Race of Aces

WWII's Elite Airmen and the Epic Battle to Become the Master of the Sky


By John R Bruning

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The astonishing untold story of the WWII airmen who risked it all in the deadly race to become the greatest American fighter pilot.

In 1942, America’s deadliest fighter pilot, or “ace of aces” — the legendary Eddie Rickenbacker — offered a bottle of bourbon to the first U.S. fighter pilot to break his record of twenty-six enemy planes shot down. Seizing on the challenge to motivate his men, General George Kenney promoted what they would come to call the “race of aces” as a way of boosting the spirits of his war-weary command.

What developed was a wild three-year sprint for fame and glory, and the chance to be called America’s greatest fighter pilot. The story has never been told until now.

Based on new research and full of revelations, John Bruning’s brilliant, original book tells the story of how five American pilots contended for personal glory in the Pacific while leading Kenney’s resurgent air force against the most formidable enemy America ever faced.

The pilots — Richard Bong, Tommy McGuire, Neel Kearby, Charles MacDonald and Gerald Johnson — riveted the nation as they contended for Rickenbacker’s crown. As their scores mounted, they transformed themselves from farm boys and aspiring dentists into artists of the modern dogfight.

But as the race reached its climax, some of the pilots began to see how the spotlight warped their sense of duty. They emerged as leaders, beloved by their men as they chose selfless devotion over national accolades.

Teeming with action all across the vast Pacific theater, Race of Aces is a fascinating exploration of the boundary between honorable duty, personal glory, and the complex landscape of the human heart.

“Brings you into the cockpit of the lethal, fast-paced world of fighter pilots . . . Fascinating.” — Sara Vladic
“Extraordinary . . . a must-read.” — US Navy Captain Dan Pedersen
“A heart-pounding narrative of the courage, sacrifice, and tragedy of America’s elite fighter pilots.” — James M. Scott
“Vivid and gripping . . . Confirms Bruning’s status as the premier war historian of the air.” — Saul David


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Author’s Note

During World War II, less than 5 percent of all fighter pilots succeeded in shooting down five or more enemy planes. Yet, that tiny percentage accounted for almost half the aircraft destroyed in air-to-air combat.

Those few men were known as aces. They were celebrated in the media, worshipped by civilians and, in some cases, by their fellow pilots. They earned generational fame in the sky’s killing game.

In the Southwest Pacific Theater of Operations, a highly unusual competition began. At first, it was a race to beat World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker’s record of twenty-six enemy planes. It soon morphed into something greater: a fevered competition to become America’s greatest fighter pilot, our ace of aces. For almost three years, this race riveted the nation, made heroes out of ordinary Americans, and changed forever the lives of those who loved them.

This is the story of that race and the fighter pilots who dared to compete for that immortal title.




The Country Mouse

May 5, 1942

San Francisco, California

The St. Francis Hotel towered in legendary elegance over one flank of Union Square, the one must-see spot in the city after a visit to the Golden Gate Bridge. It was the Plaza of the West Coast, dominated by ornate columns and high ceilings designed to accentuate its grandeur. The Otis Elevator Company added custom outdoor glass elevators that dazzled riders with thirty-story rides above the city.

Its rooms catered to the finest of the interwar “in” crowd, from Cary Grant to President Roosevelt and boxer Jack Dempsey. In 1939, Salvador Dalí let reporters take his photo in one of the hotel’s bathtubs—wearing a lobster on his head, green goggles, and holding a cabbage in one hand.

There were times the in crowd took it too far. Fatty Arbuckle saw his career destroyed there when a young actress died at one of his wild parties.

If the St. Francis was the play place of the elite, the war transformed it into the last hurrah for a generation facing an uncertain fate. Gone were the high-end shops off the first-floor lobby, replaced by temporary rooms for military officers in transit to the Far East. Men from all walks of life and every state came to the St. Francis for a cultural experience they would never forget. They blew their remaining cash to say they had stayed at the hotel fit for world leaders and Hollywood icons. They dined on dollar-fifty brook trout and danced close in the packed confines of the Mural Room, where Harry Owens and his orchestra filled the venue with sensual Hawaiian tunes like “Sweet Leilani” and “Cocoanut Grove.” It was their brush with something great, which the hotel’s photographers memorialized for a few extra dollars.

