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.
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.
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.
In the spring of 2006, literary agent, author and historian Jim Hornfischer introduced me to David Bellavia. David had recently left the Army and was settling into civilian life–sort of. Two months after we started talking every day on the phone, he returned to Iraq as an embedded reporter, traveling all over Anbar Province before coming home to work on a book together with me.
When we first spoke, he made it clear he wanted to write a “Themoir”–the story of his beloved platoon mates from Task Force 2-2 during their year in Iraq, which included heavy fighting against Shia militias in Diyala Province as well as during Second Fallujah. From the outset, he displayed a selflessness and determination to ensure his brother Ramrods would get the recognition they deserved for their service during an incredibly difficult deployment.
This is my kind of guy. David and I quickly became very close. We sat talking late at night, each of us drinking whiskey, swapping stories and getting to know each other as we wrote the proposal. Eventually, House to House found its way to Free Press, and we delivered the manuscript in early 2007.
This week, David received the Medal of Honor from President Trump at a White House ceremony. Eight other MOH warriors attended the event, as did Representative Dan Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL wounded in Afghanistan in 2012.
David, being David, turned the spotlight away from himself. After the President gave him the Medal of Honor, David asked if his fellow Ramrods and the Gold Star families of TF-2-2 could come up on stage.
“How many people are we talking about?” President Trump whispered.
“All of them, Mr. President.”
President Trump considered this pretty radical breach in tradition and protocol before saying, “Yeah, okay!”
The Ramrods clustered forward, filling the stage and packing in so tightly that Michael “Shrek” Carlson’s mom lost her footing and started to fall off. Trump quickly grabbed her arm and pulled her back from the edge. A moment later, he leaned into her ear and said, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
The Ramrods of TF-2-2 smiled for the cameras and celebrated this moment in the White House exactly as they had fought in Fallujah: together as a team of men whose bonds transcend mere blood. David made that happen. Since coming home, enduring many hard lessons in politics and in the public eye, David Bellavia has been one of the most gracious and selfless human beings I’ve ever known.
Seeing such a man receive our highest award for valor was one of the most significant moments of my life. It is a reminder that with patience, sometimes the right thing will happen, and the good guys get a win.
Years ago, I would go to gatherings around the area on this day. Sometimes I gave speeches. Other times, I listened to local politicians give speeches. Over and over, what I heard from that ilk were the same empty words, the same vapid, banal lines that punched all the correct boxes and had none of the meaning, and none of the understanding.
So, public events are not my thing anymore.
In our nation’s gestational phase, we were held together through the darkest hours by a tiny band of idealists willing to shoulder rifles and die for a cause larger than themselves.
And die they did. You want to see idealism tested? Try watching your friends die of exposure at 1777 Valley Forge. See the amputations of frostbitten feet. Think about the thousand or so who marched on Christmas Eve through snow and freezing rain to get a chance to strike a blow against the chained attack dog mercenaries the British hired to terrorize our forefathers.
Professional mercs. Occupying New Jersey. Think of that. And the rest of the population so cowed by their might that to stop the terror fell to a tiny “army” on the verge of starvation.
That small force Washington led could be followed by the blood trails they left in the snow. Men without shoes, walking on shredded feet wrapped in ice-flecked rags went forward in that holiday storm knowing they would not even be able to shoot at their enemy because their powder was soaked. The enemy had bayonets. The Americans laregely did not.
They marched, they struck swiftly– and won at Trenton, then Princeton, then slipped away across the Delaware virtually under the nose of the greatest army of the era.
They fought and died in countless horrific ways. They were rarely paid. The government they helped create screwed so many times that it nearly triggered a mutiny. Only the presence of George Washington and a handful of other solid leaders held these idealists together.
They watched their farms get burned, their families run out of pro-British counties. In the South, a guerrilla war turned into a contest of complete savagery, with the innocents on the both sides caught in the crossfire.
Year after year, the idealists got crushed by the professionals. They died at places our schools never mention anymore: Guilford Courthouse, Camden, Savannah, Brandywine and Brooklyn Heights to name a few.
