The fall of Afghanistan and our ignominious departure has left nearly every veteran I know who served there wondering what it is was all for. “I gave up years of my life for this?” One friend recently posted on Facebook.
Another wrote me, “I am in a really dark place…completely heartbroken. I think about all those missions flown, the recovery missions….the panicked radio transmissions ground guys had with me in the midst of their firefights….It can’t be all for nothing.”
I have been going from heartbreak to rage right along with my friends who wore the uniform of our nation.
I have never served, but I helped train those who did. I ran an all-volunteer OPFOR group in Oregon for twelve years that provided realistic support for infantry battalions, civil support units and civil affairs companies. Basically, we were their bad guys during field exercises, playing the role of attacking insurgents using tactical information I gleaned from personal sources in-country at any given moment. A decade of serving my country that way left me with seven concussions and multiple broken teeth.
In 2010, I embedded in Afghanistan in 2010 during the surge in Logar and Helmand Provinces. I came home and experienced many of the same struggles my veteran friends endured. Afghanistan totally reframed my friendships and my social connections. A decade later, the people I trust are the friends I made in combat.
They are hurting right now. The images on the news and Twitter are wrenching. My veteran friends are remembering those they lost in Afghanistan and thinking this was all a devastating waste. Energy. Lives. Treasure. The contact teams on doorsteps, bringing the news that a young woman is now a widow and her kids have no dad. These are burned into our souls, and we needed there to be a purpose for it. Meaning. Reason.
To those of you who served in Afghanistan, I offer this. You did your jobs with clarity, professionalism and a sense of idealism. I saw it everywhere I went in Afghanistan. Privates to colonels working in concert with one ambition: to make the lives of ordinary Afghans better while protecting them from the predations of the Taliban and its allies. You were successful at your level, and when necessary, you killed the enemy and won every battle and firefight.
I saw you perform your duties with the utmost courage. I saw you risk your own lives to save total strangers from a culture we never understood. I was amazed at the idealism resident in our army, even at a time when winning the war after nine years seemed already out of reach.
I saw how little girls would follow our female Soldiers with astonished curiosity. You set the example and dared those girls to dream beyond the walls their traditional culture imposed on them. You gave them hope. I saw it on every patrol.
The reasons for this catastrophe are above your pay grade. The failures are vested in our senior political and military leadership and the dysfunctional culture that promotes individuals entirely unsuited for the roles they are given. This defeat is theirs, not yours.
Everyone who served took crushing hits. Our people came home with devastation to their bodies and souls. For me, I was extremely fortunately to come home unhurt physically–thanks to the men and women of TF-Brawler. But I know the suffering that comes with loss. A young man I loved like a son was beheaded by an Iranian made IED in 2009. I still tear up thinking about him. We will live with the grief over those we lost our entire lives. It has become part of the fabric of who we are.
After this last week, I see that idealism is turning bitter among some of my veteran friends. How could it not when we see what has unfolded in Afghanistan?
“What a waste,” is the refrain I keep hearing.
My answer is this: no, it wasn’t. Not on a personal level. Our time in Afghanistan taught us the full measure of character. It taught us who we really were as individuals. It taught us we could push beyond our individual boundaries and grow. It taught us real-time compassion. It gave us loyalty in our lives that few people here at home will ever experience. It taught us how much we could endure, where our breaking points are. It taught us to fight through adversity, to rise to any challenge and be the measure of the moment. To set the example, to raise the standard.
There is a ruggedness I see in my veteran friends. I have seen them overcome disabilities–lost limbs, eyesight, facial trauma, etc.–to forge new paths through life. Every freaking day is a challenge for them. But every freaking day, they get up and they fight to make the most of their lives. I saw that with total clarity when I wrote “The Trident” with Jay Redman. Those men and women–they are inspirations to all of us, and examples to anyone who thinks of giving up.
My veteran friends are self-aware, capable, emotionally intelligent and devoted men and women. They think for the greater good—they came home to start new careers that serve the public and make our country better. Stronger. They carry the memories of what other parts of the world look like, how they function, and know the value of the American dream and our founding documents. The know our country is a special place, because they’ve seen how much of the world lives and how cheap the value of human life is in those places—something the woke generation has not.
In the years ahead, our veterans will mature and grow into positions of leadership. They will form the bedrock of the next generation of stewards who will guide this country in a million little ways economically, militarily and politically.
To my veteran friends, I have said this: Remember this day. Many of our senior leaders–generals and diplomats and elected officials have failed us all. They never, not once, were the measure of your value, devotion and professionalism. Not. Once. Never forget what that feels like, so someday, when they put that star on your shoulder board, or take your seat in Congress, your decisions will be informed by one guiding precept: Measure up to those you lead, and always ensure the mission is the measure of their willingness to sacrifice. Do that and there will never be a Saigon or Kabul again.
When I was in college at the University of Oregon back in the 1980s, I set about writing my senior thesis on the Guadalcanal campaign. Anyone looking to learn about that pivotal battle in the Pacific will soon run across two incredible historians, Eric Hammel and Jim Hornfischer. Jim had yet to publish “Neptune’s Inferno,” but as a nineteen year old kid, I absorbed everything Eric wrote. I remember clearly the moment I read “Guadalcanal: Decision at Sea,” and had my eyes opened by Eric’s view that the US Navy’s surface leadership had been crippled by pre-war conformities. It took heavy losses and lots of weeding out to find fighting admirals up to the task in the Solomons, and it wouldn’t be until later in 1943 that those leaders made their impact.
Eric’s Guadalcanal series became the foundation for much of my senior thesis, but eager to add new material and dig into some primary source material, I spent one Christmas break at the Hoover Institute’s archives on the Stanford campus. While back home, I discovered that Eric didn’t live too far away from where I grew in Saratoga. He’d settled in Pacifica, just up the highway and on the coast south of San Francisco.
It is hard to overestimate how much Eric’s books impacted me back then. Studying military history at the University of Oregon was not a popular thing. There was overt hostility to me and my topics of choice at time, both by professors and fellow students, that continued into my grad school experience. I took refuge in Eric’s books, and the aviation works of Barrett Tillman. As I started my first M/A thesis in the early 1990s, which focused on naval aviation training from 1935-1941 and how effective it was in the first six months of the war, I wanted to see if the aviation leadership had the same institutional shortcomings Eric had written about in “Decision at Sea.” It didn’t, of course, and that was a saving grace for the U.S. effort in the first year of the Pacific War.
Anyway, I ended up changing my thesis to a biography of Colonel Gerald R. Johnson, and in 96 left the 9-5 world to try my hand at a writing career. It was a few years later that I contacted Eric, told him what his books meant to me, and struck up a friendship that changed my life.
By then, Eric was running his own publishing company, Pacifica Press. He was a shrewd and calculating businessman who always had a very hard-nosed, realistic view of the industry. In 1999, we met for dinner for the first time in the Bay Area and liked each other from the outset. He also unleashed a firehose of knowledge on me that helped shape my career path through what Stephen King once called “the tiger pit” of the publishing biz.
I’d wanted to write military history for one, very idealistic reason: the experiences of the men and women I’d been interviewing deserved to be remembered and preserved. That first night, Eric asked me why I wanted to be a writer. When I told him, he gave me the grizzled veteran’s take on my idealism. “That’s why I got into this too. But remember, what we’re really doing is writing male adventure stories. That approach is what sells.”
In the years that followed, we talked frequently on the phone. I saw him every time I went back to the Bay Area. He connected me with Ken Ruiz, and I became his collaborating author on “Luck of the Draw: From Savo to the Silent Service”. I loved the collaboration process so much that more than half my books ended up being collaborations. Eric was the one who introduced me to that type of writing.
We went to Quantico and the National Archives together in 2005 to scan WWII photos for a series of books he and I were working on under Richard Kane at Zenith Press. When I started working up “The Devil’s Sandbox: With the 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry in Iraq,” that year, Eric sold it to Zenith for me, and was originally going to be the lead author on it. He named the book, and even did a few interviews with 2-162 vets before his political views on the war caused him to withdraw and turn the project over to me. It ended up being the largest contract of my career to that point.
Eric taught me to be a professional. He showed me what I needed to do to have the chops to survive in a cut-throat and very difficult business, while still writing the things I loved to write. He was a crusty, gruff kind of guy who used that bristly character to conceal a very good and soft heart.
I remember one time in Virginia, when we were heading over to historian Harry Yeide’s house for dinner, we stopped to get a bottle of wine at a grocery store. I turned around and there was Eric, in the fruit aisle, dancing to an elevator-musak’s rendition of some 60’s hit. The pre-eminent Marine Corps historian, rocking out to Musak by a heaps of oranges and mangos. It was an epic sight.
Later, at the National Archives, I glimpsed a bit of Eric’s OCD. While walking to the cafeteria at NARA 2 to grab lunch, Eric noticed the framed images on the hallway wall were not straight. He stopped, studied them, then straightened them with meticulous care. This became a daily ritual while we were there. It honestly drove me crazy at the time, but when I look back now, I can’t help but laugh. He was such a quirky guy.
I remember we were comparing notes one day as to how our interest in military history started. I told him how in 7th grade, I decided I was going to write a book on the Marines who defended Wake Island. I joined the Wake Island association, wrote to Commander Cunningham and other members of the garrison, and even interviewed one of the 3 inch AA gunners who defended the skies over the atoll.
Eric started laughing. Then he told me that at age sixteen, he secured an interview with General Lawton “Lightning Joe” Collins. He was already working on his first Guadalcanal book as a teen-ager, and Collins had commanded the 25th Infantry Division on the island before going on to greater fame as Patton’s most aggressive and dependable corps commander in Europe.
At the appointed time and day, Eric showed up at Lightning Joe’s office, dressed in a suit. When his secretary led him into meet the general, he was shocked to see a teen-age boy standing at the edge of his desk.
“What happened?” I asked Eric.
Eric looked embarrassed, and kind of sad. “He threw me out.”
For Eric, that was a minor setback. He ended up writing and publishing four books on Guadalcanal’s land, air and sea battles. Lightning Joe should have stowed his ego and let Eric interview him. 🙂
Anyway, that fall, Eric introduced me to James Hornfischer, author of “Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors” and an agent who was focused on non-fiction and military related projects. I pitched a book idea about the role of reporters and wire stringer photojournalists in Iraq to Jim, who passed on it. Then he came back to me and asked if I’d be interested in collaborating with a U.S. Army NCO named David Bellavia to write his account of one platoon’s experiences during the 2nd Battle of Fallujah in November 2004.
That set the stage for “House to House.” I’d been used to subsisting on free-lance writing gigs, consulting work, managing a small historic archive for collectors and other historians to make end’s meet back then. During September of 2005, I embedded with 2-162 when the unit deployed to New Orleans during the post-Katrina relief operation. That experience left me with deep trauma that took almost a year to sort through and unpack. I dumped a lot of that baggage on Eric during those months, telling him the things we saw in the city during that terrible month. It caused The Devil’s Sandbox to be delayed by a couple of months, which put my family in a tight financial spot.
I finished the Devil’s Sandbox while recovering from pneumonia that spring of 2006. Between writing sessions, I interviewed David Bellavia and prepared the proposal for House to House. When Jim deemed it ready, he took it to market.
I had low expectations. The Sandbox had been the most lucrative book contract of my career, and it was still not enough to survive on. So when the first offer for David’s book came in, I was like, “JUMP ON IT!” Hell yes! Jenn and I were really struggling that summer and unsure if we could keep the house. That first offer was like the Deus Ex Machina Stephen King wrote of in “On Writing” when his agent sold “Carrie.”
Jim told me to shut up. This was just the start. I did. And after that, I trusted Jim for fifteen years with my career. House to House eventually went to auction, and we signed with Simon & Schuster’s imprint, Free Press.
A year after I came home from New Orleans a mid-list unknown historian, Jim had put me in the highest echelon of the publishing business. I will never forget walking into Jenn’s classroom (she was a math teacher), smiling and telling her that House to House had sold.
Jim had changed our lives completely. And he’d done it on a verbal handshake. In 15 years, I never signed an agency agreement with Jim. We worked entirely on a gentleman’s agreement.
In the years that followed, Jim handed me many collaborations. I worked on photo books at the same time for Zenith Press, including one that Eric passed to me (Battle of the Bulge). I no longer had to consult, or scrounge free-lance gigs. It was an amazing time.
I considered Jim a friend from the outset. He’d been an editor in New York, he was a lawyer by training, and had written his own narrative non-fiction military history books in “Last Stand” and “Ship of Ghosts.” That versatility made him an invaluable human being. He showed me the business at that level, taught me how to write for a larger audience than WWII fans, and relentlessly worked with me to improve my writing and storytelling.
It was an amazing partnership. I worked insane hours to deliver projects with incredibly tight timelines. Jim would call me to check on my progress and say, “How’s the hardest working man in show business?” Later, after several of our books were optioned by LA studios, he started calling me, “Johnny Hollywood” as a joke. Eventually, he just called me Johnny.
