Book Review: Mustang Summer

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This is a strange book. It reads like the memoirs of a World War 2 fighter pilot. It has many of the elements of similar books I have read. However, this one is a work of fiction.


Frankly, I don’t understand the point. There are plenty of fine fighter pilot memoirs and many exciting or intriguing ones. This one reads pleasantly enough, it’s a good mixture of action and human interest and is entirely plausible. However, I just don’t see what it adds to throw another one into the mix when it can only be derivative.


I suppose if you’ve never read a fighter pilot memoir before it might be interesting, but I read these books primarily to learn about history. While you could do so from this book—it seems reasonably accurate as these things go—it would only be second- or third-hand knowledge at best.


If anyone can explain to me the advantage of fiction over reality in an area like this, I’ll be interested to hear the argument.




Update and bump: Reader phil writes in with these excellent WWII fighter pilot memoir recommendations. Comments are his:



  • Tumult in the Clouds by James Goodson: Started with the RAF Eagle Squadrons then transferred to the US AAF.

  • Nanette by Edwards Park: Memoir of a P-39 pilot in New Guinea.

  • Thunderbolt by Robert Johnson: Johnson was one of the highest scoring aces of the European Theatre; P-47 pilot.

  • Gabby: A Fighter Pilot’s Life by Francis Gabreski: Served with Johnson, shot down 28 planes in WW2 and became an ace again in Korea.

  • Into the Teeth of the Tiger by Donald Lopez: Memoir of a P-40 pilot in China.

  • Ace by Bruce Porter: Memoir of a Marine night fighter ace in the Pacific.

  • Mustang Ace by Robert Goebel: Memoir of a P-51 ace (12 kills) who flew out of Italy.

  • The Jolly Rogers by Tom Blackburn: Memoir of the commander of the Navy’s first active Corsair squadron which operated from land bases in the Solomons.


Many thanks to Phil for his excellent suggestions, and I’ll toss in my own, Yeager by Chuck Yeager and Leo Janos, who was the first American pilot in the European theatre to be shot down, make it back to England, and return to flying combat missions.




—Posted by Nicholas.

Comments

  1. Nicholas, Can you recommend some of the better fighter pilot memoirs? I’m always looking for reading material.

  2. Well you’ve probably read it, but Chuck Yeager’s (auto)biography is pretty good. It’s just called ‘Yeager’ as far as I know. He talks about his WW2 days as well as the later test pilot era. It’s late and I’m drawing a blank, although I’m sure I’ve read others, I’ll have a better look at my bookshelf tomorrow and see if I can find them.

  3. Nicholas, Frankly I’m surprised you noticed. Just about anything remotely historical is ‘derivative’, in the sense that it’s been done before. I don’t think there’s much of historical import yet to reveal about WW2 for example, but that doesn’t stop roughly 5,000 new titles coming out every year dealing with WW2, the Civil War, Jesus, or another biography of Abraham Lincoln. That figure is just a guess, btw, based on what I see when I get offers from the Military Book Club.

  4. …If anyone can explain to me the advantage of fiction over reality in an area like this…’ Uhm, it sells better?

  5. See if you can get your hands on Douglas Bader’s story as a fighter pilot in the R.A.F. during WW-II. He flew numerous sortees AFTER both legs had been amputated (pre-war plane crash). He was eventually shot down and spent time in a German P.O.W. camp and survived! The guy was ‘Out-F***ing-Standing’! I gleened the following info from Yahoo: Paul Brickhill’s book, Reach for the Sky, was published in 1954 and was later made into a movie. Bader’s autobiography appeared in 1973. Douglas Bader, who was knighted in 1976, died in 1982.

  6. I second Toejam Absolutely in-CREDIBLE man. Douglas Bader is a personal hero of mine. As a matter of fact, my grandfather flew in the same Hurricane squadron as Bader for part of the war. Reach for the Sky is extremely well-written and is very interesting. And Marcus, they do not neccesarily sell better. Those who would read books on WW2 want to read them for the history, not other elements

  7. Bram, Djoo ever read ‘Chained Eagle’, about Everett Alvarez? That’s pretty good. I liked ‘Phantom Over Vietnam’ by J Trotti, too.

  8. Some great WW2 fighter pilot memoirs: Tumult in the Clouds- James Goodson-started with the RAF Eagle Squadrons then transferred to the US AAF. Nanette-Edwards Park-memoir of a P-39 pilot in New Guinea. Thunderbolt-Robert Johnson- Johnson was one of the highest scoring aces of the European Theatre; P-47 pilot. Gabby:A Fighter Pilot’s Life-Francis Gabreski-Served with Johnson, shot down 28 planes in WW2 and became an ace again in Korea. Into the Teeth of the Tiger-Donald Lopez-Memoir of a P-40 pilot in China. Ace-Bruce Porter-memoir of a Marine night fighter ace in the Pacific. Mustang Ace-Robert Goebel-memoir of a P-51 ace (12 kills) who flew out of Italy. The Jolly Rogers-Tom Blackburn- Memoir of the commander of the Navy’s first active Corsair squadron which operated from land bases in the Solomons. There are a lot more but these are a good start.

  9. Let’s not forget the Germans. They produced some of the most outstanding fighter pilots of the era. Adolf Galland is the one who comes to my mind. His biography (‘Adolf Galland: The Authorised Biography’) is the life story of Germany’s most famous World War II air force officer with 104 total victories. As a fighter ace, he became the youngest general in the Wehrmacht, whose combat career spanned the years from biplanes over Spain to the first operational jet fighters (Me-262’s). Here’s an interesting site with more info and pics on Galland: http://home.monet.no/~oddbass/galland.html

  10. It’s amazing he survived the war. Most German pilots flew every day until they were shot down and killed. It was probably a combination of both skill and luck.

