Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Passing of a Master

Elmore and Raylan
At least we still have "Justified"
In the beginning, there was Travis McGee.  The classic creation of John D. MacDonald, he was my introduction to life or death battles over small stakes, local wars with tiny armies and life-changing outcomes, a world in which greed and violence were destructive on a smaller scale, and yet the stories could teach me so much about courage and honor and the things people on both sides are willing to do to get what they want.

And my love for MacDonald and his Knight in Rusty Armor eventually led me to Elmore Leonard.  Though his first Detroit crime book was City Primeval, the first Leonard novel I read was “Split Images”.  And my mind was absolutely blown.  Here was something different, weird and quirky and yet disturbingly recognizable, the actions of brutal, greedy men in their own little milieux, casually wrecking the lives of friends, neighbors and loved ones.  Here was people talking to one another in comfortable rhythms, speaking of the banal and the horrific in the same paragraph. The only thing close to it was “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”, but this wasn’t greedy small-time mafia thugs, this was smaller time and objectively crazier people, circling and jostling each other in small orbits.

That juxtaposition of life and death writ small, a world where a casual contact one day could lead to a bloody confrontation the next, where a man could decide to bet it all on a desperate grab for a big bag of cash, where threat and menace could be the clear subtext of a mundane conversation.  While I loved Split Images and immediately set out to gobble up the entire Leonard library, it turned out that the rest of his work was, in an odd sense, gentler than my first sip at the cup.  Split Images was a harsh, brutal story, punctuated by the classic Leonard wit, and occupied by the kind of off-center and even distinctly unbalanced characters that are simultaneously the most fun to create and the hardest to carry off.  I went back to the beginning, and I read “City Primeval”.

If you have never read it, stop what you’re doing right now and order it.  Because, remember, this was his first work outside the Western genre, and the climactic scene, in a kitchen with spoken and unspoken narrative around the refrigerator, a couple beers and a bottle opener seems banal, even friendly.  But it is a deadly confrontation, and the underlying reality is two men trying to position themselves to get the jump and shoot the other dead.  It is classic Elmore Leonard in every way, a kind of scene you see played out time and time again in his novels, his movies and in Justified, the television series he created with his quirky US Marshall Raylan Givens as the lead character, and a classicly twisted foil in Boyd Crowder, played by the endlessly mesmerising Walton Groggins.  The only thing I have ever read that comes even close to that climactic set-piece in City Primeval was a scene in a cantina in the incredible, though sadly out of print R. Lance Hill novel “The Evil That Men Do”.  I doubt if you can find it, but if you can you’ll be quite glad you did.

In 1976 Elmore Leonard introduced us to Frank Ryan, ex-con, professional armed robber and the author of the Ten Golden Rules for a successful career in armed robbery.  If there was any doubt remaining, that closed the deal for me.  Here was everything I wanted in a novel - primarily no freaking “good guys”, just bad guys to root for and bad guys to root against.  A protagonist who was a thief, whose life goal was to be a successful thief and who was willing to develop and enforce a set of discipline and rules around that goal.  A thoughtful and careful thief, sure, but one who willingly chose his life without regret.

Elmore Leonard went on to garner great fame and fortune, unsurprisingly in the movies, where his dialog-heavy stories lent themselves so ideally to that kind of format.  From Travolta in “Get Shorty” to Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” to Clooney and Lopez in “Out of Sight” to even Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in “3:10 to Yuma”, a 1953 Elmore Leonard short story, his successes at the box office dwarf his reputation as an author.  But if you want to see inside the mind - and the heart - of Elmore Leonard, go back to those early crime novels, City Primeval, Split Images, Swag, and Unknown Man #89.  The settings were richly detailed, the City an actual character in the books, the characters deeply human and nuanced, and the stories were kinetic and plausible.

A few weeks ago, Elmore Leonard had a stroke, and on Tuesday he died in his home outside of Detroit at the age of 89.  He was a master of the American novel - not seeking to produce some kind of classic literary prose but rather the novel in it’s purest form - the novel as entertainment.  He wrote stories people wanted to read, set in places and occupied by characters that were at once familiar and exotic.  His mastery of the American dialect - North, South, Black or White - lent a powerful realism to his dialog.  You can see his influence in people from Quentin Tarantino to Aaron Sorkin, and as he famously said in his 10 Rules of Writing, “if it sounds like “writing”, rewrite it”.