There are only a handful of people in the world who call me Johnny. All are people I grew up with back home in California. Jim was the only person in my life who called me that beyond my very tight-knit crew of childhood friends. At times, others have tried, but it felt wrong. My college dorm-mates nicknamed me “Bruno” and that stuck all through the 90s. But Johnny? Never. Until Jim.
A typical call would start, “Johnny B!”
And we’d go from there.
As our relationship evolved, Jim and I developed enough of a rapport to trust each other’s judgments. We fought like brothers at times. We were blunt to the point of rudeness at others. Jim kept wanting me to dial back the emotional side of my writing. “Less is more, less is more,” he would tell me. When I look back at the first few collaborations I worked on under Jim, I realize he was right. There was too much at times, and those moments became overheated. With Indestructible, I exercised a little bit more restraint.
That was the biggest difference between Jim and I. I am a very emotional person. Jim was a bit more restrained. When we worked together, I tried to draw more emotion out of him, and he tried to restrain me. In the end, we met in the middle, and the results spoke for themselves. There was true creative magic between us, and the battles we fought over the phone sharpened me and made me a better storyteller and writer. I could always count on Jim’s unvarnished opinion on my writing. I feared it, but I also knew that after he chewed me out, I’d be angry enough to push myself to another level. That was really the key. Jim pushed me hard to be better. And I responded.
The older I’ve gotten, the more restrained my interactions have become with people, including friends. As you age, topics become off limits that in your youth, you discuss freely. There’s that narrowing that happens, even among the closest friends. I’m not sure why life does that, but when I find somebody I can talk to about anything, openly without any restraint or restrictions, it is an intellectual joy. Jim was that person for me. There were no limits, there was no subject out of bounds, and no opinion that could not be challenged or defended. All our intellectual brawls were predicated on mutual respect. Hell, I flat-out admired Jim. He had a vision of storytelling that was broad and big. I get lost in the trees. He understood how New York publishing works, what editors wanted and the things we needed to do to bring them projects they could sell internally, then publish big once complete.
Jim’s sense for what would sell was almost 100% accurate. In the fifteen years we worked together, I wrote or collaborated on about sixteen books with Jim as my agent. In that decade and a half, we had three proposals that did not sell. And one of those got an offer, which we rejected as too small. And another one attracted interest, but instead of writing it, I went to Afghanistan.
That track record is a testament to Jim’s incredible, intuitive grasp on the marketplace. He was a master in that realm with few peers.
For all the work we’d done together, we didn’t actually meet face-to-face until 2016. I was driving across Texas after doing some final research for Indestructible’s release, and he asked me to stop in Austin to see him. I was absolutely gob-smacked when I met him. First, Jim was toweringly tall, something that could be incredibly intimidating had it not been for his exuberant personality. He was so excited to see me and show me his town. In one morning and afternoon, I met his family, had lunch at one of the best Tex-Mex restaurants in Austin, then got a complete tour of the military museum in town.
Jim reveled in his role as host. We even took a couple of selfies together. Can you imagine? Two middle-aged men snapping selfies beside WWII armored vehicles. I left Austin with my head-spinning. I’d never seen or known that side of Jim before. He was an incredibly fun, energetic guy. He was outgoing, kind and gracious. By then, I’d become a late-in-life introvert. The days of large parties and wanting big groups of people around me were long over. Afghanistan and the rugged homecoming I had in 2010-11, changed me completely in that realm. So Jim’s hospitality overwhelmed me a little. It also reminded me of who I’d once been, as I’d once been a lot like Jim before I went to Afghanistan.
In 2014, I had a (temporary) falling out with a co-author on a WWII project we were working up together. Jim was furious at me for an email I’d sent in the heat of the moment. I had been angry, and it was worded harshly to my co-author. Jim’s bedrock approach to the business was to never burn bridges, and I’d done that–at least for the short term–with that email. So he beat me up pretty good over it–and rightfully so.
As I was trying to figure out what to do next, my daughter approached me and said, “Dad, for my 16th birthday gift, I want you to write a book on your own. Something you’ve always wanted to write.”
In fact, I did have a bucket list of projects I’d drafted in my head. So. I drove back home to California, spent four days closeted in a hotel near Santa Cruz, and wrote the proposal for “Indestructible.” A week after I sent that angry email, I delivered a new proposal to Jim. It was a total surprise. The weeks that followed were a whirlwind as Jim shopped it in New York and it eventually was sold to Hachette. The moment was a big one for us, as it marked the first time I’d written a solo book for a top tier publisher.
Two years later, I was up at the cabin I write at in the Cascade Mountains and Jim called. We got to talking, and I mentioned to him the story of the 5th Air Force aces & the race to become the #1 USAAF ace. Jim stopped me in mid-sentence and said, “John, this is your next book! The Race of Aces!” I’d been wanting to write the story for years, but I never thought it was a big enough subject to appeal to Hachette. He helped me craft the proposal, and Hachette loved it. It became my second project for them, “Race of Aces.”
In the middle of working on ROA, Jim called me in May of 2018 to ask if I’d like to save a manuscript that had been rejected twice by its publisher. I’d done this once before with Jim back in 2008 with a book that became my first ghost writing project. With this new one, we had sixty days to rework the manuscript and get it approved, or it would be canceled. The original writer is a colleague and friend, and the thought of him having to give the advance back drove me to accept.
I spent the summer of 2018 working with an incredible principal–a legendary naval aviator from the Vietnam Era–starting from scratch to frame the book around an epic thirty-five year love story. It was an incredible experience, working with Jim and the naval officer that summer. Every day brought new challenges as we battled to complete the rewrite under the time constraint. We delivered it on time, and when it came out the following spring, the book did very well. After that, Jim and I both wanted to collaborate on another book someday in the future. We had a lot of fun working on it together, and didn’t want to let that magic go.
I always thought there would be plenty of time for another book.
A phone call from Jim in December 2019 was the first shockwave that disabused me of that. “John,” he said without preamble, “Do I sound sick to you?”
“No.” I replied.
He went on to tell me that doctors had found a tumor in the back of his eye. I knew he’d had vision problems for a couple of years. A tumor sounded awful. I had an image of Jim losing his sight–there is nothing more terrifying to a writer. How would he make a living?
He asked me to come to Austin and help him finish a book he’d been working on with a CIA officer. At the end of January, I packed my stuff into my GTO and headed for Texas. At the time, I’d been thinking about writing a book down the road on the 1918 flu pandemic and its effects on the front line troops in France. So when the first rumblings of a new airborne virus started seeping out of Wuhan at the beginning of the month, I got paranoid that we were in for another global pandemic. As I drove to Texas, I stayed mainly in remote hotels, and only in rooms that clerks assured me had not been used for at least 72 hours. I didn’t eat in restaurants, just in the car. I feared catching the new virus and bringing with me to Austin, getting Jim even sicker.
It was a weird time. I’d never been a germaphobe, and we never had more than a day or two’s supply of food in the house, since our grocery store is only a couple blocks from us. The fear I felt for this new virus propelled me to spent my nights on the road, ordering things off Amazon. Masks, five full biohazard suits, a respirator and lots of storable food started showing up at the front door while I was gone. My family thought I’d gone insane. I suppose I had, a little. But I’d spent a lot of time reading about the 1918 pandemic through the summer and fall of 2019 that worst case scenarios went straight to my head. And, I’m afraid I carried that paranoia to Austin.
When I arrived at the Hornfischer residence, I was shocked when Jim came out to welcome me. I misunderstood the battle he was facing. The tumor wasn’t behind his eye, it was in his brain. He was battling a GBM, the same type of tumor that claimed Senator John McCain a few years before. It was already affecting his movement and his eyesight. After he left me to unpack, I broke into tears. I had no idea he was fighting for his life.
I spent two weeks at the Hornfischers. In that time, I saw Jim’s attitude toward this battle. He was relentlessly positive, upbeat. Whenever anyone asked him how he felt, he would reply, “I feel great! Never better!” At times, he’d send me a text or two that gave me a glimpse into his inner fears. He’d sometimes lie awake at night, thinking about the enemy within his head, willing it to die. It became a conscious act for him, killing that terrible thing that had already claimed some of his mobility and eyesight.
I saw in Jim great courage. Tremendous courage, actually. He’d spend his life writing about combat and men who either measured up in it, or broke down in the midst of the trauma and the fighting. When called to his own life-battle, he not only measured up, he set the example for how to behave.
In that two weeks in February, I saw another side of Jim I’d never seen before in all our dealings together. He was a man of Faith whose outgoing nature drew a large circle of friends to him. When the family announced Jim’s condition, these friends rallied to his side in a way that was so beautiful, so loyal, that it reflected the kind of man he was. People were drawn to him, and he welcomed them into his life.
For those two weeks, I can’t remember more than one or two nights that didn’t have those friends over to visit. Dinners every night were social events. The families loyal to the Hornfischers had taken up the mantle to fight alongside them in all the ways they could–from morale support to logistical support and even medical support. Families came by every day to bring food for lunch and beautifully prepared dinners so Sharon, Jim’s wife, did not have the additional onus of feeding her family after fighting all the myriad of medical red tape battles each day for her husband.
It was deeply touching to see this. And to see Sharon’s bedrock of love and support for Jim, her furious fight to get him the medical treatments he needed–well, the will and determination to carry that weight was born entirely from their incredible connection. Jim and Sharon clearly shared the one-in-a-million Hollywood love. The devotion she displayed for her husband every day never ceased to amaze me. Privately, Jim would tell me he was the luckiest human on the planet to have her. So blessed.
I probably came across as a grey cloud at times during all the socializing. Being an introvert these days, I have a hard time being around a lot of people now. This is such a change for me–my 40th birthday party filled a local restaurant with my raucous crew back in 08. My 50th was shared only with my family.
In Austin, nearly every night there was a different group of people to meet and get to know. It wore me out, and took the edge of my filter which caused my anxieties about the virus spreading in China to emerge. I don’t think there was a gathering where I didn’t ask the guests their opinions on what they thought would happen with this virus. The guests for those evenings were often retired intelligence types, or fellow writers and clients of Jim’s. They all shared unique insights, especially the guests who still had contacts in that realm.
The culmination of all these gatherings came when we had dinner with George Friedman and the retired CIA officer whose book we were developing. George’s book, “The Storm Before the Calm” was coming out that month and I’d been reading it before he came to dinner. If you haven’t seen this book, I cannot recommend it enough. Literally two months after it hit shelves, the forecasts George made in it began to come true. The book became sort of a guidepost for me over the next year, and a hope that we’d emerge a better nation for all the turmoil as he predicts we will.
Anyway, as we were sitting in the Hornfischer’s dining room, eating dessert, I turned the conversation to the JFK assassination. For the next forty-five minutes, I sat and listened to experts in their field give their opinions on 11-22-63. It was one of the most fascinating nights I’ve ever spent. Jim sat at the head of the table, looking happy and engaged. I remember thinking that I hoped the night had taken his mind away from his battle, if just for a few hours. Looking back, I really hope it did.
One afternoon, we piled into the Hornfischer’s car to go see Hutch, Jim and Sharon’s oldest son, play baseball for his college team. I’d brought along my camera gear in case we had the opportunity to do this, and as I was loading up, I managed to drop a $1500 Sigma 135mm Art lens. The fall destroyed the autofocus motor, and I was utterly beside myself for doing something so stupid. Honestly, I was a bad guest at that point. I groused and moped in the back of the car, so bummed that I’d destroyed one of the most useful and oft used pieces of kit I owned.
Now, think about this. I’m in the back of the car all spun up and whiney over a camera lens while the two people in front are facing cancer and all its consequences. My selfishness was just inexcusable. Clue meter at zero.
Finally, Sharon had enough of my mopeyness. She turned around and said, “Suck it up!”
You don’t say no to a force of nature like Sharon. I shot the baseball game with two manual focus vintage lenses that I’d brought along for the journey and stowed my selfishness.
Toward the end of my time in Austin, Marc Resnick flew in to meet with us. Marc is one of the senior editors at St. Martin, and the spearhead of the CIA book. He and I had worked together on Level Zero Heroes back in 2013-14 with Michael Golembesky, and we’d become friends from that time. He became only the second editor I’ve met face-to-face in the 25 years I’ve been in the business.
Marc’s time in Austin with us was one of the true highlights of my professional career. At one point, I went out to grab drinks with him and our CIA officer principal on the book. I drove everyone home to Jim’s in the GTO–and promptly got lost getting back from downtown Austin. This was a moment for me.
If you may recall, my only post here on this website for 2020 details the GTO and what it means to me. Here was the vehicle with so much history, so much personal meaning to me, with a senior-level CIA officer in back and one of my favorite editors in riding shotgun. It was an unforgettable evening.
At the end of the two weeks, Jim and I had accomplished the hand-off of the CIA project. I headed home in the GTO, tripping into Tombstone and the US Army fort at Apache Pass. I wandered to the Salton Sea, stopped at Chino to see Planes of Fame and the legendary Chris Fahey, whom I had dinner with one night. The next day, I drove to see my folks in the Monterey Bay Area.
