World War II

When a Medal of Honor Is Not Enough

Neal Kearby CO 348th FG

Kearby with his trademark wide, Texas grin. Charismatic, daring and capable of evoking tremendous loyalty, Neel Kearby remains one of the great combat leaders the USAF has ever produced.

Let’s talk Neel Kearby.

He is remembered as one of the greatest fighter combat leaders of the Pacific War. Neel had joined the USAAF in the mid-1930s after finishing college in Texas. He quickly became one of the best fighter pilots in the service, an aviator known to win mock-dogfights against his peers–while eating an apple and flying with one hand.

Combined with his natural flying abilities, Kearby possessed a tactical genius that is often overlooked. He could extract the utmost performance out of any aircraft he flew, then used his flying skills to maximize its attributes and minimize its weaknesses in a fight.  He was a holy terror in a P-47, demonstrating its potential to a skeptical 5th Air Force in 1943.

Not only could he fly and fight, he generated intense loyalty and confidence among the men he led in battle. The 348th Fighter Group was his baby. He’d trained the men Stateside and built the unit into a tough, unified and exceptionally capable outfit that included a whole crop of subordinate officers who Kearby mentored into outstanding leaders in their own right. This included Charles MacDonald, who would go on to be one of the great USAAF combat leaders of the war, commanding the 475th Fighter Group through its heaviest action in the Southwest Pacific Area  (SWPA).

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Kearby (center) with Charles MacDonald shortly after Mac took command of the 475th. MacDonald was probably Kearby’s closest friend in the SWPA.

When Neel arrived in the SWPA in May 1943 with his ADVON, he was determined to become America’s leading ace. He quickly learned who the theater’s high scorers were, and went to work flying missions both with the 348th Fighter Group, and with various P-38 units.

Most people remember the free-lancing Bong and Lynch did in early 1944. Neel was the original free-lancer. Between leading the 348th on short-range transport escort missions in August of 1943, Kearby talked his way onto the Wewak strikes that devastated the Japanese Army Air Force units in the SWPA that month. He had never flown a P-38 before that first mission, though he did have some two-engine aircraft time, including several hours in B-26 Marauders.

Later, after his Medal of Honor mission in October 1943, Kenney pulled him up to V Fighter Command HQ, and the 348th continued on without their daring, aggressive and inspirational leader.

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Kenney (center, left) and Wurtsmith (center, right).

Contrary to a lot of secondary sources, Kenney did not put Kearby into V FC to give him license to free lance. Kenney wanted him on the ground chained to a desk, and to do so, he was made the deputy commander of V FC, taking over for LTC Morrissey, who went home on leave.

There’s a space in November 1943 where it worked. Kenney’s wild man field grade was stuck on the ground learning his new role at HQ.

But at the end of November, the V FC commanding general, Paul Wurtsmith, also went home on leave. Kearby was the only full colonel on V FC staff at the time, and he was made acting commander of all the 5th Air Force’s fighter units.

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A publicity photo from November 1943, showing Kearby overwhelmed with his new staff job at V Fighter Command HQ.


He was the boss for the next six and a half weeks. And the first thing he did, was get back in the cockpit of a P-47 and start four-plane hunting patrols over Wewak with several members of the 348th.

In early January 1944, Kearby knew his days in combat were limited, as Kenney was unhappy he was still flying, and Wurtsmith was en route back to retake command of the V FC. Kearby knew that when Wurtsmith got back, he would make LTC Morrissey his deputy CO and chief of staff again, the position that Morrissey had held before he too went on leave in early November. Kearby would effectively be without a job, as he couldn’t remain in V FC as a full colonel when the XO was only an LTC.

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A still image from Kearby’s gun camera footage from December 22, 1943.

So it looked like he’d probably be pushed out to command one of the air task force HQ’s that Kenney and Whitehead had established to run specific campaigns or operations. These task forces, notably the 308th and 309th Bomb Wings, were a flexible sort of frontline command node designed to incorporate both fighter and bomber groups on a temporary tasking to knock out a particular target or support a specific amphibious operation.

Looking ahead, Kearby wanted to incorporate a combat role for himself so he could continue to hunt. He came up with the idea of using Gerald Johnson’s 9th Fighter Squadron to run constant four-plane patrols over Wewak that would be “closely supervised by the task force commander.” <— which would be him, of course, leading from the air.

