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High Honor

May 2024
2min read

Recollections by Men and Women of World War II Aviation

by Stuart Leuthner and Oliver Jensen; Smithsonian; 338 pages.

Charlie Willis, nicknamed Whiskey, and some buddies had spent most of the night racketing around Honolulu, so they’d only had a few hours’ sleep when the Japanese came past Kaneohe Naval Air Base on their way to Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. “I looked out the window and saw a fighter go over with red circles on its wings. We figured out what was going on, pulled on our clothes, went running down the stairs, and jumped in my car. We were heading for our airplanes, which was rather stupid, because it takes about an hour to launch a PBY from the ramp into the water. I was racing to the base as fast as I could drive when a bomb hit my car. It turned upside down and caught fire. We all spilled out, and I started running for the hangar. A fighter hit me with machine-gun fire and splattered my leg, arm, and head. I managed to roll into the bushes and was out like a light for 24 hours.” During that time “the Navy came around for the body count” and found in the jeep a skeleton that Willis had discovered a few weeks before when a bulldozer sliced into an ancient burial mound during some runway improvement.

“When they finally found me in the bushes they took me to the infirmary and asked who I was. 1 said, ‘Charlie Willis.’ They said, ‘You can’t be Charlie Willis, he’s dead.’ They told me about the bones and I said I wanted those bones, they were mine. They said, ‘We know, that’s what we told your mother.’” He reached his parents by telephone during his own funeral service.

So Whiskey Willis and the United States of America entered World War II; four years later Willis, now with two Navy Crosses, was flying missions in the Pacific, and America was possessed of the world’s mightiest air force. Stuart Leuthner has sought out some of the men and women who built that air force and has talked to them about it; he was joined in his interviewing by Oliver Jensen, one of the founders of this magazine. By the time their task was finished, they had spoken at length with twenty-eight of the men and women who brought us victory in the skies against Germany and Japan.

There are plenty of aerial heroics here—as in Tom Lanphier’s shooting down of Yamamoto, the architect of the strike that brought Willis out of his bed that Sunday morning—but what gives the book its resonance is the fact that the authors have taken down the personal wars not only of fighter pilots and bomber crew members but of the immense support group that got them in the air, including the women who riveted the planes together, for instance, and the surgeons who treated the fliers’ wounds. The reminiscences range from the reflective to the hair-raising to the grimly amusing, but all ring absolutely true; they are full of life, of eccentric and intimate information. Leuthner and Jensen have been uncommonly good listeners, and what they have assembled here is more than a bunch of good war stories; it is a compelling patchwork history of a titanic enterprise.

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