Reviewing: Hostile Skies- A Combat History of the American Air Service in World War 1

The Captain’s Log Book Reviews

Jeffrey A. Rothermel

Hostile Skies A Combat History of the American Air Service in World War I. By James J. Hudson. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1968, first paperback 1996. Maps. Tables. Photographs. Notes. Bibliography. Pp. ix- 338. $19.95. Index. ISBN: 0-8156-0465-3.

The First World War produced eighty-one American ‘aces.’[1] One of those aces was Major Harold E. Hartney. His October 22, 1918 night air battle in a Camel airplane versus a German Gotha aircraft was one example of many that were brilliantly described in Hostile Skies. Historical documents indicate Hartney shot down the Gotha, but Hartney was never credited with the shoot down. He had bigger challenges at the time rather than observing if the enemy had been destroyed. During the battle his heavily gloved hand inadvertently turned off the engine. When he discovered this fact and restarted his engine it was engulfed in flames. The blinding fire ruined his night vision and his instincts told him he was about to crash into a forest. He contemplated jumping out of the aircraft with no parachute to avoid burning to death. He opted to ride it out. The fire died out, his night vision returned and he safely returned and landed on the sod at Rembercourt Aerodrome, France.[2] Hostile Skies was a scholarly historical work that took the statistics of war, pieced them together into a readable narrative while putting more than a name to the statistic.

University of Arkansas Professor and Graduate School Dean James J. Hudson (1919-1991) received his Ph.D. in history from the University of California at Berkeley in 1952. He flew 191 combat missions during World War II in the European Theater in P-38s, P-39s, and P-47s.[3] Those skills and experiences undoubtedly contributed to his 1968 work: Hostile Skies A Combat History of the American Air Service in World War I.

His book covered air power theory, training, equipment, strategies and the tactics that the United States employed during WWI. He captured the essence of what WWI aerial combat was like for the American pilot. The challenges they faced and the effort put into overcoming those challenges were the emphasized topical narratives. Considerable assessment and two tables were in the book regarding aerial dog fights and defining what an ‘ace’ was. The math behind how the various countries calculated an ‘ace’ was superbly illuminated. Less focus and analysis went into the other roles of American air power. Once the bombs were dropped or gun trigger was pulled the narrative generally focused on getting back to the aerodrome rather than assessing the effects. As a historian, Hudson’s research was focused on information from the cockpit and did not venture into the realm of lashing the cockpit history with the historical quantifiable effects upon ground forces. Pilots were ranked by how many air to air kills they made. Therefore the historical record concerning dog fights was more extensive than the battle damage assessments concerning strafing or bombing missions. Despite this fact Hostile Skies was visibly lacking in any type of academic assessment regarding the effectiveness of strafing, and bombing missions in WWI by the American Air Service.

Ultimately, the book left controversial questions due to the power of omission. Why did the historian not dig deeper into the actual effects of American WWI air power in his 1968 study?

“Had the war lasted a few more months, the Air Service, without a doubt, would have reached the awesome potential so optimistically predicted…”[4] It was with that aviator passion and tone, that Hudson coherently pieced together the genesis of American air combat. Hudson’s work focused on a very small portion the First World War, the American Air Service. The American Air Service fought hard during the last seven months of a long four year war.

“Certainly, air power did not win the First World War; in fact, it played a relatively small role…”[5] He clearly illustrated the original clues from WWI that would fuel the air power debate long after the Great War.

Hudson’s sources were extensive, but ‘American air centric.’ Little attention was made of German, French, British or Italian primary sources which may have been useful in tying American air power cockpit perceptions to those on the ground or in the air. This was unfortunate since all of those nations were generally on friendly terms with the United States during Hudson’s period of research.

The book was well worth the read. It explained details of the American Air Service not commonly known. Hostile Skies was effective because it answered many questions while opening doors to other questions to explore. I recommend the book to people familiar with World War One military operations. I would not recommend the book to a high school student that knew little about WWI. Only ten percent of Allied air power at the time of armistice belonged to the Americans.[6] One could finish the book with a disproportionate understanding of all the factors. Ten thousand American pilots were trained during WWI.[7] The book’s narrative told their story by focusing on the U.S. air commanders and the historical records of the couple hundred pilots that strove to be an ace.

[1] James J. Hudson, Hostile Skies A Combat History of the American Air Service in World War I (1968; Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996), 308-11.

[2] Hudson, 284-5.

[3] University of Arkansas John J. Hudson Papers. http://libinfo.uark.edu/SpecialCollections/findingaids/hudson.html#INFORMATION ABOUT JAMES (Accessed August 3, 2012).

[4] Hudson, viii.

[5] Hudson, 304.

[6] Hudson, 300.

[7] Hudson, 30.

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