Thursday, February 10, 2011

Book Review: "In My Sights: The Memoir of a P-40 Ace" by James B. Morehead

A while ago I read the memoir of another WWII aviator, a man widely regarded as one of the great heroic pilots of that war. He is indisputably a superb pilot, a ferocious warrior and a hero. I'm glad to have read his story, but I came away from his book unsettled.

My problem with that book was that the prose is too good. Too polished, too artful, too cool. The stories are true without any doubt but the voice in which they're told seems too much that of the skilled co-author (who the cover says the book was written "with") and not enough the voice of the man who put his life on the line in those war-torn skies.

Out of immense respect, I refrained from writing a review that would have been less than positive. I have no such problem with Col. Jim Morehead's "In My Sights."

The author grew up the hard way on a depression-era Oklahoma farm and escaped to the Army Air Corps' Air Cadet program. He was commissioned in 1940 and assigned to fly fighters - specifically the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk. Because he was recovering from injuries sustained in an accident, he missed his unit's transfer to the Philippines - and hence probable capture and likely death. Instead, he wound up flying his P-40 with the 17th Pursuit Squadron (Provisional) on Java in the Dutch East Indies.

In the darkest days of the Pacific war, early 1942, the ragtag 17th fought with unbelievable bravery to slow the Japanese juggernaut. They bought time needed to organize the defense of Australia, and for many of Jim's buddies the price was their lives.

"Whereas youth is normally optimistic about fate, forever feeling that if bad things happen, they will never happen to me, now there was a reversal. Unlike any combat circumstance I was ever exposed to, it switched. The attitude changed to: "I am a goner, the next one lost will be me, I know it will be me." Many times I heard "We're just flying tow targets. We are all on suicide missions!" Such conclusions were only logical. Anyone's arithmetic can figure out how many missions you are likely to last if ten go out and only five come back. Where an alert shack normally is boisterous with laughter and wisecracks, silent anxiety was the mood in those days."

But while Jim Morehead did not love or trust the P-40's that took him in harm's way, he did have a sense the airplane's merits:

"Bad as the P-40 ... and the P-39 were, through God's deliverence they were planes a greenhorn could survive in if he was extremely alert and made the proper moves in time."
Through luck and native talent and a desperate understanding of how to exploit the obsolescent Curtiss fighter's few virtues, Jim Morehead survived long enough to build skill and experience.

The war in the Pacific was crueler than the war in Europe, with quarter neither asked nor given. It does not require too close a reading to discern that Jim Morehead's hatred for the Japanese enemy burned with a white-hot fury, and that more than a half-century later the embers of that fury still emit an angry glow:

"I had seen the movie The Rape of China just before Pearl Harbor. I had seen, read of, and heard of the details of Pearl Harbor. We heard the firsthand accounts of the murderous Japanese forces from our personal friends who had been exposed to them.

I was eager to employ my own skills against the brutal forces who conducted themselves like animals."

The young P-40 pilots did their best to survive and learn. Their efforts were not enough to keep the Japanese from taking Java, and the survivors retreated to Australia. But that was their last retreat. The "end of the beginning" may have come on 25 April 1942 when the author, leading a flight of four veteran P-40 pilots, participated in a pivotal air action against a force of Japanese fighters and bombers. His description of the battle is gripping and his summary of the result is satisfying:

"It seems we shot down eight bombers and three fighters. ... This seems to have been the first smashing victory over the Japanese air forces and the Zero, and over the Japanese armed forces. It demonstrated that the awe was not so awesome - that they could be defeated even by a bunch of gringo greenhorns.

For my action I received a Distinguished Service Cross, the second such medal awarded (to me)."

This action, widely reported in the press back home, was soon followed by the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway. The Japanese Empire had reached its high-water mark. Its focus shifted away from Australia to the Solomon Islands and after Guadalcanal, the long bloody retrenchment began.

After a time spent training newly arrived pilots to survive in combat in the Pacific, Jim Morehead was sent back home for a well-earned respite:

"I was placed on thirty days leave after returning from the Southwest Pacific theater. I returned home the local hero as a result of earning two Distinguished Service Crosses, the Silver Star, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, the personal commendation of General Marshall, and the attention of the national networks and newspapers. What was more interesting was that I seemed to be a hero among the female population."

After his leave was up, Morehead (now a Major) became a squadron commander in a state-side replacement training group. And he met a new love - the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. As skeptical as he was of the Curtiss P-40, he was equally enthusiastic about the big Lockheed twin.

"Other pilots who flew P-51's felt the P-51 was superior. ... I have several hundred hours in a P-51, and I would choose to fly a P-38 in a dogfight between the two, any day."

After a year on the home front, he went to Europe to command a P-38 squadron in Foggia, Italy. Later, he became Group Operations Officer. He and his compatriots flew in intensive combat against the Luftwaffe and he recounts many stories of valor and of tragedy. The part of the book covering the author's time in the European Theater is a tale well told, yet may feel anti-climactic when compared with the time in Java.

After the war, the author made the transition to jet fighters. He tells of flying P-80's and F-86's and of combat missions in Korea in F-84's.

Col. Jim Morehead retired from the U.S. Air Force in the 1960's and embarked on a successful career in real estate development. Today, at 94 years of age, he resides in Petaluma, CA. The city recently proclaimed February 2nd, 2011 as "Col. James B. Morehead Day."

Update: Col. James B. Morehead has Gone West, on 11 March 2012 at age 95.

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