Culture

World War II Pilots Rightfully Immortalized in The Fight in the Clouds

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Stories about World War II have been a major part of American popular culture for decades. From the Warner Bros. war films of the 1940s to Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and beyond, there is a consistent magnetism towards America’s Greatest Generation and the war they fought against totalitarianism. Many people have relatives who were in the war or have met veterans that have made an impact on their life. Without question, WWII vets are a special, unique group whose stories deserve to be shared.

In The Fight in the Clouds, author James P. Busha organizes the many interviews he conducted with WWII fighter pilots over the years into one volume. Busha, a pilot himself, is also editor of EAA Warbirds of America, EAA Vintage Aircraft Association publications, and contributing editor for Flight Journal. The book opens with specifications about the P-51 Mustang that will be helpful to those new to the topic.

These pilots, like their planes, were tough as nails. The only accepted defeat was death. The tales range from fun practice runs, harrowing fights into enemy territory, and postwar musings. The Fight in the Clouds begins with a powerful introduction about the story of 2nd Lt. James Des Jardins and his brother, who both lost their lives serving our country in World War II. Their story is told, in part, through primary documents in the form of Western Union telegrams. Reading the words of the time always presents a unique and often influential response. This book, according to Busha, was written for those “who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country as they laid their lives on the line to ensure that future generations would enjoy the freedoms and liberties that have been bestowed upon us.”

One of the many stories that stuck out to me was that of Capt. Clayton “Kelly” Gross, who was in a dogfight with “one of Hitler’s wonder weapons,” a Messerschmitt Me 262:

I felt the stick budge as I tried to pull out of my screaming dive. I thought for sure was going to tear the wings off and dive the Mustang deep into German soil! As I pulled out, I found myself right on the 262’s tail. In a split second I lined him up. At a hundred feet away, he was hard to miss. I gave him a little squirt that tore up his left jet engine and shredded his left wingtip. With a moment of greater forward speed than the jet, I overshot him and pulled off to the right. The 262 pulled straight up and I knew the Mustang couldn’t catch him no matter how fast I was going. I thought I lost him as he pulled over a thousand feet away, but I was watching as he stopped in midair and began to tail slide back down. His canopy came off and out popped the pilot. I finally got my jet!

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Of course, not every story in this volume is about a victory. This book is full of both victory and defeat, but what ties it all together is the heroic courage of the pilots that populate the narrative. Every story has its own lesson, unique perspective, and is told with the kind of straightforward prose that defines our Greatest Generation. While each pilot is a war hero, they all have an “I was just doing my job” attitude that reminds me of when I met the modest and approachable Medal of Honor recipient Leo Thorsness.

Another example, Lt. James L. McCubbin shares some interesting insight into combat in the clouds:

Part of the allure is that in war, the situation is often you or them. Each of you wants to kill the other, plain and simple. Most of the time our encounters were machine against machine; we rarely saw the bloody results of aerial combat. The rest of the flying experience depends on the aggressiveness of the individual.

McCubbin’s observation brings important context to the rest of the book. Some pilots speak with a clear distance from the impact of their battles. Others share their stories with a blunt honesty regarding the horrors of war.

The many tales give us insight into how these pilots fell in love with aviation, where their interest in the service came from, as well as their feelings on duty and sacrifice in combat. While Busha is a seasoned pilot himself and has been published in many aviation publications, this book is accessible to anyone with an interest in WWII history. Upon opening this book, the pages quickly reveal what true heroism looks like.