Winged Brothers: Naval Aviation as Lived by Ernest and Macon Snowden is American history of interest to a specialized audience. Much of this history is not new, but it is nicely packaged with the never-before-published biographies of two U.S. Naval Aviators whose careers overlapped from before World War II until the Vietnam War. Neither of the main characters rose to flag rank on active duty, but the story of why they did not get that promotion informs the readers about the inner workings of the U.S. Navy. In the case of Ernest Snowden, after an exemplary combat career, apparently he was selected but at the last minute, his name was removed from the flag list to make room for a returning Vietnam prisoner of war. However, he was permitted to voluntarily retire with the rank of rear admiral.
In Winged Brothers, we learn what traits mattered in these two brother’s careers. First, both brothers loved and were highly skilled in piloting aircraft. Second, they embraced and found their identity in the traditions and ceremonies of the naval service. Third, they had an aptitude for combat. All traits that made for a successful career that exemplifies those who rose to the rank of captain from the mid-1930s until the late 1970s.
Sea duty and combat flying were not the only traits that these brothers recognized as necessary for success. They were both leaders who had a genuine concern for the sailors, airmen, and junior officers under their supervision. They also were confident in their decision-making and were tough disciplinarians. Naval aviators at the time were known for “…an abundance of confidence, aggressiveness, and bravura…” – exemplified by an attitude of kick the tires, light the fires, brief on guard.
The book emphasizes the naval doctrine of offensive warfare from aircraft carriers, which served it well during the Pacific War. The reader is shown how the loss of American battleships at Pearl Harbor was overcome by the ingenuity of men like the Snowden brothers, who did what had to be done to win battles, operations, and the war. The author does an excellent job with the interplay of tactical level actions, the operational level, and the strategic levels of war. It was men like these that overcame Japanese naval aviators, the vast majority of which were enlisted men who followed inexperienced but senior commissioned officers to their death.
World War II was won by reservists. The regular forces could not field the army or the navy that was needed to defeat the Axis powers. Naval aviators, like the Snowden brothers, were less concerned with commissioning sources, pedigrees, and rank as they were with appreciating basic airmanship and aggressiveness as the most important factors required for success in aerial combat.
Winged Brothers is not a biography, but it is history with biography added in. These two officers’ stories are those of senior line officers who played important roles on staffs where they applied their combat lessons to briefings and presentations to more senior officer and congressional committee members. Both brothers were damaged by Washington politics where advocating concepts not unanimously endorsed within the Navy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, or in Congress did not always win the day.
These two men were not faultless – a refreshing change to the traditional military history or biography. It is only later in the story that the author admits that hard drinking, partying, and failed marriages may have also played a factor in the brothers’ plateauing careers. Many successful naval aviators partied hard, drank to excess, and had difficulty in balancing the skills needed for a successful marriage with those needed in combat. Finally, as time and society moved on but Macon did not grow out of his “Old Navy” attitudes, his senior’s notations on being “brusque and blunt” were found on a less-than-stellar fitness report. The damage was done. Mac was able to continue his service to the nation and naval aviation in capacities outside that of being a commissioned officer.
There are some rather lengthy sentences that may slow down the reader already confused by naval jargon. The average naval aviator will have no problems with these minor flaws in the beginning of the book.
Excellent workmanship by both the author and the Naval Institute Press. A well-researched book, there is ample documentation in notes, an extensive bibliography, an index, and an abbreviated author’s biography that does not do justice to the author’s own distinguished career. Highly recommended.
Review by Jim Tritten (March 2019)