Writing Notes

The Message On Lookout Mountain

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The GTO & Dunker Church on the Antietam Battlefield. 

 

As some of you know, I’ve spent much of this summer crossing the country in my little black ’06 Pontiac GTO, stopping at various places & archives to do research for my forthcoming book. I’m over 6,000 miles on this trip so far, and when I’m moving between points important to the next book, I often either get lost or sidetracked. Some of the best moments from this trip have come that way.

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Stopped at Burnside’s Bridge on the Antietam battlefield en route to the National Archives.

Earlier this week, I drove through the Shenandoah Valley, spent the night in Bull’s Gap, Tennessee, and reached Chattanooga in time for lunch. It had rained all day, but the weather began to clear so I drove up Lookout Mountain to see what remained of the battlefield.

AO5Y1556In the fall of 1863, Confederate troops laid siege to Chattanooga. The Union Army was surrounded and running out of food. The Southerners held the high ground–Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge–so the Union troops were pretty much always under observation or under the guns of Confederate artillery batteries.

In November 1863, the Union Army broke the siege after the arrival of reinforcements. Union troops inside Chattanooga launched a surprise assault up Lookout Mountain on a foggy morning that obscured much of the peak from view. The fighting literally took place inside that cloud bank until the Union troops pushed forward and up Lookout Mountain. There, they broke out into clear skies and fought on with the fog bank below them in an almost surreal visual that later prompted the engagement to be nicknamed, “The Battle Above the Clouds.”AO5Y1530

When I arrived, the clouds were indeed still below the peak after the rainstorm, providing a glimpse of that surreal situation back in 1863.AO5Y1505

I walked a bit of the battlefield, astonished at the ruggedness of the terrain. In this day and age, mountain warfare troops would have been employed to take this mountain. The fighting was point-blank–under a hundred yards–with the fog bank obscuring visibility and making it difficult to tell friend from foe.  Hand-to-hand combat raged on the slopes near a farm called the Craven House, and hundreds of men were cut down in the vicious fighting. Ultimately, the Union attack slowed and stalled as losses mounted, ammunition ran short and exhaustion took hold.

The fighting ended largely at dark. Under a full moon, the Confederate leaders discussed their options. Eventually, their commander, Braxton Bragg, decided to withdraw down the backside of Lookout Mountain, a maneuver made possible by a total lunar eclipse later that night. Talk about a lucky break.

AO5Y1515This battle exemplified the open wound our nation had become. Civil Wars are always brutal and deeply painful experiences. This moment in the pro-Union area of Tennessee put all of that brutality on display in appalling terrain, under the eyes of thousands of civilians trapped in the siege with the Union Army.

Over the next few days, as General Sherman and General Thomas struck the Confederate troops on Missionary Ridge across the siege line from Lookout Mountain, thousands of American men and boys died in the most horrific ways imaginable. Shattered wounded lay on the field at the mercy of the over-taxed medical corps and the local civilians. AO5Y1541

They fought with exceptional fury here, both sides resolved that they were in the right; the cause was just and worth the risk of their life and limbs.

Yet what I found here wasn’t the tale of brigades moving here and there, the attacks and desperate defense among the rocks. It wasn’t the civilians who suffered or fled or saw their fields filled with the dead or dying.

AO5Y1493The story I found on Lookout Mountain was one of forgiveness and reconciliation. In 1907, the New York veterans of the battle returned to Tennessee and commissioned the construction of a monument that now dominates the battlefield park. Eighty-Five Feet above the mountain’s summit, two soldiers stand. One Union, one Confederate, they are cast in bronze shaking hands under an American flag.

AO5Y1499The base of the monument is made with a mix of Massachusetts granite and Tennessee marble, blended together as a symbol of the reunion and rebirth of our nation after so much suffering.

Here, a generation made a statement for all future Americans. The victory won  in East Tennessee and earned in the blood of their comrades was not the point of remembering this battle. The point was the future, and for that to be a prosperous one, these men put aside the pain, the hostility, distrust and political divisions that tore this country apart and set it on a path of terrible slaughter. They forgave. Former foes became fellow Americans once again.

This is the New York Peace Monument, and as I stood within it, reading the bronze plaques that can be found inside its columns, it struck me that the courage required to reach out and forgive probably took as much emotional courage as assaulting up Lookout Mountain required in their youth.