His loss is a profound one for the millions he has entertained for decades, a unique American literary voice that might be equalled, but can never be replaced.  Thank you, Mr. Leonard, for all the hours of joy you gave me, for the insight into what the written word can be, and most of all, the understanding that big things happen in small places, and the magnitude of the event is measured locally, by the people it impacts.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Christie, Barrett and the Limited Value of Symbolism in Solving Problems

Yes, Congresswoman, that is one
helluva great big gun
Everyone knows, and essentially agrees, that the political environment for legally reducing access to and use of firearms in America today is terrible.  There is that horrifically destructive constitutional guarantee, which empowers the toxic political forces on the right to depict any common-sense attempt to regulate the availability of deadly weapons as a challenge to the very foundational values of the United States.  In light of the political difficulty of passing ANY legislation that limits the availability of firearms in any way, the people who refuse to accept that the loss of so many lives is a necessary or acceptable cost to assure the integrity of the constitution and the freedom of the American people to legally own firearms have been forced to look for small-bore legislative victories. Some of these have happened at the state level, in states where legislators are not so deeply in thrall to the worst impulses of the right-wing madmen.  But those must be limited in scope, lest they draw a legal challenge and are struck down as violations of the second amendment.

So in spite of the tragic and infuriating reality that virtually ALL of the thousands of gun murders, suicides, assaults, robberies and accidents happen with common, garden variety handguns, people seeking to reduce gun violence in the US are limited to trying to find cases at the margins that can generate enough support to pass in Congress.  And when you realize that even comprehensive background checks couldn't garner sufficient support to become law, you begin to understand how narrow that window truly is.  Sadly, however, this condition results in some pointless, silly, even farcical legislation that, in the end, makes smart, caring people who are trying to reduce the carnage look small, petty and uninformed, while doing NOTHING at all to stop the violence.

First there were "Cop Killer Bullets".  Of course - who could possibly be in favor of cop killer bullets? So there was strong bi-partisan support for a ban, which was duly passed by Congress.  Only later did it slowly become clear that regular old non-cop-killer bullets were just as deadly, and the threat from armor piercing rounds was mostly hype.  Later came the calls to ban Assault Weapons.  There was a national ban which expired in 2004, and various states, notably California, have bans on various types of weapons.  Again, the result of these laws was to reinforce the realization that these types of weapons are not a significant factor in our gun violence problem - they are large, expensive, impossible to conceal and difficult to replace - and banning them did nothing to reduce gun violence.  What's worse, even the bans were impossible to implement effectively, because no matter how the laws sought to define the term "assault weapon" it was easy for the manufacturers to redesign their weapons to avoid running afoul of the law.  At the end of the day, all semi-automatic rifles that used a removable magazine and were chambered in 5.56x45 or 7.62x39 worked the same, and the features that were being banned were entirely cosmetic.

Which brings us to New Jersey today.  The State Legislature passed a bill banning rifles chambered in .50 BMG.  Why?  That's unclear.  It's true that this is a powerful, devastating weapon, with a range of well over 2000 meters, a weapon that is classified by the US Army as an "anti-materiel" weapon - that is, one to be used against vehicles and structures more than against people. But no one can remember one ever being used in a crime.  The rifle costs ten thousand dollars or more and is huge, five feet long and weighing over 30 pounds.  Rounds of .50 BMG ammunition cost over five dollars each.  Just not the kind of weapon you'll see used in most murders or gas station stick-ups.  Plus, for all the vaunted power of the .50 BMG, there are MANY other calibers in the same class.  .416 Barrett, .460 Weatherby, .300 Winchester Magnum and the round rapidly replacing .50 BMG on the battlefield, .338 Lapua.  So the law was pointless, accomplished nothing, affected few and was nothing but a gift to Governor Christie, who has been denounced as insufficiently nihilistic by tea party types.