About a week after I got home, we went into lockdown as the Covid outbreak spread through Oregon and the rest of the country. In the weeks that followed, the pandemic made Jim’s struggle immeasurably more complex as he sought experimental treatments and surgeries to battle that enemy within.
Before I had left Austin, Sharon tried to wake me up. Out in the front yard one night, she told me Jim had been given only 18 months by his doctors. I had no idea what to say in the moment. And the truth is, I could not even fathom Jim losing this battle. Not with his heart, not with his energy and attitude. He was doing everything right. He’d exemplified the courage, resolve and relentless optimism a human needs to defeat such an insidious foe. The odds may not have been on his side, but both of us had spent years writing about victories against long odds.
In the months that followed, I retreated more and more into my own sense that Jim was invulnerable and tried my best to forget the conversation Sharon and I had that night. Jim’s communication became sporadic. He was difficult to get on the phone. His emails were filled with uncharacteristic typos. Instead of being understanding, I grew frustrated. Several times, we clashed on the phone, but not like the old days when our wills were equal. Jim didn’t have the energy to spare for such things. So I just came across as selfish again. In light of where this all went, I did not behave like an understanding friend. I wanted the relationship we’d always had, unwilling to believe or accept things were changing. Jim was slowly losing his battle.
As I finished up the CIA project that summer, I got word that Eric Hammel’s health was in decline. It had been several years since we’d spoken. In 2015-16, his public posts on his social media pages had taken on a hard edge. He made some public statements that shocked me so badly, that I wrote him a long message. At times, he could be his own worst enemy. He mentioned many times how during an interview with a CNN talking head about his Beirut book, he’d lost his temper and was never asked back onto the network again after that. He told me that as a cautionary tale–don’t do what I did, kid.
In those public posts, I saw him saying things that would alienate some of his core readership. When I messaged him, I mentioned that. It felt like his anger and opinions were shooting himself in the foot.
Eric wrote back and he sounded beside himself at the political situation in the country. He was so torn up over what was going on that he was reactive and angry. I’d watched people melt down on social media, costing friends and family members, for over a year. It got to the point during the 2016 election cycle that I just banned all political discussions off my social media pages and got good at blocking old friends who insisted on trying to start fights on my page. For the last five years, I’ve basically just used SM to post silly cat and dog photos I’ve taken with my vintage lenses. I can’t affect the political situation, and I don’t want to engage with people who are in the frame of mind where anyone who disagrees with them is a (pick your insult and ism) and an enemy of the country.
The back and forth Eric and I had that last time we spoke convinced me he was in that binary mindset. I just couldn’t deal with that at that time in my life. We’d just gone through major medical issues with Jenn and my daughter Renee. There was so much on my plate. Being berated for not agreeing with Eric’s politics was something I just didn’t want to pile onto the stress in my life back then.
He wrote another note and said he’d like to talk it out with me. He kept the door open, and I didn’t go through it. We lost touch.
When I heard he was in decline, I was furiously finishing Jim’s hand-off project, racing another crazy-tight deadline. I vowed to myself that when I finished the book, I’d reach out and make amends with Eric.
Two days later, Eric died. I finished the book two days after that. Memo: never miss a moment to make amends. Those windows close too quickly for delays.
While I was processing Eric’s death, I went up to Portland, Oregon and photographed the downtown one Thursday morning. I was accosted and nearly attacked at the Justice center by a man drinking a tall boy Coors Light at 9:30 in the morning. I photographed the 2nd Oregon Volunteers memorial covered in spray paint, with a despondent young men sitting at its base.
Afterward, I went to Taylor Marks’ memorial at Willamette National. It had been 11 years since he’d been killed in Iraq. Taylor was a founding member of our volunteer OPFOR group, the 973rd COB, and I was very, very close to him. Seeing his fellow Soldiers and John Walch, one of the longest-standing members of the 973rd, gave me a bit of solace.
Two weeks later, we awoke to a sky turned blood red. Fluke winds and high temperatures caused massive wildfires to break out throughout Oregon. Two huge fires converged on Detroit, the little town near which I write when I retreat to the woods to finish my books. I’d been looking forward to going up there in September to get some time alone, to finish processing Eric’s death and to continue work on my own book projects now that Jim’s was finished for him.
I went up into the fire, but couldn’t get closer than 20 miles to the cabin. I spoke with firefighters from Mill City, two of whom had lost their own homes in the blaze, and they warned me to get out. The fire was cutting the last road down to the valley. I escaped out with bare minutes to spare. I’ll never forget the heat on my face as I foolishly stopped to take photos of the flames sweeping for the road.
Detroit was completely destroyed. Miraculously, the cabin I used to stay in survived. But with the town gone, there was no way to really write up there. No gas stations were left for 20+ miles. No stores. No restaurants left. Just desolation and burned out cars. This had been the happiest place for me in Oregon for over a decade.
Meanwhile, I kept the fiction in my head that Jim was doing well. He told me the surgery was a success. His PT was going great. When I talked to him on the phone, he painted the best possible picture. The latest MRIs looked great. He reported that the tumor had been killed. I thought he was going to be back and 100% in no time. I was absolutely living a delusion.
In December, he sent me an email that painted a very different picture. Gone was his relentless optimism. He was blunt about his chances. I was so rocked by his words that I could only write that I’d have to think them over and get back to him. Many times, I sat down to do that, but the words never came.
We emailed and called back and forth for the next three months. Gone was the glimpse that email provided. Back was the Jim imbued with relentless optimism and energy. When we spoke in March, he mentioned his tests all looked great, he was writing and working hard. He was back! I was so excited. He’d faced cancer down and kicked its teeth in. Larger than life as always, he’d beaten the odds after all.
Three weeks later, I learned that Jim had gone into hospice care.
He called to say goodbye to me a couple of days after I learned the news. His voice was weak. There was so much I wanted to say to him. I managed to try. I’ve always been grateful for all that he had done for me over the years. I told him that again. He changed my life. Gave me a career I could never have dreamed of in 2005. Thanks to his efforts on my behalf, we got my daughter Renee through college at Willamette University.
“That right there is an incredible thing,” he said in an emotion-choked voice.
We were a team that rose to every challenge, accomplished every goal. Writing with him was an intellectual joy. The level of honesty, the mutual pursuit for excellence–those were professional bedrocks for us. Every at bat, we swung for the fence.
“I can’t even imagine doing this without you Jim,” I told him as I cried quietly.
“I’ll always be there, John.”
I wanted to scream at the sheer unfairness of what was happening to my dear friend. Rail against the magnitude of the indignities. Why does this happen to good people?
We talked for a few more minutes. I told him I loved him.
Jim Hornfischer lost his battle a few weeks later.
I try to remember it isn’t the meeting or the end that matters, but what you make of the middle. Because of Jim Hornfischer, countless otherwise forgotten or unknown stories & experiences of our fellow Americans have been preserved for future generations. The hundreds of books he agented will live on in collections around the world, as will his own books. Though his life was cut so tragically short by that enemy within, he left gigantic footsteps in the sand. His legacy will be remembered far longer than most.
Thanks to him, when the day comes, and I lose my own battle with fate, I will go out knowing I have a small legacy too. I’ll have footsteps in the sand, thanks to Eric’s mentorship and Jim’s guidance. Indestructible. Race of Aces. Outlaw Platoon, House to House. The Trident. Level Zero Heroes. 53 Days on Starvation Island–these books are a testament to the two titans who took a chance on an unknown writer in Oregon and gave me a chance to learn and grow.
Now, after the worst year Americans have experienced in decades, two great voices are silent. Eric and Jim were historians above all, but they knew the point of history is to share it broadly. It is not the realm of the academic whose works are written for a select few. It is for all of us to engage with and share. They found the words that brought those audiences to their pages, a magnificent and rare ability that ensured the struggles on Guadalcanal, the charge of the USS Johnston and the fate of the Houston’s crew would be appreciated and celebrated by new generations of Americans.
As I sit here grieving, I try to remember that bigger picture. But the truth is, I miss my friends. Badly.
Pentagon, summer 2017. Race of aces research trip.
I found the GTO on a lot in Dallas, Oregon in September 2007. It had 3,500 miles on it. Outside the family, only two other people have driven it since I brought it home. One was Taylor Marks, who was also the first I trusted behind the wheel. I’ve mentioned it before that I let Taylor borrow the Goat for his senior prom, which was a testament to how much I trusted him.
Taylor’s prom night.
After he was killed in Iraq, we escorted him to Willamette National in the GTO, then stood in the summer sunlight as he was laid to rest. At his memorial, I vowed to carry forward with Taylor’s sense of adventure.
Escorting Taylor’s remains to Willamette National from Independence, Oregon.
Since 2010, I’ve driven the GTO from coast to coast, through thirty-eight states since I got home from Afghanistan. Other trips took us to Colorado, California, Texas, Florida, etc. In 2017, the car was in Seattle and the Pentagon parking lot inside of ninety days.
Shilo Church, 2014. Indestructible research trip.
Over the years, this car has taken me Shilo, Vicksburg, Antietam, Fort Necessity and dozens of historic sites in between. I camped beside the Goat at Oshkosh in 2017, spending a week at that aviation mecca. I’ve parked it on the hill overlooking Burnside’s Bridge and on the shoulder of the road where Frank Hamer ambushed Bonnie & Clyde. We’ve been to the Continental Divide in New Mexico and Colorado, to deserts in the Southwest and rolled Route 66 while listening to the Joad’s crucible on the same highway with Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.
Dunker Church, Antietam Battlefield, 2014.
Each time I bust out Song of the Open Road, strap in and head out, I have a destination, but no set schedule. We wander off the highways and explore, experience and adventure. I’ve met thousands of Americans over the past ten years through these travels, chatting with them at bars, diners, events, etc. I’m convinced we’re not nearly as divided as our media says we are.
One of those unforgettable moments. Rio Del Mar, California, May 2017.
I’ve seen profound kindness, warmth and have been welcomed wherever I’ve ventured. As the V-8 chews up the miles, I feel Taylor’s spirit on my shoulder. I can almost see him, goofy grin and all, strapped into the passenger seat, watching the country roll by with me. Soft spoken words, gentle sense of humor. He was a kid with tremendous potential and a bright future denied to him by the Iranians and their Iraqi pawns.
Eastern Oregon, Summer 2017.
This trip to Texas and back took me from the snow of the Oregon Cascades to the Nevada desert, to a Texas college baseball game, to dinners with my agent, his family and retired intelligence & counter-terrorism officers, to a dying California desert lake and the mountains of the Apache Pass. I drank whiskey in Tombstone, photographed Boot Hill at Sunrise, then sat on the beach of my childhood as the waves lashed the remains of the SS Palo Alto, the WW1-era cement ship beached a hundred years ago at Rio Del Mar.
SS Palo Alto, February 2020.
This trip saw one of the most poignant and heartbreaking moments on the road for me. I was somewhere outside of El Paso one night, racing east through empty terrain. A police SUV suddenly cut right in front of me, lights ablaze. I slowed down, thinking the cops wanted me to pull over. Instead, the SUV swung sharply to the shoulder and came to a sudden stop, dust billowing in its wake. As I drove past, I saw a little boy of perhaps six or seven, calf-length pants, tattered t-shirt, no shoes, standing trapped in the police cruiser’s headlights, a look of confused terror stamped on his face.
Salton Lake, California, February 2020.
We were miles from the nearest town. But only a couple of miles from the border. I ran into a checkpoint ten minutes later, and the Border Patrol officer I talked to said such heartbreaking scenes were all too common. They wander without food or water, through the West Texas desert utterly alone.
That is a moment I’ll never forget.
An hour short of home yesterday, the odometer passed the 190,000 mark. I have friends with muscle cars as old as the GTO that have husbanded them away in their garages. They are pristine with only a few thousand miles. I respect that, but this car was meant to see the county with me.
Tombstone, Arizona and Sheep’s Head Mountain, February 2020.
These days, the paint’s chipped and scratched. The left fender has a ding from some careless person banging into it in the Bay Area years ago. The seats are fading and the stitching is giving out, and the new car smell is long, long gone. We’re on its seventh or eighth set of tires, which usually costs about a grand to replace them all, the radiator’s been replaced, the belts and a/c unit too. But the engine’s strong and throaty, the transmission still in good shape. Yet, at 190,000 miles, I have to face reality here: the Goat’s cannonball runs are done for awhile.
Fort Bowie, Apache Pass, February 2020.
After Renee gets through with school, the engine will be rebuilt, a new transmission will be installed. Paint and interior will be done last. This is the car I’ll drive for the rest of my life.
For now, it is light duty, and as I rolled into town yesterday, I couldn’t help but to shed a few tears. Those 190,000 miles have led me to some of my life’s best moments with the best people I’ve ever met.
