The San Joaquin Siren: An American Ace in WW II's CBI
by William M. Behrns, with Kenneth Moore
The San Joaquin Siren, by William Behrns, with Kenneth Moore, is the story of Mr. Behrns' service during the Second World War. Mr. Behrns served in the U.S. Army Air Force, flying the P-38 Lightning in the China/Burma/India theatre of operations; this little known part of the conflict with Japan was better known by its initials, CBI.
The story begins with his childhood, and how he was born prematurely and was always smaller than all his peers as he grew up. This never stopped him from achieving his goals in life, and one of them was to some day fly fighter planes for the military. He describes how determination, hard work, and a bit of Divine Providence got him into flight school. He describes the thrill of flying solo for the first time, and the excitement as he heads off to the CBI to face the enemy in combat.
The portion of the book in which he describes his time in combat is presented in diary form, with the days when he flew missions reported, including the objective, the success of the mission, and any aircraft he shot down on each mission. One of the most harrowing parts of the book doesn't even take place in combat. He describes crash-landing along the Burma road, and spending the night in the jungle, waiting for rescue.
Mr. Behrns mentions a few things which struck me as rather disturbing. One was that he observed that none of his fellow airmen were from the same city or state. He suggests in the book that this was done to minimize the reaction by the American people when the casualties from the CBI theatre started to increase. The number of pilots who died in the CBI were rather high, and this was a way to avoid any kind of public outcry over the loss of so many from one part of the United States. It seems rather hard to believe that our military could execute such a subtle and devious plan, but Mr. Behrns does make a good case for it.
Another thing that I found disappointing was that Mr. Behrns described his attempts to get credit for one 'kill' which he could only count as a 'probable.' Briefly, whenever an enemy aircraft was shot down, there had to be evidence to corroborate the pilot's report. That evidence could be from eyewitnesses, such as other pilots or personnel on the ground, or from enemy records, or from gun cameras which would start filming while an aircraft's guns were firing. If these means confirmed that an aircraft were shot down, the pilot was awarded a 'kill' for it; if not, he would be assigned what is known as a 'probable.' If one had more than 5 confirmed 'kills' one could be called an 'Ace.' In Mr. Behrns' case, one of his 'kills' was witnessed by one of his comrades who unfortunately disappeared shortly afterwards. The 'kill' ended up being credited to that pilot rather than to Mr. Behrns.
Recently, Mr. Behrns started doing some research into this 'kill' which he never got credit for. Eventually he did enough research, and with the help of his local State Representative, was able to add that additional victory to his military record. This is what I found to be rather sad. At the end of his life, Mr. Behrns wanted to be sure to add another life to the list of people he had killed during the war. Granted, this was a combatant, an enemy fighter pilot determined to kill as many American soldiers and airmen. But it seems as if desiring such an ephemeral honor when one is so close to death would only be a hollow victory. I do not mean to derogate Mr. Behrns' service to our country in any way; I thank him and all of his generation who served our country during such a tumultuous period of the past century.
Mr. Moore apparently died shortly before the completion of the book, and I did get the impression that the book seemed to wrap up rather abruptly. Still, despite my criticisms, I enjoyed reading this book which described another part of a war which truly did involve every part of the world.
Bonus: Here is the picture of the San Joaquin Siren itself. Unfortunately it crashed while another pilot was flying it. The story behind that crash is in the book.
A Blog of Book Reviews
These book reviews are also featured on my blog, Scorpion Stalking Duck. Here they are distilled out of the rest of the posts, kind of like that scum at the top of a pot full of boiled potatoes. The title of this blog - and the quote above - come from the forward of Hillaire Belloc's book, The Path to Rome.