Wednesday, December 7, 2016


Today is the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a world-historic event that officially launched America into the Second World War.  Yet among the public attention in nearly every account, the stellar player often is taken for granted.

I refer to the Imperial Navy’s carrier striking force, the Mobile Unit or Kido Butai.

That Sunday morning the aircraft carrier was much like the proverbial musician who works 20 years to become an overnight sensation.  When the Imperial Navy stunned the world on December 7, Japan and America had two decades of experience operating carriers, perfecting equipment and techniques.  Both navies had commissioned their first flattops in 1922. 

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto had risen to command the Combined Fleet in August 1939, days before the new war in Europe.  An aviation advocate, he had supported Japan’s carrier program and, once committed to war, he backed the Hawaii plan as preferable to the doctrinal “decisive battle” in mid-Pacific.  He had served in America between the wars, and realized that a pre-emptive strike was essential to Japan’s success—if success were possible at all.

Spurred by America’s embargo to protest Japanese aggression against China, the “Hawaii plan” began with a preliminary study in January 1941.  More details developed from April onward under Rear Admiral Ryūnosuke Kusaka, chief of staff of the newly formed First Air Fleet.  There was nothing else like it on earth: all of Japan’s six large carriers concentrated under Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo.

By comparison, neither the U.S. nor British navies had operated more than three carriers together—and never as a permanent unit with integrated operations.

However, in November 1940 HMS Illustrious launched a successful nocturnal strike against the Italian base at Taranto in the “heel” of the boot.  Three major combatants were knocked out of action, altering the naval balance in the Mediterranean literally overnight.  Taranto’s influence on the Pearl Harbor attack is still debated, but the concept was proven.

Intensive training began in late August, affording Nagumo’s aircrews barely three months to perfect tactics and techniques.  Commander Minoru Genda’s plan involved a triple blow: high-altitude level bombers, dive bombers, and torpedo planes.  However, Pearl Harbor presented a problem: the average depth was barely 40 feet, and Japanese torpedoes needed twice as much to recover, rise to the desired depth, and run safely.  Ordnance engineers found an inspired solution: disposable wooden fins that let the torpedoes run at a shallow setting.
The six carriers bound for Hawaiian waters were arrayed in pairs: the giant sisters Akagi and Kaga in the First Carrier Division; Soryu and Hiryu in the Second; and newly-commissioned Shokaku and Zuikaku in the Fifth.  They embarked some 420 bombers, torpedo planes, and fighters, while battleships and cruisers operated catapult-launched floatplanes. 

The carriers were escorted by two battleships, three cruisers, nine destroyers, and nourished by seven tankers.  The latter were more important than the escorts, as the striking force could not reach Hawaiian waters and return without replenishing at sea.

Kido Butai sortied from the Kurile Islands on November 26.  Crossing nearly 4,000 miles of the North Pacific under radio silence, the task force avoided detection during the eleven-day transit.  Meanwhile, submarines had already departed home waters and bases in the Marshall Islands.

Emperor Hirohito had approved war against the Western powers barely a month before, but did not permit the attack until December 1.  Thus, Nagumo’s force represented an arrow launched at the heart of the U.S. Pacific Fleet that might have been recalled in flight.  Instead, it flew straight to its target.

Early that morning, 230 statute miles north of Oahu, Kido Butai’s six carriers lofted 183 aircraft in 15 minutes—an achievement under any condition, let alone the Pacific’s pitching swells.  Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s practiced air groups quickly assembled, formed up, and set course.  A second wave of 167 followed.

The first wave was timed to arrive over Pearl about 30 minutes after Japanese diplomats delivered Tokyo’s refusal to accept Washington’s demands.  But the message from Tokyo took too long to decode, so the attack proceeded as a surprise.  The result was boiling anger throughout America, fueling a surging rage that never abated until VJ-Day.

While the leading squadrons winged southward under Lieutenant Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, Kido Butai continued as briefed.  At 7:15 the second wave of 168 planes lifted off its decks, comprising 54 level bombers, 78 dive bombers, and 36 fighters.

The first bombers over the target were 16 Nakajimas from Soryu and Hiryu.  Briefed to hit carriers on Ford Island’s northwest coast, they went for alternate objectives, destroying the target ship USS Utah and damaging a cruiser.

Akagi’s torpedo squadron led a devastating attack.  The Nakajimas swept in from the north shore of the harbor, skimming low between Hickam Field and the fuel tank farm, then nudging downward over the water.  Making 100 mph at 65 feet, they deployed as per individual briefings and turned onto their attack headings.  A quarter mile ahead lay the gray monoliths along Battleship Row.
Of 36 torpedoes dropped, probably 19 found their targets.  Hardest hit were West Virginia and Oklahoma moored outboard at the head of Battleship Row.  California, farther ahead of the others, took two hits and slowly settled onto the mud.

Five torpedo planes were shot down, all from succeeding waves as the defenders responded and fought back. 

The high-level bombers each carried an 800 kg armor-piercing weapon, designed to penetrate a battleship’s thick armor.  The ten planes targeting Arizona scored four hits and three near misses.  One of them found the sweet spot, smashing into Arizona’s forward magazine.  The 1,760-pound bomb ignited tons of gunpowder, destroying the ship in seconds with three-fourths of the crew.