Today, we are at a crossroads where hate and political animosity dominate our news cycle. Every day, I read about college professors calling for the President’s murder, or of calls by radio personalities like Michael Savage for civil war should the President be removed from office. The talk from both sides is shrill, violent. Destructive.

At Lookout Mountain, the generation that experienced civil war gave us a legacy of peace and reunity. I hope we have the courage, grace of forgiveness, and acceptance of our differences to preserve that legacy. If we don’t, I fear we will lose everything about our nation that has made us great.AO5Y1552

Categories: American Civil War, Writing Notes | Tags: | 1 Comment

Oshkosh Eye Candy

DSC01554Last week, I was supposed to only be at Oshkosh for Monday and Tuesday.  I ended up staying until Sunday morning, shooting photos on the flight line for up to fifteen hours each day.  I was simply amazed at the diversity of aircraft coming and going in the morning, long before the official air show began. Seriously, if you love aviation, get to Oshkosh sometime in your life if you’ve never been. It is the holy grail of warbird events.

Here are some of my favorite moments from the week:

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Panchito, a B-25 belonging to the Delaware Aviation Museum, makes a pass over the field.

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A MiG-17 going for altitude

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Seriously, one look at a B-2 and I start to believe all the Roswell myths.

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The hunters warming up. Two beautiful F-86 Sabres ready to launch.

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An F4U Corsair with a Bearcat on its wing, return to Oshkosh in the rain.

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The venerable C-47 Skytrain.

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A B-52 makes a low altitude run over Oshkosh.

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At the break: A P-51 and an F-35 Lightning II during the final pass of the Heritage Flight.

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The show-stopper for me was this Douglas A-20 Havoc, the world’s only flyable one. I never got to see it fly, but it stole my heart because it represents the 5th Air Force’s 312th Bomb Group and because Pappy Gunn modified the 3rd Attack Group’s A-20s before he tore into the B-25 in the spring and summer of 1942. Hence…this next image:

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

The Mitchells of Oshkosh

DSC01362Last week was a very special one for me. After finishing up doing research at the Richard Ira Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior, I drove south to Oshkosh, pitched a tent and spent five days photographing the aircraft.

This was a bucket list event for me, and I’ve wanted to see this amazing event for most of my life. Being a West Coast native, getting to Oshkosh in the middle of busy summers just wasn’t in the cards. This year, it coincided with my transcontinental research trip, so I camped out, got filthy, grew an almost-beard, and shot photos fifteen hours a day.

Talk about bliss.

The highlight for me this year was the B-25 squadron that showed up. Seriously, I’ve never seen so many B-25’s. They had so many that two seemingly went into overflow parking in Warbirds Alley!

In the rain at dusk one night last week, the B-25’s lined up exactly like Doolittle’s planes had been arrayed on the U.S.S. Hornet before the April 18, 1942 raid on Tokyo. I was down right on the flight line to see this amazing tribute as, one after another, the Mitchells roared down the runway and into the air.

Breathtaking.  Here are some of the photos I took of that spectacular display, an homage to an era where our nation  produced some of the greatest aircraft and aviators in history.

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The first two Mitchells warm up before launch.

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This CAF B-25 was restored to memorialize a USMC B-25 from VMB-612 that was lost on its 23rd mission in the Pacific.

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This rare bird is the oldest surviving B-25 Mitchell. It was fourth off the North American production line, served as General Hap Arnold’s personal transport, was used later by Howard Hughes and ended up in Mexico and Indonesia before returning home to be a featured aircraft of the Long Island, NY American Airpower Museum.

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Barbie III, a 1st Air Commando B-25H Mitchell, rolled off the assembly line in 1943. Owned now by the Cavanaugh Flight Museum, it was the second H model produced during the war. Barbie III is also the only B-25H flying with an actual 75mm cannon in the nose.

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Put it in black and white, and that could be Dobodura, New Guinea, in the summer of ’43.

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This is the Yellow Rose, a B-25J also built in 1943. It served with the 334th Bomb Group stateside and was used in aircrew training as late as the mid-1950s. It belongs to the Central Texas Wing of the CAF.