In front of the hippest hotel with the hottest entertainment in the most beloved and liberated city in America, five-foot-seven, 150-pound 2nd Lt. Richard Ira Bong, late of Poplar, Wisconsin—population three hundred—stood with barely a penny to his name. The St. Francis was wild and glamorous, Bong the exact opposite. A little stocky, average looking with a decent smile and a quiet demeanor, he appeared entirely ordinary. In the greatest party place on the West Coast, he drank Coke. Though he would never stand out in a crowd, he was a fighter pilot. In wartime America, nothing was more romantic than that.

He watched as his buddy, Danny Robertson, shared a reunion with his girlfriend in epic Hollywood fashion. The young lovers arranged the rendezvous just after Dick and Danny received orders transferring them from Luke Field, Arizona, to the 49th Fighter Squadron at Hamilton Field. Now Dick Bong felt like a third wheel.

Trouble was, he was a third wheel everywhere in this city. A year before, he’d been living on the family farm in his childhood room, a tiny misshapen box at the top of the stairs, defined by a sloping roof so steep that when he slept in his narrow bed, his nose had been inches from the ceiling. Before May 29, 1941, he’d been out of Wisconsin just once in his life, when his family took a road trip to Yellowstone National Park.

He was not worldly, and the glitter of the St. Francis must have made him feel out of place. In the moral ambiguity of a city whose bar scene included a half-naked woman swimming in a goldfish bowl at Bimbo’s 365, Bong probably felt out of place everywhere. He was a straight arrow, a young man raised on simple farm principles of hard work and loyalty to God and country. His father imbued him with a rigid sense of right and wrong. In his world, there were no gray areas, though his sense of black and white had never been tested.

San Francisco that spring was a whirlwind of emotions, stoked by wartime romances, tragic partings, and terrible grief. Thanks to the many nocturnal air raid alarms, the city lived with a sword of Damocles over its head, and the people embraced a live for the day spirit. The military added to the drama. Throughout the morning, the huge sixteen-inch guns defending the area thundered as the crews trained to hit targets out at sea. Each shot resounded through the city, shaking windows and floors. Overhead, combat aircraft flew back and forth to gunnery ranges off the coast at Big Sur and Point Reyes, adding to the sounds of wartime San Francisco. They lent intensity to the moment.

Richard Bong was even-keeled. He knew how to keep his emotions on lockdown. Depression-era farm kids learned this as a matter of survival, as most faced despairing loss at young ages. You either learned to control it or grief controlled you. The Bong family possessed self-control in even the worst moments. If everyone here was fueled with a higher emotional octane, that was fine with him. He was content to be the rock in the surf.

Union Square hummed around him. Women wore the latest fashions—dirndl skirts made with black rayon crepe, or jersey-print below-the-knee dresses and wide-brimmed hats. Farm women back home had few such luxuries. Dresses and gloves were saved for Sunday church services. Most of the girls he knew back home milked cows and baled hay. These West Coast women were foreigners to a young man whose life was spent hunting and fishing around the family homestead.

The men were different, too. They were dapper and well dressed, while he made do with his Army Air Force “pinks,” the khaki uniform pants that turned that color when washed a few times. He wore the olive-brown dress tunic of an aviator, silver wings pinned to his chest. His shoes were brown and worn after a year of use.

The men flowing through Union Square sported the latest in shoe styles: seven-dollar Burma tan and brown Freeman two-tone wing tips, Roblee monk-strap Defenders, or traditional black bluchers, shined and neatly tied. His Air Corps regulation russet oxfords looked tacky in comparison. This was a town that took fashion seriously, and shoes were the mark of a man. He made a mental note to buy a new pair as soon as he got paid.

Those men not in uniform wore a mix of older suits—double-breasted chalk stripes in blues and grays, loosely tailored. The newer suits were less flashy since their designs were rigidly controlled by the federal government to save wool for military use. No pocket flaps on their coats, and pant cuffs were forbidden. Some of the men ignored the latter restriction by simply ordering longer slacks, then having them cuffed. Still, in the mélange of people around him, it was easy to see the extent of the government’s wartime reach.

People sat around the square on benches, enjoying the spring weather and reading about that very subject of government control in the local papers. The front page of one listed all the latest civilian items the government outlawed for the duration of the war. Production of purse frames was banned, and perfume atomizers, beer steins, roller coasters, and birdhouses made the list too. Butter knives, attic fans, and BB shot for Red Ryder spring rifles would also not be produced for civilian consumption for the duration of the war.

