/ Published October 22, 2019
Bold Venture: The American Bombing of Japanese-Occupied Hong Kong, 1942–1945 by Steven K. Bailey. Potomac Books, 2019, 316 pp.
Bold Venture: The American Bombing of Japanese-Occupied Hong Kong, 1942–1945 tells the story of the endeavor to bomb Japanese-occupied Hong Kong through the eyes of US servicemembers and Allies, prisoners-of-war, and civilians caught up in the three-year campaign from 1942–45. Steven K. Bailey, the author of several travel and historical works on East Asia, writes about a near-hidden campaign in an often-overlooked World War II theater using a swift and easily consumable style.
Idealistic personalities and legendary units like Claire Chennault and the American Volunteer Group (AVG) set the stage for this intriguing story. Succeeding Army Air Force units carried forward the grit and lore of the AVG or “Flying Tigers.” The China Air Task Force and, eventually, the Fourteenth Air Force were led by a core group of veteran Airmen, including Chennault who remained a driving force behind the Hong Kong campaign throughout the book. The author effectively reflects the early stages of the bombing campaign as reminiscent of the spirit and desperation of the Doolittle Raid, and he echoes the early uncertain but bold attempts of the Allies to roll back the forces of tyranny that were advancing across the world.
The book sets a foundation for understanding the monumental effort behind conducting a war at the end of a worldwide supply line, with minimal resources, and having a militarily unsteady ally in China while stemming the tide of the Japanese forces. The author infuses surprising elements throughout the story that underline the resourcefulness of the Airmen involved in the air campaign. These elements include fighter drop tanks made of bamboo to shore up a limited supply of drop tanks, using P-40 fighters as dive-bombers in lieu of bomber aircraft, and ammunition sourced from 11 different countries while lacking an established distribution network. Without question, the logisticians’ achievements were remarkable.
This story also described momentous actions and feats that enhance the reader’s understanding of the Hong Kong campaign’s historical significance. The author highlights the vital assistance of the paramilitary group, British Army Aid Group who acted as Allied spies, Chinese liaisons, and aided downed airmen. Then there was the late-war maritime element of the Hong Kong campaign that not only included land-based raids from the Army Air Force who had been incessantly attacking Hong Kong for three years but also saw the involvement of a US Navy Task Force hunting a convoy supporting Japan on its last legs. The author also detailed the bombing mission where the early use of a notorious weapon from the last century— napalm—was utilized as a test run for the planned invasion of Japan.
The book did an excellent job of taking the reader on a journey toward understanding the technical, functional, and sometimes tactical limitations of aircraft in the China theater. Bailey conveyed the importance of small advancements to achieve an edge in combat, such as adding an extra pair of .50 caliber machine guns to a fixed station on a B-25 or, incorporating the use of radar with an automated munitions release capability on B-24s to mitigate weather and improve accuracy. Bailey also details several points in the book where the sights, the sounds, and the mood of the Airman carrying out the bombing campaign could be felt vicariously with Airmen suffering from malaria, stress, and lousy food, and with aircrews that were tired, traumatized, and terrified.
During the book’s conclusion, the author brought to life the effort of recovering the remains of downed or missing servicemembers through investigators’ use of mission records and Chinese villagers’ local area knowledge. The focal point for this intriguing piece of the book, was the search and recovery of remains from a downed B-25 whose entire crew was killed when the aircraft plunged into a mountain during a raid on Hong Kong.
While the story offers great historical elements, there are some notable areas that leave more to be desired. The author utilized a significant number of sources for this book, ranging from Army Air Force mission records and personal pilot accounts to local civilian sources and Japanese propaganda. However, it was a rare feature in the book to have a Japanese viewpoint of the campaign and the theater, which could have provided a significant viewpoint of the bombing campaign.
The story arc is not always clear either as the strategic impact of the Hong Kong campaign was not fully evident until the last quarter of the book. The Hong Kong campaign served multiple purposes toward eroding Japanese power in the Pacific, but the book becomes disjointed at certain points. Its initial focus was on the monumental struggle in materiel, manpower, and will to begin raids on Hong Kong. However, the author shifts to the campaign’s impact in the Pacific theater without building the tie-in effectively. Although he highlights the Pacific island bases that were being transformed into bombing hubs and the technological advancements that took shape, providing more detail within the transition of the book would have better displayed the diminishing importance of Hong Kong in Allied war plans.
Lastly, the content could have been better served with maps providing reference to the immense geography of the region. The author copiously discussed airfields across China and street names that were bombed in Hong Kong; however, it was occasionally challenging to grasp the underlying audaciousness of this military campaign. The remarkable struggle to fuel and supply a fighting force across vast distances and dynamic geographical features under looming enemy advancements without referencing a campaign or regional map can be a burden for an audience.
Overall, this story’s brisk pace shines the light on specific missions, personalities, units, and aircraft that were integral to understanding the air campaign against Hong Kong. The author provides a notable specific historical contribution for the era and region during World War II but avoids an analysis of the month-to-month conduct of the war or exploration of every operational decision in the context of the campaign. Given this knowledge, this work appears to be written for readers who are more familiar with this theater of the war. In short, Bold Ventures is a worthwhile read for historians and military aviation enthusiasts.
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