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MacArthur's Airman: General George C. Kenney and the War in the Southwest Pacific

MacArthur's Airman: General George C. Kenney and the War in the Southwest Pacific by Thomas E. Griffith Jr. University Press of Kansas, 1998, 368 pp.

The assertion that the best history is biography seems especially true when the subject of the biography proved instrumental in the implementation of significant military operations during World War II, not to mention his major contributions to and influence on the postwar Air Force. One finds that story in MacArthur’s Airman by Thomas Griffith Jr.

The book begins by recounting General Kenney’s formative years in Nova Scotia, the son of parents whose rich ancestry included voyagers on the Mayflower. Although the author does not delve into the details of family problems, the sudden departure of Kenney’s father suggests that such issues did exist. The future general attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but dropped out, claiming he was bored with school. Europe was preparing for war, and Kenney, influenced by air shows and aerobatic demonstrations common in the early twentieth century, joined the Army to fly airplanes. From that point on, Griffith discusses Kenney’s career, his experience in World War I, and the events and associations that led to his assignment as the top air commander in the Pacific theater during World War II.

A forward-thinking man, Kenney was among the first to understand the true function of air superiority—to gain control of the airspace, not simply conduct operations in it. In fact, the author points out that Kenney’s strategy, effectiveness, and advocacy for total air superiority may have influenced operations led by his counterparts in the European theater during the war.

Griffith provides a balanced view of Kenney, praising him for his management style, knowledge, and vision concerning the use of airpower, and for his relationship with Gen Douglas MacArthur. At the same time, he does not ignore Kenney’s more controversial traits and positions, such as his racist attitude toward the Japanese, the controversy over the B-29, his disputes with Gen Henry “Hap” Arnold, and the constant quarrels with his Navy counterparts. Kenney could check his ego and decentralize decision making for tactical operations, but that same ego and quick temper hindered his relationship with the Navy and perhaps impaired some operational missions.

I found MacArthur’s Airman a well-researched, well-written, and fairly detailed account of the air campaign in the Southwest Pacific. Some readers may wish to read the concluding chapter, a good summary of the book, before venturing into the chapters dealing with the air war. Readers seeking a biography strictly designed to entertain will probably be disappointed. Granted, the first three chapters offer details about Kenney’s youth and early military career, but most of the book examines the air campaigns under his leadership. Those interested in military history will find it an excellent resource. In the introduction, the author points out that he does not intend to dissect individual air engagements and that readers should look elsewhere for that information; nevertheless, the air campaigns seem to receive thorough treatment.

As an Airman, I appreciated the discussion about air employment that made General Kenney a great success. His critique of close air support and acceptance of interdiction operations demonstrated his forward thinking. Moreover, Kenney’s conduct of mobility operations and his use of engineering knowledge to push for better bomb fuses and the construction of new airfields to advance MacArthur’s army revealed his innovative nature. Readers can also garner lessons and practices from the general’s leadership abilities. I admire his management style as well as the trust he placed in the officers and enlisted men under his command.

All told, I enjoyed MacArthur’s Airman and recommend it both to my fellow Airmen and to readers interested in military history in general. Though at times overshadowed by the European theater, the war in the Pacific was no less dynamic, producing one of the great airpower advocates of all time.

2nd Lt Matthew B. Chapman, USAF

Robins AFB, Georgia

"The views expressed 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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