This document I’ve attached here is one of several Kearby wrote and sent up to 5th Air Force in hopes of getting approval for what would be a license to hunt as a task force commander after Wurtsmith and Morrissey returned.

The tactics Kearby details here are the ones he worked out and used personally during his many four-plane hunting flights over Wewak from October through early January. He gives great detail and insight into how the tactics were supposed to work here.V FC Hst 0144-0644 Kearby Wewak Proposal P2

V FC Hst 0144-0644 Kearby Wewak Proposal P3Kearby’s natural aggressiveness and desire to be the top ace in theater caused him to violate his own tactical doctrine several times. But you can see the thought and discipline such tactics required through his own words.

This proposal to use the 9th Fighter Squadron in this manner was ignored. The staff at 5th AF clearly saw it as a transparent effort to find a combat role for himself. After the MOH announcement in late January, Kearby pleaded with Kenney to be allowed to remain in the theater. He bounced around from the 308th and 309th Bomb Wings, taking different temporary positions in both. He continued to borrow 348th FG aircraft to hunt whenever he could get away with it, but by the end of February Kenney had had enough. He told Kearby his combat flying was done. If he flew in combat again, he’d be sent home. Kearby ignored him, determined to keep pace with Bong and Lynch. Ultimately, that pressure to score before he was sent home caused him to take tactical gambles that cost him his own life.

The details of Kearby’s life in combat and his impact on the ace race in the SWPA can be found in Race of Aces. Race of Aces_James M. Scott quote[1]

Categories: World War II, World War II in the Pacific | Tags: , | 2 Comments

Love in the Pioneer Cemetery


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.”Race of Aces_Sara Vladic quote[1]

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.”

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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.

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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 :).


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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.

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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 at Gusao

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 runey in p40 cockpit 8x10

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. 81612547_10219242304385822_6329328411730771968_n

Not forgotten.

ged and barbara 1944 900 dpi c


Categories: American Warriors, Home Front, Uncategorized, World War II, World War II in the Pacific | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Wingtip to Wingtip, Wave After Wave

ged as a ltcolonel in p38

Colonel Gerald R. Johnson, who finished the war with 22 confirmed air-to-air victories.


Colonel Gerald Johnson and the Napalm Attacks in the Philippines


The 1945 Battle for Luzon is often remembered solely by the drive from the beaches at Lingayen Gulf to the Battle of Manila, with daring special operations and air assaults conducted to rescue American civilian internees and prisoners of war.

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Men of the 37th Infantry Division crew an anti-tank gun in the house-to-house fighting in Manila, February 1945.

There is no finer work written on the tragic Battle of Manila than James Scott’s Rampage. This book is a telling, deeply emotional and vivid description of the house-to-house fighting and senseless mass murders that defined the battle. It is not an easy read, but one that provides critical insight into the mindset of American leaders in the Western Pacific during the final months of the war.  Scott’s book is a sober reminder that the cost of liberation sometimes came at an unbearable price for those who sought to liberate.


Yet, even after the fall of Manila, there was considerable fighting left to be done elsewhere on Luzon. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese troops, well-organized and deeply entrenched, had retreated into the mountainous terrain northwest of Manila and were determined to make the FilAmerican forces pay for every inch of ground they captured.

From the end of February to the end of May, the bulk of both the U.S. Eighth and Sixth Armies battered there way forward toward several key objectives: Baguio, the Philippine summer capital, the mountain passes from Central Luzon into the Cagayan Valley, and the dams that provided Manila’s water supply.

The Japanese resisted with ferocious desperation. In countless small actions, they died to the last man.  We Americans remember the Alamo, Wake Island, the 20th Maine’s stand at Gettysburg and the 1st Minnesota’s suicidal charge on the second day of that battle. What is exceptional in American military history was routine for the Japanese Imperial Army. During the fighting for these three objectives, they proved their nihilistic courage time after time. That willingness to fight to the last bullet and breath combined with the Imperial Army’s broad and relentless brutality toward civilian and captured American servicemen made the Japanese a truly terrifying foe.

25th inf division baguio luzon april 45 combat scne904 8x10

Men of the 25th Infantry Division fighting on a ridge near Baguio in April 1945. The next month, the 25th would see fierce fighting at the Cagayan passes.


