Pontifications: Heros and a thriller–two book reviews

Fly Boy Heroes, The Story of the Medal of Honor Recipients of the Air War Against Japan

By James H. Hallas. Stackpole Books, $29.95.

The First Counterspy

By Kay Haas and Walter W. Pickut. Lyons Press, $29.95.

Aug. 22, 2022, © Leeham News: Two books from my summer reading aren’t about commercial aviation but will be interesting to the broader aviation community.

These are Fly Boy Heroes, The Story of the Medal of Honor Recipients of the Air War Against Japan, and The First Counterspy.

Fly Boy chronicles short stories about the US Medal of Recipients who flew against Japan in the Second World War. Author James Hallas begins with the Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor and ends with an April 12, 1945, Boeing B-29 raid on Japan. In between, the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in April 1942, the Battle of the Coral Sea, Midway (the outgrowth of the Doolittle Raid), and other combat missions are recounted. The Medal of Honor recipients of these battles are, as the book’s title suggests, the flyboys whose above-and-beyond exploits earned them the Medal. Not all survived their missions, but some did. For those who did, not all had happily ever after endings late in the war or in civilian life.

Being a Chicago area native, I knew that O’Hare International Airport was named after Lt. Commander Edward O’Hare, more commonly known as “Butch.” I also knew, though few others today might, that Butch was the son of Chicago mobster Edgar J. O’Hare, or E. J. E.J. was a lawyer for Al Capone and testified at Capone’s tax evasion trial that sent the mobster to Alcatraz. For his troubles, E.J. was murdered in 1939.

One of the USA’s Ace pilots

Butch became one of America’s early fighter pilot aces. Assigned to the aircraft carrier, Lexington (the first one), in a February 1942 action, Butch shot down or chased off several enemy airplanes. He was credited with shooting down five bombers, earning the Medal of Honor. Post-War analysis reduced the number to three.

The Lexington’s captain credited Butch with preventing damage or even destruction of the carrier. Lexington would later be heavily damaged and was sunk by escorting destroyers rather than allow the damaged, heavily listing ship, to be boarded, or even captured by the Japanese.

Assigned to the carrier Enterprise in 1943, Butch was killed in action that November.

Chicago’s Old Orchard Airport (this is the origin of the airport code, ORD) had been a wartime field. Douglas Aircraft Co. built C-54 (DC-4) transports at ORD. The airport was renamed in 1949 after Butch.

Harl Pease

Capt. Harl Pease, another Medal of Honor recipient, flew Boeing B-17s in the Pacific Theatre. Originally assigned to evacuate Gen. Douglas MacArthur from the Philippines in the early months of the war, Pease was diverted to another flight, and MacArthur famously evacuated by PT Boat. But Pease’s later combat missions earned him the Medal of Honor. Pease International Airport in Portsmouth, Maine, is named after him.

And so Fly Boy goes. Short biographies and high-level recaps of the combat missions do justice to those Medal of Honor recipients. This is a worthy read.

The First Counterspy

For me, The First Counterspy was the more interesting of the two books. Fly Boy is a compendium of stories. Counterspy is one tale from beginning to end. It is co-authored by the daughter of the leading protagonist, Larry Haas, who was a semi-con man who talked his way into important, classified jobs at Bell Aircraft and later Westinghouse. Frank Abagnale, the prolific and highly successful check forger in the 1960s (immortalized by Leonardo Di Caprio in the movie Catch Me if You Can) comes to mind when reading about Larry Haas.

He joined Bell early in World War II as an engineer and designer. The Soviet Union was an American ally and assigned one of its aerospace engineers to Bell, which sold the USSR P-39 and P-40 fighters to them. The liaison, as could be expected, was more than just a conduit between the two countries. He also was a spy.

The book tells the story of the “long seduction” by the Russian of not only Haas, but his wife, another couple, and the Bell librarian in order to obtain classified information, blueprints, and designs of Bell’s aircraft. Reading the efforts makes one wonder, how could the targets of the seduction be so naïve? But the long process, tedious as it was (which sometimes spilled over to the reading) lays it all out.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, however, had been watching and soon contacted Haas. Sometimes lacking finesse, the FBI maneuvered Haas into becoming the USA’s first counterspy.

