Sunday, May 11, 2014


This month my British publisher, Osprey, releases my latest book, U.S. Marine Corps Fighter Squadrons of World War II. Marine Corps aviation has always been close to my heart.  In writing about WW II aviation I was fortunate to include many “flying leathernecks” among my friends and acquaintances.

However, the rate of attrition has accelerated to the point that I no longer know any Marine combat aviators of WW II.  In fact, of 120 Marine Corps aces, only four remain.

Therefore, Osprey’s upcoming book on USMC fighter squadrons in WW II is especially timely.  In some ways it’s a last-minute grab at history, since the profiles of several notable devildog fighter pilots are partly based on those I knew.

Contrary to many people’s expectations, the Marine aces I knew seldom fit the stereotype.  Rather than loud, extroverted chest thumpers of “The Great Santini” mold, most were pretty quiet, self-composed men with little need to “prove” anything.

The two least stereotypical were Guadalcanal veterans Marion Carl and Bob Galer.  They were quiet almost to the point of shyness, despite being double aces and then some, and generals as well.  In the 25 years I knew Marion (including co-writing his memoir) I never heard him refer to himself as “General Carl.”  When he hung up the uniform, the stars came off and stayed off.  He was far more focused on his aviation reputation, which remains stellar.  If anyone was born with the flying gene, it was Marion, who also was one of the most competent people I’ve ever known, whether hunting, investing, or repairing the house.

Reportedly mothers warn their daughters, “Watch out for the quiet ones.”  That applied to Bob who, despite his Medal of Honor, had a disarming smile and an ingratiating manner.  Few would have suspected that he and some junior officers stole the duty officer’s jeep at MCAS Kaneohoe before deploying to Guadalcanal in order to appropriate some supplies.

Then there was Joe.

Joe Foss had more titles than anyone I ever knew: Marine Corps major, Air Force general, South Dakota governor, and football commissioner.  His interest in people was deep and genuine—he treated everybody the same, from presidents up to janitors.  He was also vocal in his opinions, and his stepson said, “Never an unspoken thought.”

Joe and Didi wanted me to marry their grand daughter, whom I dated occasionally when she visited.  Finally I said, “Joe, she got engaged!”  Joe hardly blinked.  He said, “Well, you don’t want to give up too soon.”

That was Joe.  He didn’t know how to give up.

However, as much as he relished being a Marine fighter pilot, his corps has let him down.  USMC headquarters accepted Greg Boyington’s spurious claims from the Flying Tigers at face value, and still accord him 28 victories to Joe’s 26.  The difference is, of course, that all of Joe’s were in Marine service versus 22 officially credited to Boyington.

Ken Walsh was another Medal of Honor ace, the first Corsair pilot to score five victories.  He was a close student of the game, loved the F4U, and took more interest in history than most practitioners.  He usually called me on my birthday, and liked to tell mutual friends, “I raised Tillman from a pup.”  I’ll never forget the first time I visited him.  I’d barely pulled into the driveway when he came out of the garage wiping his hands on a shop rag: “Do you need a tuneup?”

I shouldn’t overlook Jim Swett.  After his first combat in April 1943 every aviation cadet wanted to “do a Jimmy Swett.”  He downed seven Japanese dive bombers over Guadalcanal and finished the war a triple ace.  But although he retired as a reserve colonel he retained a second lieutenant’s puckish attitude.  When I first me him he drove a pickup camper with Medal of Honor license plates, an NRA life member decal, and a bumper sticker proclaiming “I Support Tailhook.”

Finally, there was Jeff DeBlanc.  Hailing from Louisiana, he said he joined the Marines “because I didn’t want to be in the Yankee army.”  He retained his bayou accent the rest of his life but there was an active, inquiring mind behind the swamp-water persona.  Apart from the Medal of Honor, he received a doctorate in education and was a gold medalist in the senior olympics.  Jeff wrote a family history and a memoir, the latter describing his war from Guadalcanal to Okinawa. 

Whatever the war or era, let us hope that more participants will record their experiences for the benefit of historians yet unborn.