Pappy Gunn (Book Review)

6/12/2006 • Book Reviews

Reviewed by Walter J. Boyne
By Nathaniel Gunn
AuthorHouse, 2004, Bloomington, Ind.

Pappy Gunn is a loving tribute by the youngest son of one of the United States’ greatest heroes, one that highlights the humanity of a man who was a legend in his own time. Sadly, despite General George C. Kenney’s excellent 1960 book The Saga of Pappy Gunn, Gunn’s fascinating story is not widely known today, but Nathaniel Gunn’s biography will surely prompt further interest.

Paul I. Gunn was born in Quitman, Ark.—ironic, since he was not the sort to quit no matter how difficult the circumstances. Rising from poor but proud circumstances, “P.I.,” as he was then known, became an expert mechanic, a sailor, a pilot, an entrepreneur and, during the most important part of his career, a man responsible for creating innovative weapons. No Horatio Alger story can compare to Gunn’s career, for Pappy never sought wealth for wealth’s sake. Instead, he combined an intuitive mechanical ability with magnificent leadership qualities to make an invaluable contribution to the war effort, one that in some instances surpassed the best engineering support from U.S. aircraft factories.

Gunn’s wartime masterstroke was the installation of inordinately powerful armament systems in Douglas A-20 and North American B-25 bombers. At the same time, he saw fit to provide those aircraft with extra fuel tanks that allowed them to have extraordinary range. This move required him to have the tactical vision to conceive of these aircraft in an entirely new role, that of low-level strafers rather than medium bombers. That signifies one enormous leap for a man who started out in the U.S. Navy as an enlisted sailor and was commissioned in the U.S. Army Air Corps as an engineering officer. The fact that his ideas were not only listened to but acted upon conveys just how important they were. One reason for Gunn’s success was that he always flight-tested his ideas himself, pushing the aircraft to their limits.

The quality of his ideas was clearly confirmed in combat, as the A-20 Havoc and the B-25 Mitchell rampaged through the South Pacific. But there is a telling message recorded here from Lee Atwood, who served as chief engineer at North American Aviation, and who might be pardoned for taking exception to a nonengineer like Gunn making drastic modifications to his design. Instead, Atwood said this: “Some very creative people in the Air Corps, especially ‘Pappy’ Gunn who had operated an airline in the Philippines before the war, took the lead in changing the mission to the attack mode and installing eight forward-firing .50 caliber machine guns which made the plane very effective for attack purposes. These modifications and changes were shortly incorporated at the factory, greatly enhancing its [the B-25’s] military value.” This is high praise indeed, and points to the underlying validity of Gunn’s free-form engineering methods.

Gunn made his contributions under harrowing circumstances. His wife and four children, two daughters and two sons, were captured in the Philippines and had to endure Japanese imprisonment until they were freed in 1944. Worried that word of his work would reach the Japanese and result in even harsher treatment for his family, he maintained a low profile throughout the war. Despite that, Pappy Gunn became a legendary figure in the Pacific War—a man who richly deserves to be remembered by future generations for his innovative ideas and far-reaching vision.

Tags: ,