Reviewed by David F. Winkler
Whereas a recent blog story featured a Curt Marsh review of David Sears Such Men as These, it is timely to review what could be called a companion book by Steven Craig Reynolds that attempts to answer the question “Where do We Get Such Men.”
To answer the question posed in a James Michener novel on Korean War naval aviation which developed into the movie The Bridges of Toko-Ri, Reynolds focused on the life of Charles (Gil) Erb, a retired naval aviator he had met and worked with to produce a fine oral history that was donated and distributed to various Navy libraries by the NHF. Erb was assigned to VF 191 and flew the F9F-2 Panther off USS Princeton during the Korean War. Later, when assigned to USS Oriskany, he worked with William Holden on character development for Holden’s role in The Bridges of Toko-Ri. The cover of the book features Erb and Holden posing together.
Unlike Sears who has a well-established track record as an author with an established publishing house and now has another book, Pacific Air, on our review list below, Reynolds dove into this as a first time effort and published with what is known in the trade as a “vanity press.” Due to advances in the print industry, a cottage industry of do-it-yourself publishing houses such as Authorhouse and Heritage Press enable aspiring authors to get their works out in limited quantities where they can market them, recoup their costs, and hopefully realize a small profit.
The good news for naval history is that this publication format is going to allow many more words on the subject to get into print and one of the purposes of this book review e-letter is to give some spotlight to some of these obscure but worthy books. The bad news is that there is no “adult supervision” in the form of an editorial staff at the publishing house to provide constructive critique to the author before the book goes to press. In my case, I’m most appreciative of the proofreaders and editors at the Naval Institute Press for the thorough review of the two manuscripts I published with them.
This is a good book that could have been a great book. The red flag is there are no footnotes. While it is clear Reynolds is lifting much of the material from the oral history transcript, it would have been good to see other sources cited to validate a series of great sea stories extracted from the oral history. For example, Reynolds discusses a transfer of a leaking nuclear weapon to the ammunition ship USS Triton – which happened to be a submarine at that time and discussed a Honda Civic a decade before the car came onto the market. There is one chapter about three enlisted Marines who run off with the ship’s payroll. While entertaining, one was left to wonder how this related to the subject of the book?
Fact-check nitpicking aside, Erb’s story is compelling as after the Korean War he winds up a Patuxent River as a test pilot and then becomes a Vigilante pilot before being grounded due to high blood pressure. Erb’s career certainly provides anecdotal background to research being conducted by Smithsonian Ramsey Fellow/ NHF President Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn on the inherent dangers of naval aviation during this period and the reforms needed to improve safety.
The carnage in this book is incredible and most of the body-count is not combat related. For the morbid cable television series “1000 Ways to Die,” this book could provide fodder for dozens of episodes. While Reynolds recounts Erb’s recollections of numerous air fatalities, there are numerous deaths on terra firma that were alcohol-related. While naval aviators pushed the envelope in the sky, and Reynolds argues that this culture translated on the highway. Indeed, several of Erb’s near misses with death highlighted throughout the book are automobile related.
Reynolds writing style is a bit folksy but he worked with a story teller that spun a good yarn. For those interested in the period of transition from propeller to jet driven aircraft from the perspective of a test pilot, this book does make the cut.
Dr. Winkler is a historian with the Naval Historical Foundation.