From the end of February through April and May, the two U.S. Armies hammered their way forward through pouring rain that turned the few roads to rivers of mud. The Japanese made the Allies pay for every ridge they seized, and the fighting bogged down to a World War I-esque battle of attrition.


The terrain over which the 33rd Infantry Division had to advance to assault Baguio.



In April, on the Eighth Army’s front, the 33rd Infantry Division struggled forward to liberate Baguio. They faced formidable defenses built around ridges, hilltops and a river line. The Japanese dug in deep, bored tunnels in the mountain sides, carefully concealed artillery pieces that could be pulled back into deep caves after a fire mission.


US Army map of the 33rd Infantry Division’s fight to liberate Baguio.

With the Japanese Army Air Force and Naval Air Force destroyed in the Philippines, the U.S. possessed complete command of the air over Luzon. The ground troops turned to the aviators for help in breaking the Japanese resistance.

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Cockpit view of a P-38 dive bombing mission near Baguio.

Thousands of ground attack missions were carried out against specific targets, sometimes only a few hundred yards from the forward most FilAmerican troops.   The P-38 pilots in the V Fighter Command went from flying for months against Japanese bombers and interceptors, to finding themselves carrying out close air support strikes. There was no glamour here, no press, no racking up of victories that could be glued to the sides of their P-38s. It was difficult, dangerous low-altitude work that required great skill and coordination to do without killing friendly troops.


Those grinding, daily dive-bombing and strafing missions became a vital source of support for the ground troops. The few Japanese who were captured stated they feared the fighter-bombers more than they feared American artillery bombardment.  Why?



25th inf division baguio luzon april 45 combat scne903 5x7

A 25th Infantry Division squad under fire near Baguio, April 1945.


In mid-April, on the 33rd Infantry Division’s front, the 130th Infantry Regiment called for air support to help the rifle companies get through a network of fortified hills overlooking a river.  The theater’s highest scoring fighter groups—the 49th and 475th— answered the call along with several others. For days, the fighter-bombers drenched the Japanese defenses with napalm and five hundred pound bombs.  In one attack carried out by the 49th Fighter Group, a tunnel was hit with napalm, killing two hundred Japanese soldiers.


These attacks broke the back of the Japanese resistance. The 130th got across the river and the 33rd Infantry Division liberated Baguio’s ruins on April 26, 1945.  It was a remarkable display of air-ground cooperation, and it set the table for larger operations in the weeks ahead.


Ged and 23 kill P38L

Though ordered out of combat by General Kenney, Johnson continued to fly ground attack missions with his 49th Fighter Group all the way up until July 1945 when he was promoted to a staff job within Fifth Air Force HQ. There he helped plan the air component of the invasion of Southern Japan.

Flying with the 49th during many of these attacks in support of the 130th was quadruple ace Gerald R. Johnson.  Johnson and Charles MacDonald of the 475th Fighter Group were the two leading aces still active in the SWPA by this point of the war. McGuire was dead, Kearby was dead and Bong was back home about to join the P-80 Shooting Star program.

Far Eastern Air Forces commander, General George Kenney, specifically ordered 5th Air Force commander Ennis Whitehead to pull Johnson out of combat to save him for the post-war era.  He was looking down the road and knew the USAAF would need a crop of brilliant leaders to gain independence from the Army and secure the primacy of American airpower in any future war.

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George Laven, Gerald Johnson, Clay Tice standing. Bob DeHaven, Wally Jordan, Jim Watkins in front row. The photo was taken a month after the mass napalm raids.  Watkins, Jordan and DeHaven were all aces along with Gerald.



Johnson was not having any of it. At twenty-four, he was a full colonel and in command of the 49th Fighter Group. He refused to let his men do the difficult flying without him.  Through April, he flew against the Japanese defenses around Baguio, sometimes two missions a day.  He coordinated many of the strikes from the air, communicating with the forward air controllers on the ground to get the bombs and napalm where they needed to go.

When the fighting ended and Baguio was liberated, the commander of the 130th Infantry, Colonel Arthur Collins, wrote a detailed letter to Gerald Johnson thanking him and his pilots for their skill and destructiveness.

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The ruins of Baguio, April 1945.

