Capturing the hearts of a beleaguered nation, the fighter pilots of World War II engaged in a kind of battle that became the stuff of legend. They cut through the sky in their P-38s to go one-on-one against the enemy—and those who survived the deadly showdowns with enough courage and skill earned the right to be called aces. But two men in particular rose to become something more. They became icons of aerial combat, in a heroic rivalry that inspired a weary nation to fight on.
Richard “Dick” Bong was the bashful, pink-faced farm boy from the Midwest. Thomas “Tommy” McGuire was the wise-cracking, fast-talking kid from New Jersey. What they shared was an unparalleled gallantry under fire which won them both the Medal of Honor—and remains the subject of hushed and reverent conversation wherever aerial warfare is admired.
What they had between them was a closely watched rivalry to see who would emerge as the top-scoring American ace of the war. What they left behind is a legacy of pride we will never forget, and a record of aerial victories that has yet to be surpassed anywhere in the world.
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Bill Yenne is the author of more than three dozen nonfiction books, especially on aviation and military history, including Hit the Target, When Tigers Ruled the Sky, Big Week, and Aces High. He lives and works in San Francisco, California.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Table of Contents
PART I - BOYS
CHAPTER 1 - The Roaring Twenties and the Lone Eagle
CHAPTER 2 - Changes and Challenges
CHAPTER 3 - A World Goes to War
CHAPTER 4 - Americans Prepare
CHAPTER 5 - Young Men and War
CHAPTER 6 - The Daring Young Lieutenants and Their Flying Machines
CHAPTER 7 - Their Warhorse, Their Fork-Tailed Devil
CHAPTER 8 - Ups and Downs
PART II - WARRIORS
CHAPTER 9 - Into the Band of Brothers
CHAPTER 10 - Into the Cauldron
CHAPTER 11 - January 1943: The End of the Beginning
CHAPTER 12 - February 1943: The Calm Before the Storm
CHAPTER 13 - March 1943: A Rising Star
CHAPTER 14 - April 1943: Deaths in the Families
CHAPTER 15 - May 1943: Passing in the Night
CHAPTER 16 - June 1943: Into the Interior
CHAPTER 17 - July 1943: Four in One Day
CHAPTER 18 - August 1943: Black Days
CHAPTER 19 - September 1943: Air Supremacy
CHAPTER 20 - October 1943: Down in Flames
CHAPTER 21 - November 1943: The Pied Piper of Poplar
CHAPTER 22 - December 1943: Vals for Christmas
CHAPTER 23 - January 1944: The Next Great Ace?
CHAPTER 24 - February 1944: The Flying Circus
CHAPTER 25 - March 1944: And Then There Were Two
CHAPTER 26 - April 1944: Cases for the Ace of Aces
CHAPTER 27 - May 1944: Modesty Equal to Merit
CHAPTER 28 - June 1944: “And the Angels Sing”
CHAPTER 29 - June 1944: A Stranger Comes to Hollandia
CHAPTER 30 - July 1944: The Lone Eagle on His Wing
CHAPTER 31 - August 1944: Just Doing His Job
CHAPTER 32 - September 1944: Very Little and Very Safe
CHAPTER 33 - October 1944: Shooting Gallery Skies
CHAPTER 34 - November 1944: The Race for Glory
CHAPTER 35 - December 1944: Medals of Honor
CHAPTER 36 - January 1945: Never to Be Forgotten
CHAPTER 37 - February 1945: The Roses Were Victory Red
CHAPTER 38 - Spring 1945: The Lure of Jet Planes
CHAPTER 39 - Summer 1945: Home Sweet Home
CHAPTER 40 - August 1945: By His Example to Inspire
PART III - REMEMBRANCE
CHAPTER 41 - Aces High
CHAPTER 42 - Those Who Remember Them
WIDELY USED ACRONYMS
APPENDIX 1 - Cumulative Scores
APPENDIX 2 - Official Texts of Medal of Honor Citations
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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May you grow up dreaming of heroes,
and once grown, may you be regarded as one yourself.