In their darkest moments, like when they ran out of ammunition at Bunker Hill, the idealists threw rocks as the British leveled bayonets and advanced upon them. Think of the desperation that took.
They died torn apart by grape shot, bones smashed by musket balls. They died in primitive field hospitals with the rolled cuffs of a blood-soaked surgeon looking down at them as their last earthly sight.
They died of disease. Malnutrition because the Continental Congress could not afford to feed them. They froze to death on sentry duty because threadbare rags were all they wore.
Many are buried in mass graves, anonymous to history and those who benefited most from their vision of the future.
Those are the guys who set the standard that every generation strives to match. And every generation of Americans has proven they have enough idealists, men and women, to carry the standard forward in every dark hour we have faced. With their blood, they liberated the slaves. They saved Europe twice. South Korea. We tried in Vietnam and the Middle East.
When I think of Taylor today, I’ll think of how he was the one of those few in our time who shouldered the burden of a global war fought without the full might of America at their backs. I’ll think about my many friends who served in obscure places across the globe during the many wars that rocked the 20th Century.
I’ll think about Gerald Johnson, a quintessential American idealist, who could not stomach the idea of staying home with his pregnant wife when men his age were fighting and dying in the Pacific.
I’ll think about the medevac birds I watched land at FOB Ghazni while we were refueling. The bodies of broken men half my age pulled off the Blackhawks by Polish medics, then rushed to waiting ambulances. Allies in a cause that seemed noble once, probably unobtainable now.
I will never forget the moment one of those wounded Soldiers, an Afghan who’d been fighting alongside our idealists, turned his eyes to me. His face was burnt and blackened. His leg severed above the knee, white bone exposed. His boot with the rest of his leg was sitting beside him on the stretcher. His eyes were the bleakest sight I’ve ever seen.
How many of our idealists spent their final minutes with eyes so defined?
So when I hear some elected official who knows nothing of our history and even less about the military stand at a podium and punch their Memorial Day box…well. That’s not for me anymore. This is a day that is intensely private, and I will mourn those I’ve lost alone. And I will pray that for the sake of our nation, we somehow keep finding those few, genuine idealists willing to carry the standard in our darkest hours and stake their lives on a vision of a future full of hope.
Gerald R. Johnson, Oregon’s top ace who left the University of Oregon to join the Air Corps during his junior year in 1941.
A Tuesday morning tale.
In 1991, I sat in a house in Eugene, Oregon and peered into a USAAF locker box filled with letters, diaries, photo albums, home movies and personal effects of a fighter pilot long forgotten by the state he loved. In all those letters, and through his writing, I met an entire cast of kids from Eugene’s west side who grew up in the Depression, started school at the University of Oregon and ultimately ended up scattered all over the globe as a result of WWII.
I wrote a grad school paper on the kids in this neighborhood, and how the war affected this little community around West Broadway. The war was brutal to this neighborhood and the friends who bonded playing together as kids. It destroyed the pre-war social fabric. In its place, a new one gradually was cobbled together as some of them came home. Others were killed in action. Others found careers elsewhere. One ended up as a 3rd world dictator’s personal pilot. Some stayed in the military, returning to Eugene only after they did their 20 years.
John Skillern, who lived behind Gerald Johnson in Eugene, served in the 10th Mountain Division as a ski and climbing instructor. When the division deployed to Italy, he served in the front lines in combat as an infantryman through the final, climactic battles of the war.
All that became the basis for my M/A thesis, then eventually my second book, Jungle Ace. For the book, I had to strip out most of the stories from the neighborhood to concentrate just on one of its sons, Gerald R. Johnson.
Today, I head back down to Eugene to give a speech about these kids. Some of them I never met, some of them became dear friends in the 1990s. One was in my wedding party. Preparing for this speech as been like returning to a part of me I’d left behind sometime after I wrote the Sandbox in 2005.
