A Pair of Aces and a Trey

  • Published

A Pair of Aces and a Trey by Alan L. Roesler. Casemate Publishers, 2023, 256 pp.

Military aviation historian Alan L. Roesler wrote A Pair of Aces and a Trey as a joint biography detailing the exploits of First Lieutenants William P. Erwin, Arthur E. Easterbrook, and Byrne V. Baucom of the 1st Aero Squadron, regaled as America’s top-scoring World War I observation pilot and observers. Roesler intended this book as an illustration of aviation integration into the total war effort during World War I, specifically during the last few months of combat from July to November 1918 in campaigns along Eastern France. Along with occasional discussion of ground troop movement, he focuses primarily on the role and impact of observation aircraft and their aircrews, who perilously flew over enemy territory gathering photographic intelligence and reporting on enemy and friendly troop positions along the frontlines.

Roesler spotlights pilot Erwin, with eight confirmed victories, and his two main observers, Easterbrook and Baucom, with five and three confirmed victories respectively, because of their demonstrated bravery and dedication to duty during their time in service. Relying heavily on unit and public records, aircrew logbooks, personal letters, and newspaper articles, Roesler provides a thorough and detailed chronological listing of the trio’s aerial adventures and accomplishments, demonstrating their courage, heroism, and innovative mindsets in the face of constant threats both from the air and from below.

Unlike pursuit aircraft, observation aircraft were intended to be intelligence-gathering platforms without a true offensive mission set, making it rare for their aircrews to get the number of victories required to achieve “ace” status. Erwin’s and his two observers’ aggressiveness in the air made them stand out among their peers, as evidenced by their staggering numbers of hours flown over enemy lines, confirmed victories, and the recognition they received from Army leadership. Moreover, in a nod to future air combat tactics, Roesler explores the group’s early development and pioneering concepts such as escort aircraft, dogfighting, strafing, and close air support. Additionally, on more than one occasion, enemy fire brought Erwin’s aircraft down, forcing him and his observers to fight their way back to friendly territory using whatever weapons they could find and earning them the moniker of the “unkillable” team.

Wrapping up the story, Roesler’s last few chapters briefly tell each of the three men’s differing post-war lives with a particular focus on their continued affiliation with aviation, including air shows, commercial air transportation, and air service training programs. Only one member of the “unkillable” team, however, made it beyond 10 years past the end of the war, the other two tragically losing their lives in aircraft incidents.      

If Roesler’s aim was to show the connection between observational aircraft’s added airpower capabilities and success in the ground war, his book only minimally does so. Much of the text relays the times, altitudes, and locations of flights, who was flying what type of aircraft, how many enemies they faced, how many times they were shot, and other such details. There is little discussion about how the ground forces were impacted by the intelligence they received from the air units or how the aircraft’s role fit into the bigger picture. Additionally, the author frequently points out discrepancies between what Erwin in particular reported versus what his unit reported. For a book intended to highlight courage and valor, this often leaves the reader questioning whether such accounts were deliberately deceptive or just remembered incorrectly, or if the units were just poor at keeping records. Obviously, getting truth data in this case is practically impossible, but the back and forth between reports and the author never addressing the discrepancy one way or the other make it challenging for the reader to know what to believe.  

In sum, the whole of the book reads disjointed and choppy. Despite his desire for the story to not “revolve around a simple recitation of combat reports, aerial victories, and awards for valor,” that is exactly how it comes across (x). During the months at war, each day is explicitly laid out with who did what, when, where, and how in an almost clinical, report-like manner. The same can be said for the stories surrounding each of the three men during their post-war lives. Furthermore, although other individuals are specifically named throughout, likely to present a more complete picture, they are never tied into the main story and instead serve to confuse the reader as to why they are included.

While there is no doubt the information in the book was thoroughly researched and factual, A Pair of Aces and a Trey lacks a compelling narrative and reads like a long, chronological list of data points, but without much of an obvious point. Only in the few directly quoted diary or logbook entries does the reader get a sense of the human element at the heart of the author’s argument. This book falls short of a biography as the reader gains little insight into who the Airmen were as a trio—even lacking information on how they interacted with each other—much less who they were as individual human beings.

This book perhaps would be most interesting to World War I hobbyists or those looking to understand the cut-and-dried, facts-based historical details of early aerial combat, especially observational aircrews, but not for those wanting to learn insight into the lives of these three pioneering Airmen.

Colonel Kristy L. Moore, USAF

"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."