Today Governor Christie vetoed the ban on .50 BMG rifles, gaining back some credibility with the far right without any cost.  There will be no grieving families on the Statehouse steps tearfully recounting how their child was killed with a fifty caliber rifle.  There will be no fewer gun victims, but there will be no more either.  Until the people who want to reduce gun violence begin to adopt realistic priorities and tactics, there will be no change in the status quo - and more children will die tonight.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Bernie Fisher - Choices

They look pretty happy to be there...
When we think about heroism in combat, we usually think about the legends of the genre - from Alvin York to John Basilone to Audie Murphy. These were the men who stood, in the sustained roar and gore of battle, under intense fire, and they held the line.  We honor their courage, their commitment and their willingness to do what it took to do their job.  It is also part of the lore that for Americans, our greatest war heroes were also very deadly, killing dozens or even hundreds of enemy soldiers in a brief few hours of fire and madness.

But we often overlook the courage that some men demonstrate by the choices they make.  In many of these cases, there was no choice at all - sure, Audie Murphy climbed up on a burning tank destroyer, but without the gun on that vehicle he'd have simply been another GI killed in action on the German border that bloody winter of 1945.  And sure, Randy Shughart and Gary Gordon asked, no, demanded permission to insert at the 'Blackhawk Down' crash site in Mogadishu in '93.  But even so, some choices demand more recognition, more respect, more AWE than others.  It is in that sense that I have always held a special honor for Bernie Fisher.

In the spring of 1966, the American troop buildup in South Vietnam was well underway, and the disastrous Tet offensive was still two years in the future.  Major Fisher was assigned to the 1st Air Commando Squadron flying A1 Skyraiders out of Pleiku.  The rugged terrain along the Cambodian/Laotian border was contested territory, and the strategic center of it all was the A Shau Valley.  The valley was defended by a US Army Special Forces (Green Beret) A Team and about 300 indigenous forces.  On the night of March 8th, they were attacked by 4 Battalions (about 2000 troops) of NVA soldiers.

Even in 1966, the A1 was an anachronism.  Perhaps the pinnacle of WWII era piston-engine technology, it was a huge single engine attack plane with a payload greater than the B-17.  It was pressed into service in Vietnam because of it's tremendous bomb load and ridiculous loiter time. The A1 could stay aloft, fully loaded, for over six hours.  It flew slow enough to identify and target specific units on the ground, making it much better in the CAS (Close Air Support) role than the "Fast Movers" from the Navy and Air Force.  The pilots who flew the A1 nicknamed it the 'Spad' because it was just so old compared to the modern jets.  While the Skyraider became famous for it's role as 'Sandy' in CSAR operations throughout the theatre, Air Force veterans who wanted combat hours in the mid to late sixties had to be willing to transition back to piston engines, and few took to that transition better than Bernie Fisher.

On the Morning of March 10th, the camp was falling.  The weather was terrible, preventing reinforcements from getting to the scene, and ammunition was low while casualties mounted.  At dawn the NVA assault force broke through the East wall, and after hours of bloody hand-to-hand combat the defenders pulled back to a defensive perimeter on the North wall.  They called in air strikes on their own camp to keep it from being completely overrun.  These strikes were delivered by a six-ship flight of Spads that included Bernie Fisher and his wingman "Jump" Myers.  Fisher and the Air Commandos had been over the camp the day before, and for his actions on the 9th he would be awarded the Silver Star.  But this was a new day, filled with new possibilities - almost all of them bad.

It was a dismal, misty, rainy day in the A Shau valley, and the ceiling was less than 800 feet.  The Spads were delivering their ordnance in passes so low that the NVA gunners were actually firing down at them.  Almost inevitably, one of them got Myers.  Too low to jump out, and even if he could somehow bail out and survive, he would find himself on the ground surrounded by thousands of North Vietnamese infantryman.  When POW is the BEST possible outcome you can imagine, you switch to Plan B.  That's what Jump Myers did.  He made a desperate, wheels-up belly landing on the airstrip right outside the camp's perimeter.