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Mitchell in the Golden Hour.

 

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Oshkosh is just about the coolest place I’ve ever been. How many times do you get to look up at sunset and see this?

 

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Champaign Gal touches back down in the rain after the demonstration flight. It is part of the Champaign Aviation Museum in Urbana, Ohio.

 

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Briefing Time, owned by the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum, is painted in the markings of a B-25 that flew with the 340th Bomb Group during the Italian campaign.

 

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The  Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum owns this beautiful eight-gunned B-25, “Hot Gen” and carries the markings of 98 Squadron, RAF in honor of the Canadian crews who flew the Mitchell in that unit.

 

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When the last B-25 touched down, it felt like I’d just seen a once-in-a-lifetime event. What an homage to an aircraft and its crews who played such a key role in winning the air war over the SWPA and in the MTO.

For those of you out there who want to learn more about the B-25 and some of the characters who modified and flew them in the Pacific:

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Categories: World War II Europe, World War II in Europe, World War II in the Pacific, Writing Notes | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

Our Forgotten Casualties

DSC07750On April 22, 1934, a 39-year old man died of pneumonia outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. To his neighbors who watched as the family house fell into disrepair, was finally boarded up and abandoned in the depths of the Depression, the owner was an oddball sort of man who never fit into their community. He was seen drinking alone on his porch, and in his final years alcoholism wrecked both his health and most of this relationships.

Wrote historian Dennis Gordon, “…spiritually ravaged by his war experience, he had increasingly sought release through drink. He appeared dispirited, much older than his thirty-nine years….”

Lieutenant_Colonel_William_Thaw_IIThis was the tragic last act in the life of Lieutenant Colonel William Thaw, the first American to fly in air combat. He became a national hero during World War I, first while as a Soldier in the French Foreign Legion, later as a member of the all-volunteer American squadron called the Lafayette Escadrille, which fought for the French long before President Wilson asked Congress to declare war on the Central Powers. Later, as the United States Army Air Service reached the Western Front in 1918, he commanded the 102nd Aero Squadron. He served with great distinction and was awarded two Distinguished Service Crosses, the Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre while being credited with five German planes downed.

Somewhere in his experience on the Western Front, the vibrant, brilliant young man suffered what has been called, “the soul loss moment.” He returned home, but returned home in form only. Ultimately, the war claimed him as surely as it claimed his comrades who died fighting on the Western Front.

Over the twenty-seven years I’ve been writing about and interviewing combat veterans and their families, I have heard the same refrain countless times. “He came home, but he was never the same.” Families have shared with me stories of their veteran’s return. The first months, a honeymoon, but after the luster wore off, the war reclaimed them. My knowledge is anecdotal, but the alcoholism and suicide rate among those who returned from World War II’s front lines seems to have been a vastly underreported cost of our victory.

A dear friend who served in combat during the Gulf War once retold the story of his own father’s struggles. His dad had joined the infantry at the start of World War II and was sent to fight in Italy. He stayed in after the war and rose through the enlisted ranks to be an established and highly regarded non-commissioned officer. He served in Korea, and during the Cold War. But his experiences in Italy were never far from him, or his family. Ultimately, he took his own life, years after the shooting had ended. When I asked his son, a well-respected NCO and combat veteran in his own right, if he considered his dad a combat casualty, he didn’t even hesitate, “He absolutely was.”

In 2011-12, I wrote a book with Captain Sean Parnell detailing the experiences of his infantry platoon in combat during a particularly difficult deployment to Afghanistan in 2006. Since Outlaw Platoon was published, at least four members of Captain Parnell’s company have taken their own lives.

From 2001-2014, the suicide rate among veterans jumped thirty-two percent. As of 2016, twenty veterans commit suicide every day. Not every one of those tragic ends is a result of combat experience, but some no doubt are.DSC07786

After World War II, thousands of veterans returned home with severe medical conditions. Many were survivors of Japanese prison camps and the Bataan Death March where starvation, jungle diseases and brutalizing treatment by their captors destroyed their physical health. Some survived only a few months after being rescued at war’s end, others survived longer. But all too often, their physical debilitations dramatically cut short their lives.

The Second World War was not unique in this regard. World War One saw thousands of post-Armistice deaths directly attributable to the wounds (such as those inflicted by gas) and the physical cost of serving in the trenches.