Tom Lynch is one of the great unsung and often forgotten aces of the Pacific War. Brilliant, quiet, intense–Lynch was a natural leader who led from the front. During the 39th Fighter Squadron’s first air-to-air engagement in their P-38’s, Lynch actually returned to base after the initial encounter with the bulk of the squadron, jumped into another P-38, and took off to get back into the fight alone.
His career timeline has historically been distorted in the post-war writings about his whereabouts after the end of his first tour. He went on leave in September 1943 and went home to Pennsylvania. He doesn’t show up in combat with the 5th again until February of 1944, so post-war historians assumed he was in the U.S. until January.
That was not the case. On his way out the door for his second tour, he gave a very brief interview (copied here) in mid-November 1943. He got back to the 5th Air Force in early December, returned to the 39th and made several transition flights in the squadron’s new P-47 Thunderbolts.
Instead of taking the squadron over again when Charles King left the 39th in the middle of December, Tom got assigned to almost six weeks of rear echelon duty while attached to V Fighter Command HQ in the G3 (Operations) section.
This kept him out of the ace race through December and part of January 1944.
The details of this, and why Tom’s earlier arrival back to the SWPA is significant, can be found in Race of Aces. 🙂
Meanwhile, I’ve attached below the interview he gave to a USAAF staff officer, one of his citations for the DFC OLC, and a couple of lesser known press photographs of Tom, including one where he was kissing his mom upon his arrival home in Pennsylvania. She never gave up hope that he would be found alive after he was declared missing in action in March 1944.
Kearby with his trademark wide, Texas grin. Charismatic, daring and capable of evoking tremendous loyalty, Neel Kearby remains one of the great combat leaders the USAF has ever produced.
Let’s talk Neel Kearby.
He is remembered as one of the greatest fighter combat leaders of the Pacific War. Neel had joined the USAAF in the mid-1930s after finishing college in Texas. He quickly became one of the best fighter pilots in the service, an aviator known to win mock-dogfights against his peers–while eating an apple and flying with one hand.
Combined with his natural flying abilities, Kearby possessed a tactical genius that is often overlooked. He could extract the utmost performance out of any aircraft he flew, then used his flying skills to maximize its attributes and minimize its weaknesses in a fight. He was a holy terror in a P-47, demonstrating its potential to a skeptical 5th Air Force in 1943.
Not only could he fly and fight, he generated intense loyalty and confidence among the men he led in battle. The 348th Fighter Group was his baby. He’d trained the men Stateside and built the unit into a tough, unified and exceptionally capable outfit that included a whole crop of subordinate officers who Kearby mentored into outstanding leaders in their own right. This included Charles MacDonald, who would go on to be one of the great USAAF combat leaders of the war, commanding the 475th Fighter Group through its heaviest action in the Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA).
Kearby (center) with Charles MacDonald shortly after Mac took command of the 475th. MacDonald was probably Kearby’s closest friend in the SWPA.
When Neel arrived in the SWPA in May 1943 with his ADVON, he was determined to become America’s leading ace. He quickly learned who the theater’s high scorers were, and went to work flying missions both with the 348th Fighter Group, and with various P-38 units.
Most people remember the free-lancing Bong and Lynch did in early 1944. Neel was the original free-lancer. Between leading the 348th on short-range transport escort missions in August of 1943, Kearby talked his way onto the Wewak strikes that devastated the Japanese Army Air Force units in the SWPA that month. He had never flown a P-38 before that first mission, though he did have some two-engine aircraft time, including several hours in B-26 Marauders.
Later, after his Medal of Honor mission in October 1943, Kenney pulled him up to V Fighter Command HQ, and the 348th continued on without their daring, aggressive and inspirational leader.
Kenney (center, left) and Wurtsmith (center, right).
Contrary to a lot of secondary sources, Kenney did not put Kearby into V FC to give him license to free lance. Kenney wanted him on the ground chained to a desk, and to do so, he was made the deputy commander of V FC, taking over for LTC Morrissey, who went home on leave.
There’s a space in November 1943 where it worked. Kenney’s wild man field grade was stuck on the ground learning his new role at HQ.
But at the end of November, the V FC commanding general, Paul Wurtsmith, also went home on leave. Kearby was the only full colonel on V FC staff at the time, and he was made acting commander of all the 5th Air Force’s fighter units.
A publicity photo from November 1943, showing Kearby overwhelmed with his new staff job at V Fighter Command HQ.
He was the boss for the next six and a half weeks. And the first thing he did, was get back in the cockpit of a P-47 and start four-plane hunting patrols over Wewak with several members of the 348th.
In early January 1944, Kearby knew his days in combat were limited, as Kenney was unhappy he was still flying, and Wurtsmith was en route back to retake command of the V FC. Kearby knew that when Wurtsmith got back, he would make LTC Morrissey his deputy CO and chief of staff again, the position that Morrissey had held before he too went on leave in early November. Kearby would effectively be without a job, as he couldn’t remain in V FC as a full colonel when the XO was only an LTC.
A still image from Kearby’s gun camera footage from December 22, 1943.
So it looked like he’d probably be pushed out to command one of the air task force HQ’s that Kenney and Whitehead had established to run specific campaigns or operations. These task forces, notably the 308th and 309th Bomb Wings, were a flexible sort of frontline command node designed to incorporate both fighter and bomber groups on a temporary tasking to knock out a particular target or support a specific amphibious operation.
Looking ahead, Kearby wanted to incorporate a combat role for himself so he could continue to hunt. He came up with the idea of using Gerald Johnson’s 9th Fighter Squadron to run constant four-plane patrols over Wewak that would be “closely supervised by the task force commander.” <— which would be him, of course, leading from the air.
This document I’ve attached here is one of several Kearby wrote and sent up to 5th Air Force in hopes of getting approval for what would be a license to hunt as a task force commander after Wurtsmith and Morrissey returned.
The tactics Kearby details here are the ones he worked out and used personally during his many four-plane hunting flights over Wewak from October through early January. He gives great detail and insight into how the tactics were supposed to work here.
Kearby’s natural aggressiveness and desire to be the top ace in theater caused him to violate his own tactical doctrine several times. But you can see the thought and discipline such tactics required through his own words.
This proposal to use the 9th Fighter Squadron in this manner was ignored. The staff at 5th AF clearly saw it as a transparent effort to find a combat role for himself. After the MOH announcement in late January, Kearby pleaded with Kenney to be allowed to remain in the theater. He bounced around from the 308th and 309th Bomb Wings, taking different temporary positions in both. He continued to borrow 348th FG aircraft to hunt whenever he could get away with it, but by the end of February Kenney had had enough. He told Kearby his combat flying was done. If he flew in combat again, he’d be sent home. Kearby ignored him, determined to keep pace with Bong and Lynch. Ultimately, that pressure to score before he was sent home caused him to take tactical gambles that cost him his own life.
The details of Kearby’s life in combat and his impact on the ace race in the SWPA can be found in Race of Aces.
Note: This article is based on a section of Race of Aces that we edited out after the first draft. Still, it is one of my favorite pieces of writing, as I grew up in Bay Area and in 2017 visited many of the places mentioned here. Photos from that trip are interlaced through the text.
Race of Aces is available now at bookstores and on-line sites everywhere.
May 3, 1942
San Francisco Bay Area
The intruder appeared on a spring Sunday night when the San Francisco Bay glittered silver under the light of a full moon. Europeans would have called that a “bomber’s moon.” They hated such nights, for a full moon helped guide enemy planes to their cities. A bomber’s moon meant a maximum effort; no sleep for those on the ground and a firestorm of high explosives would likely engulf their cities again.
At U.S. Army Radio Station B3, the night watch stood a vigil over the City by the Bay. Twenty-five hundred feet atop Mount Tamalpais, just north of the Golden Gate, B3 wasn’t really a radio station at all. That was just a name designed to throw off the Japanese fifth column assumed to be hard at work detailing California’s defenses.
Instead, B3 was a top secret, state-of-the-art radar site, and its electronic wizardry could detect Japanese planes up to a hundred and ten miles away. Only a few talented operators truly understood the new technology, but the men on the mountain above San Francisco were among the best at it.
At 10:50 that night, the radar crew spotted the intruder. The blip on their oscilloscope bloomed about seventy miles west of Marin County out over the Pacific Ocean. Heading east at almost two hundred miles an hour, it was way out of the normal air lanes used by friendly aircraft.
Radio Station B3 got on the “hot phone” and called it up the chain of command as Target #25. Word of the contact reached IV Interceptor Command’s operations room at headquarters in Oakland less than ninety seconds later. Female civilian volunteers, holding long poles that resembled pool cues, stood around a massive table map of the San Francisco area on the ops room’s main floor. When a new contact was spotted, their job was to lay down a target stand with an arrow showing its direction. Every thirty seconds the plot would be updated. In a world before computers, human power did the calculating.
The senior officer in the ops room, known as the Controller, sat on a second floor balcony that overlooked the plotting map. He stared at the target stand thinking about potential destinations. A slight turn, it could hit the Mare Island Shipyard. A sharper turn, and the target could hit San Francisco from the north.
They had to be certain Target #25 was not a wayward friendly. He turned to his staff and ordered them to run down the identity of the contact. The Navy, Army Air Force and Civilian Aeronautics Administration stationed officers on the balcony. They grabbed phones and checked with their people. Any flight plans approved for this time and location? Could a plane be off course?
At 10:54, the replies came in. “Not one of ours.”
The Controller notified his chain of command. Meanwhile, the incoming aircraft vanished off B3’s radar scope.
Did it change course?
The last report from Tamalpais suggested Target #25 could be either a single aircraft or a small, tight formation of several. Either way, it wasn’t friendly. That meant there were Japanese ships somewhere off the California coast.
The Federal Communications Commission got involved at 11:00 on the dot. Enemy planes could use radio signals to guide them through the night to their target areas. Without any idea where Target #25 was heading, IV Interceptor Command ordered full radio silence from the Central Valley north to Eureka.
Ten minutes later, citizens of the Bay Area listening to late night radio were the first to learn something was wrong. The NBC affiliate in the city, KGO, went dark just as the newscaster covered the latest from Corregidor. On another local station, KPO, Harry Owens and his orchestra kicked off their half hour set. Both suddenly vanished, words and music replaced by the unsettling hiss of static. Husbands and wives sitting in their living rooms around the family’s Philco radio exchanged nervous glances. Was this another drill?
The bomber’s moon suggested otherwise.
As alarm spread through the neighborhoods and farms all over the Bay south to Fresno, the Controller at the ops center prepared to do battle. Anti-aircraft guns went to full alert, manned and ready with orders to shoot anything that came into range. Searchlight crews stood by their massive devices, sweeping the sky for the enemy raiders.
At Mill’s Field—present day San Francisco International Airport—two Curtiss P-40 Warhawk interceptors prepared to take off into the night. Two more waited at Oakland Airport, and other fighters readied to launch at Hamilton Field across the Bay, their pilots already in the cockpits, engines warmed up.
Three minutes after the radio stations left the air, the Controller turned to his Civil Air Raid Warning officer and told him to kill the lights.
From Monterey north to Bodega Bay lights went off. Dozens of air raid sirens around San Francisco proper wailed to life as the city went dark. Trolleys trudging up the city’s legendary hills on their last runs of the night were bathed in darkness. The city planned for such moments by painting white “blackout stars” at intervals along the tracks so the blinded drivers could find a stopping point.
The trolleys braked to a halt. Cars throughout the city pulled over and the drivers hustled out to peer upward from nearby doorways. Trains, busses, cars on the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate all came to dead stops as darkness enfolded them. Lit only by the bomber’s moon, the people aboard sat in vehicles, trapped on the bridges that surely the Japanese considered prime targets. At least one woman stuck on the Bay Bridge picked up some knitting and went to work. Panic was not an acceptable response that night.
Nor was ignoring the blackout order. Volunteer wardens rushed through their assigned blocks, blowing whistles at anyone whose dwellings showed even a spearpoint of light their curtains. Some business were slow to respond. Neon lights along the waterfront continued to blaze as the rest of the city went dark. A seventy-three year old air raid warden saw a light on his block and rushed to dim it. As he did, the tension of the moment proved too much for him. He died of a heart attack while trying to unscrew the bulb.
In March, the Navy issued shoot to kill orders around the Marina district for anyone violating a blackout. The sentries guarding the docks took this seriously. When a cabbie failed to douse his headlights, they shot into his vehicle and narrowly missed his head.
The military killing American civilians who forgot to turn a light off may seem extreme today, but it was not to San Franciscans of 1942. They’d seen the newsreels depicting the destruction Nazi bombers wrought on London during the Blitz. Others showed the Japanese carpet bombing cities in China. After Pearl Harbor, the war no longer seemed far from the Pacific surf lapping the beach at 19th Avenue. Indeed, San Franciscans were among the first mainland Americans to be touched by it when a crippled British cruiser limped under the Golden Gate the previous summer. The ship docked at Mare Island for repairs with over a hundred dead still aboard, killed in German air attacks off Crete weeks before. The locals watched as the British carried their dead from the ship’s battle scarred hull, loaded them into an American ship and took them back out past the Golden Gate to be buried at sea.