Remote airstrips like the one at the A Shau Camp were set up quickly using "PSP", perforated steel plates that locked together to form a strong, smooth runway surface.  This one, however, had been in the midst of a major battle for days, and was pockmarked with shell craters and littered with debris, notably from a resupply plane that had been blown up on the strip a few days earlier, but also, now, with pieces and chunks of Jump Myers' crash-landing Skyraider.  The big fighter skidded to a halt, smoking, and Major Myers jumped out and ran toward the camp.  He was immediately targeted by the NVA soldiers, so he took cover behind a berm at the edge of the runway.  Behind him was the camp, fighting desperately to avoid being overrun.  Two hundred yards across the runway was the North Vietnamese Army.

A few hundred feet above, his fellow airman watched this all play out.  Fisher set up his top cover, keeping the remaining A1s circling tightly overhead, making gun runs to keep the NVA at bay.  The pilots were quickly informed that the rescue helos were a half hour out.  The problem with that was that Myers wasn't likely to survive another ten minutes in his situation.  This was the moment when choices had to be made.

The pilots could never be faulted for doing their best to protect their downed compatriot, making gun passes until they ran out of ammunition and then continuing to make low passes to try to buy that precious thirty minutes.  But courage, and love, and loyalty and adrenaline and commitment and who knows what other ingredients creates a witches brew that can produce acts of unbelievable valor.  Fisher told the other Spad Drivers he was going to land on the airstrip and pick up Myers.  The hardest choice imaginable, and he made it almost without thought.

By that time there were fresh warplanes arriving on the scene, and the local air controller kept them coming in a continuous stream, pounding the far side of the airstrip with bombs, guns and even napalm, while Fisher circled over the camp, turned up wind, and lined up for the hardest landing of his flying career.  But the wind was blowing smoke from the buring camp and the napalm across the airstrip, and by the time he had a clear view he was halfway down the runway.  Fisher pushed on power, and S-Turned at the end of the valley, coming back the other way to set up his landing.  At the threshhold he cut his throttle and dropped the big plane onto the battered runway.  Enemy small arms fire started hitting the aircraft immediately, as he delicately worked the brakes to steer around the worst of the holes and pieces of metal.  When he managed to get the Skyraider stopped - well past the end of the runway - he hit the throttle and stood on the left rudder, spinning the plane around and taxied almost the entire length of the airstrip - under heavy fire - to where Myers was crouched.  The Skyraider version the Air Commandos flew was the A1E, which had two seats side by side rather than the A1H "Sandy" single-seat version.  Fisher grabbed Myers by the seat of his flightsuit and dragged him into the cockpit head first.  They continued to take ground fire until they disappeared into the clouds.

Even at that very moment, after three days of fire and blood, the A Shau Camp was falling.  The defenders had pulled back to a single bunker and fought for their lives, but the camp was overrun by 11am and the Green Berets called for evacuation.  The evacuation was hard, ugly and chaotic, with two HH-43 Helos lost and more American airman dead and wounded.  By mid-afternoon, the camp was abandoned and the NVA had won, although, typically of modern warfare, at horrific cost of almost a thousand casualties.

How do you explain what Bernie Fisher did that morning in the Central Highlands?  How do you rationalize a decision to put everything you will ever be on the line, not to kill the enemy, not to 'win', however you define that, but just to rescue one man you care so deeply about there are not words to speak it?  How do you know when the risk is too high, when the effort is pointless, or when the choice is really no choice at all?  Heroism, ultimately, isn't about fighting, or about winning.  It's about making the choice to do something crazy, maybe even stupid, to stand between your friends and their certain death.  THAT'S what Audie Murphy did, that's what Gordon and Shughart did in Mogadishu, and above all, that's what Bernie Fisher did that dark grey day in the A Shau Valley.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Real Gunfighters - Clyde Barrow & the BAR

Coulda been me - just that close
I wanted to write a post about the Browning Automatic Rifle.  The first American Squad Automatic Weapon, designed by John Moses Browning, the patron saint of firearms with a hundred year lifespan, the BAR was a man-portable machine gun that could be carried and fired by a single infantryman.  It fired a ferociously powerful .30-06 round and was more than sufficient for providing fire support for a small unit maneuvering to close with the enemy.