The following month, two major battles culminated almost simultaneously. In the Sixth Army sector, the 43rd Infantry Division was trying to take the Ipo Dam from a Japanese force that included three regiments and multiple additional battalions. The force defending the dam totaled over seven thousand men. The 43rd’s advance was slowed by the fierce Japanese resistance.

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The Ipo Dam was one of two that controlled the water supply into Manila. Capturing them from the Japanese became a top priority after the fall of the Philippine capital.

This time, V Fighter Command worked out a new type of attack to break the Japanese hold on the dam. Instead of going in as flights or squadrons, the fighter-bombers would go in as entire groups in one, rolling hammer-blow designed to drench five key defensive positions with massive quantities of napalm.


US Army map of the Ipo Dam operation showing the 43rd and 38th Infantry Division’s boundary and area of operation.

On the morning of May 17, 1945, Johnson gathered his pilots and briefed them. He was excited and exuberant—one of his pilots later described him as sounding like a high school cheerleader (he was a yell leader at Eugene High, so that fit).  As a final word to his men, the great ace declared, “We’re going in wingtip to wingtip, wave after wave!”  he then led the 49th into the fight.

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Johnson ,at left, leading the 49th on the May 17, 1945 Ipo Dam attack.

They saddled up and flew the mission—along with two hundred other fighter-bombers.   The squadrons dove down into the valley around the Ipo Dam in tight, line abreast formations, driving through clouds of smoke boiling up from the preceding attacks, and delivered their deadly ordnance on their targets.

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A P-38 (at left) makes a run over a hilltop defensive network near the Ipo Dam during the May 17, 1945 raid.

The mass attack by V Fighter Command left the Japanese defenses in a shambles. Almost seven hundred Japanese were killed outright—ten percent of  the total number holding the dam. Dozens of vehicles, guns, supply and fuel dumps were incinerated by the blankets of napalm.  Of those Japanese who survived, many panicked and fled the slicks of fire immolating their fighting positions. When V Fighter Command learned this, future attacks included a wave of light bombers dropping parafrags to kill those men as they fled.

The 43rd’s assault carried through the areas devastated by the napalm raids and quickly seized the dam. An unusual number of Japanese were captured, most dazed by the aerial onslaught. They were quickly interrogated to determine the effectiveness of the napalm strikes, and the POW’s offered a few insights:


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Captured Japanese at the Ipo Dam, under guard by men of the the 43rd Infantry Division.

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Another photograph of the POW’s taken at the end of the Ipo Dam fight.

This novel attack tactic was duplicated a few days later on the Eighth Army’s front where the 32nd and 25th Infantry Divisions were locked in a terrible fight along the Villa Verde Trail and Highway Five some ninety miles north of the Ipo Dam.  The line of advance to seize the two vital passes into the Cagayan Valley was exceptionally narrow, supplied by twisting, winding roads turned to bogs by the incessant rain. The two American divisions faced two intact Japanese divisions, one of which was an armored unit. Yard by yard, the fighting here had raged since February 21st, and the Japanese were taking a terrible toll of the Americans. Ultimately, it would cost some seven thousand American and Filipinos to clear the mountains and open the passes.


To support the final assaults on the passes, V Fighter Command assigned four groups to carryout rolling mass napalm attacks on the Japanese 10th Infantry Division. For two days, Gerald Johnson led the 49th against these defenses at the Balete Pass. The defenders were smothered in flaming napalm. Following the 49th’s attacks came waves of fighter-bombers from the 475th, 8th and 58th Fighter Groups to add to the carnage on the ground. Artillery pieces were burnt in place. Dugouts and bunkers and caves were turned to charnel houses. Stunned Japanese survivors emerged from their entrenchments to flee the fires, only to be cut down by parafrags dropped by A-20s of the 312th Bomb Group.

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P-47 Thunderbolts, probably from the 58th Fighter Group, coming off target during the mass attack on the Japanese defenses around the Ipo Dam.


Both passes were captured shortly after these attacks. Some thirteen thousand Japanese died in the fighting there.

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Men of the 32nd Infantry Division advance up the Villa Verde Trail en route to the Cagayaan Valley passes.



Fighter pilots generally hated ground attack missions, preferring instead to be out hunting in the clouds.  Shooting Japanese planes down made the headlines, but these mass napalm attacks saved the lives of countless American GI’s struggling forward in the worst imaginable conditions.