Bong took all that control in stride. Honoring the responsibilities of citizenship was the bedrock of his small-town education. His eighth-grade graduation ceremony included a speech by two classmates, entitled “I Am an American.” Four years later, when he received his high school diploma, the theme of the graduation ceremony was “Youth Faces the Ideals of Citizenship.”

Bong did not see the government’s restriction of fashion design to be an intrusion. There was a reason for it. He was a patriot and erred on the side of government. He trusted the country’s leaders, even if his folks hadn’t voted for FDR.

Bong explored the city that first night in town, taking it all in with his natural even keel. A few months before, he’d seen the Pacific Ocean for the first time and remarked in a letter home that it wasn’t all that impressive. It reminded him of Lake Superior. He contextualized the sweeping nature of an ocean with his own small corner of the planet. In a vast world, he existed in a farm-boy bubble, gazing out as an onlooker, not a participant.

So he avoided the prostitutes, and the dive bars, and the pool halls. He was twenty-one, a virgin who didn’t drink or gamble. In a city full of vice, he was viceless. His sense of propriety recoiled at the hookers plying their trade through the Tenderloin. He’d had a girlfriend in high school, but that was strictly proper. Bong came from a Christian family. Dating in Poplar meant holding hands.

At length, Bong retreated to his hotel room for the night. He and Danny could not afford the St. Francis, so they picked the Roosevelt on the other side of town. It was a once-majestic Gilded Age hotel that had slipped slowly into disrepair. Five bucks a night for a stained room with two beds, a chair, and a writing desk. This was all he could afford.

Just before nine thirty, the local radio stations went silent. The radar station on Mount Tamalpais detected an unidentified aircraft. Searchlights swept the sky until quarter to ten, seeking to illuminate the mystery craft, which turned out to be a wayward Navy plane. Sometime after midnight, another unidentified aircraft appeared over the bay. Once again, searchlights lanced the darkness over Mare Island and Oakland. Another false alarm, but it kept everyone on edge.

The next morning, Bong awoke early to pen a letter home. He was one of seven children—seven surviving children. Their tiny whitewashed two-story farmhouse managed to keep a roof over everyone’s head, but it was cramped and lacking in privacy. In such confines, one might expect the siblings to grow very close. They did, but for Bong, his deepest connection back home was to his mother. He wrote her at least several times a week to describe his experiences since joining the Army Air Force.

This morning, he wrote to his mom about the Bay Bridge. It was an engineering marvel, the longest in the world at that time. Completed six years before, it spanned almost a mile, connecting the East Bay to San Francisco’s China Basin district. It was an awesome sight, especially when the fabled California fog shrouded the spans at sunset, a highway into a cloud, standing hundreds of feet above the shimmering bay.

He loved these sorts of engineering achievements. In school, Dick was a hit-or-miss kind of student. He possessed a mechanical mind that took to all types of science, but he limped through art and earned a D in U.S. history, unaware that he would become a part of it someday. Chemistry class, where he kept meticulous notes written in the spiky print of an ordered and logical mind, was a different story. After years of working on aging farm machinery, he was a young man comfortable around metal things that moved. Had he not joined the military the previous fall, he might have made a talented mechanical engineer.

Letter written, it was time to report to duty. Danny and Bong drove across the Golden Gate into San Rafael and showed their military identification at the front gate to Hamilton Field. Around the airstrip’s perimeter, half-buried light tanks served as stopgap fortifications in case any Japanese troops made it over the Marin Headlands and into the North Bay. Elsewhere, men crewed antiaircraft guns with binoculars pointed to the sky, rifles nearby and pistols holstered on their hips.

Here, he would learn to be a warrior, not the trainer of warriors-to-be that he was in Arizona. Dick relished the opportunity; everyone, it seemed, wanted a shot at the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. What he did not know was just how unyielding a gaze the media would shed on him when he would find himself at the center of the race to become the deadliest American fighter pilot.

Danny put the sedan in gear after getting their IDs back and drove onto the base to report to their new fighter squadrons, both pilots wondering what kind of pursuit planes they were destined to fly.