The idea that somebody’s son or husband could be summarily dumped overboard off the California coast left a deep impression on the citizens of San Francisco. A few months later, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, they knew lives would be shattered here at home. The telegrams began arriving the next day, and San Francisco felt the war in its heart, if not in its streets.
The wounded followed the telegrams as ships arrived filled with victims of the surprise attack. The burnt and traumatized men flowed into the hospitals. Those who could speak told stories of flashing Japanese bombers, strafing Zeroes and a Nisei fifth column that stabbed Hawaii in the back.
Then, the first floating wrecks arrived under tow, bound for Mare Island’s repair yards. Teams of workers descended on these warships to repair them. There were no days off. Three shifts, twenty-four hours a day, the shipyard workers labored furiously as if their families and homes depended on these vessels returning to war.
Meanwhile, the downtown bars became hubs of gossip, each one a node amplifying tidbits gleaned from the returning warriors. The gossip grew so pervasive after the ships’ crews spent their liberties in the Marina district bars, getting drunk and sharing tales of the Pearl Harbor attack, that the Navy launched a full counter-offensive against idle talk. Intelligence teams went out and recruited fifteen hundred bar tenders to act as the navy’s ears in their establishments. If they spotted anyone in uniform talking out of turn, they were to report them immediately. Cabbies and desk clerks, hotel bellhops all joined the eavesdropping effort.
One bartender reported a young lieutenant who repeated a story that the Japanese fifth column had actually operated a short wave radio from the basement of the Marine Corps barracks at Ewa Field on Hawaii just after Pearl Harbor. Later in December, a search team found the transmitter and several Japanese clustered around it and shot them dead.
Navy investigators in San Francisco looked into this yarn and found most of that to be spurious. There was in fact a Japanese-American ham radio operator who had nothing to do with Ewa Field, or any enemy fifth column. His radio gear had been confiscated without anyone getting shot. The Japanese-American ended up serving with five of his brothers in the U.S. armed forces, and the lieutenant spreading the rumor was severely punished.
Stopping the spread of gossip one rumor at a time was like throwing bricks in the Grand Canyon—pointless. A macro effort was needed, and so that spring, the government declared war on words. The Navy hired a cadre of Madison Avenue PR-types to create catch phrases for easy public consumption reminding them to keep their mouths shut. Among the early drafts sent out to the acquiescent media outlets were such rough drafts as:
Words are like razors—they may cut your throat.
The idle tongue carries death in its wag.
Speak fitly or be silently wise.
Finally, some genius streamlined the message: loose lips sink ships. The message stuck, and some well-intentioned, patriotic Americans began reporting on their neighbors, friends and associates when they overheard war rumors. The military offices in the Bay Area received letters detailing which soldier or officers said what, where and when.
Nevertheless, the stories of broken, dying men pulled from the flaming wreckage of America’s battle line spread through the civilian population. The fleet had been crippled, that became common knowledge long before the navy officially admitted the full extent of the loses at Pearl. In those nodes of the Bay Area’s grapevine, the people realized the precariousness of their situation. The Japanese seemed strong and victorious everywhere; America weak and defeated. With the battleships gone, the Army Air Force’s planes smashed, what was to stop the Japanese from sweeping to the California shores?
In this context, shooting a cabby for violating the blackout didn’t seem extreme. Not after Japanese submarines shelled Santa Barbara, sank ships off shore and machine-gunned survivors in their lifeboats. The cruelty of battle lay just over the horizon, and the whispers of it fueled the fear.
Reports of sabotage by a Japanese fifth column spread through California. A railroad bridge destroyed by fire was blamed on Nisei saboteurs, as was an industrial explosion at a shipyard. Reports from the Philippines pointed to an intricate network of spies who helped pave the way for the Japanese invasion. Why would it not be the same way in California? When thousands of second-generation Japanese-Americans renounced their citizenship after Pearl Harbor and set about traveling to Japan to serve in its military, the first steps were taken to round up all Japanese-Americans into camps.
South of San Francisco, the Federal government incarcerated eight thousand Japanese-Americans at a former race track. Some of the prisoners lived in the horse stables. Before the war, these men and women had been part of California’s prosperous middle class. Now, their government threw them into hay and muck while “permanent” internment camps were completed elsewhere.
Then their flyers began to do die. Aircraft crashes were rarities in pre-war life that garned headlines in the local papers. As the Army Air Force and Navy flung farm kids into cockpits and tried to teach them how to survive at the controls of advanced aircraft full of untested technology, crashes took place every day in California. Residents around Hamilton Field heard the whine of overrevved engines like mechanical death wails. They felt the explosions like earthquakes rocking the ground. They learned to live with sights of crash boats fishing the bodies out of the bay, or search crews picking remains out of hillsides strewn with wreckage when pilots slammed into the coastal mountains in bad weather. The crashes grew so frequent that by May, the newspapers barely gave a fatal one more than an inch or two of ink.
Life lost some of its value, replaced by the need of the country to field a modern air force capable of defeating Hitler’s blooded veterans. The rest of the world had a two-year head start, and to catch up meant casualties. Young men died; their families mourned. For others, these micro-tragedies just became a feature of the new landscape. They also reminded everyone that the world California knew on December 6, 1941, no longer existed.
Under the bomber’s moon, San Francisco braced for attack that night. The sirens wailed, families retreated into basements or make-shift bomb shelters. Thousands of other patriotic Americans turned out to man their volunteer civil defense stations. For months as San Francisco expected an air raid, small mountains of sand piled up on street corners, ready to be used to smother flames should bombs cause the water system to fail. Every block had a warden, an aid station staffed by volunteers, and a pre-teen bicycle messenger cadre pulled from the local chapter of the Junior Victory Army. When Japanese bombs finally did fall, each San Francisco block would fight the flames and destruction as an organic team of neighbors and friends. If the volunteers couldn’t contain the devastation, they could call on the firefighters and medical personnel waiting to respond to the worst hit areas.
When the Mayor called for volunteers for this civil defense network, fifteen thousand San Franciscans responded. A hundred and fifty thousand more from California to Washington manned the aircraft observer corps’ chain of outposts. The military wasn’t just mobilizing for war, the entire civilian population on the West Coast mobilized for it as well.
The lights stayed off that spring night for almost an hour. The people of Northern California held their breath, stifling fear as they huddled together in their shelters. At 11:28, Radio Station B3 picked up the contact again. This time, they tracked it heading back out to sea northwest of the Golden Gate. The radar crew watched it melt away to the west. Six minutes later, they lost the contact for good.
The anti-aircraft crews received the stand down order. The block wardens in San Francisco sent their people home just before midnight when the all-clear siren broke the tension. The cars and busses trapped on the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate fired up their engines and puttered on their way. The train began to run again. The radio stations returned to the air just in time to sign off for the night. No information was given. Wartime secrecy meant a compliant media willing to not report things everyone had known had happened.
At station B3, the watch changed and fresh eyes stared at the oscilloscope, waiting and wondering what would happen next.
The same thing happened at IV Interceptor Command. The plot was deemed a valid contact, not a flock of geese or some errant friendly plane. What did it mean? The intelligence officers gathered to talk it over.
A small formation, or a single plane, meant a recce mission or a nuisance raid. Possibly, a Japanese aircraft carrier task force lay somewhere west, hidden in the fog. More likely, a raiding cruiser or long-range submarine had launched its float planes to scout the coast’s defenses. That was the most plausible explanation for what happened that night.
Combined with top secret intelligence reports suggesting a series of major Japanese offensives would soon be unleashed, the idea that San Francisco was being snooped by an aerial scout left the Army Air Force jittery. They called for reinforcements, and soon fighter squadrons protecting New York and New Jersey would be on their way to bulk up the Bay Area’s air defenses. In the meantime, the fighter squadrons at Hamilton Field, Oakland and Mills would stand alert, weapons loaded, ready to take off at a moment’s notice to protect the citizens by the bay.
After midnight, those shaken citizens of San Francisco emerged from their basements and bomb shelters. The lights came back on, providing whatever sense of normalcy remained in a world where seemingly at any moment, their lives could be torn apart by bombs and fire. As heads hit pillows, thoughts turned away from what lay over the horizon. To focus on that meant a night bereft of sleep since the future seemed bleak indeed.
To the south of the Bay Area, in the heart of the San Juaquin Valley, two young aviators rode out the alert in a Fresno hotel room. They’d been driving from Luke Field, Arizona en route to Hamilton Field, where the Army Air Force assigned them to an interceptor squadron tasked with defending San Francisco. Neither claimed to be experienced pilots. Second Lieutenant Richard “Dick” Bong had graduated from flight training only a few months earlier. He’d been training other pilots since as an instructor at Luke. His fellow pilot, Danny Robertson, was equally inexperienced. Together, they were part of a steady stream of reinforcements flowing to the squadrons defending the West Coast.
The night of the air raid alert, they drove into Fresno from Anaheim. They grabbed a late dinner and returned to their hotel shortly before the contact first flared on B3’s radar oscilloscope. Though exhausted from the travel, the two young men took turns writing letters home to their parents on the single desk between their hotel room’s beds. They were either still writing, or just ready to turn in for the night when the radio stations left the air and the lights went out all over Northern California.
If Dick Bong held any illusions that duty at Hamilton Field would be a cushy Stateside gig like his time at Luke, the air raid scare that night put that notion to rest. The West Coast wasn’t a backwater to the Pacific War; the military and citizens of California considered the Golden State part of the front lines. The enemy was coming. It would be his job to help stop them as part of San Francisco’s first line of defense.
The Civil War Memorial at Pioneer Cemetery. MacArthur Court, the University of Oregon’s old basketball arena is in the background.
Yesterday was my daughter’s seventh re-birthday. As a high school freshman, on January 7, 2013, she underwent neurosurgery at Oregon Health Sciences University to drain a cyst that was that was pushing her brain off its center line and causing her significant issues. She came through the ordeal with flying colors, finished high school as her class valedictorian, and is currently completing her B.S. in biology.
Each year on January 7th, we take the day off and go celebrate together. Part of that ce
Renee and I yesterday at the Eugene Barnes & Noble. They had a few of our books! 🙂
Relebration includes a bookstore visit–Powells Books in Portland, or the Barnes & Noble in Eugene. Then we go off and do something else fun. This year, we went and hung out with bald eagles, osprey, hawks and owls at the Cascades Raptor Center in south Eugene.
On the way, I stopped us very suddenly in front of a little house not far from downtown Eugene.
“What are we doing here?” She asked.
The Johnson family house, purchased in 1936. This is where Gerald lived while going to high school and the University of Oregon.
I grabbed an advance copy of Race of Aces from the back of the car and answered, “Meeting the owner of that house!”
Very reluctantly, Renee followed me to the front door. I rang the bell. Renee whispered, “It looks like we’re missionaries or something.”
A very kindly older woman answered the door. I introduced us and said, “Your house used to be owned by the Johnson family.”
“Why yes, I’d heard that!” she said, surprised.
“Their son, Gerald, grew up here. He became one of the great fighter leaders for the Army Air Force during WWII, and Oregon’s top ace.”
I handed her Race and said, “Thirty years ago, I wrote a research paper in graduate school about Gerald and all his neighbors here and what happened to them during WWII. That start led to this book.”
Gerald with his first (and only) car, a ’37 Plymouth he bought in 1941 as an Air Corps cadet. He’s in front of the house while on leave.
They were remarkable neighbors. John Skillern who lived behind the Johnsons, served in the 10th Mountain Division. Jim Bennet was killed aboard a PT-Boat at Iwo Jima. Marge Goodman lived next door. She joined the Navy and documented captured Japanese aircraft brought back from the Pacific. Her brother became Haile Selassie’s personal pilot. Many never came home. Others were blown to the winds by the war, choosing to make the military their career following VJ Day.
Johnson as a cadet at Luke Field, Az.
In 1942, as Gerald headed off to war in his first combat deployment, his squadron flew through Oregon en route to the Aleutian Islands. Gerald, piloting a Bell P-39 Airacobra, flew right down the street in front of his family’s house, pulled up and executed a mini-aerobatics show for his neighbors, who streamed out of their homes to watch the show.
His family missed it. They’d been off having a spring picnic north of town.
As Renee and I drove down that street, I related the story to her. Witnesses said he flew between the trees lining the sidewalks.
The street Johnson buzzed in 1942. The trees were smaller 78 years ago :).
Gerald in his P-38 en route to the Aleutians in June 1942.
Later that day, after we we met some of the coolest birds we’ve ever seen, I took Renee to Pioneer Cemetery that sits in the middle of the University of Oregon campus. In 1990, as a young grad students, I spent almost two years documenting the veterans who were laid to rest there. It is a remarkable place, full of history. Including a small, but crucial moment for Gerald Johnson.
