Reviews and Previews: Soldier of Fortune

The life and mysterious death of an American ace in the Spanish Civil War

Five Down, No Glory:

Frank G. Tinker, Mercenary Ace in the Spanish Civil War

by Richard K. Smith and R. Cargill Hall.

Naval Institute Press, 2011. 377 pp., $36.95.

Spain’s civil war (1936 to 1939) provided a nasty foretaste of World War II, with fascists battling communists, and foreign dictators supporting their favored ideologies. Meanwhile, volunteers flocked in from other countries, usually to fight for the left-wing Spanish government. (The communists had the more energetic propaganda.)

Among the American volunteers was Frank Tinker, an outstanding pilot and a good squadron leader, though he never really learned the language of the Spaniards and Russians he took into combat. The language barrier hardly mattered; there was no radio in Tinker’s Polikarpov fighter.

Tinker was credited with more than enough aerial victories to be designated an ace. Most of his targets were German and Italian biplanes, but they also included two Messerschmitt Bf 109s, one of the great aerial weapons of World War II. Oddly, Smith and Hall (the latter an Air & Space/Smithsonian contributing editor) make no attempt to verify his combat claims, which almost certainly are exaggerated.

Though Tinker achieved the “five down” of a fighter ace, the customary glory escaped him. Working as a mercenary pilot, though, had made him a modestly wealthy man by the time he headed home. A wider war was brewing in which his talents would have been highly valued. Alas, Tinker died in a hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas, of a gunshot wound that at the time was ruled a suicide, though his biographers make a good case that he was murdered.

Except for a few omissions, this is a splendid biography.

Daniel Ford wrote about another band of mercenary pilots, Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers, 1941–1942 (Harper Collins-Smithsonian Books, 2007).

Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier

by Neil deGrasse Tyson. W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. 384 pp., $24.95.

in the exploration of space, America is at a crossroads. NASA retired the space shuttle last year, and a restructuring of our national priorities is under way. In his new collection of essays, letters, speeches, Tweets, and even a poem, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson makes a compelling appeal, at just the right time, for continuing to look up.

Not only is our economic health dependent on space exploration, he argues, but our very survival as a species may be as well. For example, without further exploration, we might miss spotting an incoming asteroid in time to deflect it from wiping us out.

Tyson says that the spinoff benefits of space exploration aren’t enough to drive the massive expenditures of a program on the scale, say, of Apollo. The best driver for the government programs he says we need to get us back into space in a big way is a war, like the cold one that got us to the moon. Space travel, he says, is too expensive and too hard for mere garage tinkerers.

While this might have been true 40 years ago, I would argue that the recent successes of Scaled Composites and SpaceX, which designed, built, and flew craft into space for a combined outlay of less than a single space shuttle flight, tell a different story. Fortunately, NASA is no longer the only game in town.

The book has three sections—Why, How, and Why Not explore space—that include mind-bending facts about the universe and our place in it. These accessible, highly readable essays provoke thought and showcase Tyson’s gift for explaining big concepts in easy-to-understand terms.

n n n Michael Belfiore wrote this issue’s cover story, “Extraterrestrial outfitter” (p. 48).

Beyond Planet Earth: The Future of Space Exploration

American Museum of Natural History.

New York, NY. Exhibit runs through

August 12, 2012.

How will humans ever get out of Earth orbit to explore the galaxy—or even just the solar system? It’s a question the American Museum of Natural History tries to answer in its new exhibit, “Beyond Planet Earth.”

Like any good history museum, this one begins the exhibit with the past: Sputnik and a rusty Vostok capsule—both reproductions from the museum’s fabrication shop. From a tiny port you can sniff a sample of a simulated lunar surface; Apollo astronauts say the real thing smelled like gunpowder but I sensed a hint of charcoal. In low lunar lighting, you see a miniature diorama depicting a proposed moon settlement, and a powerful, revolving liquid mirror telescope that should bring in crisper images of the universe. On one side of the hall there’s a scale-model inflatable-expandable lunar habitat; overhead is a model of a proposed lunar elevator. (Despite the obvious convenience, I’d never take an elevator to the moon—or live for extended periods inside anything inflatable.)

In the asteroids section, we find out how to deflect one from ramming into Earth, potentially the most important skill in space exploration. In the Mars section, the lighting turns—surprise—red, and there is a prototype worksuit for nimbly negotiating a barren surface. In a hands-on display, you can attempt to terraform Mars—reducing to seconds a process lasting around 1,000 years—but usually with bleak results. I tried with a combination of pollution-spewing factories, nuclear weapons, and other fun stuff, and failed. Do we really need to pump another habitable planet’s atmosphere full of greenhouse gases?

n n n Phil Scott is a frequent contributor to air & space. he

wrote “take a ride in a b-25” for the apr./may 2011 issue.

Finish Forty and Home: The Untold World War II Story of B-24s in the Pacific

by Phil Scearce. University of North Texas Press, 2011. 352 pp., $29.95.

In the randomness of World War II combat assignments, which bomber crew service do you choose: Europe or the Pacific? Before you decide, read Finish Forty and Home. “The role of chance could be depressing to a bomber crewman if he dwelt too much on it,” writes Phil Scearce. It’s one of the themes in his exhaustive account of a B-24 Liberator crew island-hopping from Hawaii to Iwo Jima.

Scearce’s father, Herman, a B-24 radio operator and gunner, flew his 40 missions and came home with stories that enthralled his son. The younger Scearce has grown up to be a meticulous researcher, and he builds on the frame of his father’s memories a chronicle of daily life in the lesser-known bomber theater. Without delay, the reader is grounded in reality. Herman Scearce doesn’t step out of a Norman Rockwell scene with Glenn Miller playing in the background; he lies his way into the military at age 16, fleeing severe family dysfunction, toxic poverty, and small-town aimlessness.

The elder Scearce’s tour of the Pacific begins with a mission on which every bomb misses a Japanese-occupied island entirely. It ends with pinpoint placement of 2,000-pound mines while flying a hundred feet above blazing enemy warships. In between, the detail is high-resolution.

Phil Scearce’s precise narrative and illuminating footnotes convey the facts. His father’s recollection early in the book states a more plain-spoken truth. “All of us prayed selfish prayers…. God, just get me back on the ground again.”

Stephen Joiner is a frequent Air & Space contributor.

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