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Book Review – The Fight in the Clouds: The Extraordinary Combat Experience of P-51 Mustang Pilots During World War II

By James P. Busha; Zenith Press; Hardcover, 256 Pages; 17 b/w photos

Books on the World War II air war and books on the P-51 Mustang are not hard to find. The two subjects have retained a level of popularity despite the fact that the remaining untold stories are likely to stay that way, as the last veterans of World War II have already told their stories or are taking them to the grave with them. With respect to the “big picture” of the World War II air war, there is nothing particularly new in James P. Busha’s The Fight in the Clouds: The Extraordinary Combat Experience of P-51 Mustang Pilots During World War II. WW II history buffs and aviation enthusiasts will be aware of or have read about many of the events covered in the book. What the book offers is arguably more valuable, however; a collection of personal accounts describing “what it was like,” held together with a minimum of transitional explanations and scene setting.

Rather than tying together individual oral histories straight from the many interviews author James P. Busha conducted with veterans over the years, he employs an “as told to” style. While this makes for a consistent and appealing narrative, it can also unfortunately mean that, while the experiences vary, the text occasionally does not. Consider the description of a night takeoff in the account titled “By Dawn’s Early Light,” from 2nd Lt. Carlton “Bud” Fuhrman of the 486th Fighter Squadron, 352nd Fighter Group: “Red and green identification lights moved all around in the darkness. The real ‘fun’ was trying to pick out the ones on the guy you were supposed to join up with.”

“My favorite model was the B or C with the Spitfire/Malcolm Hood canopy. It provided much greater visibility than the original birdcage canopy. I also thought the B/C Mustangs were better fighters than even the D model. I didn’t like the P-51D as much […] because the gas tank was installed behind the pilot’s head. You were kidding yourself if you thought that you could dogfight with a load of fuel back there.”

A very few pages later, in “Requiem for a Princess” 1st Lt. Robert K. Butler, 487th Fighter Squadron, 352nd Fighter Group, recounts the same June 5, 1944 mission: “Red and green identification lights mounted on our Mustangs moved all around in the darkness. The real ‘fun’ was trying to pick out the ones on the guy you were supposed to join up with!”

The Fight in the Clouds

By James P. Busha; Zenith Press; Hardcover, 256 Pages; 17 b/w photos

Now, with this many interviews being turned into this many separate accounts, there were bound to be some duplications and typos by the writer. A good thorough edit would have caught them, and done justice to what was clearly a massive undertaking for the author. That said, for this reader it was really just a small speed bump in a book filled with many personal accounts that shed light on what it meant to fly and fight from a Mustang’s cockpit.

Part of the appeal of the book is that individual experiences and opinions often differ significantly. For example, Capt. William B. Overstreet, Jr., of the 357th Fighter Group, 363rd Fighter Squadron, recalled of the Mustang, “My favorite model was the B or C with the Spitfire/Malcolm Hood canopy. It provided much greater visibility than the original birdcage canopy. I also thought the B/C Mustangs were better fighters than even the D model. I didn’t like the P-51D as much […] because the gas tank was installed behind the pilot’s head. You were kidding yourself if you thought that you could dogfight with a load of fuel back there. The center of gravity was so heavy and in the wrong place that you couldn’t turn and you couldn’t do anything right. But in the P-51B/C, I thought, I could do everything right. It was the perfect fighter.”

“The first Mustangs we got were P-51Bs, which I despised. The damn things only had four guns compared to the eight we had on our Thunderbolts.”

In contrast, Lt. Col. Donald S. Bryan, of the 352nd Fighter Group, 328th Fighter Squadron, remembered: “The first Mustangs we got were P-51Bs, which I despised. The damn things only had four guns compared to the eight we had on our Thunderbolts. The guns on the Mustang would constantly jam whenever you pulled negative G, because in combat, you were always pulling either positive or negative Gs. … The P-51Bs had a horrible heating system, and at high altitude the cockpit was colder than a well-digger’s ass!”

Many other accounts, from several pilots comparing the Mustang and P-47 Thunderbolt, to perspectives on a dogfight with Russian fighters, to encounters with V-1 “Doodlebugs” and German jet– and rocket-powered aircraft, and even a section on missions over Japan, make for a rich and varied collection of individual experiences.

In this era of short attention spans and coffee-table history books destined for the remainder table, readers are often given only the big picture, in the broadest brushstrokes, of the air war during World War II.

What makes The Fight in the Clouds: The Extraordinary Combat Experience of P-51 Mustang Pilots During World War II invaluable is that taken together, each of the stories in this volume show a much more complex and nuanced picture than the facile, broad brush treatments in many “big picture” accounts of the air war.

It is well to keep in mind that, while each of the people depicted in this book constitutes perhaps a single brushstroke in the gigantic canvas depicting the air war in World War II, without them and millions of others, that “big picture” would not exist.