When I was learning to fly years ago, I thought night flying was amazing.
With the cockpit lights low and a rock station tuned in, the sense of horizon can disappear into the black, and sky above can merge with the ground lights below to give you the impression that you’re flying through space, surrounded by stars.
However, take that same situation, remove modern navigation conveniences and put hostile terrain and wartime opponents into the mix, and that idyllic flight turns into a white knuckle experience.
Problems could compound quickly. Loss of the “Crystal Gazer” (man watching the radar) could mean not finding the enemy and other problems.
Loss of your IFF (Identification, Friend or Foe) would mean your friends would think you’re the enemy and hunt you down. Loss of your cool could mean intolerable levels of stress and performance failures. And there’s always someone out in the darkness trying to kill you.
Nightfighter: Radar Intercept Killer
Back in World War Two, certain pilots pioneered and expanded the skills of night fighting. One of these pilots, “Black Mac” Magruder, is the subject of a new book by Pelican Press called Nightfighter: Radar Intercept Killer.
Nightfighter moves along like an engrossing script. In fact, I would be surprised if Nightfighter wasn’t eventually made into a movie.
Nightfighter: Radar Intercept Killer is a book for pilots and aviation aficionados, biography fans and military historians as well as being a great reference for anyone making decisions about sending men and women into combat.
If you like the ins-and-outs of piloting, you’ll read lots of details from the startup procedures for some of Magruder’s aircraft to radio transmissions, landing challenges and combat flying.
Pilots and non-pilots alike will easily feel like they’re at the stick, as the book moves you quickly through all parts of flight training, the rigors of learning to land on a carrier, combat training, and wartime operations.
One of numerous examples is the idiosyncrasy of the F4F-3 Wildcat’s landing gear operation. The lever was located in a hard-to-reach location, which was bad enough, but if a pilot lost control of the gear crank, it:
“…immediately resulted in an out of control spinning lever viciously thrashing the shins or at the very least ripping apart the attaching lines to the headgear as the wheels plummeted to the open position. This would immediately cause the fighter to waggle stupidly all over the sky…”
Personal and Background Info
Magruder’s personal life is sprinkled liberally throughout the book, especially his relationship with his wife, Martha.
Personal discussions with his Martha range from how tough it is to be the newbie in a group to his receiving a gold framed picture of his wife Martha.
“I’ll put it in my flight jacket to keep it safe..and close to my heart…I hope you know, you’re always with me, wherever I am.”
Other background is included to bring the reader into the middle of the situation.
At Guadalcanal and many other areas, the Japanese were controlling the night skies. Various attempts were made to counter this, including fixing large spotlights to fighter aircraft, but nothing was working well. So, U.S. pilots were sent to Britain for Nightfighter training.
British training was challenging, and their reception was cool. Many close calls and psychological twists and turns later, however, the initial chilliness eventually turned to respect.
Magruder had to make a lot of tough choices and pull together a group of men to do what some people thought was nearly impossible. Knowing that his men would have to be scrappers to make it through their daunting task, he chose “Scrappers” as their call sign.
Life in a War
Impressively, while highlighting the incredible training, triumphs, and sacrifices of Magruder and his Scrappers, the book also doesn’t shy away from details that include the many ugly sides of war.
For example, reading about Magruder gunning down a long column of mixed Japanese military and their forced civilian marchers made me raise an eyebrow. However, the writing is done with an eye toward how things really happened.
Anyone who’s seen what happens when the dogs of war are unleashed, bringing death to many different people, knows about this. It’s important to understand the horrors that war really entails.
The “Scrappers” of the VMF(N)533 were deployed in Okinawa and Engebi, and dealt with equipment and maneuvering challenges as well as their own emotions from the death and destruction surrounding them.
In one situation, a U.S. ship was responsible for a Scrapper’s death. Lieutenant Colonel Magruder later lambasted the Vice Admiral in charge.
“My pilot was closing on the enemy and just about to shoot them out of the skies when you opened fire and cost me a damn fine pilot…If this ever happens again…and I lose another pilot…I am issuing orders to sink your ship.”
Aboard the U.S.S. Long Island, a Marine from the ship’s guard snapped from the pressures of war and began firing his pistol down the hall. When Magruder found out, he walked down the hallway with his eyes fixed on the young man, eventually asking for and getting the weapon, and averting death to either the Marine or the other personnel in the area.
The book pulls the reader through scene after scene of the Scrappers taking back control of the skies and surviving attacks on their aircraft from friend and foe.
The only error that stands out to me is that the same photo is used for 1st Lt. R.E. Wellwood (p. 199) and 1st Lt. Ralyn C. Parkhill (p. 244). Hardly much to talk about, considering all of the information packed into Nightfighter’s 303 pages.
I was challenged in writing this review. It’s been a long time since I picked up a book that I can open to just about any page and find it filled with fast moving, interesting information. It was tough to decide what to include here.
Author Mark Magruder has done an incredible job of not only chronicling, but bringing to life this slice of military and aviation history: valor and loss, planes and people.
Buy your copy of Nightfighter: Radar Intercept Killer.
© Mark Dorr, All Rights Reserved
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