BOOKS

If you are looking for a solid introduction to the 353rd’s wartime activities then Ken C. Rust’s The Slybird Group (1968) is still (even after 44 years) your best bet. In 95 pages it covers all the basics and includes some helpful scale drawings, mission listings and claims data. Rust produced other classics such as The Yoxford Boys covering the 357th Fighter Group, but then apparently left the 8th Air Force History scene (I discussed it with Roger Freeman many years ago and even he could never get a response from Rust). We have several reasons to thank Rust. Firstly, he based his account on Hank Bjorkman’s (353rd Intelligence Officer) two massive scrapbooks of Group history and then had the foresight to ensure they were preserved at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. Secondly, he caught most of the key players just as they were retiring and beginning to reflect on their experiences. The book therefore has a nice contemporary feel without some of the later distortions that crept into 8th Fighter Command histories during the 1990s and 2000s (more of which another time). Highly recommended.

Staying on the group history theme – if you want to move on to a more detailed study of the 353rd then Graham Cross’s Jonah’s Feet Are Dry: The Experiences of the 353rd Fighter Group during WWII (2001) should be your next port of call. With 676 pages the book covers the same ground as Rust’s book, but in much greater depth and includes a diary section and yearbook of most Group pilots. Given its size and comprehensive coverage this is probably for veterans and family, specialists or the very keen.

All of the personal memoirs from the 353rd were written by members of the 350th Squadron. The charismatic Marvin Bledsoe kicked things off with his Thunderbolt: Memoirs of a WWII Fighter Pilot (1983). Bledsoe was one of the instructor pilots controversially brought into the Squadron by Wayne Blickenstaff after the June 12 disaster. This is the big debate in 350th history – was the best approach to emphasise discipline and flying experience or combat experience and aggression in attempts to rebuild the Squadron. Bledsoe’s rapid-fire account covers these issues, but he also gives a good description of his tour during the summer of 1944 and plenty of fascinating anecdotes. Some have commented that the writing was ‘sexed up’ in parts (there were members of the Squadron who were not happy with his account for this reason). Names and events also do not always match the historical record. That said it is not very difficult to figure things out and read with a critical eye this is still a valuable account.

Bill Price’s Close Calls: Two Tours with the 353rd Fighter Group (1992) is a classic of pilot memoirs. Price was an original 350th Squadron pilot and came back for a second tour. More than many therefore he could be said to have experienced the Group’s history across the different phases of the air war. In 127 pages Price takes you on his journey to become an experienced combat pilot and leader. Of particular note is his attention to the personal anecdote on the characters he encountered and the many pictures he included. Price ran the Squadron for a time in 1944 and his aggressive approach served as a rallying point for some of the pilots who felt aggrieved by the arrival of instructors with rank into senior squadron positions. Price’s book therefore provides detail on the other side of the leadership debate in the squadron and is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the politics of the 350th. As an aside, I met Bill several times over the years and spent a very pleasant afternoon interviewing him at his home in 1998. My abiding memory was not being able to keep up with him on the drive back from the restaurant after lunch – once a fighter pilot, always a fighter pilot I guess.

There are a few other smaller works available. Graham Cross wrote a smaller booklet Raydon Airfield: Fighter Station to Farmland (1991) that gives a brief history of the airfield. I’ve seen copies of this on sale for £25 on Amazon! As far as I’m aware it’s still available for sale at Raydon Church for a more modest £3.50. Graham M. Simons produced Raydon as part of the Airfield Focus series. It’s nice to see in this volume some coverage of the Aviation Engineer Battalions who built the airfield, but note that some of the Battalion events described (e.g. the bombing/strafing attack by the Germans) took place at Gosfield and not Raydon.  The inclusion of 353rd photos from the National Archives actually taken at Metfield and errors in the captions is also somewhat frustrating to this reader. Finally, there is a volume solely devoted to 2nd Lt Robert N. Greene who was killed in action on September 17, 1944 during the ‘Market Garden’ operation. Sadly, at the time Frederik C. Paauwe’s Searching for Lt Greene came out I didn’t snap one up and I gather it’s now out of print. You can now find my full review of Searching for Lieutenant Greene HERE.