new to the American Civil War; if you are just getting your feet wet, read McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, or explore the excellent historical fiction of Michael and Jeff Shaara, Shelby Foote, and E.L. Doctorow. But for those that are well-versed and in search of new information, I highly recommend this book.

Grant, by Ron Chernow**

grantI’m tempted to add this title to my Southern fiction shelf. For a Pulitzer winner to be so careless with his facts is egregious. I got 200 pages or so in, and I found a glaring error. To be honest, I thought maybe it was me. I haven’t taught the American Civil War in 8 years now; am I slipping? Because I could swear that the famous tidbit about a single battle killing more soldiers than the American Revolution, War of 1812, and war with Mexico all added together was about the battle of Antietam, yet here is Chernow, saying it’s Shiloh.

This is when it’s nice to have a physical library nearby. I rummaged on my Civil War shelves and plucked Battle Cry of Freedom, which he (rightly) appears to cite more often than anything except perhaps Grant’s Memoirs, and I also grabbed McPherson’s book on Antietam, and I double-checked. Yup. The reference is to to Antietam, not Shiloh.

At this point I wondered what else might be amiss. There’s a Sherman quote that’s supposed to be in a section in BCF, but the page number Chernow cites is actually in a section about the nurses of the ACW. Well, of course there are different editions, so page numbers may shift a bit, especially in a lengthy source. But I chose–randomly, from the citations at the back–3 other quotes from BCF, and read 8 or 10 pages before and after the page where the quote or fact is supposed to be located, and didn’t find them. A more meticulous reader might have different results, but I am not running a courtroom prosecution; I am trying to decide if I now trust this author enough to believe him regarding other information. And I am not all that sure I do.

I have a lovely hardcover copy of this biography given me by one of my sons at Christmas, and I would hate to abandon it entirely at the 200 pp. mark; but I’ll tell you one thing. I’m rereading Battle Cry of Freedom again before I turn another page of this biography. Because at the very least, this is a work to be read critically, rather than with innocent faith in its author. I like some of the analysis Chernow offers, but I would hate to see a newbie miseducated by using this title as an introduction to Grant or to the Civil War. As for me, I am going to strengthen my own foundation before I approach this tome, which must be read cautiously.