Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
25 Mar. 2021
Review by Heather Venable, Air Command and Staff College
Rocky Boyer's War: An Unvarnished History of the Air Blitz That Won the War in the Southwest Pacific
By Allen D. Boyer
Annapolis: Naval Inst. Press, 2017. Pp. xii, 426. ISBN 978–1–68247–096–1.
Descriptors: Volume 2021, 20th Century, Southwest Pacific Theater, Air War Print Version

Author Allen D. Boyer draws on the (unauthorized) diary of his father—1st Lt. Roscoe (Rocky) Boyer (hereafter "RB" or "Rocky")—who served as an Army Air Forces officer in the Southwest Pacific to produce this beautifully written account of not only his father's but many other airmen's varied experiences. A particular virtue of his new study is its refreshing avoidance of the congratulatory tone of books about the so-called "Greatest Generation." Asked to sum up in a few words his (and countless others') experience of the war, RB listed the following:

Heat, stench, buzzing flies, broken equipment. Dysentery. Air raids. Officers muddling things and sergeants doing their jobs. Massacre jokes, sexual frustration, hopes for romance. Young airmen talking about pregnant wives, middle-aged non-coms thinking about their wives. Envy and rivalry. Soldiers flying south on furlough and aircraft engines flying south to be overhauled, side by side. No beer and too few cigarettes. (273)

Boyer includes the voices of pilots, mechanics, and officers like his father, who worked in communications. He also describes with some empathy the treatment of the African American laborers who are almost invisible in other Southwest Pacific military histories (160, 259).

The book begins with Rocky's prewar background and a discussion of the scope of the Southwest Pacific air war. Boyer then narrows his focus to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, where RB's time in theater began. He then recounts his father's service in the Philippines, where he earned a Combat Infantryman's Badge (332). The book then concludes with a short account of his postwar life.

Boyer, who has written several other books,[1] writes in a compelling style and approaches archival materials with a critical eye. For example, he faults unit historians for putting too optimistic a spin on events (189, 295); he prefers and praises those who highlight the contributions of everyone in a squadron, not just pilots (229). He even flags his own father for indulging "a sense of melodrama [and] self-pity" (15), though his portrait of RB is mostly positive.

If Boyer does have a bias, it is against high-ranking officers. He disparages one colonel, for instance, who tried to build a "dream house" (212) in the middle of a war, a claim he does not support with much evidence. Still, he does praise a few colonels and lower-ranking officers (18, 220, 231–37, 313, 317). A major who had run a hotel before the war drew on that experience to "handle complaints rather than fighting them" (228).

The famous airmen who figure prominently in other histories of the war in the Southwest Pacific, like Gen. George Kenney, get little attention in Boyer's account, which is not a bad thing. That said, the author does grant that Kenney took care to preserve his airmen's lives, if only because he could not depend on getting replacements as easily as could European theater commanders (249). Also interesting is his mention that airmen viewed MacArthur as an "ass," yet appreciated his strategic vision for keeping him from blunders that might have gotten them "slaughtered on beachheads" (2, 320). Rocky and others respected generals not for their exalted rank, but for their ability to get needed resources in tough situations (349–50).

The recollections of most enlisted service members bear little resemblance to postwar idealized memoirs of young Americans dutifully determined to serve after Pearl Harbor. Boyer emphasizes the experience of those unenthusiastically drafted and eager to return home and get on with their lives (8, 25, 317). The war in the Southwest Pacific was rife with frustrations and inequities, epitomized by officers-only latrines—a powerful symbol of the divide between "haves" and "have nots" in the Southwest Pacific. Many bitterly resented the much shorter tours of service enjoyed by pilots (245) as compared with their support personnel.

Boyer sometimes strays into more academic analyses, drawing on relevant secondary literature. He suggests, for instance, that rumors actually facilitated gaining knowledge and information as they were over time exchanged, verified, and distilled into fact (115). There is, too, a brief analysis of airmen's conflicted, gender-biased views of the women they met in the Pacific (174).

It is not the author's intent here to replace existing authoritative works on the air war in the Southwest Pacific.[2] Nor does he aim to illuminate the air war in detail. At one point he maintains that the Japanese embraced a strategy of asymmetrical warfare—aerial guerrilla warfare—which was surprisingly successful. Plane per plane, the Japanese may have destroyed more enemy aircraft by small night-bombing raids than the Americans destroyed on Japanese airstrips during massed-plane daylight raids. (222)

Since he is not writing (or qualified to write) a history of air-war per se, the author does not pursue further this intriguing hypothesis. Rather, he is fascinated by untold or marginalized stories; thus, recounting dogfights is less important to him than examining the gunfire exchanges between US aircraft and Japanese antiaircraft gunners (4).

Rocky Boyer's War is an ideal book for readers interested in the Southwest Pacific theater of World War II or the contrasting experiences of airmen in the Pacific and European theaters. More generally, Allen Boyer provides a salutary, empathetic study of the everyday lives of a neglected cohort of Second World War airmen.

[1] E.g., Sir Edward Coke and the Elizabethan Age (Stanford: Univ Pr, 2003).

[2] Like Thomas E. Griffith, MacArthur's Airman: George C. Kenney and the War in the Southwest Pacific (Lawrence: U Pr of Kansas, 1998).

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