The Buck Rogers Diving Death Ride

May 7, 1942

Hamilton Field, California

Parked on the ramp at Hamilton Field stood a long row of twenty-five brand-new fighters. The world had never seen anything like these sci-fi wonders resting on tricycle landing gears, slightly raked so their tails drooped. It gave the impression that they were preparing to spring into the air. From the side, they looked pencil-thin and made every other American fighter appear positively bloated. Paradoxically, the narrow profile did not mean small aircraft. In fact, the new fighters dwarfed their more conventional stablemates.

While most every fighter design in the world possessed a single fuselage that encompassed engine, cockpit, and tail, the new fighter didn’t have a fuselage at all. Instead, the pilot sat in a cockpit gondola fared directly into the wing, a twelve-cylinder Allison engine on either side of him. Connecting the wing to the tail at the engine nacelles were two long booms, through each of which stretched a top-secret turbo supercharger that gave the fighter remarkable high-altitude performance. Where its stablemates would be limping along just above a stall at twenty-five thousand feet, the new fighter thrived.

This was the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, the most radical fighter plane yet produced by the American aircraft industry. At a time when most American designs lagged behind their European counterparts, the USAAF believed the P-38 would be the great leap forward needed to help win the war. The Lockheed was fast. Straight and level, it could just touch four hundred miles an hour, thanks to the twenty-five hundred horses its engines produced. It possessed good range and could climb at over four thousand feet a minute, making it perfect for intercepting high-altitude bombers.

Though it weighed fourteen thousand pounds and could not outmaneuver single-engine fighters, it possessed heavy firepower with four heavy machine guns and one rapid-fire cannon. It could spew four thousand bullets a minute, with every sixth one an explosive cannon shell. Lockheed packed the guns in the nose, giving the P-38 a cone of concentrated death unlike any other American aircraft.

The three-bladed propellers were driven by purpose-built left and right engines. The left ones rotated left, the right ones rotated right. This was an innovation Lockheed used to ensure the P-38 would be stable and easy to fly, free from strange stall/spin quirks that bedeviled other USAAF fighters.

At the moment, the new Lightnings were especially needed in the Pacific to help stem the Japanese tide of advance. The latest news reports spoke of surrender in the Philippines and a chaotic naval battle in the Coral Sea. The Japanese seemed dominant everywhere, thrashing the Army Air Force at every point of contact. Now, Australia itself seemed threatened with invasion.

The situation in the Pacific was grim. Californians lived in fear that they would soon face Japanese bombs and amphibious armadas offshore. So far, nothing had stopped the enemy. The P-38 became the great hope that finally, American pilots would take to the skies in a plane superior to anything the Japanese possessed.

Needless to say, there was a tremendous sense of urgency to get the Lightning squadrons and their pilots ready for battle.

The P-38 cost a mint—over a hundred thousand dollars—1.7 million in today’s dollars. For the price of one P-38, the federal government could buy three P-40 Warhawks. But this was war, and price tag didn’t matter. Winning did. The Lightning was the Ferrari of the fighter world. Expensive, technically complex, and very, very hot. By early May 1942, the USAAF had taken delivery of about three hundred P-38s, with perhaps a thousand pilots training on them.

Dick Bong joined that elite cadre of aviators at Hamilton Field, where the 49th Fighter Squadron recently had traded in its P-40 Warhawks for the first combat-ready model of the P-38. The AAF tasked the 49th with two roles: protect San Francisco and produce P-38 pilots. Now, waves of freshly minted flyboys blew into Hamilton Field, straight from advanced training schools, eager to master the new machine.

This looked great on paper, but there was a problem with the P-38 program. The new planes kept killing these new pilots. In April, there were twenty fatal P-38 crashes in California and Washington. Forty more would crash in May. Another thirty in June.

At the air base protecting Seattle, a Lightning pilot lost control on takeoff and careened into the mess hall, killing two enlisted men. Another plunged straight into a home in downtown Olympia, killing both the pilot and a housewife. One fell out of the sky to explode inside a hospital.

