Thursday, December 31, 2015


This month I had an email exchange with several of The Usual Aviation History Suspects, all of whom are published in magazines and books (some with hundreds of articles and/or scores of books), many also being high-time aviators.
The question arose: where’s the next generation of aviation historians? 

I see the same discussion about The Next Generation of Historians in naval circles--somewhat less in military circles.  When I spoke at Naval War College c.2010 the director, a PhD, said that the best work he sees is mainly from people without letters behind their names.  He meant Jim Hornfischer, Jon Parshall, Tony Tully, etc (John Lundstrom has a master's but I include him in that company.)  

There'll always be new subjects for aviation and military history--not necessarily for naval.  My 2009 rant in Naval Institute Proceedings, addressing the Post-Naval Era (begining1946) noted that there simply isn't much to write about, with very few exceptions such as the 1982 Falklands War between Britain and Argentina.  Several years ago Naval History and Heritage Command began focusing on post-Vietnam material, and that's fine--every era deserves to be documented--but does anyone envision an Ambrosian best seller on that period?  Me neither.

It’s intriguing to contemplate how long it takes to produce an historian, "irregardless" of credentials.  Colonel Walter Boyne of course had a full Air Force career beforehand; Dr. Richard Hallion is one of the very few who built a career in the history business--and thank goodness he did. His work speaks for itself.  (Reminds me that of all the writers I've known, exactly one set out with "malice aforethought" to become a specialist journalist--aka Gun Writer.  And he did, but it took years.)

My closest aviation colleague was Jeff Ethell: we came up the same way despite much different origins: USAF and agriculture.  He was born into a large pool of sources and potential subjects but expanded far beyond, and of course he flew a wide variety of military aircraft.  IIRC his first book was on the Me 163, using German sources.  He died flying a P-38 in 1996, age forty-seven.

I was first published in 1964, age fifteen, writing a national column on drum corps activities, but didn't make my first magazine sale for another six years.  My first book was published in 1976, so that's--what?  Six to thirteen years from start to Published Author, depending on how it's reckoned.

Occasionally I'm asked if it's necessary to be a pilot to write aviation history.  The answer is No (John Lundstrom, Chris Shores, etc), but it certainly helps.  I was BLESSED to grow up flying airplanes older than I was, from 16 onward.  But how many youngsters today ever have that opportunity, that immense advantage?  

As Flight Journal editor Budd Davisson properly notes, the WW II/Korea crop has all but dropped off the scope, and Vietnam is falling farther astern every day.  That's a separate subject, but even though the global war on terrorism is open-ended, providing generations of potential interviewees, there’s little opportunity for individual focus as per WW II.  The GWOT cannot produce individuals exerting strategic influence such as dive-bomber pilots Wade McClusky and Richard Best of Midway fame.  And we need to admit that the first full history of the GWOT may not appear until the 22nd century—or later.

Meanwhile, what of sources?  The hugely successful military historian Rick Atkinson doesn't interview WW II vets because of The Memory Thing, preferring to deal almost exclusively with original/primary sources.  I understand that view, but primary sources often-often are incomplete, contradictory, or just plain wrong.  A blending of archive and interviews definitely-definitely is mo' bettah'

My last few books all were published when fewer than half the contributors were deceased.  The Marine Corps squadrons book last year had no remaining WWII flying leathernecks whom I knew well, and only one I'd ever known still lived.  In fact, this week I dined with Colonel Bud Anderson, 8th Air Force triple ace who's the only WW II combat airman I know well anymore.  He'll be 94 next month.

As for WW II subjects, I'm just about “Winchester,” out of ammo.  Over half of my forty or so nonfiction titles are entirely or largely of that era, and today newly-minted at 67, there's almost nothing else I want to say about it.  Of course, that could change if the money's right, but I don't see/scent anything approaching.  I'd like to return to fiction, and not just aviation/military fiction, but it's a tough-tough market.

My experience is that you don’t go out looking for nascent historians--you find them wherever they grow.  Two of my acquaintance were youngsters when they started, including the late Keith W. Noland who emerged as a Vietnam War historian at age 18.  I was pleased to lend him encouragement that he probably didn’t need, and he died after a dozen books at age 45.

