by Lee C. Cook
Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2021. Pp. iv, 320.
Illus., maps, chron., gloss., append., biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 1574418416
A Navy Fighter Pilot’s Pacific War Diary
“Dirty Eddie” March earned his nickname flying Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters from Guadalcanal when there were no bathing or laundry facilities at Henderson Field and Japanese aircraft were overhead, attacking on a daily basis. His story is told in Dirty Eddie’s War. A keen athlete and Olympic prospect prewar, Harry March Jr. became a Navy fighter pilot, arriving on board the carrier Enterprise just after Midway. He flew combat missions over Guadalcanal, the Gilbert Islands, the northern Solomons, and over Rabaul in F4F Wildcats, F6F Hellcats and, most notably, F4U Corsairs; becoming an ace with five victories, a lieutenant commander and a squadron executive officer. March was one of the millions, officers and enlisted, who came from civilian life to make victory possible.
While much of the story is told in March’s own words from his diaries and letters, it differs from the well-known first-person accounts that have come to define much of the US experience of war in the Pacific, including James J. Fahey’s Pacific War Diary for the big-ship Navy and, for the Marines, E. B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed and Robert Leckie’s Helmet for my Pillow. Unlike these authors, March never got to tell his own story. Rather than an author’s narrative, Lee Cook’s book – 20th in this publisher’s “Military Biography and Memoir” series – is woven around March’s diary and, especially, his sincere and heartfelt letters to his wife. The author lets March have his say as much as possible, linking these writings together and providing context, including excerpts from his logbooks, combat reports and squadron and ship war diaries.
Contemporaneous sources by their nature often reflect limited information or are simply mistaken. There are places where it would have been useful to have input from postwar sources about issues such as losses. The author provides glossary entries for much of the explanation and context, though he sometimes misses out. For example, he does not point out to the reader where March likely misidentifies an enemy airplane he shoots down (Japan’s few twin-engine Fiat BR 20s were mostly on Formosa) or why it is significant when March correctly identifies the Enterprise’s scout bomber squadron as having been modified to carry heavy bombs, which they had used to good effect at Midway.
The author is a historian of Navy fighter squadron VF-17 and has written three books on the unit and interviewed veterans. He focuses on March’s time with VF-17, first to fly the F4U in combat, during intensive air operations over the northern Solomons and Rabaul. Their F4Us with Jolly Roger squadron insignia have been a favorite subject for model builders since the first wartime press photographs appeared. The squadron operated from improvised bases at the end of a logistic tail of unprecedented length and complexity. Made squadron engineering officer despite his lack of technical background or experience, March designed, improvised and installed the first-ever bomb racks on F4U Corsairs, before factory-built versions made the airplane a formidable fighter-bomber.
While March has nothing good to say about the skills of Army Air Force aircrew, including but not limited to the inability of B-17 bombers to hit ships, the book gives a bottom-up look at one of the first successful joint service and inter-Allied air operations, successfully bringing together both carrier and shore based Navy, Marines, Army Air Force, Australian and New Zealand units. Morale and combat fatigue emerged as a major concern. March was very much aware that tomorrow his life may depend on the guy he was drinking with tonight and the focus on interpersonal relationships is seen throughout, and he seems to have been a good fit with those who made VF-17 an exceptional squadron.
The author provides a glossary (which identifies references that may be unfamiliar), a chronology of March’s wartime service, a context-providing outline of the Pacific war and brief biographies of VF-17 personnel, many of whom went on to distinguished careers in the Navy, business, or academia.
The book succeeds in telling the story of Eddie March and, secondarily, about the men he flew with, especially in VF-17, doing both using March’s own words as much as possible while providing insights on the bigger picture. Eddie March, separated from spouse and child, was sent into bitter and costly air battles around remote islands, where he survived, coped and, true to his athletic goals, made every effort to ensure that he would be on the winning team; there were many more like him.
Our Reviewer: David Isby’s writings on current and historical airpower include The Decisive Duel: Spitfire vs. 109 (London: Little Brown, 2012) and Fighter Combat in the Jet Age (London: Harper Collins, 1997) and articles for Air International, Air Forces Monthly and other magazines. A veteran historian, defense analyst, and war game designer, Isby has quit e a number of other books, articles, and games to his credit covering the Second World War, the military institutions of the Soviet Union, and military aviation in general. During the Soviet-Afghan War he observed the fighting on the front lines, and he is the author of Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires: A New History of the Borderland (New York: Pegasus, 2011). His previous reviews include A Military History of Afghanistan, The Elite: The A–Z of Modern Special Operations Forces, Taranto and Naval Air Warfare in the Mediterranean, Airpower in the War against ISIS, Korean Air War: Sabres, MiGs and Meteors, 1950–53, How the Army Made Britain a Global Power, and Modern South Korean Air Power.
Note: Dirty Eddie’s War is also available in several e-editions.
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