Being a P-38 pilot in May 1942 meant having a very short shelf life. Most, like Dick Bong, had no experience with twin-engine aircraft. Though the plane was stable and easy to fly, the cockpit was complex and poorly laid out. Lockheed’s engineers placed the fuel system’s controls on the cockpit floor to the left of the pilot’s seat. They were hard to reach, and the system was so intricate that it required a virtual master’s degree to understand. Flip the wrong switch in flight, and the engines could be trying to drink from an empty tank. Take the wrong steps when an engine went out on takeoff or landing, and the pilot was almost sure to die. Dive too steeply, and the P-38’s controls locked up in what was later called “compressibility.” The nose would tuck under itself, steepening the dive and making it ever harder for the pilot not to end up in a smoking crater. An experienced test pilot was killed that way during the run-up to production. Despite warnings, a lot of young pilots fresh from their cadet classes plunged straight to their deaths.

To make things even more confusing, Lockheed changed the cockpit layout from model to model. In one variant, the placement of the microphone toggle button was moved. Lockheed swapped it with the cannon’s trigger. Unwary pilots would sometimes hit that button, launching a burst of high-explosive shells when they intended to simply talk to a flight mate.

There was no two-seat trainer version of the P-38 either. Dick would be on his own the minute he climbed into the ’38’s cockpit. To prepare him and the other new guys, the 49th put them through a quick ground school, familiarizing them with controls, instruments, and systems.1

Dick’s P-38 education began on May 7 when Lt. Harold Lewis gathered all the squadron’s greenhorns to teach them the basics of being a Lightning jock. He was the squadron’s designated training officer, even though he himself had been flying for less than two years. In 1942, the blind led the blind.

Lewis and Dick Bong had similar life stories. Both grew up in small towns—Lewis was a native of Marseilles, Illinois, and went to Northern Illinois Teachers College, getting a math degree before joining the service. Dick attended Superior State Teachers College before dropping out to join the Air Corps. Both were science minded and devoted to aviation.

That day, as Lewis opened the knowledge fire hose on the new guys, Lt. Jim Butler took one of the squadron’s P-38s up for a flight. As he sped down the runway, one engine began to sputter. He limped aloft, but the engine quit and he crashed about a mile from the north end of the field. Miraculously, he survived.

Lewis and the rest of the members of the 49th learned to handle such situations with this dictum: power meant survival. Lose an engine? Push the other one to maximum throttle immediately. It was the only hope of surviving when a fan failed on takeoff.

Except it wasn’t. This was the Air Force standard response to a P-38 engine failure, and it produced nothing but casualties. Firewall the throttle with a fan out, and the P-38 would yaw toward the dead engine and start to roll. The more power applied, the faster this would happen and the quicker the pilot lost control and rolled, inverted, into the ground. Lewis didn’t have the experience to know any better; he was just as much a victim as everyone else struggling to learn this new and complicated aircraft.

Thus, he—a man who had survived the ultimate teachable moment in his crash—taught Dick and the other greenhorns the exact wrong way to survive an engine failure.

It would be months before the AAF bureaucracy unscrewed this one. The proper way to handle such an emergency was for the pilot to throttle back the remaining engine, feather the other one’s props, maintain control, then slowly apply power, compensating for the yaw and roll along the way with the yoke and rudders.

Through the next week, word of other crashes in the 49th’s sister squadrons filtered to Hamilton. Lots of pilots were losing engines either on takeoff or landing. Depressingly few survived. The new design came with another inherent flaw in such situations. Even if the pilots had the time and altitude to bail out, the only way to do it was to slide off the wing and fall between the booms. Rumors abounded that those who did get out were cut in half by the horizontal stabilizer. Since bailing out was not a great option, many P-38 pilots tried to ride their planes into the ground, hoping to regain control long enough to survive a crash landing.

The reason behind the engine failures remained unsolved for months. For the pilots sentenced to fly the Lightning, every takeoff and landing must have been a gut check moment. They went aloft not knowing when the dice would roll snake eyes and their turn would come. That uncertainty weighed on all of them. Yet it didn’t seem to diminish Dick’s enthusiasm to try the new beast out. For a small-town farm kid whose early life experience hardened him to death, the chance of getting to be one of the first pilots of America’s most advanced plane—and seemingly its most dangerous—put him in a thrilling spot right at bleeding edge. So he studied, learned what he could on the ground, and tried hard not to dwell on the deaths of those around him.

Richard Ira Bong’s turn to roll the dice arrived on the morning of May 13. Lucky thirteen. He arrived at the flight line, ducked under the boom of his assigned P-38, and climbed the ladder the ground crew placed at the trailing edge of the wing. He stepped onto the seat, then slid down into it as the plane’s crew chief knelt beside him on the wing to help strap him in and close the canopy hatch. He ran through the checklist given to him, fired up the engines, and headed out to the runway.

