Review of Bold Venture, by Steven Bailey

Bold Venture, by Steven Bailey, is an interesting and engaging narrative about U.S. air operations against Hong Kong during World War II. Bottom line: I think it is worth a read, but not if it is the first or only book you read on this subject. Bailey looks at the American attacks and compares them against contemporary reports from occupied Hong Kong and from post-war analysis of actual Japanese losses. That being said, I was disappointed by the lack of new material or new voices. For a book about occupied Hong Kong, it contained almost no Chinese sources. Most of the sources from the Hong Kong perspective were English-language sources from or from British internees or prisoners of war. Almost all of the information on Japan was from existing secondary sources like Hata, Shores, and Izawa’s excellent book on Japanese Army Air Force Fighter Units and Their Aces or from Osprey’s aircraft of the aces series. Additionally, a great deal of the information on American operations was from Carl Molesworth’s Sharks over China and Carroll Glines’ Chennault’s Forgotten Warriors. Unfortunately, he also cites Bill Yenne’s book, which represent the low point of scholarship on this topic.

In between the details is where Bailey shows himself as an English professor, rather than a historian. There are an unbelievable number of errors where he allows creative license to advance his literary efforts, or where he makes assumptions instead of conducting solid research. He writes, for example, that Chennault became a colonel in 1941 and subsequently traveled to the United States to petition for a volunteer fighter group. In fact, “colonel” as the Chinese referred to him, was an honorary title only. He did not become a “real” colonel until he was brought back into the U.S. Army in April 1942. Additionally, his journey to the United States to petition for an American Volunteer Group was in November 1940, not 1941. Since Bailey used Chennault’s book as a source, there is no reason he should have gotten these details wrong. Bailey confuses the status of the China Air Task Force as a subordinate unit of 10th Air Force in describing the transfer of planes from one to the other. He has the CATF stood up when the AVG was deactivated in July 1942. In fact, the CATF came into being in June 1942 and contained the AVG as a subordinate unit until the 23rd Fighter Group replaced the volunteers in July. Oddly, in discussing the October 25, 1942, raid on Hong Kong, Bailey omits any mention of Colonel Merian C. Cooper, the officer who actually planned the mission. He claims Chennault himself briefed the airmen at Guilin, when Cooper in fact did so. He also claims “several” 22nd Bomb Squadron B-25s joined the mission. There were in fact only two. He bases his account of the mission largely on the diary of Jim Young, the radio operator on the last B-25 in the formation. There are accounts from the navigator and the flight engineer on that same aircraft that Bailey apparently did not reference, leading to several more errors. The fact that the airplane was last in the formation because it had been “bumped” by a captain who preferred to be farther up, is one example. This is not corroborated by Wilmer McDowell, who flew the other 22nd Bomb Squadron aircraft in the formation. Or by Brick Holstrom, the flight leader of the last flight. Both men recorded their experiences and Holstrom’s is readily available at the Air Force Historical Research Agency. Bailey embellishes Young’s account with details that are not included in the diary, such as having him perform maintenance on the bomber as if he were a crew chief or engineer, rather than the radio operator. He has Young using a remote controlled bottom turret on his bomber even though Young’s own diary (along with other sources) confirms that the turret had been removed. He claims only the lead ship had a Norden bombsight, which is also not true. It was a formation drop, meaning the entire formation dropped off the lead aircraft, but all of the aircraft had Norden bombsights. There are no footnoted sources for these invented details.

Bailey also describes Chennault as gaining some measure of independence from Stilwell upon the standup of the 14th Air Force in March 1943. This is completely false. Though this move took Chennault out from under the 10th Air Force, it still left him under Stilwell’s jurisdiction. Statements like the B-24 being able to fly over “all but the very highest peaks when flying over the Hump” because of its 28,000-foot service ceiling make no sense whatsoever. The tallest mountain on the northern Hump route was Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, 18,360-feet tall. There are only three mountains in the world reaching over 28,000 feet. All three are in the Karakorum Range, over six hundred miles west of the Hump. Bailey talks about the B-24s bringing their own bombs and fuel over the Hump as if it were an unplanned contingency when in fact that was the plan from the beginning. Elsewhere, he notes that a P-38 was so badly battle-damaged on a 29 July 1943 mission to Hong Kong that it “later had to force land in friendly territory.” In fact, the pilot became lost and force-landed after his fighter ran out of fuel. He also claims a P-40 was reported missing in action on the mission. No such report exists. He might be referring to one that landed at another field.

Bailey further claims the Japanese 3rd Air Division tapered off its attacks in 1943 as much because of the weather as due to the death of their commanding officer, General Nakazono. In fact, the 3rd Air Division thought the happenstance interception to have been purposeful and cancelled the rest of their campaign because they figured their codes had been compromised. He mentions pilots strapping into P-38s in China with no experience in the type. This never happened. All of the pilots in the 449th Fighter Squadron were qualified in the type prior to arriving in theater. He claims Chennault divided the 14th Air Force into four combat wings in late 1943. In fact, in December 1943, he stood up the 68th and 69th Composite Wings. The Chinese-American Composite Wing operated under the 68th during this period, not as a separate fighting force, and the 312th Fighter Wing, which he mentions, was not activated in China until 1 March 1944.