But here's the thing - for all it's history, the BAR is inextricably tied up with one of the greatest and most notorious gunfighters in American history, Clyde Barrow.  You can't paint Clyde with the same 'bloodthirsty thug' or 'mindless criminal' label that so many of his peers earned in spades.  Where Dillinger wasn't a fighter at all, and Nelson and Floyd used brutality and savagery above weapons and tactics, Clyde Barrow was something apart.  He fought to maintain his freedom, using his weapons almost exclusively against armed opponents.  Now it's true that he was a "bad guy" and the lawmen he shot it out with time and time again were nominally the "good guys", but those distinctions could get a little fuzzy in the depression and dustbowl era Midwest.

The BAR was a unique kind of hybrid, a full power .30 caliber rifle that fired full automatic, or maybe a limited capacity machine gun that, instead of being belt fed, fired full power rounds from a 20 round magazine.  However you looked at it philosophically, it was simply the most devastating weapon that could be fielded and operated by a single individual at the time. In combat it was impossible to counter, and in America, in battles with the law enforcement agents of the day, it was the closest thing you can imagine to a nuclear weapon.  It gave Clyde Barrow an overwhelming firepower advantage no matter how many cops he was facing.  And make no mistake, Clyde fought cops - he wasn't one to shoot civilians or seek bloodshed - but he wasn't going to be taken without a fight, and in those few months in '33 and '34, that became clear to all, even without Bonnie's poetry to drive it home.

The thing is, Clyde put more thought into his weapons and tactics than his peers did, and more than most of his opposition.  The fad was the Tommy Gun, and sure, you could do worse, but Clyde knew something that other gangsters and many cops either didn't grasp or managed to overlook.  The thing about killing is that it's not about guns, but rather about bullets.  The legendary Thompson Submachine Gun, for all its cachet, fired a pistol round, the .45 ACP.  And Clyde understood at his core that the only thing pistols were good for was fighting your way to your rifle.  You might look cool with a Thompson, but you can shoot your way out of trouble with a BAR.

But Clyde didn't stop there.  He created the 'Whippet Gun', so called because you could just "whip it out" when nobody knew you had it.  He took a BAR, cut down the stock, sawed off the barrel to about sixteen inches, and screwed a leather sling to the back of the stock.  The idea was you could hang it over your shoulder under a jacket, barrel down along your side.  And at the first sign of trouble you could swing it up and send 20 rounds of 7.62×63mm full-power rounds downrange in about three seconds.

Clyde's Famous Whippet Gun
The BAR was both an important step in the evolution of automatic weapons and a touchstone of American history.  You can't watch the first fifteen minutes of "Saving Private Ryan" without being confronted by it's incredible combination of portability, usability and devastating firepower. But for me, it's a smaller, more intimate part of our collective history and guilt.  The weapon that defined an outlaw who took his profession seriously enough to understand that guns aren't for looking at, they're for winning fights, and Clyde won a helluva lot more fights than he lost.  It's interesting to note that when Frank Hamer's posse finally found themselves face to face with the notorious gunfighter in Bienville Parish Louisiana in late May of 1934, they used their own custom BARs in .35 Remington, firing more than 120 rounds from ambush, hitting the young couple with more than fifty rounds and killing them instantly.

There are lessons to be learned here, one large, and one small.  The large lesson is that when they come to take your life, it is a fight, and you don't have to concede.  You just don't have to quit fighting, ever, and sometimes things work out.  The smaller lesson is that it pays to be practical, to think beyond the fads of the day, to work to understand what works and what doesn't, and just because the conventional wisdom is pointing one way, start at the other end, think about what it will take to accomplish your goals, and equip yourself accordingly.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Government Surveillance - You Don't Have to Close Your Eyes and Think of England

Computers are tremendously powerful tools. Modern computers, even tablets and smartphones, have more compute power than you could put on a desktop a dozen years ago.  They are, it must be remembered, platforms for running software, nothing more or less than a system that can execute any code that can be developed for them.  The NSA exploits the power and flexibility of modern hardware and Operating Systems to intercept, capture, store, sort and query your digital communications.  Programs like PRISM, XKeyscore and Tempora are nothing more than stacks of software systems and hardware platforms designed to manipulate digital data.