  11. Shipmates, I’ve held off posting on this for awhile, but figure I’ll chime in here anyway. I would caution about putting the accuracy of a memoir over that of a work of fiction. The reason is this: All humans are fallible, and the most accurate of a memoir will still suffer from the passage of time between when the event(s) occured and when they were written down. Pinch can relate to this. I vividly remember portions of certain missions I flew, sort of like film clips from a movie. Other missions I flew I can only vaguley remember, if at all, even with the aid of my logbook, a cruisebook, etc. It all just sort of blurs together, and getting things accurate is rather difficult. Couple this with the interpretation of the flight by different airmen who participated. 5 pilots will have 5 different versions of the same mission, even though they were all close by and flew the same aircraft, with the same loads, and struck the same targets. It’s because we all have different priorities about what is important to us, and that changes our perspective on events. The advantage of fiction is that it can be technically accurate, because the author can draw not only upon the manuals and data available, but on the manufacturer’s data and builder’s data, etc. However, the fictional account, although based upon a historical occurence, will always be speculative based upon a mingling of survivor’s accounts and unti histories. Personal accounts, as I said, will suffer from the author’s bias as well as the passage of time, the greater the difference in time between the event and the writing, the less accurate it must be judged. I’d offer up for you a good work which deals with the individual interpretations that I’m talking about here. It’s entitled ‘The Face of Battle’ by John Keegan. The author uses historical battles (Agincourt, Waterloo, and The Somme) to show how the same event is viewed differently by actual participants. Anyway, I depend upon first-person accounts for the research I do, and they are always preferred over fiction because the authors were participants in the narrative. However, they must be tempered with the concern for inaccuracy based upon memory and bias. For technical aspects, however, fiction MAY well be as accurate as the personal account. Respects, AW1 Tim

  12. Well, it’s one thing to get your memoirs a bit wrong, sure I expect that some of the engagements are described wrong etc. After all, a lot more kills are claimed than actually occur. So clearly the pilots aren’t omniscient. But in a work of fiction, I don’t even trust the author to necessarily know what’s realistic. If the author was an actual Mustang pilot, at least I could trust the accuracy of the description of the plane, and the missions he invented would be realistic. But if the author was a Mustang pilot why not just write fact rather than fiction? So while this book SEEMS accurate I can’t trust it 100%. That, and I’d much rather know what somebody thinks actually happened, than what somebody would like to imagine happened. I realize a history book doesn’t tell us what happened. It tells us what the author thinks happened. That’s one reason I like to read a few, and from different perspectives. That way you can eventually gain an understanding of actual events. But reading works of fiction? I’m not sure what you learn from them about the real world, at the end of the day. I enjoy fiction but if I’m going to read a made-up story it might as well be something a little more fantastic than this.

  13. I feel I have some authority to speak here, having authored a collective non-fiction B-17 crew memoir called Half A Wing, Three Engines and A Prayer: B-17s Over Germany, (McGraw-Hill 2d Ed. 1999), which is available at amazon.com. One of my reasons for writing it was dissatisfaction with novels such as John Hersey’s The War Lover. A good read, but was this what these men really felt? I think memoirs are better than fiction in describing combat, unless the memoir is itself ‘fiction.’ The best memoirs are those that are fact-checked long after the event, IMHO. Still, there are a few fighter/attack pilot novels that are not to be missed. James Slater’s The Hunters, about the F-86 pilots of the Korean War, is one. And nobody has written about wartime carrier operations better that James Michener in The Bridges of Toko Ri. It’s his finest work, I think, a real gem. Finally, there are two now-overlooked novels by Len Deighton, which provide realistic accounts of air combat without doing too much violence to the WWII Zeitgeist. The first is his 1970s novel, Bomber, about an RAF Bomber Command raid that goes badly awry in mid-1943. The second is an 8th AF 1944 P-51 yarn called ‘Goodbye Mickey Morse.’ I think we have to allow that sometimes fiction can capture the experience of combat on the human psyche just as well as non-fiction. After all, nobody trashes The Red Badge of Courage just because it’s a novel.

  14. Shipmates, Redhand says better than I what i attempted to say. That is, fiction can in many times capture that which the memoir cannot. Regardless, I’ll offer three titles which, although fiction, or, historical fiction if you wish, are to me must-read books (two) and a must-see film. 1.) The Bridges at Toko Ri. 2.) H.M.S Ulysses 3.) Das Boot Also up there Is ‘Cross of Iron’ ‘Enemy at the Gates’ and ’12 O’Clock High’. Can anyone honestly say that better films about war and it’s effects on men were ever made than ’12 O’clock High’ and ‘The Red Badge of Courage’? My point is that, yes, primary source material is always to be preferred over fiction, but it must be seen ‘in relation’ to the author’s own experiences, bias(s), and the passage of time between the event(s) depicted and the writing of the memoirs. Like I said, personally, I have over 4,000 hours of aircrew time in various Navy aircraft. I can speak generally about much of my experiences, and specifically about some of my experiences. But in the end, it is ONLY my experiences that I’m writing about, and to take it as gospel on the subject would be a poor choice. In the end, we can only get snapshots of the past, little images of specific times and events and places and emotions, each colored by time and perspective. It’s the best we can hope for, and each is certainly to be treasured and preserved, but like ourselves, it will be an imperfect record. We each contribute what we can, and hope that it makes some sort of sense to those who come along later and ask.. what happened back then? Respects, AW1 Tim