Now for the gut-check moment. Dick steered the Lightning out onto the runway and opened the throttles. No turning back now. The engines purred. For a huge aircraft, the P-38 proved to be surprisingly quiet. The engines sounded buttery and subdued. The superchargers and their ductwork acted as mufflers, giving the P-38 one of the most distinctive audio signatures of World War II.

Dick held his breath for a moment, focusing on the takeoff checklist. He knew the scale of the power and danger he held at his fingertips. He intended to master it.

He swung onto the runway and opened the throttles. The engines held. As he passed a hundred miles an hour, he felt the P-38 wanting to get airborne. A little more speed. Plenty of runway ahead. The ’38’s nose rotated just a bit and Dick eased back on the control wheel. The Lightning left the runway and streaked over the bay. This moment changed Dick Bong’s life. The aircraft made sense to him. It was an unlikely but perfect match between his ordered mind and a dangerously complex aircraft.

He stayed close to Hamilton that day, making touch-and-go landings and getting the feel of the aircraft. The Bay Area was filled with air traffic, air lanes, no-fly zones, and specified areas for Navy and Army trainers. The map he’d been given of the Bay Area was overlaid with color-coded squares and triangles denoting each aerial training range or off-limits zone. It was confusing at first glance, but each pilot needed to thoroughly understand it, as it was dangerous to wander into certain areas where the antiaircraft gunners might actually open fire on passing planes.2 He respected that and stayed in his lane, swooping up and down over Hamilton, tires kissing the runway before flitting off into the air again, engines wide open. In those moments, gear retracted, climbing so fast it felt like the world’s most epic elevator ride, Dick felt pure elation.

He loved every minute of it, and when the day finally ended, he returned to the Bachelor Officers Quarters uncharacteristically exhilarated. He was born to fly the P-38, as if he had Lockheed coded into his DNA.

He flew almost every day afterward, sometimes several flights. As he gained hours, he made huge leaps forward with what he could do with the aircraft. Of course, it was not enough just to get competent flying the aircraft and landing it. These were weapons of war, and the men of the 49th Fighter Squadron had only a few weeks to learn how to fight with the P-38 as well.

The fact was, the 49th did not have time to learn to do both. Nobody knew how best to employ the P-38, the tactics to use, or even the role it would play once deployed overseas. Instead of working through those questions, the pilots took turns dogfighting each other. In those mock battles, to everyone’s surprise, Dick Bong shined.

His fellow pilots found him almost invisible on the ground. Like he was in San Francisco, Dick seemed more an observer than a participant. Never aloof or haughty, he just didn’t participate much. When he did join a conversation, the guys discovered Bong possessed a good sense of humor and could be self-effacing. They liked him, but nobody really felt they got to know him. If pressed, they would have judged him to be the furthest from the “fighter-jock” persona in the squadron—the antithesis of the ego-driven, aggressive, and arrogant type A character whose swagger on the ground matched his skills in the air. Bong had no swagger.

Yet, that farm-boy persona vanished in the cockpit. The straight arrow became the wild man: unpredictable, intuitive, liberated. Bong retracted the landing gear and some switch inside him flipped. No longer the introvert, he became ferociously aggressive, pushing his Lightning just a little further out to the edge of its envelope than others dared to do. The metamorphosis stunned his flight mates, who figured they’d make easy meat of the shy kid. Instead, he feasted on them.