The Americans taken prisoner in Korea came back after the war in as poor condition as the captives of the Japanese. In Vietnam, it was the same story with our returning POW’s, but now chemicals such as Agent Orange inadvertently destroyed the post-deployment lives of tens of thousands of veterans. By the early 1990s, almost 40,000 veterans had filed disability claims with the VA as a result of the health impact of this defoliant. How many have died as a result of exposure is unclear, but it is not a trivial number.

During a deployment in Iraq during the early years of the invasion and occupation, Indiana and Oregon National Guard troops assigned to guard a water treatment facility were exposed to hexavalent chromium, which has caused several deaths to rare forms of cancer.

These men and women are never honored on Memorial Day. Counting them is impossible because of the nature of their deaths and how the war claimed them. They did not fall in battle, but they deserve to have their service and its consequences recognized and honored, even if one considers suicide a dishonorable end. Men like William Thaw helped secure freedom for Europe and the United States, and their devotion in battle should not be tainted by the way they chose to die. Judging them, stripping them of what they did accomplish in their lives by ignoring them, is to deny the emotional anguish and trauma they lived with every day after returning home.  For those who know its nature, it is a form of living death.

The consequences of loss, be it on the battlefield or after, has a generational impact on the families who endure these deaths. That point was driven home to me early in my career when I wrote about a fighter ace who died at the end of World War II.  His wife was destroyed by his loss and the family was forever scarred by his death. It led to dysfunction and fifty years of pain, alcoholism and mental illness. His brother, who also served, blamed himself for his brother’s death in 1945 and took his own life in 1975. I remember writing the end of that story, sobbing as I recounted how everything in his family broke after the fighter ace’s death. It was never whole again.

When I moved to my little town in Oregon in 1994, I discovered one of our neighbors had lost her husband during WWII. She raised a daughter alone, never remarried and lived a silent, desperately lonely life as a recluse. The death of her loved one caused her to disengage from almost everyone around her.

More recently, I’ve been researching another ace whose loss had a similarly catastrophic effect on his family. Once highly regarded and politically connected, his family slipped into financial insolvency, abuse and chaos as his widow married and remarried five times. Who can ever fill the void of the loss of one’s true love?

DSC07787These are all human costs of war; ones that rarely makes the history books as they are difficult to face and discuss. But we need to have a conversation about them, because it is an after-effect of every war this country has fought. Before we send our men and women into battle, our nation’s leaders must recognize the long-term effect it will have on some of the families and communities that send their loved ones off to war. It must be a factor when deciding whether or not the crisis at hand merits the use of force. Once the decision is made to send in the troops, we must have in place a better and more robust structure to support those who return home. In the last sixteen years of war, we have a spotty record at best of doing that, and the toll has been a heavy one as a result.

So this weekend, while we honor those who have fallen in battle, I will take a moment and give thought and prayer to those families who have lived the nightmare of loss and know the shattering moment when the contact team arrives on their doorstep. Their loved one gone, their lives destroyed—rebuilding and finding a new sense of normalcy among such grief is a monumentally difficult task.

This weekend, I’ll remember what I’ve learned these past twenty-seven years of the post-war deaths that wrought such pain to the families I have met. Just don’t tell me their loved ones were not combat casualties. The only difference I see is that it took longer for the war to claim their lives.  I hope you will join me in remembering these forgotten combat veterans as well.

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Categories: Uncategorized, Warrior Memories, Writing Notes | Tags: | 1 Comment

My Last Chino Moment (For this Trip)

At Planes of Fame Last Week:
There I was, walking back to the 475th FG hangar, and here was this little kid staring at the Bell X-2 fuselage tucked beside it. His eyes were wide, mouth agape. He turned to me and erupted, “That’s a Bell X-2! An X-2!! I had no idea there was one here!!”

I started laughing.

This was me in 1978. Same place. It brought back memories of sneaking into the boneyard and getting caught inside the fuselage of a Bollingbroke bomber, playing with the controls and calling out Messerschmitts to my gunners.

“What’s your name, kid?” I asked.

“Micah. Did you see the three bladed P-51A? It is the only flyable one in the world!”