One of the many Civil War vets buried beside the U of O campus. In 2017, while research Race of Aces, I stopped at Vicksburg and followed the 37th Ohio’s attack route in a pouring summer rainstorm.
In 1939, Gerald was a freshman at the U of O, enamored with a girl he’d seen while hiking north of town a few weeks before. He asked around and discovered she was a senior at University High, which was acquired by the college years ago and became the education building. Barbara Hall lived southeast of campus, and each day she would walk through the cemetery on her way home. Somebody told Gerald of her routine, and he dashed off after school to find her.
He caught up with her near the Civil War Memorial and introduced himself. It was the start of a romance that transcended distance, separation and war. That moment the two met in the autumn rain, they became soul mates.
Barbara and Gerald home on leave in front of the Hall family’s house in south Eugene.
Bill Runey was a classmate and friend of Barbara’s. He stayed in touch with her after graduation, then joined the Army Air Force after Pearl Harbor. He ended up in Gerald Johnson’s fighter group in New Guinea. In the fall of 1943, Gerald flew into Bill’s airfield, found him and introduced himself. They hadn’t known each other in Eugene, but Gerald had seen on some paperwork that Bill was from his town. He was delighted to learn that Bill was friends with Barbara. The two put the war on hold for an afternoon and sat under the wing of a P-40, talking of home and their mutual friends. Despite their differences in rank–Bill was a young LT, Johnson a Major, Gerald shared some deeply personal things, including the depth of his love for Barbara. They became fast friends.
Bill Runey at Gusap, where the two Oregonians met for the first time.
When I started researching Gerald’s life, I met Bill through Barbara in 1992. He quickly became like a second father to me. For years, we met for lunch once a week, often with Barbara, sometimes with other veterans from Eugene. The Uni High grads stayed in touch all their lives, meeting once a month to chat about old times, grandkids and life in Eugene. I was fortunate to meet some of them through Bill.
The last time I saw Bill, he was dying at a local care facility. I sat beside his hospital bed and read part of Indestructible to him.
He’d always wanted to meet some of the Japanese pilots he battled against over the skies of New Guinea. I was never able to arrange that for him, but I did introduce him to the head of the Zero Fighter Pilot’s Association in 1999. We had lunch together, and the two warmed up to each other and exchanged letters for years, though they fought in different areas of the Pacific.
Bill in the cockpit of his P-40N Warhawk.
On a trip to the USAF archives, I had found a diary and a POW interrogation report of a Japanese bomber crewman captured right near Bill’s airfield. Several crews were shot down during air raids on that American outpost. Some survived by stealing food from American supply dumps, until they were hunted down and killed or captured.
I read Bill the two reports. It was the best I could do for him, and he looked at me and said, “I think his plane was the one I shot down that month.”
Bill and I in Eugene together in about 2003.
Bill passed two days later at 96. He was a great guy. His family asked me to help lay him to rest. So on a day in August, 2016, we gathered at the cemetery where his dear friends Barbara and Gerald first met and fell in love. Only a few yards from the Civil War Memorial, we said our goodbyes. He rests in peace, surrounded by generations of warriors, neighbors and friends.
In the winter rain yesterday, Renee and I visited Bill, and I told her the story of how Barbara and Gerald met.
Colonel Gerald R. Johnson, who finished the war with 22 confirmed air-to-air victories.
Colonel Gerald Johnson and the Napalm Attacks in the Philippines
The 1945 Battle for Luzon is often remembered solely by the drive from the beaches at Lingayen Gulf to the Battle of Manila, with daring special operations and air assaults conducted to rescue American civilian internees and prisoners of war.
Men of the 37th Infantry Division crew an anti-tank gun in the house-to-house fighting in Manila, February 1945.
There is no finer work written on the tragic Battle of Manila than James Scott’s Rampage. This book is a telling, deeply emotional and vivid description of the house-to-house fighting and senseless mass murders that defined the battle. It is not an easy read, but one that provides critical insight into the mindset of American leaders in the Western Pacific during the final months of the war. Scott’s book is a sober reminder that the cost of liberation sometimes came at an unbearable price for those who sought to liberate.
Yet, even after the fall of Manila, there was considerable fighting left to be done elsewhere on Luzon. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese troops, well-organized and deeply entrenched, had retreated into the mountainous terrain northwest of Manila and were determined to make the FilAmerican forces pay for every inch of ground they captured.
From the end of February to the end of May, the bulk of both the U.S. Eighth and Sixth Armies battered there way forward toward several key objectives: Baguio, the Philippine summer capital, the mountain passes from Central Luzon into the Cagayan Valley, and the dams that provided Manila’s water supply.
The Japanese resisted with ferocious desperation. In countless small actions, they died to the last man. We Americans remember the Alamo, Wake Island, the 20th Maine’s stand at Gettysburg and the 1st Minnesota’s suicidal charge on the second day of that battle. What is exceptional in American military history was routine for the Japanese Imperial Army. During the fighting for these three objectives, they proved their nihilistic courage time after time. That willingness to fight to the last bullet and breath combined with the Imperial Army’s broad and relentless brutality toward civilian and captured American servicemen made the Japanese a truly terrifying foe.
Men of the 25th Infantry Division fighting on a ridge near Baguio in April 1945. The next month, the 25th would see fierce fighting at the Cagayan passes.
From the end of February through April and May, the two U.S. Armies hammered their way forward through pouring rain that turned the few roads to rivers of mud. The Japanese made the Allies pay for every ridge they seized, and the fighting bogged down to a World War I-esque battle of attrition.
The terrain over which the 33rd Infantry Division had to advance to assault Baguio.
In April, on the Eighth Army’s front, the 33rd Infantry Division struggled forward to liberate Baguio. They faced formidable defenses built around ridges, hilltops and a river line. The Japanese dug in deep, bored tunnels in the mountain sides, carefully concealed artillery pieces that could be pulled back into deep caves after a fire mission.
US Army map of the 33rd Infantry Division’s fight to liberate Baguio.
With the Japanese Army Air Force and Naval Air Force destroyed in the Philippines, the U.S. possessed complete command of the air over Luzon. The ground troops turned to the aviators for help in breaking the Japanese resistance.
Cockpit view of a P-38 dive bombing mission near Baguio.
Thousands of ground attack missions were carried out against specific targets, sometimes only a few hundred yards from the forward most FilAmerican troops. The P-38 pilots in the V Fighter Command went from flying for months against Japanese bombers and interceptors, to finding themselves carrying out close air support strikes. There was no glamour here, no press, no racking up of victories that could be glued to the sides of their P-38s. It was difficult, dangerous low-altitude work that required great skill and coordination to do without killing friendly troops.
Those grinding, daily dive-bombing and strafing missions became a vital source of support for the ground troops. The few Japanese who were captured stated they feared the fighter-bombers more than they feared American artillery bombardment. Why?
A 25th Infantry Division squad under fire near Baguio, April 1945.
In mid-April, on the 33rd Infantry Division’s front, the 130th Infantry Regiment called for air support to help the rifle companies get through a network of fortified hills overlooking a river. The theater’s highest scoring fighter groups—the 49th and 475th— answered the call along with several others. For days, the fighter-bombers drenched the Japanese defenses with napalm and five hundred pound bombs. In one attack carried out by the 49th Fighter Group, a tunnel was hit with napalm, killing two hundred Japanese soldiers.
These attacks broke the back of the Japanese resistance. The 130th got across the river and the 33rd Infantry Division liberated Baguio’s ruins on April 26, 1945. It was a remarkable display of air-ground cooperation, and it set the table for larger operations in the weeks ahead.
Though ordered out of combat by General Kenney, Johnson continued to fly ground attack missions with his 49th Fighter Group all the way up until July 1945 when he was promoted to a staff job within Fifth Air Force HQ. There he helped plan the air component of the invasion of Southern Japan.
Flying with the 49th during many of these attacks in support of the 130th was quadruple ace Gerald R. Johnson. Johnson and Charles MacDonald of the 475th Fighter Group were the two leading aces still active in the SWPA by this point of the war. McGuire was dead, Kearby was dead and Bong was back home about to join the P-80 Shooting Star program.
Far Eastern Air Forces commander, General George Kenney, specifically ordered 5th Air Force commander Ennis Whitehead to pull Johnson out of combat to save him for the post-war era. He was looking down the road and knew the USAAF would need a crop of brilliant leaders to gain independence from the Army and secure the primacy of American airpower in any future war.
George Laven, Gerald Johnson, Clay Tice standing. Bob DeHaven, Wally Jordan, Jim Watkins in front row. The photo was taken a month after the mass napalm raids. Watkins, Jordan and DeHaven were all aces along with Gerald.
Johnson was not having any of it. At twenty-four, he was a full colonel and in command of the 49th Fighter Group. He refused to let his men do the difficult flying without him. Through April, he flew against the Japanese defenses around Baguio, sometimes two missions a day. He coordinated many of the strikes from the air, communicating with the forward air controllers on the ground to get the bombs and napalm where they needed to go.
When the fighting ended and Baguio was liberated, the commander of the 130th Infantry, Colonel Arthur Collins, wrote a detailed letter to Gerald Johnson thanking him and his pilots for their skill and destructiveness.
The ruins of Baguio, April 1945.
The following month, two major battles culminated almost simultaneously. In the Sixth Army sector, the 43rd Infantry Division was trying to take the Ipo Dam from a Japanese force that included three regiments and multiple additional battalions. The force defending the dam totaled over seven thousand men. The 43rd’s advance was slowed by the fierce Japanese resistance.
The Ipo Dam was one of two that controlled the water supply into Manila. Capturing them from the Japanese became a top priority after the fall of the Philippine capital.
This time, V Fighter Command worked out a new type of attack to break the Japanese hold on the dam. Instead of going in as flights or squadrons, the fighter-bombers would go in as entire groups in one, rolling hammer-blow designed to drench five key defensive positions with massive quantities of napalm.
US Army map of the Ipo Dam operation showing the 43rd and 38th Infantry Division’s boundary and area of operation.
On the morning of May 17, 1945, Johnson gathered his pilots and briefed them. He was excited and exuberant—one of his pilots later described him as sounding like a high school cheerleader (he was a yell leader at Eugene High, so that fit). As a final word to his men, the great ace declared, “We’re going in wingtip to wingtip, wave after wave!” he then led the 49th into the fight.
Johnson ,at left, leading the 49th on the May 17, 1945 Ipo Dam attack.
They saddled up and flew the mission—along with two hundred other fighter-bombers. The squadrons dove down into the valley around the Ipo Dam in tight, line abreast formations, driving through clouds of smoke boiling up from the preceding attacks, and delivered their deadly ordnance on their targets.
A P-38 (at left) makes a run over a hilltop defensive network near the Ipo Dam during the May 17, 1945 raid.
The mass attack by V Fighter Command left the Japanese defenses in a shambles. Almost seven hundred Japanese were killed outright—ten percent of the total number holding the dam. Dozens of vehicles, guns, supply and fuel dumps were incinerated by the blankets of napalm. Of those Japanese who survived, many panicked and fled the slicks of fire immolating their fighting positions. When V Fighter Command learned this, future attacks included a wave of light bombers dropping parafrags to kill those men as they fled.
The 43rd’s assault carried through the areas devastated by the napalm raids and quickly seized the dam. An unusual number of Japanese were captured, most dazed by the aerial onslaught. They were quickly interrogated to determine the effectiveness of the napalm strikes, and the POW’s offered a few insights:
Captured Japanese at the Ipo Dam, under guard by men of the the 43rd Infantry Division.
Another photograph of the POW’s taken at the end of the Ipo Dam fight.
This novel attack tactic was duplicated a few days later on the Eighth Army’s front where the 32nd and 25th Infantry Divisions were locked in a terrible fight along the Villa Verde Trail and Highway Five some ninety miles north of the Ipo Dam. The line of advance to seize the two vital passes into the Cagayan Valley was exceptionally narrow, supplied by twisting, winding roads turned to bogs by the incessant rain. The two American divisions faced two intact Japanese divisions, one of which was an armored unit. Yard by yard, the fighting here had raged since February 21st, and the Japanese were taking a terrible toll of the Americans. Ultimately, it would cost some seven thousand American and Filipinos to clear the mountains and open the passes.
To support the final assaults on the passes, V Fighter Command assigned four groups to carryout rolling mass napalm attacks on the Japanese 10th Infantry Division. For two days, Gerald Johnson led the 49th against these defenses at the Balete Pass. The defenders were smothered in flaming napalm. Following the 49th’s attacks came waves of fighter-bombers from the 475th, 8th and 58th Fighter Groups to add to the carnage on the ground. Artillery pieces were burnt in place. Dugouts and bunkers and caves were turned to charnel houses. Stunned Japanese survivors emerged from their entrenchments to flee the fires, only to be cut down by parafrags dropped by A-20s of the 312th Bomb Group.
P-47 Thunderbolts, probably from the 58th Fighter Group, coming off target during the mass attack on the Japanese defenses around the Ipo Dam.
