Intrepid Aviators is the story of a squadron of US navy Avenger (torpedo bomber) pilots fighting in the Pacific during the Second World War. The book is written by the son of one of the squadron’s pilots. I almost didn’t purchase it due to some reviews claiming it was a “dry” history, but from the start, the author made me feel like I was with the squadron. On the aircraft carrier, I felt the hot air being circulated by the metal fans, tasted the rehydrated eggs for breakfast, smelled the aviation fuel, and heard the engines of the aircraft starting up. I flew with the squadron and looked down at the wakes of the Japanese warships I was about to attack.
Then, right as the bombers moved in for the attack, the author stopped the story! Apparently, he felt this was the appropriate moment to interject the squadron’s entire history from training up to the battle, an overall history of the war in the pacific, and a history of naval aviation. Imagine watching the championship game of your favorite sport – it has just gone into overtime – and the television network breaks for a nine hour commercial. That was how I felt.
If I had been reading this book, rather than listening to it in audiobook format, I would have skipped ahead to the point of the battle, but I was using an ipod shuffle (no visual indicator of location within the book). A lot of the extra material was fairly dry (now I understand the reviewer comments), and more importantly, wasn’t necessary to the book. I enjoyed a small section about the construction of the massive Japanese “super battleship” Musashi; it was new information to me, and I felt it was relevant as the climax of the book is a battle where the aviators try to sink the Musashi. Normally, one of my favorite parts of a military memoir is the person’s military training, but in this book it seemed to go on too long. However, it was a bit shocking to learn of so many pilots dying during training, either crashing during a simulated attack, or simply being lost at sea due to navigation errors.
Eventually, the squadron was deployed. They were sent across the Pacific too late to participate in some of the famous battles such as Midway, but were able to contribute to the war effort by attacking ground installations and sinking Japanese merchant ships. They suffered heavy losses attacking a seaplane base on Formosa, and did a lot of damage to the Japanese in the Philippines.
I felt that some of the information could have been summarized, I didn’t really need to know exactly how the pilots approached each merchant ship on their torpedo runs. I understand this from the author’s viewpoint; my grandfather was a combat pilot in the Pacific, and if I’d written his story, I probably wouldn’t have been able to leave anything out. Perhaps if I hadn’t already been bored by the recap of the war and naval aviation, I wouldn’t have thought these action accounts were too long. The publisher and editor bear the responsibility for not pruning that material, or possibly even for requiring that the author add it.
Finally, the book returns to the attack it opened with. The squadron had never attacked enemy naval vessels before; its first true naval fight would be an incredibly tough one, against one of Japan’s two “super battleships”, some additional battleships, and their escorting cruisers and destroyers. The Japanese ships had no escorting aircraft, so this would be a pure plane vs. ship battle. Many of the ships had been upgraded with additional anti-aircraft guns.
General history books about the Second World War tell us that battleships were obsolete, as they were too vulnerable to aerial attack. At the strategic level, this is certainly true, but it wouldn’t have been much comfort to the squadron’s pilots. For the Avengers to have any chance of success and survival, they needed two other waves of planes to proceed them. First, Helldiver divebombers would scream down on the ships at a steep angle, killing anti-aircraft gunners with bomb hits and near-misses. Then, Hellcat fighters would strafe the gunners to keep their heads down while the Avengers approached with torpedoes. I was amazed by the number of bombs and torpedoes that had to hit the Musashi to sink it.
This last part of the book is action-packed. There is another break in the story right as the author’s father’s plane is hit by antiaircraft fire, burning, and about to crash into the ocean; this time the break is to show the carnage on the Musashi, so it doesn’t break the flow of the story quite as much, but it does seem to indicate that the author thinks breaking away from a story at its most intense point is a great writing idea.
The pilot improbably manages to survive crashing into the ocean, although his two crewmen do not. He then has to avoid being captured or shot by a passing Japanese destroyer, swim to a nearby island, and escape being captured by Japanese patrols. He eventually links up with Philippino resistance fighters, witnesses Japanese atrocities, participates in an attack on Japanese troops, and rejoins US forces. This book should be made into an action movie starring Chuck Norris.
If hope they will produce an abridged version of this book, stripping out some of the unnecessary historical background; I’d recommend that version to anyone. It may sound strange for a history enthusiast to recommend removing some history from a book, but it’s a matter of focus. If I read a book about the Battle of Britain, I don’t want it to recap the Roman, Saxon, and Norman invasions of Britain, even though I’d love to read separate books about each of those events.