“It is pretty cool, isn’t it?”

“Had an Allison engine, not a Merlin. Three blades.”

I started laughing, “Your dad get you into airplanes?”

Again, I had a flashback to my own childhood, eating oatmeal at the kitchen counter as my dad walked in, briefcase in hand, ready for work. “I think Johnny’s ready to build a model,” he said to my mom.

We went to Woolworths. I picked out the Hawk Spirit of St. Louis, and decorated it with Hot Wheels stickers. My dad was disgusted by my murder of historical authenticity. I was three.

Micah looked at me and said, “A little bit. But I read a lot.”
An hour later, I saw him meet Lt. Col. Dick Cole and have his photo taken with him. He was in awe. I talked to his father, who told me that Micah knows far more about aircraft now than he will ever know. “All he does is read and play video games.”

I have wondered if, the farther we get from the living memory of WWII, the number of kids wanting to learn, who are touched by whatever it is we here on this page were touched with, would dwindle away. Meeting this kid showed me that the fire is there in this new generation too.

Thank God.

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Categories: Writing Notes | Tags: | 2 Comments

The Legend of Pappy Gunn 59 Years Later

p-i-gunn-portraitOn the night of October 11, 1957, Paul Irvin “Pappy” Gunn was flying a Beech 18 in the Central Philippines. A sudden downforce slammed his low flying aircraft into the ground. Props damaged, fuselage and wings torn up, the Beech was probably doomed right then. But Pappy Gunn, with over 20,000 flight hours, somehow managed to firewall the throttles, gain a bit of altitude and start to turn for the nearest airfield. If he had only a few more feet of altitude, he might have made it. Instead, he struck a tree, and the Beech crashed with the loss of everyone on board.
Pappy used to say he would die before he was sixty with his boots on and the throttles firewalled. That is exactly how he went out 59 years today.
In a fluke of circumstance and serendipity, today our biography of Pappy Gunn and his family reached bookstore (and Costco) shelves around the country he so loved.
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When I was a kid, I read about the legend of Pappy Gunn in an Air Classics Magazine article. Later, I read General Kenney’s book about him. Those of you who have been in my life since college know I pretty much became obsessed in the 1990s with telling the story of Oregon’s top ace, Gerald Johnson. While researching Gerald’s life, I encounter many men who also flew with Pappy Gunn. They told me crazy stories about this remarkable man that made me want to write about him as well someday.
npc-54I spent a lot of time on road tripping around the country from 2010 on; many of you have followed my shenanigans here on FB as I’ve passionately explored our beautiful country and its history from the left seat of the Goat. I’ve met a lot of people, had a lot of special moments from walking the Selma Bridge and sitting at Rosa Parks’ bus stop to chance encounters with destitute and desperate Americans, farmers and people my age grimly trying to build a second career after losing their first one in the 08 recession.

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On those trips, it has felt like we’re a country that has lost its way. People want to believe in the American dream, that all things are still possible, but too many of us have been clinging to what we have, desperate not to lose our houses or cars or families in the midst of war, Recession and domestic turmoil, that the pride we once felt in who we are and what we have accomplished has been dimmed.1935779_1249689682837_1701706_n

Pappy Gunn always inspired me. In moments where I was bullied in school, or feeling trapped in the cubicle world of the computer game business, or smothered by red tape as I tried to do something positive for my community on the city council and school board–his never say die spirit reminded me that great things can be accomplished by average Americans.

pappy-in-cockpitWhy? Because we are an exceptional people. I don’t care your color, gender, sexual identity–we are a tapestry of unusual awesome. No other country has such a vast spectrum of human experience, talent, ability, values, and outlooks. Yes, it makes us fractious and nasty at times like now, but collectively it gives us the power to change the world. And we have been doing that for two hundred plus years. From the first imperfect, but radical ideas of freedom and liberty to the hundreds of thousands who perished in combat to extend freedom’s reach, to the social and technological revolutions we have started–computers, television, vehicles, industry, psychology and space travel. Historians and football players can say America was never great, but to say Americans are not exceptional is to insult every great one who has found the courage to stride into the wind and change the world for the better. Rosa. Martin. Ike. Lincoln, Susan B Anthony, Elizabeth Blackburn. Pappy Gunn. The list could go on for thousands of pages.G86A0419

