An Ace and His Angel: Memoirs of a World War II Fighter Pilot, by Herbert “Stub” Hatch, Turner Publishing Company, Paducah, Ky., 2000, $20.
When I stopped by a reunion of the 1st Fighter Group in Riverside, Calif., during the Memorial Day weekend of 2000, I had the rare privilege of comparing notes with one of that unit’s most notable aces, Herbert Hatch. “Stub” Hatch would have been just another World War II fighter pilot had the Lockheed P-38J Lightnings of his squadron, the 71st, not been escorting other P-38s of the 82nd Fighter Group in an ill-fated attempt to dive-bomb the Romano-Americano Oil Company’s cracking towers at Ploesti on June 10, 1944.
During the strike, the 71st’s 16 Lightnings were jumped by IAR-80s and IAR-81s of the Romanian 6th Fighter Group. Desperate, Hatch turned on his attackers and shot at anything crossing his sights that did not look like a P-38, fighting his way out of the trap. Eight of his squadron mates were less fortunate–five were killed and three others taken prisoner in the melee. “I was credited with five confirmed victories, one probable victory and one damaged,” wrote Hatch after the episode (though he later learned that the Romanians only acknowledged the loss of three fighters in the action). “I’d have given them all back for one of ours.”
When I spoke with him, Hatch had just published a book on his wartime experiences, An Ace and His Angel, and before our conversation ended I had bought a copy–as had most of the members of the 1st Group. When I broached the possibility of reviewing it, one of his squadron mates remarked, almost as a tongue-in-cheek word of warning, “He writes the way he talks.” Fortunately, in Hatch’s case, that turns out to be a good thing.
Although not a very long book, An Ace and His Angel is rich in detail, both in the technology of seat-of-the-pants flying and the human factor–the absorbing story of how men struggled to get through the danger, confusion and sheer folly of war. While not always presented in chronological order, Hatch’s vignettes are held together by his idea of a “guardian angel” that he believed kept him out of trouble throughout the war–not only from enemy planes and anti-aircraft fire, but from malfunctioning landing gear, bureaucratic snafus, wrathful senior officers, a traffic cop and his own inevitable lapses in judgment.
Written in a simple and moving style, An Ace and His Angel combines the poignancy, quirky humor and immediacy of real-life wartime experience that any veteran would recognize–and as such, is a worthy document of one airman’s war.