NOTES ON SQUADRON NOMENCLATURE AND ORGANIZATION
During World War II, the organizational structure of the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) began at the top with numbered air forces, of which there were sixteen by the end of the war. Both Richard Bong and Thomas McGuire were assigned to the Fifth Air Force for their combat tours. In turn, each of the numbered air forces contained commands, usually a bomber command and a fighter command, among others. These were designated with Roman numerals.
Bong and McGuire were fighter pilots and therefore were in the V Fighter Command of the Fifth Air Force. Generally, the next level down was the group, which usually contained three squadrons.
For most of his combat career, McGuire was assigned to the 431st Fighter Squadron within the 475th Fighter Group, known as “Satan’s Angels.” From April to December 1944, McGuire was the commander of the 431st.
During his early combat career, Bong was assigned to the 9th Fighter Squadron within the 49th Fighter Group, known as the “Forty-niners.” After February 1944, he was assigned directly to the V Fighter Command and allowed to “freelance,” attaching himself to various units at his own discretion. These included squadrons within both the 49th and 475th fighter groups.
The USAAF itself was formed on June 20, 1941, as an autonomous component of the U.S. Army. It was the successor to the U.S. Army Air Corps, and it absorbed the functions, assets, and personnel of this organization. In 1947, the USAAF was replaced by the U.S. Air Force, an entity entirely independent of the U.S. Army.
The skies over New Guinea were their battlefield. Flying from bases here, Bong scored his first twenty-eight victories between December 1942 and April 1944, and McGuire scored his first twenty-four between August 1943 and October 1944. (U.S. Army)
The race between Bong and McGuire reached its crescendo over the Philippines. Bong scored his last twelve victories here between October and December 1944, and McGuire scored his last fourteen here during the same period. (Author’s collection)
Anyone who writes of America’s two highest-scoring aces must stand on the shoulders of Charles A. Martin, who spent many years compiling original documents related to the life of Tommy McGuire, and Carl Bong, whose privately published collection of his brother’s letters are invaluable in both understanding Dick Bong and in tracing his career. In addition to these essential sources, the author wishes to thank Robert Fuhrman, executive director of the Richard I. Bong World War II Heritage Center; Gary W. Boyd, McGuire Air Force Base historian; and U.S. Air Force historian David Chenowith, who supplied photographs. Finally, a tip of the cap to my friend Dan Roam, who urged me and encouraged me to finish this book.
Knights of the Air
We sigh for our own lost youth as we think of him, with all the world before him—the medieval world, with all its possibilities of wild adventure and romantic fortune—with knights to overthrow at spear point and distressed damsels to succor and a princess’s smile to win at some great tournament. And rank and fame to gain by prowess and hardihood, under the eye of kings, in some great stricken field.
—WALTER CLIFFORD MELLER, A Knight’s Life in the Days of Chivalry (1924)
THE image of the lone warrior is one of the most enduring in human literature. He is the European knight-errant. He is the Japanese samurai. He is the lone rider of the American West. The solitary warrior is a powerful global cultural icon.
General William Tecumseh Sherman famously observed that war is hell, but war is also a paradox. On one hand, it is an all-consuming blood-bath; yet on the other, it is an endeavor that embodies gallantry and heroism that both inspires and excites. It turns the stomach and it stirs the heart. It induces nightmares and it inspires magnificent images that lift the soul.
It is that image of the lone warrior that arouses the imagination that paints warfare not as hell but as glorious. He is not lost among the anonymous dead, but preserved on the pages of great literature or carved in marble for the ages.
Since antiquity, volumes of epic poetry have celebrated Roman equites or medieval knights, whose victories were extraordinary and whose deaths were heroic. Written in the fifteenth century, Thomas Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur is the classic and often imitated example, but there are vast libraries of others that tell the stories of real people whose heroism was backed by the shedding of real blood.
