Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
Adam Makos Atlantic Books, November 22, 2015
The Korean War is a campaign which has rarely been in the limelight. This is strange since proportionally more of its protagonists are likely still to be alive than WW2. Perhaps it is discussed less because there was not such a clear cut victory by the Allies. Makos has managed to enlist the help of a small army, including many military archivists, to unearth these hidden tales from Korea.
Devotion is ostensibly about certain episodes in the Korean air battle, but it really has several key themes. Perhaps it is that about racial tensions and segregation in early Fifties USA which will cause this book to win a wide readership.
This is a very American tale; a hint that this will grate slightly on British audiences is given at the end of the introduction “As I was editing the last pages of this manuscript, the answer hit me. I knew how to categorize Devotion.
The bravery. The love. The inspiration.
This is an American story.”
Reach for the popcorn! Footnotes spell out for the American readership the development of strategic alliances in WW2, which are, one would hope, very well known to European readers.
The book follows the lives of two very different US airmen: Tom Hudner, from a gilded New England background, and Jesse Brown, from a dirt poor Mississippi sharecropping family. There is plenty of well-textured rites of passage material. Readers will soon realise we are dealing with two exceptional men. Jesse, who of course had no pilot role models in his vision, has a driving passion to fly, and becomes the first black airman in the USMC (and probably the USAF as well). Makos, whilst having a great facility with tabloidesque prose, is not wholly at ease in the aviation world: he calls an aircraft a ‘plane’, and refers to a kingfisher – lower case – when he means the Vought Kingfisher. Facility with deck landings is obviously the goal of every naval aviator, and Makos’ style is over-wrought to say the least:
“Jesse’s Corsair curved fast over the frothy waves, one wing aimed like a dark slash toward the sea. The ship’s deck heaved and sighed. This is going to be tricky, Tom thought. Jesse held steady at 110 miles per hour. Any faster and he’d overshoot the cables. Too slow and he’d stall and wing over, into the waves. Two hundred yards behind the deck, Jesse broke his turn and snapped his wings level…” . Makos also has a strange obsession with pilots’ flying gear – the phrase “leather jacket and green pants” seems to reoccur with strange regularity!
As Brown goes through his military training, he has to endure levels of racist abuse which would be (one hopes) unheard of in 2015. But once qualified he made sure he flew back to his home town in an aircraft and sowed the seeds of aviation aspirations in many other young black men. Once in service on carriers, Brown soon becomes a totem for the other black servicemen, and is loved by colleagues of every creed. By mid book the action transfers to the US Marines and their actions on the ground. Makos describes very vividly their struggles in appalling weather, against vastly superior Chinese forces, the Chinese government being a role model for 21st c Russia in denying the presence of its armed forces on foreign soil. The situation is so dire that President Truman is quoted as having considered use of a tactical nuclear weapon.
The storyline becomes intensely dramatic, and with its strong two central characters I should be surprised if the book has not already been optioned by a Hollywood studio. Yet Makos’ prose is overwrought. As Hudner prepares his aircraft for take-off on the rolling flight deck “The Corsair squealed to a halt. A drop tank and a napalm bomb shuddered beneath its belly, and eight rockets shook beneath the wings.” Really?
After take-off “To build speed, Tom let the Corsair cruise with her nose high and tail low.” Actually Mr Makos, the reverse is true!
The book features several very useful footnotes, so readers can place the action properly. Generally useful maps help to put the detail into context. The prospect of capture – for ground troops and pilots alike – was not enticing, with a higher proportion of PoWs (38%) dying in captivity than even with the Japs in WW2.
Jesse is shot down over enemy territory; the letter he wrote to his wife just before that last mission is intensely moving (and more Hollywood gold). Even in his death, episodes shed unhappy light on racial attitudes across the USA. But the book concludes with a very full account of the fate of the remaining characters.
This is such an amazing and inspiring tale, it is a slight shame it is over-spiced for a British audience. Nonetheless I have little hesitation in recommending it.