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A new book on American aces has much to offer–though less than its authors may have intended.

Fighter Aces of the U.S.A. byRaymond J. Toliver and Trevor J. Constable, Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Atglen, Pa., 1997, $59.95

The introduction to the latest book by the redoubtable historian team of Raymond J. Toliver and Trevor J. Constable, calls the book “the first comprehensive volume ever published dealing with American fighter pilots over the entire period of U.S. engagement in aerial warfare–from World War I through Vietnam.” Alas, for all the book’s many merits, that statement is ambitious but inaccurate. Not only did Colonel Ward Boyce’s equally hefty volume, American Fighter Aces Album (reviewed in Aviation History, January 1997), come out earlier, but for the most part it is a more comprehensive reference source on the subject, including a number of aces who are left out of Fighter Aces of the U.S.A. For example, Toliver and Constable mention Frank Tinker’s achievements during the Spanish Civil War but not those of American-born volunteers Arthur Chin, Wong Pan-Yang and Wong Sun-Shi in Chinese service against the Japanese prior to World War II.

Unlike Boyce’s book, Fighter Aces of the U.S.A. gives a passing mention to gunners and observers of World War I, as well as to the radar intercept officers (RIOs) of McDonnell F-4 Phantom jets during the Vietnam War, who were jointly credited with aerial victories along with their pilots. Nevertheless, like Boyce, authors Toliver and Constable do not classify the gunners or RIOs as bona fide fighter aces, explaining: “Any departure from this long-standing ‘pilots only’ criterion would seemingly make thousands of B-17 and B-24 gunners of World War II into aces.”

Another interesting qualification that the authors use is U.S. Air Force Study No. 133, a 1969 ruling that revised all fighter pilots’ scores by counting shared victories as fractions rather than as whole numbers. As far as Toliver and Constable are concerned, that rule is retroactively applied to World War I, when fighter pilots were almost invariably credited with a whole victory, even in the case of shared kills–a French practice used by virtually every air arm with the exception of Germany’s. The result is a considerable lowering of the scores of American World War I aces, and in some cases the loss of ace status entirely. The authors’ adherence to that standard–which, in fact, the Air Force itself did not really adhere to–does make scores more consistent, but to see it imposed on the standards of an earlier time seems revisionist.

Fighter Aces of the U.S.A. successfully exemplifies the environments that bred the fighter aces by relating the experiences of selected pilots. Among the most interesting cases is Frederick Libby, a Colorado cowboy who volunteered to serve in the Canadian forces in 1916 and later became the first American to score five victories as an observer in FE.2b two-seat pusher planes. Still later, he became a pilot and went on to score a total of anywhere from 14 to 24 aerial victories.

Libby’s fascinating story aside, the World War I section is the most disappointing in the book. Given all that is known on the subject (dating back to Charles Nordhoff’s and James Norman Hall’s History of the Lafayette Flying Corps in 1920), it is astonishing that such well-respected authors as Toliver and Constable confuse the Lafayette Escadrille (N.124, an all-American volunteer squadron) with the Lafayette Flying Corps (American volunteers farmed out to French units). Their treatment of other American aces is replete with errors or long-discredited myths, including the reference–complete with photograph–to an armored Junkers J.I as the airplane that shot down Lafayette Escadrille ace of aces Raoul Lufbery on May 19, 1918 (slow-moving Junkers J.Is were not used for long-range reconnaissance as was the two-seater that downed Lufbery). Even more absurd is their implication that the same Germans who downed Lufbery wounded Lafayette Flying Corps ace Charles Biddle a week later. (Lufbery was with the 94th Aero Squadron in the Toul sector at the time, whereas Biddle, who was indeed wounded by a Junkers J.I of Flieger Abteilung 221, was then with the former Lafayette Escadrille, then redesignated as the 103rd Aero Squadron, U.S. Army Air Service, in the Flanders sector.) Aside from Fred Libby’s biography, the chapter on World War I is of limited use to any serious student of air-to-air combat.

Nevertheless, Fighter Aces of the U.S.A. has its own special merits. Incorporating much firsthand material from the aces themselves, it gives an excellent overview of the ace mystique and the facts behind it. The chapters on World War II, Korea and Vietnam are good. The book also devotes an interesting chapter to enemy aces, without whom the achievements of the American aces cannot be seen in full perspective. Even in the process of giving the enemy his due, however, Toliver and Constable are not quite as comprehensive as they might be, concentrating on the German and Japanese aces of World War II while ignoring those of such Axis allies as Italy, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Slovakia and Bulgaria, all of whose air arms produced aces with American aircraft to their credit. Also sorely neglected are the North Vietnamese.

On the other hand–and most ironically–some of the most original and fascinating material in Fighter Aces of the U.S.A. concerns Soviet aces of the Korean War. The details of the Soviets’ participation, which was officially denied but widely known, have only recently come to light. In presenting short accounts of these worthy foes, Toliver and Constable have opened a fresh field of research. This information also gives the reader a greater appreciation of the North American F-86 aces’ achievements over “MiG Alley” against first-class opposition–and perhaps lays the groundwork for Sabre pilots and their Soviet counterparts to gather someday in the future to compare notes, similar to those get-togethers that are now common among the aerial veterans of World War II.

Lavishly illustrated and attractively laid out, Fighter Aces of the U.S.A. has a lot to recommend it as a selective overview, even if it does fall short of its declared objective.