Following Haas around

Haas later moved from Bell to Westinghouse, which was working with GE on America’s first jet engine, intended for war use. The Soviet agent followed Haas in his role as a “friend,” continuing efforts to obtain top secret data, this time about jet engines. The effort continued after the end of the war.

Just as the Soviet agent followed Haas, the FBI followed Haas and the agent.

The story is not just about spying. Attempts on the life of Haas children, including the co-author. In one instance, the FBI agents following young Kay Haas were too far away to prevent her abduction. But as they closed in on the chase, Haas was tossed from the car and lived. If the Soviets meant to frighten Larry into subservience, they failed. His rage set the stage to eventually bust up the spy ring. Events went all the way to President Harry Truman, who filled Larry in on some of the geopolitical concerns about the slow pace of busting up the ring.

Counterspy is a bit tedious. But given today’s high tensions between Russia, the USA, and other countries, the reading becomes even more interesting.


9 Comments on “Pontifications: Heros and a thriller–two book reviews

  1. Pontifications …. Scott, the current aviation industry must be really exciting if you are leaving that many book reviews! I appreciate them, as I am always looking for some good aviation reading!

    But, the really nice thing in the comments is that they are not over-run by Bryce et. al., who seem to think that this is their aviation post site!?!?! Maybe some day, these ‘experts’ will venture off and start their own forum where they can ‘run amok.’

    • I wasn’t aware of any limit on numbers of postings here…athough I can imagine that the BA “back office” would love to see one 😏

      Au contraire, having an active blog on a website (greatly) helps to put that website near the top of search engine results. So — whether it’s the intention or not — LNA actually gets some benefit from the comments here.

      • @Bryce

        Totally concur! Like many, I actually enjoy & learn from all the comment posts good or bad.
        If GS complaining is it obviously means he’s reading them all. Lol.

        • Airdoc – no, definitely not reading them all, I don’t have that much time to waste!

      • “I wasn’t aware of any limit on numbers of postings here…athough I can imagine that the BA “back office” would love to see one”
        {Edited as violation of Reader Comment rules}

        • Another vacuous interjection from the “King of Nothing Substantive to Say”.

          Can’t you think of any remark to make about Scott’s book selection? Or even about aviation in general? Or are you intent to just sulk?

  2. The Fly Boy Heroes: While I never met him, Ken Taylor (Pearl Harbor) lived 150 feet down the street from a friend. He and Welch were most amazing and an outstanding example of what well trained pilots could do with a good aircraft.

    Spy End: Its worth a deep dive into Enigma/Ultra in WWII. Women who contributed so hugely to the Code Cracking in WWII are finally getting the recognition they deserved (both the US and UK). Many were the mainstay of the boring but critical clerking work, some were truly Titans that stood with the top code crackers. Only now are those previously silent women speaking out and books being written and getting the recognition the so much deserved.

  3. Thank you for the book reviews Scott. I engross myself with everything military, especially WWII aviation history.

    Another book worth the read is ‘Operation Vengeance’ by Dan Hampton. It’s the story on how we took out the brain behind Pearl Harbor…. Admiral Yamamoto. The Americans broke the Japanese code and led us to building the plan using P-38’s in the Solomon Islands.

    • Airdoc:

      That truly was an astonishing mission they pulled off.

      Some of the interesting code breaking history was the group who broke the Japanese Logistics code. On the surface it would seem to be ????

      But the incredible US Sub success in the Pacific 1943 on? A very interesting number of subs wound up in the right place at the right time to sink cargo ships

      And if you know where the oilers are or going, then you know where the surface fleet is or are going.

      One sub was shuttled back and forth off the Marianas two or three times just to be able to submerge in time to target a Carrier trying to catch up with the rest of the Japanese fleet. Keeping in mind once submerged a sub in those days stood no chance to adjust to much other than an almost perfect intercept.

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