Soon-to-be Dr. Martin K. Morgan was another self starter.  Now a frequent writer, TV commentator and battlefield tour guide, he says, “I do know several young guns in Europe (mainly Dutch) who will probably write books that contribute meaningfully to the field eventually, but they are not in the USA.  I don't have anyone who is an apprentice to hand the baton over to, and I hope that situation changes.  Maybe somebody will emerge some day, but I'm just not seeing it happen.”

Sothen: whither the next generation of aero historians?  Walt Boyne says that it takes dedication as well as talent, in that order—and he’s right.  IMO historians cannot be grown; they must be self-starters.  At one point I wondered about Space History but obviously that subject dead-ended of its own accord.  I just re-read The Right Stuff over a couple of months.  It’s first-rate in nearly every regard, but I do not envision a public market for The Definitive History Of The Mercury Program.  Maybe there's a boffo book in Apollo, but that's one book on one program: eleven flights in four years.  IMO, Space is not the New History Frontier.

We can encourage and assist the self-starters, but we can't produce them.  So I fear that we may be seeing the end of the line....

Saturday, November 14, 2015


After the Garland, Texas incident this spring I wrote an article titled “The Threat Has Changed.”  Now, after last night’s six-phase terrorist attacks in Paris, leaving more than 120 dead, it’s time to revisit the topic:

Your five-shot revolver may not be enough anymore.

On May 3 two American-born Islamic radicals attacked a public gathering near Dallas.   They engaged police in a rifle versus pistol fight that was won by a 60-year-old traffic officer who knew how to use his .45 cal. Glock, though SWAT was involved.  Both of the self-proclaimed mujahedeen were killed; a school guard was wounded.

The attackers, whose names are irrelevant, were not starry-eyed kids.  They were self-motivated lone-wolf assassins in their thirties, and they lived in Phoenix.  Press reports stated that they had pledged loyalty to ISIS, which later attributed credit to “two soldiers of the caliphate,” for whatever that’s worth.

The Garland incident followed the January attack on the controversial Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, resulting in 12 dead and about as many wounded.  Those attackers, also in their thirties, were subsequently found and killed.

Both incidents involved depictions of the prophet Mohammad, whose image is banned due to Islamic aversion to idolatry.  Organizers of the Garland event drew criticism from liberals who considered the prize for a picture of the Prophet equal to trolling—ensuring a violent response.  Defenders of Americans’ freedom of expression thought otherwise, and there’s no middle ground.

None of which need concern us overmuch.  Sunni and Shia Muslims probably have slain far more Sunni and Shia Muslims than either has killed infidels.  But hajis and others do not need a specific reason to target Americans or westerners.  They will try again.

After Garland, ISIS announced that it had 71 “trained soldiers” in as many as 15 states and would commit them to the jihad.  It’s probably impossible to know, but Paris and Garland certainly lend credence.

The Garland event was held at the Curtiss Culwell Center, owned by the school district.  Certainly it was a potentially target-rich environment, with 6,800 seats.  Its website makes no mention of firearms, pro or con.  But apparently few if any of the attendees were armed because reportedly their response to gunfire was merely to sing the national anthem…

So what can we learn from Paris and Garland?

For starters, the S&W J-frame in your fanny pack probably won’t cut it these days.   

Many "packers" routinely carry a “groceries gun”—a small gat that fits in a pocket or nonstandard conveyance, often without a reload.  It’s probably adequate for the high-percentage confrontation: a random encounter at conversational distance in a store or on the street.

It is not optimum for a focused attack by jihadists or a mob of any origin.  Without delving into the legal complexities of shooting “unarmed teenaged assailants” (who kill hundreds of Americans annually), let’s concede that more ammo equals better.  And here’s why:

The jihadist attacks involved dedicated assailants armed with rifles and, if we can believe the press, body armor.  (Frequently the media cannot distinguish between armor and load-bearing “tactical” vests.)  

The engagement distances were far more than across the cafeteria counter or even across the convenience store lobby.  Film from Paris showed attackers shooting well down a street, and a detailed account from Garland said the effective police officer engaged from 20 yards down to 10. 