Great Americans come from all walks of life. In Indestructible, I wrote about one family that came from humble origins to face challenges few of us today could ever imagine. They handled it as a family: full of love and trust for each other. Devoted and willing to do anything to ensure each other’s survival.gunnfamily
I wrote Indestructible as my twentieth book because Pappy Gunn is a quintessential American hero. I wrote Indestructible now at this point in my life because underneath Pappy’s story is the story of his wife and children. He was not the only hero in his family. Courage was a trait they all shared.g15-pappy-polly-dutch-k
It seemed to me as I drove around the country that if I could just remind my readers of who we are and what we can accomplish when our backs are to the wall, well, maybe we can all take pride in our national identity again. I didn’t have the courage to take a leap and try to do that until my daughter gave me a push. Hachette and all the incredible people there who believe in the book and the power of Pappy’s story made this dream a reality.11336857_10205693155425566_3210305845677159996_o
I suck at selling stuff, always have. But if you’ve looked around our country these past years and felt like I have–that we just need a win. If you want to feel good about ourselves again and be reassured that we are stronger than recession, war, elections and domestic turmoil—then I hope you will crack open a copy of Indestructible. Pappy’s story carried me through some of the darkest times of my life and inspired me to turn into the wind and fight for a future that I believe in. If his story inspires the same response in my readers, then I will consider this my most meaningful professional success.14264819_10208929708613898_4964300419684423464_n
Thank you for reading to the end of this massive missive. Bless all of you, my friends. And thank you for all the love and support you have shown me and my family these many years.
John R. Bruning
Categories: World War II in the Pacific, Writing Notes | Tags: | Leave a comment

Amazon Book of October!

pappy-in-cockpitMy Friends,

I’m very humbled and very excited to report that Amazon selected Indestructible as one of its Best Books of October!
I want to take a minute and thank everyone who has pre-ordered this labor of love. I know that it is delayed gratification to do it, something I hate too, but those pre-orders are incredibly important for the book’s launch. So, it is much appreciated, especially since each book purchased equals about 15 more seconds I can keep Renee in college.🙂

We are also up to 29 reviews on Amazon through the pre-release Vine program. Pleased to report that I won’t need to day drink after reading them! The story of Pappy Gunn and his family is having a profound impact on our readers.

Thank you all again, your support and interest makes possible what I love doing.

 

John R. Bruning

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https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0316339407/ref=s9_acsd_al_bw_c_x_9?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=merchandised-search-3&pf_rd_r=FCSFGH2CPSHWMNYNWME0&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=a2807aab-f710-480a-9a8b-148441f0f1f0&pf_rd_i=6458662011

Categories: Uncategorized, World War II in the Pacific, Writing Notes | Tags: | 1 Comment

The Liberation of Santo Tomas Internment Camp

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Indestructible is not just the story of Pappy Gunn, the legendary aviator and mad genius of the 5th Air Force. It is the story of his family’s experience during World War II as Pappy went to extraordinary lengths to rescue them from the hellish conditions of Japanese captivity in Santo Tomas University Internment Camp.

In 1945, when the camp was liberated, Pappy’s family nearly died during a Japanese artillery bombardment that struck the university. I recently drove to Texas and interviewed Nat Gunn, Pappy’s son, on camera about his experiences during WWII. The moment he describes in this interview was one of the most difficult scenes to write in Indestructible. But I thought it was extremely important; Pappy was not the only hero in the Gunn family.

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Mother’s Day 2016

To Moms across our country who have sons and daughters guarding our nation’s ramparts in this time of war, my family’s thoughts are with you on this Sunday morning. Your trials and suffering, the fear late at night and the questions that linger in moments of solitude are understood by so few. Yet without your love, support and endurance, the defense of our country would not be possible. Yours is a journey few ask for, but many need. Bless you, and may your sons and daughters return home soon to your loving arms.

–John R. Bruning

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Historians and their Animals

Today we kick off our theamericanwarrior.com podcast series!  This week, we’ll be talking about a little-known characteristic historians have in common–the way we name our pets.

Hope you’ll listen in as Renee Bruning and I (John R. Bruning) chat about World War II battles, Civil War generals and foundling kittens.

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