Jungle Ace was the book that made me a writer.
I had been writing professionally on and off since 1989. Back then, I was working for a computer game company called Strategic Simulations Inc. It was my summer job between terms at the University of Oregon (GO DUCKS!), and the both years I was with them as a game tester, my boss asked me to do some historical writing. My first gig had me writing battle summaries for David Landry’s epic game, Battles of Napoleon. I actually wrote those up on an ancient electric typewriter while I was up in Oregon visiting my friend Kim Hiatt for a few days before she went on an exchange to France. I’d gotten a couple of days off, promised to have everything written by the time I got back, and then took the train from the Bay Area up to her place. I came back, and delivered short descriptions of Waterloo and Jena, Borodino and a few others. Check this youtube video out if you want to see what state of the art was in 1988: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MPLi03DouD4. Apple II’s rocked.
The next summer, I wrote chunks of the manual for Gary Grigsby’s game, Second Front. This was a hard-core wargame based on the Russian-German side of WWII, and I protested hard against the title since the Second Front was what Stalin kept demanding the U.S. and Britain establish. I submitted a list of suggested name changes, including Mayhem Before Moscow, Came a German, Carnage in Russia and Blood in the Snow. Somehow, those were not adopted. 🙂
Anyway, my SSI gig ended up landing me a job at Dynamix in 1990 just as I started grad school. At the time, Dynamix was working on a combat flight sim called Red Baron (CGW’s Hall of Fame, baby!), and I was brought on by Jeff Tunnell and Damon Slye to help make the game as historically accurate as possible. I also wrote much of the manual’s historical section.
After we finished Red Baron, we began working on Aces of the Pacific. One day in 1992, I was working one Sunday afternoon under a tree in the field behind my apartment complex, doing research on fighter aces from Oregon. I came across Colonel Gerald R. Johnson’s name and saw that Eugene, Oregon was his hometown, and that the U of O was his alma mater.
I couldn’t believe it. Johnson was a childhood hero of mine. I’d first read about him in an old issue of Air Classics my dad had brought home. My old man worked harder than just about anyone I knew, and in the summer his idea of relaxation was to grab a stack of magazines he’d picked up at San Antonio Hobby Shop (or D&J, which is still around), get a cold drink and go hang on a lounge chair in the back yard. Once, when I was maybe five, I came up to him while he was reading out back and caged his Mug Root Beer. He shouted, “No! John, that’s poison!” By the time he’d said that, I’d already taken a long swig, but hadn’t yet swallowed. The urgency in his voice made me spew the mouthful, firehose like, right onto his stack of magazines. At the time, I thought it had booze in it, but in retrospect, I think he just didn’t want me bogarting his soda. Either way, the stack of Air Power and Air Classics took it in the shorts that day.
But, I digress. In one of those old magazines was a story about how Gerald R. Johnson was WWII’s forgotten ace. That stuck with me throughout my childhood. I figured if I remembered him, he wouldn’t be entirely forgotten, right? Anyway, in 1992 when I saw his name and his hometown, I was elated. To confirm, I drove down to the U of O Student Union, where there is a plaque listing all of the former students of the university who lost their lives during WWII. It is depressingly long–like 220 names that include a lot of people killed in the Philippines and the hell ships. There are a couple of twins who were killed too, and I would later find out that many of those listed names were neighbors and friends of Johnson’s.
Sure enough, Johnson’s name was on the plaque. I had been interviewing WWII vets around town all year, and I started asking them about the Johnson family and if anyone knew them. One of the vets told me that his twin brother, Harold, had died in the 1970’s and was buried in a particular cemetery. I went over there, found his grave, then through the cemetery records learned which mortuary handled the funeral.
The next day, I went over to the funeral parlor–it has been in business for generations–and explained I was looking for any records on Hard V Johnson’s funeral. To my astonishment, they went through their files and found Johnson’s next of kin, which included Art Johnson, his youngest brother.
I looked him up in the phone book, and discovered an Arthur V Johnson had a law office less than two blocks from Dynamix’s building in downtown Eugene. I couldn’t believe it. I’d been on the trail to find anyone from Johnson’s family for probably three weeks, and it led me around the corner from where I was working.
It was late summer of 92, and I was so excited at this discovery that I bolted straight for Art’s law office. I was in tattered shorts, a beat up t-shirt and fossilized, beholed, tennis shoes whose soles had come partially unglued. I didn’t exactly walk in them, more like flapped.
I show up at his law office and instantly realized I was so totally and completely underdressed that I almost left. But the receptionist greeted me warmly and asked what she could do for me. When I said I was looking for Arthur Johnson, Gerald R. Johnson’s brother, she lit up and said, “Oh! Art will want to see you. He loves talking about Ged!”
Art and I became friends that day, and I frequently visited him in the years that followed. I’ll never forget sitting down with him in his office and looking through a pile of WWII letters with him. There were two letters from Harold to his folks dated October 1945 that had never been opened. This was after Gerald’s death, and Harold had been trying to find more details on his disappearance. Art pulled out a letter opener, and we read the fifty year old words together.