Most “civilian” mass killers stop or self-destruct when they encounter resistance.  Religious zealots do not.  They expect to kill or die fighting.  Reportedly the same applies to drug cartels insistent on making a point.

So: assume you will face two or more determined killers at medium to long range for a pistol, and they may wear armor.  How many rounds do you need to end the fight?

Damnsure more than five.

How accurate are you under stress?  Can you make an all-or-nothing head shot across the street—maybe 25 or 30 yards? 

In a gunfight you might get shot.  You don’t quit, but how’s your one-handed ambidextrous shooting?

Clearly, a three-round Mozambiqe Drill might not solve the problem.  And six or eight rounds may not be enough.  That’s why some confirmed single-stack .45 guys are converting to double-stack 9mm or .40 cal.  With today’s quality ammunition, increasingly it’s more about placement than bullet size.  My Para-Ord Lightweight Commander is spooky accurate, but a double-column looks attractive.

Many shooters prefer “off body” carry for convenience—no strapping belts, holsters, and mag pouches on and off.  Contrarily, a Safepacker is handy, practical, and fits almost any likely scenario.

But it doesn’t fit them all.  And it can never be as fast as the holstered pistol under your shirt.

While scenario shopping, consider the assassins’ perspective—what’s an optimum location?  Someplace where the victims are crowded, offering dense targets amid low mobility.  Like a restaurant.  (Remember the 1984 San Ysidro McDonald’s and 1991 Killeen Luby’s, both with 20 dead.)

The restaurant scenario is valuable for its complexity, and it compares the difference between off-body and “on body” carry.  Remember, a reload is far handier from the belt than from the Safepacker, which easily could run five lethal seconds.

Meanwhile, you may want to expand your options beyond a handgun.  A friend often carries a Ruger 10-22 in a zippered tennis racquet case.  He routinely makes fast, offhand 50-yard head shots on IPSC targets.  Another sportsman reportedly uses the same carry mode for a compact AR-15.

Of course, not everyone lives in Free America.  We Arizonans can legally carry concealed almost anywhere, and with a CCW we can carry where adult beverages are served.  (Meanwhile, there still have been no liquored-up Long Branch Saloon shootouts, just as we predicted.)  But since mass murderers prefer gun-free zones--recall the Colorado movie theater—you can guess where you and your loved ones are most vulnerable.  

Whatever your preference, it’s vital to analyze your options and to practice.  Get quality training—it’s the best insurance available.  But perhaps more than anything, make the attitude adjustment.  They’re here, folks.  They walk among us, and the initiative is always theirs.

Be aware, stay alert—and practice.

Saturday, September 26, 2015


This month marks the 104th Pendleton Round-Up, one of Oregon’s most notable events.  And thereby hangs a tale, though apparently there are some things that parents do not even tell their adult children.  I never learned the full story of how my parents hooked up, and since they’re both gone I guess I never will.  But it’s an intriguing story since it involves a rare combination of romance, hosses, airplanes, and stuff.

My hometown is Athena in Umatilla County, near Pendleton up in the northeast corner of the state.  (Athena’s 1940 population: 513.  Pendleton’s: 8,847.)  Before The War my paternal grandfather from Portland had purchased some ranch property near Athena, and Dad worked there during the summer.

In 1941 Dad left Oregon State College to gain experience as a draftsman with Douglas Aircraft in El Segundo, California.  After Pearl Harbor he became a naval aviation cadet and visited his father in Athena.  Mother later said that she saw J. H. Tillman, Jr. leaning against a lamp post and thought, “Hmmm…how did I miss that?”  (He was matinee-idol handsome if I say so myself.)  So she made the aviator’s acquaintance by the clever device of asking him to take her young nephew to the men’s room.  (Sidebar: the lad grew into a mathematics PhD.)

Some background: 

In 1941-42 Pendleton Army Air Field was home to the 17th Bombardment Group (Medium), the first to fly North American’s B-25 Mitchell.  While local lore has been warped to state that Jimmy Doolittle’s Tokyo raiders trained there, nonetheless they were based at PAAF before being selected for The First Special Aviation Project.

