Writing Notes

 
 

Two Lost Voices

Eric Hammel, one of our generation’s leading Marine Corps Historian 1940s-1980s. My first mentor in the business, I used to call Eric my second father.

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.

Harry Yeide, one of our generation’s leading historians of U.S. armor in WWII.

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. 🙂

Lightning Joe Collins

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.

Jim Hornfischer, one our generation’s great USN historians as well as being one of the best non-fiction agents in the publishing business.

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!”

“James!”

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.

Sharon (left), Jim and two dear family friends.

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.

Fred Burton at Jim’s dining room table. He came over for breakfast one morning while I was at the house. Fred and I and Jim wrote “Ghost: Confessions of a Counter-Terrorism Agent” and “Chasing Shadows” together.

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.

Sharon Hornfischer. Her love and steadfast devotion to Jim absolutely amazed me. She is a special human being.

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.

Marc Resnick, St. Martin’s extraordinary senior editor.

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.

High noon in Oregon that day.

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.

The last road out of Mill City, Oregon.

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.

Detroit, Oregon, about three weeks after the fires. To the left was the fire department building. Behind me and to the left out of frame was The Cedars, the local bar & grill where I spent many nights writing from 2010-2020.

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.

Categories: Uncategorized, Writing Notes | 1 Comment

The Goat’s Last Run

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Dusk in Idaho, 2016

Categories: Uncategorized, Writing Notes | Tags: | 2 Comments

Summer Warbird Moments

AO5Y6582This summer has been an odd one for me.  My son fell gravely ill earlier in the year and missed five months of school. He’s 100% healthy now and doing great, but for awhile, he was unable to walk or even sit up.  As the family rallied around him, my writing deadlines became a casualty of the emergency.  From April on, when Ed was finally back on his feet and at school (he finished the year with a 4.0 btw!), I went back to work on the next book. And then, I was asked to help out on another project related to U.S. naval aviation during the Vietnam Era. I was given sixty days to work through that.  All this meant pretty much no summer for me. However, I did sneak off to Madras with Ed at the end of August to capture some of the warbirds at the Airshow of the Cascades. It is a gem of an airshow, with beautifully restored WWII aircraft from the Erickson Collection as the show’s centerpiece. It was a great father-son trip that gave us a both a boost in the final days before he started his senior year in high school, and I return to my next WWII project.

Here are some scenes from Madras and the spectacular birds that live there in the Oregon high desert.

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When my dad was about nine years old, a Marine F4U Corsair suffered engine failure and its pilot crash-landed right in front of my dad’s house on the beach in Southern California. The pilot stepped out of the cockpit and asked my dad if he could use the phone to call El Toro.  My dad thought a god had landed in his front yard. 🙂  Later, he asked if he could take a souvenir from the crash, and tried to drag off a propeller blade. So here’s a photo of Ed paying homage to my dad’s experience. My old man got a kick out of it. Oh, and no, Ed did not really touch the aircraft.

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The show spans two days, starting with an epic sunset show on Friday night.  This year, the collection’s USN aircraft flew in the Golden Hour.

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The gem of the USN collection is a gorgeous F6F Hellcat.

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The following day is the main show, which culminates in the warbirds flying.  This year, a pair of P-51s and the collection’s Spanish-built Messerschmitt bf-109 took to the air. The 109 is a remarkable restoration job. It is actually powered by an Allison engine, which had to be inverted to keep the nose looking historically correct. It totally stole the show this year.

If you find yourself in the Pacific Northwest in August next year, take a quick trip over to Madras to see this unique museum. Tucked away on an old AAF training field is a diversity of warbirds that include an AM-1 Mauler, a PBY, a Ki-43 Hayabusa, a P-38 Lightning and a Focke Wulf Fw-190 under reconstruction.

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Too quickly, Ed and I had to return to reality. School’s started for him, and I’m back immersed in 1944 New Guinea, writing about some of the great 5th Air Force aviators who helped destroy the Japanese Army Air Force and helped pave the way for MacArthur’s return to the Philippines.

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Categories: Writing Notes | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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.

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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 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: | 2 Comments

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

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