Both passes were captured shortly after these attacks. Some thirteen thousand Japanese died in the fighting there.
Men of the 32nd Infantry Division advance up the Villa Verde Trail en route to the Cagayaan Valley passes.
Fighter pilots generally hated ground attack missions, preferring instead to be out hunting in the clouds. Shooting Japanese planes down made the headlines, but these mass napalm attacks saved the lives of countless American GI’s struggling forward in the worst imaginable conditions.
For Gerald Johnson, that was one of his most meaningful accomplishments. In New Guinea and on Leyte, he’d seen first hand how the infantry lived and fought. He felt tremendous respect for them, and knew his lot in the war was much easier than what they faced.
One night, after losing a close friend, Gerald sat down and wrote of that respect to his father:
“Our men are fighting the most difficult battles of the war… Men are wounded or killed. Husbands, fathers. Brothers and sons are giving their last full measure, Dad. There are no braver or courageous men anywhere than these thousands of unsung heroes who are defeating the Jap[anese].
A few of us get the medals and become “heroes” yet we live well and have a fighting occupation that suits our stomachs.
Every time I started to complain, I think how selfish, how little I am. Those men lie awake in a stinking water-filled foxhole, waiting for a rustle of a Jap[anise] crawling on his belly. Those men who crawl out of the mud in the midst of a lead filled morning to find their buddy next to them is dead, his throat slit because he was too sleepy and exhausted to maintain constant vigilance—they are the real heroes dad.”
A heavy weapons squad from the 25th Infantry Division at the Balete Pass.
The American troops on the ground sent messages of thanks to the fighter groups involved in these attacks:
The 130th Infantry Regiment’s commander, Colonel Collins, sent this to Colonel Gerald Johnson:
This was sent by the commanding general of I Corps, which carried out the assault on the Ipo Dam. General Swift apparently witnessed the subsequent mass napalm strike on the Eighth Army’s Front at the Balete Pass a week after the dam was captured.
For more on Gerald Johnson, the ace race and the fighting in the Southwest Pacific Theater, please see our upcoming book, Race of Aces, due out on January 14, 2020!
June 21, 1918, Private Thomas Bennett, a Marine rifleman from tiny Dallas, Oregon, filed into the front lines with his brothers of 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. For almost a month, the American 2nd Division had fought a brutal, close-range battle against the German Army on the north bank of the Marne River. The fresh American troops had blunted a major German offensive, kept the enemy from getting a foothold across the Marne, and played a significant role in saving Paris from coming under attack.
Now, the Americans had gone on the offensive. Inexperienced and using outdated tactics, the 2nd Division suffered catastrophic losses trying to push the Germans back from the Marne.
Thomas and the rest of 3/5 saw the horrific results of this fighting in a former hunting preserve known as Belleau Wood. The once-stunning beauty of this forest had been utterly destroyed by artillery barrages, which turned the woods into a craterscape of blasted tree trunks, shell holes and rotting corpses. Clouds of flies buzzed across the battlefield where the dead of both sides lay in the summer sun, sometimes atop each other in mute testimony to the ferocious hand-to-hand combat that raged over this small stretch of the lines.
Thomas’ battalion relieved the 7th Infantry Regiment, which had gone into Belleau Wood only a week before and had already lost a quarter of its strength. A final regimental assault on the 20th left the outfit in such dire shape that it had to be pulled out of the lines.
On the 23rd, Thomas Bennett and 3/5 were ordered over the top by a chain of command convinced that only a few Germans remained on the northern edge of Belleau Wood. Denied artillery support, 3/5 rose from its firing pits, craters and trenches seven hundred strong in four waves. As the front ranks fell, the men behind them rushed forward to take their place.
They advanced over broken, rocky ground covered with the dead of previous assaults and ran straight into a layered German defensive line complete with machine gun nests that swept the Marines with a deadly crossfire.
In three hours, the battalion lost a hundred and forty men. Pinned by the machine guns, the battalion crawled forward over ground so rocky they could not dig in. As more men fell, the battalion’s surviving officers ordered the the gaps filled. To do it, the men in the succeeding waves had to crawl over their wounded and dying friends.
The attack failed.
The American command, now aware the Germans were still in Belleau Wood in strength, prepared to pulverize the defenders with one of the most concentrated artillery barrages of the war. Starting at 0300 on June 25, 1918, two regiments of American and French heavy artillery pounded a two hundred meter section of the German lines. Machine gun nests were smothered by high explosive shells. Bunkers and bomb-proof dugouts were buried or blown to pieces. The bombardment continued for fourteen straight hours.
At five in the afternoon, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines charged forward in a loose skirmish line. They crossed through a surreal battlespace filled with charred and smoking tree trunks, tangles of branches, vines, shell holes–all littered with the fallen. One Marine later wrote, “I almost went mad before I got out of that wood.”
The attack moved forward with a vengeance. Instead of being dispirited by the casualties on the 23rd, the Marines were angry and wanted payback. They pushed forward behind a moving curtain of artillery fire–a tactic known as a rolling barrage–advancing a hundred meters every three minutes. Along the way, they encountered scattered pockets of Germans whose lines had been shattered by the artillery barrage. Some surrendered, but others fought to the death. One Marine got lost and stumbled alone into a German position, where he convinced several English-speaking officers that an entire regiment was advancing on them. The German officers and about eighty-five men surrendered to him on the spot.
The main part of the battalion reached some high ground, fought their way up a shell-scarred knoll under mortar, grenade and rifle fire. As they reached the top, 3/5’s surviving Marines let out a long war cry and charged down the far slope into the German trenches at the base. Desperate Germans, shell-shocked and dispirited by the bombardment, found themselves locked in hand-to-hand combat with Marines in full fury. They died in place, ran away or surrendered.
The fighting raged past sunset and well into the night. The following morning, 3/5’s commander, Major Maurice Shearer, reported the Marines now held all of Belleau Wood.
As a result of the battle, the French government awarded both the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments with a Fourragere, a unique cord worn to this day by each member of these two units. Since Belleau Wood, the Fourragere has become a sacred reminder to generations of Marines of their heritage and sacrifice in the defense of France during World War I.
In three days of fighting, 3/5 lost almost half its men killed, wounded or missing. Private Thomas Bennett was among those who went missing during that last attack. His fate remained unknown, and it was not until October that the War Department sent word back to his sister in Oregon that Thomas was MIA.
His remains were located in January 1919 and he was declared officially dead. Instead of being laid to rest with his brother Marines in the Aisne-Marne Cemetery, his family brought him home. He was buried in a simple Soldier’s grave in a little cemetery just outside of Dallas in Kings Valley, a fallen local son in a battle memorialized forever as one of the fiercest the Corps ever fought.
World War I hit Oregon particularly hard. At a time when the state had less than a quarter of the population of New York City, thirty-three Oregon Marines were killed, mostly during that month of fighting in the summer of 1918. On the day Thomas was declared missing in action, over fifty other Oregonians were declared killed or seriously wounded.
Thomas’s hometown of Dallas, with a population of about two thousand seven hundred, lost more than a dozen men in France, with at least twice as many wounded in action.
Those deaths devastated this close-knit, patriotic community. Dallas was one of the earliest settled towns in Oregon, and a pioneering spirit pervaded through its generations long after the first post office was established in 1852 and the town officially incorporated in 1874. It was a hard-working, blue collar kind of place where the citizens donated $17,000 in the 1870s so that a rail line could be built through the town. Dallas became the county seat as a result, and a beautiful courthouse became the centerpiece of its tiny downtown.
For a century, Dallas was home to Willamette Industries. Men of Thomas Bennett’s generation worked the company’s sawmill and provided well for their families. After the Great War ended, Dallas became home to one company of Oregon National Guardsmen. A generation later, the sons of the World War I vets would see combat in New Guinea and the Philippines with the 41st Infantry Division. They returned to work in the mills alongside their dads.
That changed in the 1980s when the timber industry declined throughout Oregon. Willamette Industries survived for another twenty years until it was acquired in a hostile take-over in 2002, just as a new generation of Dallas sons graduated high school and entered the post-9/11 world and workforce. Those mill jobs soon disappeared–the new corporation closed the last mill down in 2009.
Ian Tawney was one of those young men who graduated from Dallas High into that uncertain future in 2003. In a lot of ways, Ian was a typical small town American kid. In school, he was known as a friend to everyone, one of those students who bridged cliques and was widely admired. He was a hunter, an outdoorsman who loved to snowboard in the Cascades during winters and developed a passion for motorcycles. He was also a cat and dog lover, having two of the former and one of the latter.
He also had a classic small town love affair. Ashley Stevenson met Ian when they were in pre-school together. They went all through the Dallas school system together as friends. Later, they ended up working at the same retirement home and a romance blossomed. They married in 2005, a few months after Ian joined the Marine Corps.
Ian served with 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines in Iraq, deployed four times overseas. He crossed decks to 3/5 Marines so he could go to Afghanistan with the unit in September, 2010 during the Surge despite the fact that Ashley was pregnant and they’d just bought their first house.
“If you’re part of the varsity team, why sit on the bench?” Ian used to say.
Their parting was unusually difficult. Though Ian had been away from home on four previous deployments, Afghanistan was seething with violence as surging American troops fought their way into Taliban strongholds. This fifth deployment was sure to be a tough one.
In the predawn darkness at Pendleton, the two Oregonians kissed each other goodbye. Ian joined his brothers aboard a bus and started the long journey to Helmand Province.
That fall, the British and the U.S. Marines were locked in battle with the Taliban and their allies throughout Helmand Province. Third Battalion, 5th Marines joined the fight to clear the Taliban from Sangin, a Dallas-sized town that lay beside the Helmand River.
The Marine units in this area faced some of the most skilled insurgents Americans have ever encountered. They created entire minefields with homemade explosives with utterly devious methods of detonation. They had seen American engineers clearing their minefields with metal detectors, so they changed their tactics and created pressure plates from two slabs of Styrofoam with just small metal contacts on either one. When buried in the sand and stepped on, the two contacts would touch, completing a circuit to a bomb emplaced some distance away. To make it even more difficult to detect and disarm, the batteries used to power these bombs were buried deeply in separate locations.
Marines of 3/7 had replaced British commandos around Sangin earlier in the summer. Daily, they’d encountered the enemy in fierce firefights, ambushes and IED attacks. Now, 3/5 stepped in to help break the Taliban hold on Sangin. They came under fire almost immediately. Taliban sniped at them from loopholes in walls, laid bombs in canals and roads even as close to fifty meters from their base.
On October 13, 2010, 3/5 officially took control of the Sangin battlespace. That day, four Marines from Ian’s unit were killed when a roadside bomb destroyed their vehicle. The next day, a dismounted patrol ran into a homemade minefield, and three more Marines perished in blasts. In its first two days of official operations, they’d lost seven men killed in action to these deadly bombs.
Meanwhile, to the south, at FOB Bastion/Leatherneck, the Marines based there went out on patrols and convoy duty to support the operations around the Helmand River Valley. Leading the way for these Marine columns was a tiny company of Oregon National Guard engineers….from Dallas. The 162 Engineers had spent the year driving Mad-Max-esque armored vehicles around Helmand looking to either detonate or destroy roadside bombs and mines. By October, when they were getting ready to return home, they were down to about eighty engineers. Those who remained were hardened, battle tested veterans. One had his vehicle blown up by IED’s five times. Another stepped on a pressure plate home made mine, but the device malfunctioned and failed to explode.
Kent “Hat Trick” Hermanson perhaps had one of the toughest experiences in the 162 Engineers. Kent was a North Dakota native who moved to Indepndence, just south of Dallas, after marrying an Oregonian. In one difficult night, Kent’s MRAP (armored vehicle) took three IED strikes. The blasts affected Kent’s hand eye coordination so severely that when given a test, he scored in the bottom seven percentile. It was weeks before he regained his coordination, but Kent kept agitating to go back out on missions. He finally did, and when asked why, he nonchalantly replied, “It is what we’re here to do. Besides the platoon was short men.”
I arrived at FOB Leatherneck to embed with 162 Engineers in time for their final Afghan mission. The day I joined the unit–and ran across some old friends from the Dallas area (I live in Independence), 3/5 Marines lost another man. Lance Corporal James Boelk was killed by another roadside bomb.
The next day, Ian was leading his squad on a patrol and was killed by yet another IED. For everyone back home who loved Ian, October 16, 2010 became a dividing line in their lives. Once the contact teams with their chaplains knocked on their doors, the family was changed forever by the grief.
The great lesson of my own life, after we lost Independence’s Taylor Marks in Iraq in 2009, was to learn that this sort of grief never heals. You never really recover. You just learn to grow around the pain and carry on in their memory. But nothing is ever the same.
A few days later, I went out on that last clearance mission with 162. We rolled through towns and villages in massive, RV-sized armored vehicles. Mine had a metal cage bolted onto the hull as additional anti-rocket protection. Inside the enormous vehicle, I peered out through those metal bars and felt like a prisoner on wheels, watching these Afghans try and carry on with their daily lives.