Meanwhile, massive violence was applied globally.  Italy capitulated.  Germany surrendered.  Aaaaand…

In August 1945 Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender, and on September 2 the papers were signed aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

Two weeks later the World-Famous Pendleton Round-Up was held.  And folks, the lid was off.

Like many sporting events, the Round-Up was canceled in 1942 and ’43 but resumed in ’44.  Things returned full-scale in ’45 when future movie actor Ben Johnson set a record in calf roping.

Now, to understand the atmosphere in ’45, remember that it occurred immediately after the Second World War ended.  People were primed to party, and lordy-lordy, did they! 

My mother was on the round-up court that year.  A green-eyed brunette, at age 25 she’d grown up on horseback, and was a natural selection since her father (for whom I’m named) was a longtime supporter of the event.  Additionally, she had a maternal cousin who’d been a princess in ’38.

On the first day, the queen and four princesses had just ridden into the arena and were taking their seats when


A dark-blue airplane dipped into the bowl formed by the north and south grandstands, narrowly missing the flags ringing the arena.

The Navy had arrived, though it hadn’t landed yet.

Forty-five miles north-northwest of Pendleton, across the mighty Columbia, was Naval Air Station Pasco, Washington.  It was less than 20 minutes by tailhook aircraft, and the aviators were recently off an escort aircraft carrier, ready to party.  After beating up Umatilla County and alighting at Pendleton, they attached themselves to the court.  Dad had encountered some of them on Main Street, toting a 20 mm ammunition box full of beer and ice. 

One evening everybody was ready for dinner at the country club when someone noticed that a lieutenant (junior grade) called Mac was missing.  His squadronmates ran a sector search and found him out back on the green, asleep under the sprinkler with a St. Bernard.  Mother said he'd consumed 13 Alexanders, a sweet cocktail laced with gin.  Mac's reputation and his dress blues were ruined but what was the Navy gonna do--send him to a combat zone?  

(For a comparable cinematic version, look for the always suave Cary Grant and the eternally glorious Susie Parker in Kiss them For Me based on the Frederick Wakeman novel & play, Shore Leave.)

Moving on:

South of town was/is McKay Reservoir.  There were reports of a TBM-3 Avenger making a l-o-w torpedo run on a row boat, prompting the fishermen to abandon ship.  My father seemed to know a lot about it...always wondered if that inspired the opening PBY scene in Always.

After the Wildcats and Avengers finished ravaging the area (reportedly running a state police car off the road with a tractor or two severely buzzed), The Authorities called Pasco demanding that blue airplanes be grounded.  Done!  The golden wingers had to stay put until the dust settled.

Puh-leez don' th'ow me in dat briar patch!

Long ago I thought that I identified the Navy squadron--wrote the likely suspects' reunion group seeking confirmation but never got a reply.

That seemed to confirm my suspicion.

After Henry Barrett died in 1962, his family sponsored the Pony Express Race.  It was always one of the most dramatic events—a relay with each team passing a baton from one rider to another.  Bounding starts, pounding hooves, flying dirt, occasional collisions—a terrific spectator sport.  First team around the track took home the silver-plated trophy.  For obscure reasons apparently related to parking, the Round-Up ended the PER in 1991 in favor of team roping, though we never got the courtesy of a notification.

Some local lore:

In the 1940s, when the annual Westward Ho Parade passed some entertainment establishments, one of them (officially the Cozy Rooms) set out a sign: “The Westward Ho House.”  The bordello and Chinese opium dens draw tourists from around the Northwest who enjoy Pendleton’s underground tours.

Under the south grand stand is an emporium called The Let 'Er Buck Room.  For decades a long-standing tradition was ringing the cowbell when a cowgirl removed her shirt. They used to post signs saying Keep Your Clothes On but patrons kept stealing them—especially dudes seeking mementos of The Wild West.  Finally the binary problem was solved by stashing the cowbell and removing the signs.

I knew an east coast magazine editor who visited one year--a short Filipino guy who was All American and one of the biggest rednecks I ever met.  When he walked in, a Cowgirl laid a big juicy one on him and said "I want you."  He couldn't think of anything to say so she wandered off.....

Probably not into the sunset, but definitely into the land of Happy Trails.