But wait - what's that thing on your desk?  It's also a computer, isn't it?  You are not helpless - you just need to educate yourself. You have the compute power and digital resources to resist, and even defeat the most sophisticated government surveillance, but you need to educate yourself and gather a few basic tools.  Nothing is certain in this world, but if you are uncomfortable with the idea that the US government is capturing and perhaps analyzing your communications and Internet activity, you should at least try to protect yourself.

The first thing you need to do is understand that digital communications and Internet activity are two different things. You can't conceal your web searches and site visits, so the best solution is to find a way to decouple those activities from your identity.  The fast and free solution is to use TOR.  TOR stands for The Onion Router and is designed to conceal your IP address and substitute it with a randomized address - the NSA will still capture your traffic, but nothing in those packets will connect it with you.  TOR works by stripping the identifying information from the packets it receives and then bouncing that traffic around a random set of member routers.  No one, not even the people who run TOR, knows where it will emerge.  When it does, it will appear that the packets originated at that TOR exit point, with no remaining data that can be used to forensically trace them back to their actual source.

It was just revealed that the TOR Browser Bundle was hacked - exploiting a vulnerability in Firefox - by the FBI, apparently with a technical assist from the NSA.  The vulnerability has been patched - just make sure you get the current version of the TOR bundle.  Firefox represents the weak link in the TOR bundle, but there's hope on the way. Jason Geffner announced a new TOR tool, Tortilla, at the BlackHat InfoSec conference last week.  Tortilla provides a secure, anonymous means of routing TCP and DNS traffic through Tor regardless of client software and without the need for a VPN or secure tunnel.  It's open source, so implementations should start to appear for your platform of choice soon.

Anonymizing solutions are great for protecting the privacy of your web browsing, but obviously aren't a viable solution for communications.  In order to protect your files and messages, you have to encrypt. The amazing thing is that encryption tools, even the free ones available to you today, are so powerful that, used correctly, it would take even the NSA thousands of years to decrypt a single email message.  You can use the free, open source Truecrypt software to encrypt your files, folders and even whole disks, both on your local network storage and in the cloud.  Email encryption requires that both the sender and recipient have the public key for the message, which causes people to think it's "too hard" to encrypt emails.  But if it's not every bit as important to the recipient to maintain the privacy of the communication, then you should think very carefully about what information you want to send them.

An easy solution is for you and your contacts to use Hushmail.  A free service, Hushmail encrypts the email on their server, transfers it using TLS protocols and allows the recipient to decrypt it.  It is considered secure from capture by intelligence agencies and hackers, but the company does acknowledge they will respond to court orders (they are in Canada, not the US, for what that's worth).  Beyond that, get started with one of the OpenPGP/GPG platforms, get a key pair and start protecting your messages.

These tools and solutions are anything but breaking news to the people who have been professionally at odds with government surveillance for years.  Whether journalists, whistleblowers, dissidents, criminals, terrorists or hackers, the basic tradecraft for secure digital communications is part of life for them. But that means all these tools are available to you - at whatever level you feel that you should resist.  Bear in mind that Apple, Microsoft and Google all provide your information to the government without telling you - ask yourself how confident you feel using their core operating system platforms.  There are alternatives, alternatives we KNOW do not contain back doors or government connections because anyone can freely parse the source code.  So bear in mind that if your Operating System provider is compromised, nothing you can do will protect you - they are capturing your data as you create and download it, before you can take any steps to protect yourself.

The bottom line is simply this: if you feel that the revelations about NSA spying on American's digital communications is an unacceptable and extra-constitutional intrusion on your privacy, and you regularly say so and express outrage at these clear examples of government over-reach, and then you do NOTHING to protect your digital communications from interception and compromise, you are a fraud and a hypocrite.  Yes, it DOES mean you're going to have to learn some new technologies and understand a little more deeply how to implement secure communication protocols.  If you "don't have time" or "can't be arsed", then fine, accept that you are sharing your life with the US Government and whoever they care to share it with, and shut up about it.

There's a ton of information at  Use it or don't - it's up to you.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Greatest American Hero You've Never Heard Of...