For Gerald Johnson, that was one of his most meaningful accomplishments. In New Guinea and on Leyte, he’d seen first hand how the infantry lived and fought. He felt tremendous respect for them, and knew his lot in the war was much easier than what they faced.

One night, after losing a close friend, Gerald sat down and wrote of that respect to his father:

“Our men are fighting the most difficult battles of the war… Men are wounded or killed. Husbands, fathers. Brothers and sons are giving their last full measure, Dad. There are no braver or courageous men anywhere than these thousands of unsung heroes who are defeating the Jap[anese].

A few of us get the medals and become “heroes” yet we live well and have a fighting occupation that suits our stomachs.

Every time I started to complain, I think how selfish, how little I am. Those men lie awake in a stinking water-filled foxhole, waiting for a rustle of a Jap[anise] crawling on his belly. Those men who crawl out of the mud in the midst of a lead filled morning to find their buddy next to them is dead, his throat slit because he was too sleepy and exhausted to maintain constant vigilance—they are the real heroes dad.”

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A heavy weapons squad from the  25th Infantry Division at the Balete Pass.



The American troops on the ground sent messages of thanks to the fighter groups involved in these attacks:

The 130th Infantry Regiment’s commander, Colonel Collins, sent this to Colonel Gerald Johnson:

AO5Y1592AO5Y1593This was sent by the commanding general of I Corps, which carried out the assault on the Ipo Dam.  General Swift apparently witnessed the subsequent mass napalm strike on the Eighth Army’s Front at the Balete Pass a week after the dam was captured.AO5Y1600


For more on Gerald Johnson, the ace race and the fighting in the Southwest Pacific Theater, please see our upcoming book, Race of Aces, due out on January 14, 2020!

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Categories: World War II, World War II in the Pacific, WW2, WWII | Tags: | Leave a comment

The Kids from West Eugene

Gerald Johnson

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.

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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.

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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.



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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.

color Gillis and PT boats PBY

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.

Categories: Uncategorized, World War II, World War II Europe, World War II in Europe, World War II in the Pacific, Writing Notes | Tags: , | 3 Comments

The U-Boat Killer

A U.S. Navy armorer loads a long belt of .50 caliber ammo into the nose turret of an Atlantic Theater Consolidated PB4Y2 Privateer patrol bomber. Very long range aircraft like this variant of the B-24 helped ensure German U-boats had no safe place to surface and recharge their batteries while on patrol in the Atlantic. U.S. Liberators and Privateers are credited with sinking at least 23 U-boats in the course of the war.

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The last flying PB4Y2 Privateer airborne over Chino in May 2017. The nose turret was removed when it was used as a fire bomber, starting in the 1960’s.  It served in that capacity until 2006. It just went through a thorough restoration and is now on the air show circuit.


Categories: ETO, European Theater of Operations, World War II, World War II Europe, World War II in Europe, World War II in the Pacific, WW2, WWII | Tags: | 2 Comments

Stories from Golden Gate II


Men of the 381st Infantry Regiment advance on Big Apple Ridge, June 12, 1945.


The 96th Infantry Division trained at Camp Adair, Oregon in 1943-44. Known as the “Deadeyes,” the division was one of four that called Adair home, but it was the only one sent to the Pacific. The other three went to Italy and Western Europe.

PFC Castaneda and his regiment served on Leyte Island in the Philippines first, then took part in the Battle of Okinawa in the spring and summer of 1945. In eighty-one days of continuous combat, Castaneda’s division lost over 10,000 men killed, wounded, or missing in action. Thirty-two Deadeyes are still classified as Missing in Action from Okinawa. Only the 6th Marine Division suffered heavier losses.

Louis Castaneda was killed on Okinawa on June 12, 1945, just shy of his 24th birthday, during an assault on Big Apple Ridge, a key position in the last Japanese defense line on the island. He is laid to rest at Golden Gate National Cemetery.



Categories: American Warriors, World War II, World War II in the Pacific, WW2, WWII | Leave a comment

Stories from Golden Gate

Today, I wandered through Golden Gate National Cemetery. Every marker tells a story. Here’s one:


Master Sergeant Kenji Munn Tashiro:

Sixty-one years. Three wars. Volunteered for service in 1943 despite the fact that his wife and two children were rounded up and thrown in an internment camp.

