Book Review: The Oranges are Sweet

Paul M. Sailer
Loden Books, 2011

The Oranges are Sweet is the story of US Army Air Corps Major Don Beerbower, the leading – though seemingly little known – ace of the 9th Air Forces in the European Theater in 1944. The book describes his upbringing in a small Minnesota town to his decision to enlist as an Aviation Cadet in January 1942, even though he probably could have obtained a deferment due to his family business. Beerbower wanted to be a military pilot, and he began his flying career in February 1942.

The early portion of the book traces his journey through the PT-17 Stearman, BT-13 Valiant, AT-6 Texan, and P-36 Hawk until he became an Army pilot and 2nd Lt on 29 September 1942 – the same day he became a husband. He would go on to fly the P-39 Airacobra, bouncing around the western United States as he trained and became an experienced leader, as well as flying in West Coast defense.

He finally arrived in England in November 1943, joining the 353rd Fighter Squadron as the first fighter group to fly P-51B Mustang.

Less than a year later, in July 1944 the 22-year-old Beerbower was a Major, had risen to commander of the 353rd fighter squadron, was leading ace of the 9th Army Air Forces, and had received the Silver Star for gallantry in shooting down three German aircraft in one engagement. He was eagerly looking forward to a well-earned leave in the United States in September, where he could see his wife and daughter.

A month later, on August 9, Beerbower was shot down and perished during a strafing attack on a German-occupied airfield in northeast France.

The Oranges are Sweet is the fascinating tale of that journey.

The book makes effective use of Beerbower’s personal letters, diary, and military records to provide factual, first-person accounts of the military, the world, flying, and life in the 1930s and 40s. Beerbower’s words frequently convey the love he had for, and the awe he experienced with, flying. Much of the book contains inspiring observations of the simple art of flying – as when Beerbower commented on the “beautiful” sea fog rolling in past the Golden Gate Bridge. Other recollections in the book reveal the stoic reality and the dangers of early aviation, as when Beerbower’s peer, Willy Anderson, matter-of-factly recounts bouncing a P-38 – and then watching the P-38 slam into the ground during the impromptu mock gunfight.

Because the book strongly relies upon factual accounts of the times (as opposed to providing editorial commentary), The Oranges are Sweet is a biography with a clearly historical tone. The historical presentation of The Oranges are Sweet is essentially the opposite of Chuck Yeager’s autobiography Yeager, which reads like a conversation at a bar with the pilot. The latter lends itself to criticisms of its veracity, which has, in fact, occurred. The Oranges are Sweet suffers no such shortcoming. It is very evidently extensively researched and heavily footnoted.

The book begins with about 30 pages of great detail into the lives and relationships of Beerbower’s hometown and youth. The next 400 pages move quickly into the retelling of Beerbower’s flight and combat experiences. Throughout the book Beerbower’s exploits are integrated with stories from the homefront that remind the reader Beerbower was more than a fighter pilot – and the war was more than just his battle.

The attention to detail continues in the recounting of Beerbower’s combat missions into Europe, nearly each of which includes names of wingmen, air aborts, cloud cover, and many other mission specifics. The inclusion of these details provides a breadth of context often ignored in similar biographies. They are an outstanding and likely unparalleled insight into the life and experiences not only of Beerbower, but also of all World War II fighter pilots. Even the title, The Oranges are Sweet, is a historical insight with which many are likely unfamiliar.

The Oranges are Sweet is an excellent presentation of the life and fighter pilot career of Don Beerbower. As a history of the World War II fighter pilot, the book is exceptional and potentially unequaled. Fighter pilots, those who want to be, and those interested in the era of the World War II fighter pilot will be captivated. Even those interested only in a casual discussion of “takeoff to landing,” and not the greater context, will be engrossed in the exploits of Beerbower and his peers in the European theatre.

As a point of historical reference not included in the book, Captain Chuck Yeager followed behind Major Beerbower by about a year, training at some of the same locations and ultimately flying in a neighboring unit in England. At about the same time Beerbower’s gallantry earned him the Silver Star in April 1944 for shooting down an ME-109 and two FW-190s, Yeager was shot down by an FW-190 and was evading on the ground in France. When Beerbower died in August, Yeager was not yet an ace. Beerbower ultimately had 15.5 kills credited during the war; Yeager, 11.5. For those that have read Yeager’s autobiography, the contrast in their personalities, character, and leadership is fascinating.

Finally, it is worth noting that in an era of cheap, mass-produced literary works, the hardbound The Oranges are Sweet is a remarkably well-produced book. Its editing is pristine and its colored maps, a host of era photographs, and even its physical production are of excellent quality.

The Oranges are Sweet is highly Recommended.

The Oranges are Sweet is available from the author’s website and Amazon page, as well as a variety of Air Museums around the country – including the National Museum of the Air Force and the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum.

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Ed note: Don Beerbower is in the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame and was placed on the Iowa State University’s Gold Star Hall in 2012, which was a direct result of Paul Sailer’s The Oranges are Sweet.

The 353rd Fighter Squadron lives on as the 353rd Combat Training Squadron in Alaska.