At the time, I was writing my M/A thesis on naval aviation training prior to WWII. I’d interviewed Marion Carl and a number of other pre-war aviators for that subject, and had spent part of the summer of ’91 in Washington D.C. digging through old records at the National Archives. But as I got to know Art, then met many of the people around Eugene who were neighbors of the Johnsons before the war, I decided to switch topics and write a biography of Gerald. It actually started with a term paper on how the social fabric of Johnson’s neighborhood was torn apart by the war and its aftermath. Johnson’s close circle of friends who lived in what is now the Whittaker Neighborhood all ended up serving. Many of those friends perished during the war, and an unusual number became aviators. The survivors came home and mostly stayed in Eugene to build lives for themselves, and I interviewed them extensively. I even discovered that my landlady, Marge Goodman, had lived next door to the Johnsons. So I ended up interviewing her as well. Great lady. She married a PBY pilot.
I wrote my M/A Thesis in 1993 and titled it, Until Tomorrow, Goodnight Sweetheart. A year later, Damon Slye left Dynamix and I was promoted to design Red Baron II. What I thought was my dream job became a nightmare as the company’s flight sim department underwent managerial convulsions. We went through managers and reorgs so often that we never were given a consistent direction to go in. During one company meeting, an artist named Mark Brenneman called it, “The Vision of the Month.” I spent two years writing and rewriting the design document whenever we went through another managerial convulsion. Small project, tent pole, cutting edge technology, minor graphic update–it drove me into the ground.
But what could I do? How many jobs are out there for historical flight sim designers? I started thinking back to when I was a kid, and how I had wanted to be a writer. So, I started developing that on the side, writing articles for local magazines. That was great experience, though all of them except the U of O alumni magazine stiffed me. One British aviation magazine accepted an article I wrote in 93, and published it six years later. I only learned that it had come out when my dad bought the latest issue at D&J, sat down in the back yard and started reading. He flipped pages and–holy crap, there was his name! (I’m a junior).
Magazine writing wouldn’t pay the bills. I started thinking about my M/A thesis and turning it into a book. I realized that if I were to ever write his biography for publication, I needed to do it soon before all the guys he flew with in combat were gone. And so, in February 1996, I quit the game industry and went to work for myself, writing the story of Gerald Johnson and his wife, Barbara.
In the first six months, I made $300. Late that year, I’d gone home to the Bay Area to interview a Korean War pilot for what became Crimson Sky, and my dad decided it was time to give me “the talk.” You took a shot at it, it didn’t pan out. Time to go get a real job, preferably in high tech. In retrospect, he was probably right to say what he did. I had read in ’96 that 98% of all writers never get an agent. Of those who do, only 43% of their manuscripts sell, and the vast majority never make enough money for a decent living. I was basically betting my future on a lottery ticket. My old man, as daring as he was in his amazing career, was trying to steer me toward something more that offered more stability.
But, what more motivation do you need than being on the bleeding edge of financial insolvency? That gets the creative juices flowing fast. Otherwise, you don’t eat. Fortunately, a month later I had an agent, Elisabet McHugh, and Brassey’s had offered us a contract for Crimson Sky.
I finished that book, and wanted more than anything to get Gerald’s story in print. I’d finished the manuscript in early 2000, still calling it, Until Tomorrow, Goodnight Sweetheart. The book nearly sold a couple of different times, but no contract had been offered.
Enter Eric Hammel. When I was a kid, John Toland, Edward Sims, William Hess, Eric Hammel and Barrett Tillman were the writers and historians I just absorbed. Almost all of Eric’s WWII books ended up on my shelves in college, and I remember reading his accounts of Guadalcanal late into the night my junior year at the U of O and having vivid nightmares in my dorm room based on what he’d written. Barrett’s knowledge of all things naval aviation was so complete that I wondered if ever there would be room for me in the field. Eric and Barrett were the two greats, and I figured if I could have a tenth of the careers they had built, I’d be doing my family proud.
Eric had started his own imprint in the late 90’s, and so I contacted him about publishing Johnson’s story. He lives in the Bay Area, so I flew down to meet him face to face–and it was instant friendship. Eric and I were so similar in so many ways that I think we ended up talking at the restaurant for four hours that first time we met. He took me under his wing and mentored me in the months ahead, and it was his guidance that turned me into a real writer, not just a historian using words to convey events. I owe Eric the foundation of my career, and ever since that first meeting, I’ve considered him a second father.
He turned down the Johnson manuscript and was heartsick about it. Cold business decision, and probably the right one. Ultimately, Brassey’s bought it in the summer of 2000, and it was published in 2001 as Jungle Ace. In fact, the author’s copies arrived the morning after 9/11. It was a bittersweet moment. Almost a decade of research, energy and devotion had gone into that book, but there was no place to celebrate its completion with so many dead in New York, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon. Quietly, I sat in the little library I’d made out of an upstairs bedroom and held a copy of the book in my hands and wept. Most of the people in the story had passed away by then. Gerald’s widow was still alive, and supremely grateful for all my efforts, as was Art. It represented the fulfillment of my first major life goal.
I looked up from my chair at the framed art on my wall. Two Siamese cats playing with a ball of yard. Barbara, Gerald’s widow, had created it herself and given it to me as a Christmas gift back in ’97. For almost five years, I’d gone down at least twice a month to see her and Bill Runey, a P-40 pilot who had flown with Gerald in New Guinea. We’d gone to lunch together. I’d taken Barbara shopping. Most of my social life, and almost all of my professional efforts, had been formed around this book project. I knew it would be different in the months to come. The urgency, the bond between everyone would lessen now that the story had been told.
Instead of feeling a sense of accomplishment that night, I felt a sense of loss. What next?
I had no idea.
Wonderful write-up John. Must have been wonderful to meet people who knew him well.