World War Stories

World War 1s

Every once in a while a book manages to burrow its way into my mind and I can't make it go away. The Hellish Vortex is that kind of book. It didn't start out that way. As a matter of fact, when I first looked at the cover I thought, Gee, this is a book about a young fighter pilot in World War II. I was a young fighter pilot back in the dark ages and flew combat in the Vietnam War. This ought to be a fun read. But a funny thing happened on my way to the last chapter. Inexplicably, my whole perspective changed concerning a subject I thought I knew as well as any combat veteran can. Namely; who are heroes and who are not; and how can you tell the difference?

Brigadier General Richard M Baughn (USAF, Retired) is one of those rare authors who can pull a period of World War II history off a dusty book shelf and breathe fresh new life into it. In his latest book, The Hellish Vortex, he describes the air campaign in the European theater between 1943 and 1945, during which waves of American B-17 and B-24 bombers, escorted by P-38, P-40 and P-51 fighters, pounded Germany. In the same narrative, he chronicles the daily lives of the men who flew them. The result is pure magic; a book well worth reading. How did he do it? It's simple. For one thing, he is a good writer and for another, he flew P-51s in Europe during the same period. As the saying goes, he has been there, done that. It works every time!

The principal character in the book is 2nd Lt. Robb Baines, a nineteen year old fighter pilot who arrives in the U.K. underage and under trained for his new assignment flying P-51s and escorting bombers to Germany. Like most nineteen year olds, Baines, who I suspect is General Baughn's alter ego, secretly wonders if he is up to the task at hand. But tangling with German ME 109s and ME 110s is dangerous business with no margin for self doubt, as Baines quickly found out. In time, he became a seasoned combat veteran, a confident leader, and a candidate for bigger and better things in what would become the United States Air Force in 1947.

There are several other characters in the book worth mentioning. There is The Colonel, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, the group commander who led his pilots with a calm steady hand; Big John, a sergeant whose well meaning support for the war effort included seducing the wife of a local chicken farmer to get eggs for the pilots' predawn breakfasts; and Rocco, Baines' long suffering wing man who lives his life with characteristic gritty, New York City bravado. These characters, and many others like them, add spice to an already well prepared dish. Speaking of spices, there is love, romance and sex in the book as well; but the author is careful not to let these asides draw him off the main theme.

One of the things I like about The Hellish Vortex, is that the author periodically inserted excerpts from a paper entitled The Army Air Forces and 8th Air Force during World War II, purportedly written by Baines while at The Armed Forces Staff College. These asides afford the reader a chance to take a break and look at the big picture. It was there that I learned things I never knew, or had forgotten, about the growth of American air power between World War I and 1947. And it was also there that I read a statistic I still can't get out of my mind; namely, There were 41,802 airmen killed in a force that never exceeded 100,000 pilots, navigators, bombardiers, and aerial gunners. This grim statistics reinforces something I have always suspected, namely: that it is tempting for warriors to tell their stories loudly, garnering praise and admiration wherever and whenever they can. But the plain truth is that not all warriors are heroes; just as not all heroes are warriors; and those that are, often prefer to speak softly in deference to the heroes that never made it home. It took a simple book, written by a talented, unassuming writer to confirm my suspicion.


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