Quick - who's the all time greatest American Fighter Ace?  That's a question that will stump most people.  Some might guess - Eddie Rickenbacker or Chuck Yeager, maybe Pappy Boyington or Gabby Gabreski.  But very few will come up with the name Richard Bong.  There are a few reasons for that - Major Bong didn't live to see the end of the war (although he wasn't killed in combat - more on that in a bit) and he flew land-based P-38s in the Southwest Pacific theater rather than in the classic single-engine fighters in the more highly glamorized air battles over Europe.  Bong had 40 confirmed air-to-air kills, the most of any American pilot in history, but far less than the leading German and Japanese aces.  It is interesting to note that America's second highest scoring fighter ace, Tommy McGuire, also flew P-38s in the Southwest Pacific.

Richard Bong was, above all, a consummate pilot.  He wanted to fly from his childhood, growing up in Wisconsin, and before he ever enlisted was enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training Program, a WWII era government funded program to increase the available stock of trained pilots. As a personal aside, my father was also trained in the CPTP, and in 1940 his entire graduating class elected to go to England and join the RAF to fight in the Battle of Britain.  My father eventually decided to stay in the US and marry my mom, while every other member of his class was dead before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

After enlistment, in the summer of 1942, Bong was assigned to the 49th Fighter Squadron, training in the P-38 Lightning at Hamilton AFB in North Marin County, California, about a mile from where I grew up.  The quintessential hotshot fighter pilot, he almost didn't get the chance to fight, after being severely disciplined for buzzing a friends house in San Anselmo, flying down Market Street in San Francisco below the roofs of the buildings, and most famously, flying UNDER the Golden Gate Bridge.  He was eventually officially reprimanded by General Kenney, who told him "If you didn't want to fly down Market Street, I wouldn't have you in my Air Force, but you are not to do it any more and I mean what I say."

The unusual thing about Bong was that, unlike so many other Americans who had grown up hunting and shooting, he was famously terrible at gunnery.  But he was such a remarkably superior pilot that he made up for that deficiency by maneuvering so close to the Japanese aircraft that even he couldn't miss.  A number of times his Lightening was actually damaged by the pieces coming off the disintegrating Japanese fighter.

In most other militaries, the best and most skilled pilots were in it for the duration, being considered irreplacable at the front.  Hence the German and Japanese pilots flew combat constantly for years, and the ones that survived long enough ran up impressive scores.  But American doctrine was to rotate their most successful combat veterans home, both for public relations purposes and, more importantly, to make certain that the lessons they learned in fire and blood were passed along to the next generation of fighter pilots.

In May, 1944, with 28 confirmed kills, Bong had surpassed the former American ace-of-aces, Eddie Rickenbacker, who had 26 kills in World War One.  As America's combat rockstar, he was rotated back to the US for a War Bonds tour.  In September, he was sent back to New Guinea, as a staff officer with V Fighter Command, an executive, not a combat role.  Nonetheless he still flew missions regularly, and racked up another 12 kills over the Philippines.  In December, General MacArthur awarded Major Richard Bong the Congressional Medal of Honor and sent him home for good.  America's top ace had 40 confirmed kills. McGuire was still in action in the Philippines with 38 victories, but before he could surpass Bong's score, on January 7th, he would die in aerial combat over Los Negros Island.

Meanwhile, Richard Bong settled into life on the home front.  He married his college sweetheart and went to work as a test pilot at Lockheed Burbank, flying the P-80 jet fighter.  On August 6th, the same day that the US dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Major Richard Ira Bong was killed when his P-80 crashed in North Hollywood shortly after takeoff.

Humans are inveterate score keepers.  Whether it is our competitive streak or a compulsion for record keeping, we have always indulged in this kind of quantitative measurement.  Ultimately, it doesn't mean a great deal - wars are not won by individuals, and a few hundred air-to-air victories one way or the other would have no bearing on the outcome.  But in some cases where success and survival depends on a few measurable skills, it becomes a much more important exercise to identify those individuals who, for whatever reason, are the masters of a violent and unforgiving environment.  And thus, at the end of an era the likes of which we'll never see again, we can arrive at an informed conclusion about who was the greatest of them all.