Fought with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Europe as part of an anti-tank gun company. Earned the CIB.

Returned home and stayed in the reserves, served in Korea and Vietnam as a military intelligence NCO. Incidentally, while he was in Korea, his son was fighting to hold the Pusan Perimeter with his brother Soldiers.

Died of stomach cancer in 1967, An American patriot to his core.AO5Y9423

Categories: Uncategorized, War in Europe, World War I, World War II, World War II Europe, World War II in Europe, WW2, WWII | 1 Comment

Chino’s Legendary Planes of Fame Airshow

AO5Y3975For one weekend every year since 1957, the skies over Chino, California fill with the sights and sounds of World War II aircraft. Nestled on an old Army Air Force base where the likes of 24 kill ace Gerald R. Johnson once trained, hosts this incredible event as one of its main fund raisers. These days, lucky visitors to Chino can see upwards of forty warbirds thunder overhead.

It is an awe-inspiring sight.


My dad found the museum one day in the mid-1950s. He was out driving around with his best friend from high school and looked over to see a Messerschmitt Me-262 jet fighter just sitting in a field. Both boys had grown up on the Southern California coast during the war and had fallen in love with aircraft as they watched F4U Corsairs and P-38 Lightnings zooming over their homes. A Corsair even crash landed in front of my dad’s place on the Balboa Peninsula in 1945.AO5Y6509

So of course, they stopped. The museum back then was basically a field full of WWII aircraft discarded by the military and somehow acquired by the founder of Planes of Fame, Ed Maloney. One plane, a Japanese J2M Raiden fighter, had been a plaything for local kids at Griffith Park in Los Angeles before Ed acquired it. Rumor has it that some thief had pulled the seat out of it and pawned it, and Ed had to go to the shop and pay $50.00 to get it out of hock and re-install it in this incredibly rare warbird.

Back then, you paid a quarter at a tent that denoted the museum’s entrance, then walked through part of a bomber’s fuselage to enter the field of warbirds.


As a kid living in the Silicon Valley, my dad would sometimes take me down to the Chino air shows. I still have snapshots I took in the 1970s with a 126 instamatic camera of the museum’s A6M5 Zero that had been captured on Saipan’s Aslito Field in 1944. Years later, while in graduate school at the University of Oregon, I discovered my landlady had been in charge of checking in and documenting captured Japanese aircraft as they arrived in Southern California. Quite possibly the initial paperwork the U.S. Navy generated on the Planes of Fame Zero had been filled out by Marge Goodman.AO5Y5847

Anyway, the trips down to Chino became a father-son thing for us Brunings. In 1986, we stopped going. I left for college that fall, and as graduate school and a career up in Oregon dominated my time, the chance to get to Planes of Fame became a pipe dream. Then came marriage, two kids and a new career as a military historian and writer.

Finally, after I came home from Afghanistan, we revived the tradition. Five of the last seven years, we’ve road tripped down to Chino for the air show. In 2013, we brought my son and made it a tri-generational road trip. AO5Y7833

This year, my dad and I returned and spent the weekend out at the Chino Airport, amazed and inspired by the thousands who turned out to see the old birds fly.

AO5Y5938World War II is slipping from modern memory as the few remaining veterans of it pass. It won’t be long before we won’t have anyone alive who experienced the war at all. But thanks to Planes of Fame, the visceral sensation, the raw power and speed of the planes our grandparents flew in defense of our nation will endure and live in the memories of succeeding generations. Ed Maloney was a visionary, and thanks to his aircraft rescue efforts long before anyone saw value in those aluminum bodies, the sounds and sights of these amazing machines will continue to fill the skies over Southern California for years to come.AO5Y2187

It is a truly special place. If you love aircraft, make a point of coming here someday. You won’t be disappointed. You’ll be in the heart of the warbirds community.


Below are some more photos I took this weekend at the 60th Planes of Fame air show.


The Planes of Fame P-38J Lightning in 475th Fighter Group ace Parry Dahl’s markings.


