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Legendary innovator Pappy Gunn transformed the B-25 into a low-level bomber, helping to ensure Allied victory in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. While Gunn served in Australia, his family was captured and interned in Manila until the war’s end. They reunited in 1945. (Courtesy of U.S. Air Force)

General George C. Kenney’s Fifth Air Force in the Southwest Pacific was an unconventional outfit. Operating in a backwater theater far from higher headquarters oversight, the Fifth disdained rules, red tape, and paperwork. Getting the job done was what mattered, and if converting A-20 and B-25 medium bombers into powerful “gunships” for attacking ground and sea targets violated regulations, so be it. Historians have given Kenney credit for this innovative spirit—credit Kenney was glad to accept. Yet months before Kenney took over his command, one of the war’s larger-than-life
characters, Paul Irvin “Pappy” Gunn, was already blazing the trail as an innovative force, creating experimental weaponry to help boost defenses.

After a long career as an enlisted naval aviator, Gunn retired in 1939 and eventually moved with his family to the Philippines, where he helped establish the startup Philippine Air Lines (PAL). The outbreak of war in December 1941 and the Japanese invasion of the Philippines turned his family’s world upside down. The U.S. Army Air Forces pressed PAL’s small fleet into military service and commissioned Gunn a captain. He began flying transport and evacuation missions in the airline’s unarmed Beechcraft. While Gunn was in Australia, Manila was declared an open city in an effort to prevent its destruction by advancing Japanese forces. His family was interned at Santo Tomas University.

In Indestructible, Bruning does a fine job of recounting two parallel story lines, alternating between Gunn’s unconventional brilliance in cobbling together aircraft for the defense of Australia and the campaign in New Guinea, and his family’s battle against starvation, the Japanese, and—not least—their fellow internees in the notorious Santo Tomas camp. Despite the book’s misleading subtitle, there was no “rescue mission.” Gunn suffered with the knowledge that he was powerless to help his family, who endured three years of brutal internment. Only Allied victory in 1945 reunited the family.

In paying tribute to Gunn’s ability as a “super-experimental gadgeteer and all-around fixer,” Kenney noted that Gunn “never took a chance on ruining a good story by
worrying about the exactness of its details.” Despite Bruning’s commendable efforts to sort it all out, it remains difficult to extract the real man from the mists of legend. The author admits as much; after recounting one especially improbable tale of Gunn bucking the system, pistols in hand, Bruning concludes, “It makes for a great story, if not great history.” Pappy Gunn would have probably wanted it that way. —Richard R. Muller is a professor of military history at USAF’s School of Advanced Air & Space Studies.