  • "Bruning is at his best when he delves into the pilots' anguish and obsessions...[his] work is a testament and a memorial not just to a handful of tragic heroes, but to those left bereft by this unique and explosive competition on the other side of the world."—The New York Times
  • "Race of Aces fascinates because of its attention to detail and strong characterization of these remarkable men."
    The Wall Street Journal
  • "Race of Aces brings you into the cockpit of the lethal, fast-paced world of fighter pilots as they strive to achieve ace-level status...Bruning's unique and intimate look at the struggles of these men to balance honor, duty to country, and their pursuit to be the best makes this account even more fascinating. This is a book you can't put down, and a story you will reflect upon long after turning the last page."—Sara Vladic, New York Times bestselling coauthor of Indianapolis
  • "[Bruning] crafts vivid profiles of the Army Air Forces fight pilots... their struggles, both personal and military, are movingly told....Exquisitely polished prose alternately describes the dog-fighting above remote jungles and relationships with sweethearts back home. Prodigious digging into mission reports, old newspaper dispatches, diaries and correspondence plus extensive interviews of survivors and family members contribute to a sweeping narrative that is likely to be the definitive history of the Rickenbacker-inspired contest. Highly recommended."—Philip Handleman, Aviation History
  • "Race of Aces is a superb read, taking us through the high-stakes world of our great Aces and the WWII air war...Extraordinary. Wear your G suit and hang on -- this must-read will become a classic."—Dan Pedersen, Founder of the Topgun program and bestselling author of Topgun: An American Story
  • "The riveting and emotional story of five American fighter pilots caught up in a deadly competition to claim the title of our nation's Ace of Aces, this book is so powerfully written that you can almost smell the engine exhaust and feel the G-forces in those furious dogfights. Race of Aces is quite simply is one of the best books ever written on World War II and cements Bruning's place as one of our generation's best combat historians."—David Bellavia, Medal of Honor Recipient and author of House to House: A Soldier's Memoir
  • "In Race of Aces, John R. Bruning brilliantly recreates the excitement and terror of one of the greatest untold stories of World War II: the nerve-shredding three-year contest to become America's deadliest fighter pilot. Exhaustively researched and expertly written -- with dogfights as vivid and gripping as any I've read -- the book confirms Bruning's status as the premier war historian of the air."—Saul David, author of The Force and Operation Thunderbolt
  • "A heart-pounding narrative of the courage, sacrifice, and tragedy of America's elite fighter pilots during World War II. With a cockpit view of the fight, readers will hear the roar of the engines, feel the surge of adrenaline, and wrestle with the exhaustion that gripped these aviators in the marathon battle to become America's top fighter pilot."—James M. Scott, Pulitzer Prize finalist and bestselling author of Target Tokyo and Rampage
  • “Enthralling… Part five-sided biography, part adventure tale, part reflection on the price of fame, John Bruning’s story of the fighter jocks who chased glory is a fantastic read. Paced like a novel and filled with characters and exploits straight out of blockbuster movies, Race of Aces could be mistaken for the stuff of fiction. That its cast of Pacific theater Army Air Corps flyers—Bong, McGuire, Kearby, MacDonald, Johnson—may be relatively unknown to navalists more familiar with Vraciu and McCampbell adds to the air of the unbelievable. However, these men and their feats of derring-do were very real, and in Race of Aces they are brought to life by Bruning’s meticulous research and smooth prose….[F]ast-paced, well researched, exciting, engrossing, sobering….The book is a page-turner in the truest sense and captures the relentless pace of aerial combat in the Pacific, while contrasting it with the victors’ surreal return home and the toll of relentless war on the pilots who fought it.”—U.S. Naval Institute
  • "A fascinating book."—"Constant Wonder," BYURadio
  • "With deft, grit, and no shying away from the horrifying realities of war, Bruning...brings these heroes back to life, defining the struggles of morality, mortality, and glory that suffused their careers....[R]ich with historical information, Race of Aces reads like a novel and features interactions with figures such as Eddie Rickenbacker and Charles Lindbergh. Bruning's suspenseful storytelling utilizes personal interviews with U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) veterans, oral histories, archives, military history agencies, and letters/diaries written by the aces themselves....Eloquent and finely researched."—Library Journal (starred review)
  • "Satisfying...Combat aviation buffs will enjoy Bruning's explorations of a little-known history."—Kirkus Reviews

On Sale
Jan 12, 2021
Page Count
544 pages
Hachette Books

John R Bruning

About the Author

John R. Bruning is the author or collaborating writer of the national bestseller Indestructible, as well as Outlaw Platoon written with Sean Parnell, Shadow of the Sword with Jeremiah Workman, How to Break a Terrorist with Matthew Alexander, House to House with David Bellavia, The Devil's Sandbox, and Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent with Fred Burton. 

Bruning is well traveled as an embedded combat correspondent. For his reporting in Afghanistan, the Department of Defense presented him with the Thomas Jefferson Award in 2010. For his work with the Oregon National Guard, he was inducted into the 162nd Infantry Regiment in September 2011 as an honorary member. John lives in Independence, Oregon, and has two children.

Learn more about this author