Aces High: The Heroic Saga of the Two Top-Scoring American Aces of World War II

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Aces High: The Heroic Saga of the Two Top-Scoring American Aces of World War II by Bill Yenne. Berkley Caliber, 2009, 368 pp.

Bill Yenne, a prolific writer, was born in 1949 and graduated from the University of Montana. The title of his book Aces High: The Heroic Saga of the Two Top-Scoring American Aces of World War II might suggest that he writes for the popular market, and the widely diverse books he has produced support that idea. This is not to suggest that Yenne’s writing is weak and his grasp of air history imperfect. On the contrary, he writes quite well, only rarely making a historical error in the book under consideration. He has published works on Alexander the Great, the history of beer, and Sitting Bull, not to mention airpower subjects. The catalog of the academic library at Air University lists 17 of his books. Clearly, he must read at blazing speed and write briskly with good style. Nevertheless, I do not recommend that Aces High occupy a high place on the reading lists of current Airmen.

Yenne tells an adventure story about P-38 pilots Richard Bong and Thomas McGuire—two leading American aces, both of them recipients of the Medal of Honor—who flew in the Southwest Pacific and died at age 25. The author injects some human interest into the story by discussing their personal lives in training as well as their wartime loves. Gen George Kenney, Douglas MacArthur’s air commander, took a personal interest in both heroes; in fact, he wrote a biography of Bong after the war.

The book concentrates almost wholly on operational history at the tactical level, tending toward a sortie-by-sortie description of the work of both pilots, set in a story of competition between the two for the title of America’s leading ace. Doubtless, some rivalry did exist, but here it dominates the tale. Modern expeditionary warriors will find little to enhance their understanding of tactical principles, logistics, campaign strategy, surface operations at sea and on the ground, and air support of the latter. The problems of higher command and the difficulties of imposing unity of command in the Pacific are worthy of study but receive no attention in this work—as is the case with the air campaign in the Southwest Pacific, one of the primary sources of modern tactical air doctrine. Aces High is an adventure story, pure and simple. McGuire died in combat near the end of the war, and Bong in a jet crash in California not long after he returned home—tragic endings that enhance the book’s value in the popular market.

Readers who wish to further their professional education should bypass Aces High. For those reading for recreation, then it is worthy up to a point, but the long recitation of individual sorties does become wearing. Readers might be better served by General Kenney’s own books, on which Yenne heavily depends (General Kenney Reports: A Personal History of the Pacific War [1949, 1997] and Dick Bong: Ace of Aces [1960, 1980]), or by Thomas Griffith’s wartime biography of Kenney, MacArthur’s Airman: General George C. Kenney and the War in the Southwest Pacific (1998).

Dr. David R. Mets
Niceville, Florida

"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."