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.

Leave a Reply