We crossed the Helmand River, turned north and drove for hours. Eventually, the engineers dismounted and set off on foot with metal detectors, sweeping a stretch of ground near a special operations outpost that the Taliban had nearly surrounded with these homemade mines.
Later that night, as we drove home, a farmer rolled over one of those IED’s with his tractor, killing him instantly. The next morning, one of the 162 officers told me that a Marine unit that had gone up to the same area to sweep for mines. Two men were hit by blasts and lost their legs.
A few days later, while comparing notes with a British journalist who had been embedded with a Royal Engineer unit, I learned that in an area just declared clear, an engineer stepped on a mine and blew up right in front of him. They were in the same section of the valley as we were, just a day or two later.
I remained in Afghanistan until November. I missed Ian’s return to Oregon and the ceremony as he was laid to rest in the Dallas Cemetery. His 5th Marine brothers took turns placing their own Fourragere atop Ian’s coffin as a final homage to one of their own.
As the community honored him with a park and a street named for him, I thought a lot about 3/5 and the 162 Engineers and all the blood, treasure and trauma that went into defeating the Taliban around Leatherneck and Sangin that fall. It was a miracle that all our Dallas engineers came home from that deployment, the only route clearance unit not to lose a man during the Surge.
So many lives lost. In eight days of October, 2010, 3/5 suffered ten Marines killed in action. Fifteen more died before the battalion came home in early 2011. Twenty-five killed, a hundred and eighty-four wounded, thirty four of them amputees. That was the cost to the battalion in what became the bloodiest, most difficult deployment of any Marine unit in the Afghan War.
Fighting around Sangin raged for years. At one point, it looked like the Allies had turned a corner. The Afghan National Army patrolled the streets, the belts of minefields in and around the city were gone, and parts of town returned to an almost-pre-war normal daily life.
Almost. After handing the area over the Afghan government, the Taliban re-emerged and nearly took Sangin in 2015. They were stopped by a mix of ANA, British Commandos and U.S. special operations troops, well supported with aircraft. Ultimately, though, Sangin was captured by the Taliban in March 2017, completing their return to the Helmand River Valley.
On July 4, 2019, the San Francisco Giants farm team here in Oregon, the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, honored Sergeant Ian Tawney at a pre-game ceremony that included Ian’s parents, his siblings and friends from all over the country. The moment was part of the team’s long history of honoring veterans and the veteran community, something that Jerry Howard undertakes every year for the Volcanoes. Jerry is part of the front office staff, an Air Force veteran of the 1960s who has been in baseball as a player, umpire, coach or as front office staff for nearly sixty years.
To honor our small town Oregon heroes, Jerry Howard pays the expenses for this 4th of July tradition out of his own pocket. Every year for the last decade, he’s put around three thousand dollars of his own money into ensuring that our men and women we’ve lost overseas can be honored on the baseball diamond during our nation’s birthday. Since I came home from Afghanistan, Jerry is the most noble human being I’ve encountered.
The ceremony was a tear-jerker. I’d met Jerry and talked to Ian’s father ahead of time to get permission to photograph the event and write this article. I wasn’t prepared for the emotional effect it had on me. I stood on the field, shooting photographs of the ceremony with my son, Ed (a budding photojournalist), and watched old friends from the National Guard pay homage to our fallen Marine.
There were so many scars and half-healed wounds on the field that day. The Gold Star mom of Tyrone Woods walked to home plate between ranks of saluting veterans. A twenty-year Navy veteran and SEAL, he was killed in the Bengazi attack of 2012. Chris Sieber and his veteran’s motorcycle group came to honor Ian. Chris had been in Iraq with Taylor Marks and Earl Werner when they were killed in 2009. He carries their names on his left forearm. His way of honoring his lost brothers.
Ian’s family walked from third base to home plate between the ranks of saluting veterans. His parents, John and Theda Tawney, walked hand-in-hand together. As they stood at home plate, they never let go of each other. Not once.
One of his brothers sang a song written for Ian’s daughter. As he waited for the music to be piped over the stadium loud speakers, I heard an elderly man in a seat behind us speaking loudly on his cell phone. “I can’t hear you. I’m at an event…..I can’t hear you!” He kept saying.
I grimaced at the disrespect. If the family heard him, they showed no sign of it.
When the memorial was complete and the ceremony ended, Ian’s family made their way off the field. I watched his parents, side by side, walk away from this special moment and could not help but marvel at their strength. What extraordinary grace from a family so grievously hurt by this war.
The Sunday after the ceremony, I returned to the little cemetery in King’s Valley in the car we’d used to escort Taylor up to Willamette National where he was laid to rest. I got out and wandered in search of Ian’s own resting place. As I did, I passed Private Bennett’s headstone. Worn and weathered by a hundred years of Oregon rain, it stands watch like a lonely sentinel over a long-forgotten Marine from a war long out of the public mind. I paused to take a photograph, then realized I was being watched.
Three deer had made their way into the cemetery and were eyeing me curiously. These beautiful creatures here at a place where so many of our local vets have chosen to be laid to rest–it was a moment for me. One that contrasted deeply with my own memories of Helmand Province. Or the experiences of Private Bennett and the rest of 3/5 in the shattered forest of Belleau Wood.
A minute later, I continued my search for Ian’s grave. I walked up and down the gentle slopes, pausing here and there until at last, I found him, surrounded by tokens of love. Flowers and flags adorned his marker, which stood on a slope overlooking Private Thomas Bennett’s headstone. One 3/5 Marine covering another, a hundred years apart, even in final repose.
I said a prayer for peace, turned and walked back to the GTO.
On June 25, 2019, David Bellavia received the Medal of Honor for actions in Fallujah in November 2004. David is the sole living recipient of the MOH from the Iraq War, the others were awarded posthumously.
David and I worked together on his memoirs back in 2006-07. We were under such a tight deadline that we never met while writing together. All our contact was over the phone, and an occasional e-mail. Nevertheless, David quickly became one of the closest friends I’ve ever had. Funny, heartfelt, he has a sharp wit and the knack for turning a phrase. He’d give the shirt off his back to help a friend.
At David’s invitation, I flew to D.C. to be there for the ceremony. After House to House was finished, we’ve remained friends, kicking around follow-up book ideas that never quite fit. Along the way, we’d gone through a whole lot of life–the great stuff like kids being born, and hard stuff like my family going through a series of crazy medical challenges. We were always there for each other. So yeah, meeting David was a decade overdue.
The first night the guests arrived, the Sergeant Major of the Army held a reception at our hotel. I walked in knowing only David and our agent, Jim Hornfischer. As I looked around the room, neither was there. I started to feel very out of place.
Back in the day, I could work a room. I was an extrovert who loved meeting new people. That was before Katrina hit New Orleans, before Taylor Marks, and Chris Kilcullen were killed, and before I went to Afghanistan. All that made me a late-in-life introvert, more at ease deep in the Oregon woods with my Jordanian dog and swimming cat than around strangers with Medal of Honors around their necks or stars on their shoulder boards.
I tried to make some small talk, seeking out those in uniform who wore the 3rd Infantry Division insignia. I’d stuffed a pair of 3rd ID cufflinks in my coat pocket as a reminder of the people I got to know in Afghanistan. They remain genuinely the greatest humans I’ve ever met, and as I introduced myself to the Rock of the Marne vets in attendance that night, I restated that fact many times.
Jim came into the room with his family, and I tried not to be a social leech, clinging to their coattails as we were surrounded by unfamiliar faces. Jim can work a room, though, and he was soon out meeting everyone he could, shaking hands and bantering with copious charisma and charm. He really is amazing to watch in such a setting. I couldn’t keep up, so I drifted off, taking photos and generally hiding behind my camera to mask my discomfort.
A moment later, David and his family entered the room. As he made his way around, shaking hands and bear-hugging those who came to share this incredible experience with him, I found myself pulled along behind him, watching with a keenly stupid smile on my face. He looked so happy to see everyone, and the affection for him in the room was genuinely profound. Here was a man whose heart and simple kindness withstood so many trials–both in Iraq and here at home during election seasons. It was a testament of strength that both were not crushed by bitterness or anger.
Eventually, he spotted me. He broke away from a couple of people congratulating him and gave me the manhug of all manhugs. His voice broke. I started to cry. Around freaking generals and the sergeant major of the army. Finally, after all we’d been through, we’d met at last. And it was like we’d always been around each other. Top five life moment right there.
When he was waylaid a moment later by another well-wisher, I bolted for the bathroom to pull myself together. When I returned, I felt awkward and out of place again, trying to make small talk around a standing table with Jim and another MOH recipient.
Then Jim introduced me to Merrilee Carlson– “Shrek’s Mom.” It took a moment for the Shrek thing to sink in. Then I remembered David telling me about this burly Minnesotan who’d been a favorite of the Ramrods. His name was Michael Carlson, but everyone called him Shrek.
With a sinking heart, I realized Shrek was one of the Soldiers killed in a Bradley roll-over in January 2005. It had happened after Fallujah, and we hadn’t written about it in House to House. We’d talked about a sequel that covered the rest of the deployment, but we’d never made it happen.
I’ve been writing for twenty-three years, and I’ve encountered every manner of response from people once they learn I’ve written a book about their friends or units. That we didn’t write about her son made me fear Shrek’s mom would chew me out, as has happened before.
Instead, a remarkable thing happened. We bonded. Instantly. As we talked, I braved a mention of our own loss here in Independence–Taylor Marks–and how devastating his death was to me personally. “You never get over it, you just grow around the pain.”–that is a life truth grieving for Taylor drilled into me.
From that moment on, Shrek’s mom and I went everywhere and did pretty much everything together for the rest of the MOH week. She took me under her wing, showed me the ropes at the White House, got me a seat on an aisle during the ceremony so I could get a clear photograph of David and the President. She even told one of the White House ushers to (politely) buzz off when we were asked to move. Seriously, Merrilee Carlson is a force of nature, part avenging angel, part energizer bunny, friend to everyone and clearly in charge. After her son was killed, she went on to found and run a non-profit that honors and supports Gold Star families.
The day after the ceremony, David gave a speech at the Pentagon. Afterward, we headed back to the hotel with plenty of time left in the day. Merrilee, Michele Lawson (Ramrod Scott Lawson’s sister-in-law) and I went to Arlington to visit Shrek. Merrilee brought him fresh flowers, a small bottle of Jack Daniels, and a cigar. Shrek loved cigars.
As we stood beside his grave, in a section of Arlington dominated by Iraq War fallen, Merrilee told us the story of how her son died. On January 25, 2005, he was killed along with four other members of TF-2-2 when an Iraqi roadway collapsed under the weight of their Bradley Fighting Vehicle and it tumbled into a canal.
When Taylor was killed in Iraq in August, 2009, the news destroyed me. I slept-walked through life, numb with pain for years. It wasn’t until 2014 that I began to make my peace with his death in Baghdad. Merrilee had endured far worse than I had. And yet, she handled it with grace, reaching out to help others and run an organization that did a lot of good for grieving families. She turned a devastating blow into a beautiful positive, never losing her own pain, but rising above it to give back to a community and country she understands and loves.
It made me realize how selfish I’d been. Instead of reaching out, I turned within and lost sight of everything but my own anguish and guilt over Taylor’s loss. I didn’t find a way to give back. I just broke. Merrilee’s strength left me in awe. It is the kind of strength, on a macro level, that has held this country together for generations despite every loss and hardship imaginable.
As dusk approached, we went to dinner down by the White House, the three of us chatting and getting to know each other better. From Michele, I learned that Scott had died in an accident in 2013. He’d been with David in Fallujah, was wounded in the house David re-entered on the night of his 29th birthday. Michele was there at David’s invitation to represent the Lawson family.
After dinner, we wandered from the 1st Infantry Division Memorial down the Mall. We stopped at the World War II Memorial, then experienced the Lincoln Memorial together. I’d last been there in 1982, and never at night.
I’d gone to D.C. to finally meet an old friend face-to-face and see the President award him the Medal of Honor. To my astonishment, at the end of the trip I came home warmed by the knowledge that I’d just met two more friends who surely will be in my life for years to come.
Back in Oregon a few days later on my daughter’s 21st birthday, we went down to the beach. It was crowded and sunny and people were playing all around us. We hiked the dunes, took photos and explored the tide pools. On our way back to the car, I caught myself stopping and chatting with strangers. My kids glanced at each other. What is up with dad? When they watched me step into a chartered bus and ask the driver, “Where we going?” They glanced at each other again. They waited as the bus driver and I talked for a bit, then I bounced out into the street and returned to our car.
“What’s with you?” the kids asked me.
I didn’t know what they meant.
“You’re talking to everybody! What the hell?”
I thought I was just being me. But I was being the me before all the heaviness of life turned me inward. With a start, I realized they were too young to remember the old extrovert me who in high school used to sing in public and never met a stranger, only friends I’d yet to be introduced to.