The warriors whose names are preserved in such epics were often members of an elite warrior class, the knights. In the Middle Ages, admission to knighthood was one of the highest honors that could be bestowed upon a young man, and to be such a warrior carried both immense prestige and immense danger.
“The noblest youths,” wrote Tacitus in first-century Rome, “were not ashamed to be numbered among the faithful companies of celebrated leaders, to whom they devoted their arms and service. A noble emulation prevailed among the leaders to acquire the greatest number of bold companions.”
The various European words for this special warrior give us a rounded picture of the identity of the man. The word “knight” derives from the Old English cniht, meaning a young man who is of service. The German word ritter means rider—there being that lone rider on horseback who recurs so often in heroic folklore. Indeed, the French word for knight is chevalier, meaning horseman, which is also the root word of chivalry, the code by which the knight lived his life of duty and honor, of courage and service. As in the famous tournaments, which were a sporting event allegory for real warfare, the knights met one another singularly, man on man, in a fight in which the better man always emerged victorious.
To achieve an honor such as knighthood was to achieve membership in a singular warrior class, but just as it carried great prestige, it also carried great responsibility. The institution of chivalry, to which the warrior subscribed, was a system of duty and honor by which the medieval European knight sought to distinguish himself from other warriors.
The times of these singular heroes, both idolized and idealized, eventually faded. The armed and armored rider on his powerful warhorse—facing down another like himself—soon faded from the battlefield, washed over and submerged by the tidal wave of military technology, mass casualties, and a new doctrine of total war in which the code of chivalry no longer played a role.
In August 1914, as Europe went to war, there were still horsemen, still colored banners, and still a sense that among the young men riding forth they would be singular heroes. Soon, however, these young men were ground together in a meat grinder, hamstrung on barbed wire, or chopped apart by machine guns, finding themselves writhing in the stinking mud of Flanders’ fields.
Where, the last romantics asked, was chivalry?
Where were the knights?
To these questions, one raised one’s eyes to gaze into the skies high above the mud. One heard the sputtering, humming sound of a nine-cylinder Oberursel air-cooled rotary engine, or a nine-cylinder Le Rhône, each carrying a lone rider into battle, man against man.
Just as World War I gave the history of war such dehumanizing doctrines and weapons of mass carnage as trench warfare and poison gas, so those years gave the twentieth century a new caste of knighthood: the fighter pilot. The knights of the war they called the Great War once again fought man against man, but now they were doing it in three glorious dimensions.
Aerial warfare was essentially born in World War I. Balloons had been used for observation in the various conflicts of the nineteenth century and before. The French used observation balloons at the Battle of Fleurus in 1794, and the Union’s Army of the Potomac had a Balloon Corps during the Civil War. Airplanes had been used in Italy’s war with Turkey in 1911, but World War I was the first war in which airplanes became an integral part of battlefield action. Meanwhile, the necessities of combat led to innovations and advances in aeronautical engineering.
When World War I began, aircraft were flimsy machines that were used primarily for observation. Soon, however, observer pilots started to carry handguns to fire at other observer pilots, and steel darts to drop on troops on the ground. The airplane gave birth to the warplane.
Soon the pilot would truly come to embody all that had been embodied in the medieval notion of the knight. Soon the pilot became the idealized and idolized ace.
Fighter pilots became the knights of the air. They were quite literally a breed apart, fighting their battles high above the mud and muck of the battlefield, fighting one another man to man like the knights of the medieval tournament. Just as a special folklore had once existed around the knights of the Middle Ages, and the code of chivalry that defined knighthood contained a special vocabulary, so it was with the knights of the air. Most important in this modern lexicon is the term “ace,” which was coined to describe the knight who had achieved a level of expertise beyond that of his fellow knights of the air.
What is an ace?
Technically the term came to be assigned to a pilot of a fighter aircraft who had shot down, or destroyed in the air, a total of five enemy aircraft. In other words, an ace was a pilot who had achieved five aerial victories. Therefore, an ace also could be described as a fighter pilot who had dueled to the death with five other fighter pilots...
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