Warming up the CAF Mitsubishi A6M Zero on Saturday May 6, 2017


Pilot Chris Fahey at the controls of the POF P-38. The sound of this plane’s twin Allison engines is like crack to your friendly writer.  After spending nine years researching and writing a biography on P-38 ace Col. Gerald R. Johnson, this aircraft became very dear to my heart. In the 90’s, I interviewed a lot of men who flew them in New Guinea and the Philippines during the war, and they swore by its firepower, range, speed and one-engined flight abilities.


Mark Foster at the controls of this beautiful P-51 Mustang. It wears the markings of the 357th Fighter Group, a crack 8th Air Force unit that included Chuck Yeager and ace Bud Anderson.


The Planes of Fame B-25 Mitchell making a pass over the Chino airport. This bird’s been used as a photographic aircraft for various aerial scenes in movies for several decades. After writing Pappy Gunn’s story in Indestructible, the side pack .50 caliber machine guns endear this bird to me. Every time I see it fly, I think the spirit of Pappy Gunn flies with it.


A Red Air Force Yak prepares for a flight with the Korean War demonstration part of the air show.


This year’s show included this stunning bird, a Consolidated PB4Y2 Privateer U.S. Navy patrol bomber. 


I’d never seen a PB4Y in flight before. The first pass it made during the airshow left me absolutely speechless. Loud, slow and huge, the plane is a dominating presence. I checked my Fitbit after it thundered by and saw my heart rate was at 150. I got credit for cardio, so props to the pilots for bringing on the work-out inducing excitement in their low-altitude passes.


When I was in 3rd grade, my Uncle Dean gave me a book for my birthday entitled, “Greatest Fighter Missions of the Top Navy and Marine Aces.” I read it in a recliner next to the T.V. for hours every night after school. I still have it, though it is beat up and missing its dust jacket. One of the chapters is called, “Trapped By Zekes at Rabaul” and details one of ace Ike Kepford’s most harrowing missions in the South Pacific. This weekend, a Corsair in Kepford’s markings went blasting past me, and I was taken instantly back to those nights curled up in that 70’s-era chair, engrossed by Edward Sims’ recounting of Ike’s miraculous escape from pursuing Japanese fighters.


Morning on the flight line, Saturday’s sunrise shoot.


Steve Hinton piloting an F4U in Korean War markings from VMF-214’s 1950-51 deployment. 


A bit of movie history. This was a modified BT-13 trainer altered to look like a Japanese Aichi D3A Val dive bomber, then used in the film, “Tora Tora Tora.”


The only place I know of where you can see two Japanese A6M Zero fighters fly. The bottom one is Planes of Fame’s Saipan Zeke.

Categories: Uncategorized, World War I, World War II, World War II in Europe, World War II in the Pacific, WW2, WWII | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

B-25 Chronology

BPG (Before Pappy Gunn):


APG (After Pappy Gunn):


Categories: Uncategorized, World War II, World War II in the Pacific, WW2, WWII | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Image Maker

val c pope one of first combat cameramen to land at Normandy seen in france june 44651 8x10Val C. Pope served with a U.S. Army Signal Corps company during World War II. He was one of the first combat cameramen to make it ashore on D-Day. He landed on Omaha Beach with still photographer Walter Rosenblum sometime during the morning of June 6th. Armed only with a movie camera, Val and Walter set about capturing the chaos on Omaha as it unfolded around them. One of the most gripping movie clips Val shot that survived the landing was the rescue of several drowning GI’s. Their landing craft was hit and sinking, and as they ended up in the water floundering, a young lieutenant saw their plight from shore. He grabbed a cast away life raft, jumped into the surf and swam out to them. Val’s footage shows the men being helped ashore.omaha beach 1157

For the next several days, Val remained right in the thick of the fighting, filming some of the iconic scenes of the early days of the invasion. While walking past a couple of buildings in search of a Red Cross aid station, he was ambushed by a German machine gun team. Hit in the head, he fell back unconscious as a fellow combat camerman dove for cover. A few minutes later, a group of GI’s rushed out and pulled Val out of the line of fire. He died as medics worked furiously to save his life.

Today, as we remember the June 6th landings, let us not forget those who carried cameras instead of guns, whose images have become a timeless–and priceless–part of our national heritage. Without them and their selfless spirit to capture history as it unfolded, future generations would have had no window into those momentous events in 1944.omaha beach dday first wave going ashore iii212




Categories: ETO, European Theater of Operations, War in Europe, World War II, World War II Europe, World War II in Europe | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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