Unsung Eagles: The True Stories America’s Citizen Airmen in the Skies of World War II by Jay Stout is the story of the common men who answered the call of duty. Stout is a retired Marine Corps Aviator who flew F-4 Phantoms and later F-18 Hornets. A graduate of Purdue University he was commissioned in June of 1981 and retired a Lieutenant Colonel in 2001. With 4,500 flight hours and thirty-seven combat missions missions in Operation Dessert Storm, Stout knows his aviation.
Unsung Eagles gave me three surprises. First, looking at the cover I thought another book about the Army Air Corps in Europe. It’s not. Stout covers both theaters and Army, Navy, and Marine pilots. Second, I thought its going to cover famous raids. Again, no. The book covers a wide variety missions and none that stood out as famous air battles or bombing missions. The third surprise came after the realization of the first two surprises. Who would write about the “average Joe” pilot? Who else but a Marine. Of course, I am a bit biased in that last statement.
Unsung Eagles does what few war time books have done. It highlights the men who joined the war to fight. Men who left their homes and families and signed up, not the professional airmen. Many joined, and when the war was over quietly went on back to the civilian world leaving the military behind. These are the men whose uniforms are put away deep in a closet and never talk about the war except when prodded after a few beers. Twenty-two such pilots have their stories told in this fast paced history. The stories told, show all sides of the war from good deployments with plenty of support to cannibalizing planes to keep as many flying as possible. One absolutely amazing story is of a USAAF bomber pilot found himself flying in the dark behind two Japanese bombers and followed them in their landing pattern. The Japanese mistakenly assumed that the American was one of their own and proceeded to land. As the Japanese landed the American dropped his bombs on the Japanese planes and runway.
Unsung Heroes tells some fine stories of American pilots who you probably never heard of, flying missions that aren’t in very many history books, but still were very important in the Allied war effort. There were over a half million aircrewmen who served in World War II. This is a staggering number, it is more than twice the number of Marines serving when I was on active duty. Unsung Eagles is an outstanding history, and a personal history too. It is a reminder that not everyone who flew is recorded in history and that many who served then and now made important contributions that few will ever know about. Very well done. Semper Fi, Colonel.
Airship: Design, Development and Disaster by John Swinfield is a study of lighter than air ships in Europe and the United States. Swinfield holds a Master of Arts in maritime history has been widely published in newspapers as a reporter before joining ITV and the BBC.
Today the idea of lighter than ships, especially zeppelins, seem rather benign, if at all thought about beyond a great 70’s rock band. In World War I, zeppelins flew well above the ceilings of aircraft of the day. They were safe from enemy attack and could stay in the clouds hidden from view. With their engines off the were completely silent until their bombs hit the ground. Although the zeppelin could not see through the clouds, it could lower a “cloud car” with a crew member 3,000 feet below the zeppelin to act as a spotter. Zeppelins were to cities what submarines were to shipping: pure terror. Britain, in turn, used its airships to spot submarines.
A good portion of the book traces Britain’s attempt develop its own airship fleet for civilian use. Britain always ended up a step behind the Germans in the airship race. The Zeppelin company was almost destroyed as a result of the the Treaty of Versailles, but an American order helped save the company. In Britain, it was a struggle to develop a peace time airship program. The government did not want and could not afford to subsidize the industry. Two competing firms vied for position and promises included carrying mail and passengers to the Americas and to India. The companies projected profits.
In America, it was the rise of the Goodyear company after the U.S. purchased airships from other countries. America used helium and converted ships it bought to helium. Countries experimented with carrying planes on the zeppelins envisioning a fleet of plane carrying zeppelins, much like an aircraft carrier in the sky. Other countries joined the airship race. Italy entered and built the Norge for Amundsen to fly to the North Pole. Germany resumed the zeppelin industry with airships flying to Brazil and the United States. It was the heyday for airships, until the Hindenburg caught fire and crashed in a spectacular fireball. With the Hindenburg disaster, the airship industry also crashed. It was an end of a short era.
For a short time airships were a futuristic a terror in war and fast mode of transporting people and the mail in peace time. At over 700 feet in length, the size of an ocean liner, they were more than a bit impressive in the sky. Three times the length of a Boeing 747, twice the size of a Saturn 5 Rocket, or as long as Cleveland’s Terminal Tower is tall. To see something this size floating in the air would have been amazing. So large, it would block out the sun and cast a huge shadow when flying over an observer. Swinfield writes an interesting history of an nearly forgotten time and craft. The book is alive with competition, struggles, and some victories. A well written book with over thirty-five page of documentation and well illustrated. A very good read for aviation fans and students of the inter-war years.
Eddie Rickenbacker an amazing pilot and a gifted story teller. His account as a member 94th Aero Squadron reads like a well written story rather than a dry history. He brings all aspects of the air war into play: the good and the bad.
The 94th started with members of the somewhat illegal Lafayette Escadrille coming under American control as President Wilson threw his hat into the ring. The hat in the ring would become the painted symbol on the side of the 94ths aircraft. America unprepared for war and proud of its neutrality, had no planes to provide for its pilots. The 94th and other American squadrons had to rely on older French planes. France sold the US its previous generation of planes for American pilots to use. American squadrons took the these planes and excelled.
World War I was the point in history where America became a major player on the world stage. From being the new player who both France and England want to use as filler for their depleted armies, America walked away from the war respected and its soldiers and Marines decorated. It was a different time; a time when the world moved from the 19th century into the 20th (although few years late by the calendar) and set the stages for all the struggles of the 20th century.
Fighting the Flying Circus is an outstanding read for anyone interested in the air war or someone just looking for a great story of some truly brave men. As a former Marine, I am a bit hesitant to sing the praises of the other services, but these men had what it took and are an example to all that have served.