Major Tom Taylor’s bomb group, the 305th was one of the first to see combat from England at the start of the strategic bombing campaign against Germany.
So. today I’ll be talking about men like Major Tom Taylor, commander of the 364th Bomb Squadron, 305th Bomb Group, killed in action in early 1943 over German-held Europe. Aaron Cuddeback, killed in action during a raid on Germany in March 1943, Jim Bennett, killed by a kamikaze in the Pacific while serving aboard a PT-Boat. Joe Jackson and Brian Flavelle, killed a year apart during raids on the Ploesti oil fields, and Gerald Johnson, Oregon’s ace of aces who vanished in a typhoon in October 1945.
Brian Flavelle’s bomb group training for Operation Tidal wave, the low altitude raid on Germany’s vital oil facilities in Ploesti, Romania. Brian’s aircraft crashed en route to target with a loss of everyone on board.
The U of O is a very different place than it was in 1941. There were over 220 alumni killed in WWII. If there was a battle, a U of O Duck was almost certainly somewhere in the mix. From the first days of the war in the Philippines, to the final shots in the Pacific, kids who once were chatted up by recruiters in Eslinger Hall bore witness to history, and often helped make it.
Jim Bennett initially couldn’t get into the military, as he was working at Boeing in Seattle in a job considered vital to the war effort. In 1942, during a short family vacation to Utah, people on the street spit on him for not being in uniform. The humiliation drove him to do everything he could to get out of his work at Boeing. He ended up in the Navy, serving aboard PT-Boats. He was killed in the summer of 1945 in a Kamikaze attack.
Telling these stories, keeping their memories alive? That’s why I’m here.
Day 1 of my cross country research road trip for my next book took me to the Eastern Oregon desert, where I had a chance meeting with an OIFIII veteran.
Heading east on 26 today after hiking around the Painted Hills, I saw a hitchhiker with a dog that looked a little like Gwen. I wondered if he was a vet as I drove by, feeling a little guilty I did not stop. The GTO is packed to the walls for this research trip, and I had no room for him and his gear. Besides, I’ve never picked a hitchiker up. My mother told me never to do that, and I guess it stuck. 🙂
I stopped for the night in a tiny town called Prairie City, Or. There is a vintage hotel here that is simply awesome. After I ate at their grill, I wandered outside to take some photos.
The hitchiker was there climbing out of a pick up truck. A young couple wished him well and gave him some money. I watched him for a bit, then as he walked by me, I asked, “You prior service?”
He told me 3rd ID, Iraq. Got home in 06. We talked for about 20 minutes as I gave him all the water and snacks I had in the GTO. He gave his pup water before he drank any himself. The couple who gave him a lift to town came back as we talked and pressed more money into his hand. A girl, maybe 13 or 14, came up on a bike and handed him a few dollars of her own.
Chris is his name. He has been hitching all over the country since he left the service. I got the feeling it was not a good parting of ways. He’s wandered the empty neighborhoods of Dayton, Ohio, walked his way from San Francisco to San Jose. He’s crossed and recrossed the country this past decade. He fell in love in San Diego, and when the relationship ended, the heartbreak drove him back onto the road. He is heading to North Carolina now, hitching and camping outside of small towns in the woods.
Earlier in the evening, I met two guys who are bicycling across the country to raise awareness for TBI’s and Cystic Fibrosis. The hotel staff told me they’d just hosted a woman who had walked to Prairie City from South Carolina.
I thought about this as Chris and I talked on this town’s tiny main street. Somehow, in the middle of the Oregon desert, all these stories collided at once.
Chris quoted scripture. We talked about New Orleans, and Pensacola and other places we have both seen. Heartbreak.
I read and see little but hate, divisiveness, anger and rage on the news sites these days.From the way CNN and Fox tell it, we are a country loathing itself and our leaders. But as I watched that young girl ride off into the evening after she gave Chris some of her own money, her younger brother peddling furiously to keep up with her, it was a relief to realize there is much kindness and compassion in our people still. I think that is a bigger story than the divisions and the hate.