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Book Review: Airmen Without Portfolio: U.S. Mercenaries in Civil War Spain (John Carver Edwards)

Originally published by Aviation History magazine. Published Online: August 11, 2001 
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Airmen Without Portfolio: U.S. Mercenaries in Civil War Spain, by John Carver Edwards, Praeger Publishers, Westport, Conn., 1997, $49.95.

If World War I could be seen as a collision of empires, the Spanish Civil War of 1936­39 was primarily a conflict of ideologies. On one side was an elected Republican government, coexisting uneasily with progressives, anarchists, idealistic communists and more cynical Stalinists, whose principal backing came from the Soviet Union. On the other side was a coalition of religious and social conservatives and militarists, supported by their more extreme kindred spirits, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

Despite efforts by the League of Nations to discourage outside intervention, both the Republican and Nationalist sides in Spain's internecine struggle attracted volunteers from abroad, whose motives ranged from a sincere desire to support their ideological cause to a mercenary lust for money and adventure. The war also saw considerable use of air power, and at a time when the airplane was rapidly developing into a truly practical instrument of both civil transport and destruction, the airmen in Spain attracted a disproportionate share of publicity.

In the case of 12 American volunteers for the Republican cause, that publicity would prove to be a mixed blessing, as John Carver Edwards reveals in detail in his book Airmen Without Portfolio: U.S. Mercenaries in Civil War Spain. Spanish Republican propagandists made the most of the American volunteers, inevitably exaggerating their exploits. At home, they were lionized by people who shared their convictions and romanticized by a general public that regarded them as dashing, flying soldiers of fortune. On the other hand, the United States government, officially upholding the embargo against arms to Spain (which the Soviet Union, Italy and Germany ignored), regarded them as an embarrassment.

Particularly irritating to the American government were the events that made front-page news, such as the death of the idealistic Benjamin D. Leider in combat on February 18, 1937, and his subsequent martyrdom by both the Communist international and American Jewish communities. Even more galling was the international incident that developed when Harold Evans Dahl was downed on July 12, 1937, tried as a war criminal by the Nationalists and saved from execution at the last moment through a very personal appeal by his actress wife, Edith Rogers Dahl.

While Italian and German veterans went back home to share the tactical lessons they had learned with their indigenous air arms, and many of the Soviet airmen returned only to find they were caught in Josef Stalin's paranoid purges, the U.S. military shunned combat-experienced survivors like Albert J. Baumler, who was victor over 41ž2 enemy aircraft in Spain. Baumler eventually joined another mercenary force–Claire Chennault's American Volunteer Group (AVG) in China–and he downed a Nakajima Ki-27 fighter on June 22, 1942. He added 31ž2 more Japanese planes to his score before the year was out, as a member of the AVG's successor, the China Air Task Force. Frank G. "Tinker," Jr., was another experienced survivor. With eight confirmed victories, he was the leading American ace between World Wars I and II, but he was less fortunate than Baumler. He fell into despair and alcoholism and committed suicide in Little Rock, Ark., on June 13, 1939.

As with his 1991 book, Berlin Calling: American Broadcasters in Service of the Third Reich, John Carver Edwards is fascinated by the individual stories of Americans who volunteered for causes that went beyond the policies of their own country. Drawing on a wealth of international documentation to shed light on the volunteers' comrades in arms and opponents, Edwards cuts through decades of popular myth to present the often grim realities of their war–one in which airmen on both sides were learning from scratch the techniques that would be devastatingly commonplace in World War II. What emerges from his study is the portrait of a small, committed and courageous band of unique characters whose deeds, even stripped of mythos, can stand on their own merit.

Jon Guttman

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