Bailey reports elsewhere that “aircraft were often referred to by the last three digits of their serial number.” In fact, this three-digit number was completely unrelated to the serial number. Instead, each unit had a certain range of numbers assigned to it – the 308th had 451-550. He refers to the 9th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron conducting operations in China in the summer of 1944. In 1943, the 21st Photo Reconnaissance Squadron took over for Flight A of the 9th, which rejoined the rest of the squadron in India. In September 1944, the 35th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron joined the 21st in China.

And there are many other mistakes besides. The most bizarre aspect of all of this is that most of the details he messes up are given in the sources he cites – meaning the information was readily available.

On top of the mistakes, he uses a confusing mix of Wade-Giles and Pinyin Romanization for Chinese place names. Pick one! With a little more careful composition and research Bold Venture could have been one of the most incredible case studies of the China air war to date. Instead, we have a readable, but flawed narrative that I recommend reading with skepticism and with deference to the better books he used as reference.

Review of Double Ace, by Robert Coram

51k8pmjd5bl-_sx328_bo1204203200_In Double Ace, Robert Coram does an incredible job spinning a fascinating tale about Brigadier General Robert L. Scott, Jr., one of America’s more controversial heroes of World War II. To his credit, Coram paints the picture of a complicated man whose tall tales stretched (or sometimes completely ignored) the truth. The warmth of Scott’s personality in “bugling” his way through stories contrasts with his selfishness in ignoring his wife and child and his multiple extramarital affairs. Coram went to great lengths to plumb the depths of Scott’s own multiple narratives of his life to find some strand of truth. He even dug to find the original accident reports or other documentary evidence to find an objective touchstone for many of Scott’s stories. I found myself surprised, however, that in a book that seeks to put tall tales to rest, the author perpetuated some some tall tales and stereotypes of his own. For example, he passes on the story of Wendell Willkie and Madame Chiang having an affair – a rumor now known to have little validity. He also ignores much of the complexity of World War II China and is instead satisfied to paint a simplistic caricature of Chennault, Stilwell, and particularly Chiang. To simply paint the Nationalist regime as one held together by the force of Song Meiling’s personality and to paint Chiang as a corrupt petty-tyrant, is to make the same mistakes that led to American disaster in China in the first place. The problem seems to stem from Coram’s overreliance on anecdotal histories of the theater – other biographies and autobiographies make up most of his source material for characterizing the war in China. That being said, Double Ace is the best CBI-related biography to hit the shelves in some time. In both quality of research and writing, it is clearly superior to the recent When Tigers Ruled the Sky.

Book Review: Nanjing 1937 by Peter Harmsen

Nanjing 1937

In Nanjing 1937, Peter Harmsen follows up his spectacular book about the Battle of Shanghai by describing Nationalist China’s subsequent retreat west and effort to defend their capital. In this new book, Harmsen demonstrates the campaign leading up to the capture of Nanjing as featuring prominently in Chiang Kai-shek’s plans to gain international sympathy for the Chinese cause and to buy time to retreat to the interior and wear down the Japanese in preparation for a long war. He contextualizes the brutality of the Rape of Nanjing (unforgettably described by Iris Chang) by recounting the absolutely horrific and merciless battle that preceded the Japanese takeover of the city. Throughout, he weaves in the personal stories of Chinese and Japanese soldiers, as well as foreign observers who heroically tried to protect human life. He includes many maps demonstrating the maneuvers of the opposing armies and many photographs from both sides of the encounter. This was the Pacific War four years before American involvement and understanding it is key to understanding the ultimate outcome in 1945. The Japanese clearly thought their pitiless victory at Nanjing would decisively end the war. In fact, it dragged on for eight more years. Hopefully, Harmsen will follow up this astonishing book with accounts of Taierzhuang, Wuhan, and Changsha to further bring this topic into the historical consciousness of the English-reading public.

Book Review: Eyes of the Tiger by Arthur Clark

Eyes of the Tiger

Arthur Clark has written a unique and fascinating memoir of his time in India and China during World War II. His journal entries and memories reveal a keen eye not just for the war, but for the people, societies, and geography he found himself around. In addition to detailing the operations of his reconnaissance squadron (35PRS), Clark develops for the reader a compelling account of what it was like to be an American stationed in the Far East at this extraordinary time in history. Accompanying the text are many stunning photographs and several useful maps. Eyes of the Tiger is an important addition to the sparse literature on World War II in China.


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Peter Harmsen on Famine, Sword, and Fire

I am very grateful for Peter Harmsen’s kind words about Famine, Sword, and Fire. His book, Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze is available on and his next book, Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City, is due out this October.

“The history of the China, Burma, India Theater has never got the attention it deserves in the otherwise voluminous literature about World War II. Dan Jackson’s new book is a valuable contribution towards filling this gap, mixing the general’s bird’s-eye view with the perspective of the ordinary soldiers and airmen who fought and died in some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain. It’s an added strength that Mr. Jackson’s background as a military pilot gives him a natural familiarity with the subject matter that few professional historians can match.”

– Peter Harmsen, author of Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze