Pappy Gunn (Book Review) | HistoryNet

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.

11 Responses to Pappy Gunn (Book Review)

  1. Myron D. Stokes says:

    I absolutely agree with Boyne’s assessment of “Pappy Gunn”. Finally, a comprehensive and accurate analysis of a man who all but single handedly changed the course of war in the Pacific Theater of Operations for Allied forces. I must admit also that I have a special affinity for Gunn, since my Godfather, M/Sgt Charles H. Jackson, was in U.S. Army Ordance, was armorer for P-38 master aces Maj. Dick Bong, Tommy McGuire, among others, manned the top turret of a B-17F “Captain and The Kids” based in Port Moresby, New Guinea, and was close to Gunn.

    He called him “P.I.” and filled multiple hours with tall tales, all of them true, telling me, at the time a fascinated 14 year old in 1964, about Gunn’s exploits and who, up until now, has been underappreciated by most WWII historians and historic references. Most galling, however, were the many and varied attempts to take credit for his aircraft armament technology and attack process modifications and innovations for Douglas A-20 and North America B-25 Mitchell medium bombers, including blatant if not shocking attempts by USAAF and RAAF officers who couldn’t provide one shred of evidence for their claims. But, Pappy soldiered on, knowing that it was imperative to keep a low profile to protect his family held captive by the Japanese.

    Somebody had to take credit for the stunning victory at the Battle of The Bismarck Sea in March of 1943, but it couldn’t be Gunn, who knew that if the Japanese, after suffering this complete and horrific annihilation, discovered just who it was in their custody in Manila, would have surely done them harm in retaliation.

    Gen. Kenney, after advising Gunn that he would be one of the most famous people in the world in the aftermath of Bismarck Sea, was told by Pappy that under no circumstances could he be given credit for the reasons stated above.

    This book outlines the life of a man possessed of incredible talent, insight, fortitude, fearlessness, love of family and vision who has been given far too little credit. And in so doing, rectifies a gross oversight in the annals of history.

    I applaud Nath Gunn’s storytelling, consider it a privilege to know him, and hope, that if the universe is kind, a major film will be completed about his life; a extraordinary life filled with exploits, experiences and accomplishments that even the most fertile minds in Hollywood’s script writing sectors could not ever conceive.

    My Godfather “Doc” Jackson was right: “There was no one quite like P.I. Gunn…”

    Myron D. Stokes
    Publisher, eMOTION!

  2. William (Bill) Diesing says:

    I am a WWII history buff, especially the air war. I had heard and read stories about “Pappy” but they left much unsaid. I jumped at the chance to purchase Nathan’s biography and it is one of my treasured and re-read books. Pappy came from a unique era … I really wonder if he would be allowed to achieve all that he did in todays world … I guess not since he would have had to go to college etc.
    I have a modest WWII air war museum in my home with about 50 signed books and prints….”Pappy” stands out among them.
    May God rest his soul;

    Bill Diesing

  3. Tom says:

    Extraordinary man.

    “Airwar” first brought Paul Irvin Gunn to my attention.

    “Pappy Gunn” brought him to life.

    Thanks, Nathaniel!

    From a “youngster” who does appreciate gallant men of yore.


  4. Dave Van Amburg says:

    I was gratified to find this site and the review of ‘Pappy Gunn’. I had not heard of this book , but just ordered it via inter-library loan.

    ‘The Saga of Pappy Gunn’ has long been one of my favorite books. Can’t begin to count the number of times I have read it, but many.

    Unfortunately, my copy went missing in a PCS move from Kincheloe AFB to Paine Field and I have never found a copy I could afford to replace it. Every few years, I pester the local library to find me copy and reread it. It never fails to instill a sense of wonder and appreciation for his exploits and major contributions to the WWII, particularly during the days and months after the fall of the Philippines when war planes were scarce and those available often obsolete.

    In a war where thousands performed heroically and millions more were heroic just by doing their job, Pappy’s tale stands out. I was born during the war and had the opportunity to meet a number of people whose actions were amazing, heroic and virtually ‘unsung’ including two friends of my father, one of whom received the Medal of Honor for a mission early in the days of the war in the Pacific. Tom Brokaw echoed my feelings that these folks were ‘the greatest generation’.

    I have passed Pappy’s story on (hopefully reasonably accurately) to friends and acquaintances on many occasions over the years, often to be met with disbelief. I can surely understand their skepticism given the magnitude of his accomplishments, but have often had the satisfaction of seeing their disbelief change to awe after reading the book or (these days) doing a bit of web research.

  5. Frances Borders says:

    I read the book many many years ago and thought it was great. Loved every word. Would love to have another copy of the book.

  6. John Hackett says:

    I bought this book for my Dad who passed away march 2, 2011. Dad was a B-25 mechanic and worked with Pappy to convert the first B-25’s to strafers installing the 50’s on them. Dad told me many stories about Pappy long before the book ever came out. He had a great admiration and respect for Pappy. When Dad first met him he saluted him and addresses him by his rank. Pappy responded….the names “Pappy” and thats how you will address me. Dad replyed “Yes Sir” and after that…it was “Pappy” The book reinforces everything my father had told me about the man and why he was held in such respect. We owe so much to men like pappy that worked so hard to insure the outcome of the battle of the Pacific.

  7. Nancy Tremaine says:

    My father was in New Guinea and the Phillpines during WW2. I have all his letters to my mother and I can’t tell you how many times he talks about Pappy. It is just now that I find out who Pappy was and can appreciate him. If you are interested in letters or information my father wrote about him please let me know.
    Nancy Tremaine

  8. Nancy Tremaine says:

    Our fathers were in the same unit. I have all my dad’s letters to my mom from WW2. I can’t tell you how many times my dad talks about how they played cards, shared the same tent and took turns in the fox hole. They were “nervous in the service”……….I would love to share the letters with you. From New Guinea, Netherlands East Indies, and Philappeans they shared each other’s company. I am so glad he had your father to watch over him. My dad was only 19 when they snatched him and threw him in the jungle.
    Please let me know if you would like copies of these letters. I still have another box to go through.
    Nancy Tremaine


    • Marion Gunn-Benner says:

      Nancy Tremaine…I’m not at all certain that my father has even seen this page, being of a generation where letter writing is much better than a computer. I know he would love to see the letters, if you still want to write to him about them. You can contact him through FaceBook – Nathaniel Gunn – or you can also contact him through Pappy Gunn.

      I’m Nathaniel’s daughter…


  9. Marion Gunn-Benner says:

    Nancy Tremaine – I’m not at all certain that my father has seen this website to answer you. You can contact him through FaceBook at Nathaniel Gunn or Pappy Gunn.

  10. Chief Inspector Clouseau says:

    I have been to this \modest WWII Air Museum\ myself and I must say he does have quite the collection. If only he had the knowledge of one of his sons about WWII history he might have an even better museum.

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