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Wings of Valor: Honoring America’s Fighter Aces

Wings of Valor: Honoring America’s Fighter Aces by Nick Del Calzo and Peter Collier. Naval Institute Press. (https://www.usni.org/navalinstitutepress), 291 Wood Road, Annapolis, Maryland 21402, 2016, 264 pages, $50.00 (hardcover), ISBN 978-1-59114-641-4.

The American public has been fascinated by aces—aviators who have downed at least five enemy aircraft—since the term first came into use during World War I. As of May 2015, only 76 American aces still lived. In this book, author Peter Collier and photographer Nick Del Calzo have given us a lasting tribute to these men. According to Del Calzo, who took most of the accompanying portraits, their goal “was to pay homage to and immortalize America’s Fighter Aces and their aerial combat achievements, which represent a significant historical period in military aviation history” (p. xi). This is important because the ace is “an endangered species. American air superiority has become so complete and the technology of unmanned aircraft so crucial to military strategy that it is hard to imagine a future air war that will produce a new generation of Aces” (p. 2). As a testimony to their dwindling numbers, many of the 82 men, all members of the American Fighter Aces Association, featured in this book have passed away since their interview or photographic session.

This is a handsome large-format (9 x 12-inch) coffee table book. Each man is given a three-page spread that includes a biography and account of his aerial exploits. A wonderful photographic portrait of the man completes each entry. These portraits are the most striking features of the book. Many of the recently taken images are juxtaposed against older images of the man in uniform or with his airplane. The men face the camera confidently; many are well-dressed and sporting military or aircraft lapel pins, and some display their medals. Each portrait exudes pride and strength. While it is impossible to do justice to each ace featured in the book, an overview is appropriate.

The men scored their aerial victories in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam, with some scoring in more than one war. That the men were successful leaders is evident by the higher ranks achieved by most of them; a few achieved flag-officer rank. The US Army Air Forces, US Air Force, US Navy, and US Marine Corps are all well-represented in the book.

Many of the men were wounded, some severely, and several were shot down. Some were taken prisoner. James Low (USAF), a Korean War ace, for example, was shot down while flying F-4s over North Vietnam; he spent a year in the “Hanoi Hilton.” One pilot, Barrie S. Davis (USAAF), actually met the man who had shot him down 66 years earlier. At least three of the men, John T. Crosby (USN), Willis E. Hardy (USN), and Jeremiah J. O’ Keefe Sr. (USMC), achieved the remarkable feat of becoming an “ace in a day,” having shot down five enemy aircraft in a single day. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Charles G. Cleveland (USAF) had to wait 55 years for his final “kill” to be confirmed before officially became an ace. Alexander Vraciu (USN) already had twelve Japanese aircraft to his credit when he downed six more in an eight-minute span on 19 June 1944.

But it took time and experience for the men to develop and hone their aerial combat skills. Consider the experience of Clarence A. Borley (USN), after flying his first combat mission during what became known as the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot:

He headed back to the carrier and saw his exultant squadron mates congregated on the deck of the carrier, nearly all of them having shot down at least one Japanese aircraft. Borley was chagrined: “I had to confess to my utter shame that I had not fired a single shot. . . . In the excitement and confusion of my first aerial combat, I had forgotten to charge my guns” (p. 26)!

It’s not surprising that these men earned a large number of medals for bravery; indeed, at least four of them, Jefferson J. DeBlanc (USMC), Joseph J. Foss (USMC), Robert E. Galer (USMC), and James E. Swett (USMC) received the Medal of Honor for their heroic feats. Many readers will be interested in the story of Fred F. Ohr (USAAF), a Korean-American whose surname was originally Wu. Ohr, battled occasional bigotry to become the nation’s first Korean-American ace. A sense of humor comes through for some of the men. According to Henry Meigs II (USAAF/Kansas Air National Guard), “Flying is the second-biggest thrill in life. The first is landing” (p. 155).

Action is not limited to the air. Some of the men endured terrible ordeals after being shot down. Steve N. Pisanos (USAF) worked with the French Resistance behind enemy lines. Billy G. Edens (USAF) was shot down four times, finally enduring a savage captivity in Germany. Other men floated in rafts, helpless, until they were finally rescued by friendly forces.

The foregoing is, of course, just a sampling of what is in this book. The format allows the reader to read one or two biographies at a time; there is plenty of action and history to keep aviation enthusiasts informed and entertained.

After reading this book, perhaps the reader will agree with Clarence F. Anderson (USAF), who, speaking of the 357th Fighter Group, the unit in which he served during World War II, said, “We weren’t like other people. . . at least not in our own minds. We were bolder, smarter, more spirited” (p. 7). There is no doubt that these men had something extra, something special.

(Note: For the men mentioned above, their service affiliation at the time of their discharge is given here.)

 Maj Peter L. Belmonte, USAF, Retired
O’Fallon, Illinois

 

 

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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