At 8:40, almost half an hour after the first attack, 167 aircraft of the second wave were led by Zuikaku’s senior aviator, Lieutenant Commander Shigekazu Shimazaki.  No torpedo planes participated but 54 Nakajima level bombers struck three air bases.  The 78 Aichi dive bombers were assigned any carriers in port with cruisers as secondary goals.  Nearly three dozen Zero fighters established air superiority over Hickam and Bellows Fields plus Kaneohe Naval Air Station.
Much of the effort was wasted as many dive bomber pilots probably misidentified ship types; perhaps 28 Aichis dove on destroyers or auxiliary vessels. 

Brunt of the second dive-bombing attack was Nevada, the only battleship to get underway.  Already holed by a torpedo, she took six bombs in a few minutes and developed a list.  To avoid sinking, she was beached near the harbor entrance.

When the second wave departed northward, the entire attack had lasted not quite two hours, from 7:55 to 9:45.  In their slipstream the Japanese left a stunned result on Oahu, both physical and emotional.

The attack killed 2,335 U.S. military personnel and 68 civilians. 

Arizona was destroyed and Oklahoma written off.  Pennsylvania and Maryland were lightly damaged but saw no action until 1943. Tennessee and Nevada were refitted in 1942 and ‘43; California and West Virginia were refloated and fully repaired in 1944. 

Three cruisers and three destroyers were repaired or rebuilt from 1942 to 1944.  Finally, a minelayer was sunk but repaired and operational in 1944.

Combined U.S. aircraft losses ran as high as 350 destroyed or damaged—there is wide disparity in details.
At 11:15 Kido Butai began landing the second wave, completed an hour later.  The fliers were jubilant.  They knew they had inflicted severe damage and were eager to complete the task.  But Nagumo opted for prudence.  More than 70 returning planes were damaged, and he needed to conserve fuel oil.  The Imperial Navy had too few fleet tankers in 1941 and never caught up.  Nagumo turned for home.

None of the six Kido Butai carriers survived the war.  Four died at Midway six months later; another off the Marianas in June 1944, and the last, Zuikaku, at Leyte Gulf four months later.

Naval historian John Lundstrom aptly described Kido Butai as “a 1941 atom bomb.”  In contrast, the U.S. Navy did not field six big-deck carriers until early 1944.  So while honoring the defenders of Pearl Harbor, we should remember that the attackers demonstrated a high order of organization, competence and imagination—exceeding our own, truth be told.

We had to relearn that lesson on September 11, 2001.  We should never have to learn it again.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016


Among the groups of people I most admire are self-employed professionals such as farmers, writers, artists, and entrepreneurs.  But that’s a subject for another blog.  This month I want to pay tribute to one of the most self-employed people I ever knew—Michael J. Dillon.

Mike departed the pattern early this month at the age of 81.  I was privileged to know him nearly 30 years, as our mutual interests cross-pollinated with aviation and firearms.  Mike was a standout innovator in both realms.  Moreover, he smiled more than anyone I ever knew.

Born in Philadelphia in 1935, Mike spent his youth up and down the East Coast while his father was a merchant marine officer.  Along the way Mike acquired a taste for machinery—fast, exotic machinery—starting with race cars and ending with a privately-owned jet.

The aviation bug bit Mike permanently—and hard.  In the early to mid 60s he was working his way through college, partly by flying spray planes in the south and southwest, and was within two credits of graduation when he dropped out to fly full time.  Eventually he cadged a right-seat assignment with TWA (“Try Walking Across”) and flew as a first officer for 13 years.  Then, possibly within months of upgrading to captain, again he struck out on his own.  That was Mike—the eternal optimist, a self-composed individual with enough confidence to fill a hangar full of exotic airplanes.  Which, incidentally, he did.

Along the way, Mike was blessed with Carol, his extraordinary wife who, in son Steve’s words, “inspired him to be more than he was.”  She continued her teaching career while raising a family.  Not surprisingly, their three children learned to fly, up to and including commercial tickets.

Mike Dillon was a dreamer who created his own reality.  On a trip through Texas he had spotted a badly neglected Curtiss P-40.  Long story short: he bought the WW II fighter and fetched it back to Phoenix.  Years of weekends and nights passed, but with some devoted friends, Mike finished the job and painted the Warhawk a warlike red.  He flew it enough to begin a partial career as a magazine writer, ably assisted by his photographer friend Nyle Leatham.  That was how I learned about Mike—reading his articles in Air Progress.

Eventually Mike sold the P-40 and bought a North American AT-6 trainer.  Many years later I asked him how many hours he had in each warbird but he just unzipped that patented Dillon grin.  “I didn’t keep a logbook,” he said, “because it could be used against you!”  Without being specific, he alluded to something called the statute of limitations…

Mike was a passionate maverick but he always followed his own moral compass.  When a friend killed himself and a passenger in the AT-6, Mike refused the widow’s offer of restitution.  He told her, “You didn’t wreck the plane so you’re not responsible.”  It was a case of good karma coming around because the lady insisted on giving Mike some of her husband’s automatic weapons, leading in directions we have noted above.

Nonetheless, the birds began accumulating in the barn.  Mike moved into a large, new building on Scottsdale Airport, and over the years he had two Beechcraft T-34 trainers (capable of bombing and strafing), a rare two-seat Vought Pinto jet trainer, and two helicopters.  He flew his UH-1B Huey to New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, delivering supplies and relief crews to devastated areas.  He never asked for a dime of compensation—it was simply the right thing to do.  Restored to Vietnam configuration, the Huey became a test bed for Dillon Aero’s minigun.

And thereby hangs another tale.

After TWA Mike said he never worked another day in his life.  He was a born inventor, with that innate curiosity and imagination ever percolating inside.  Of inventiveness he confided, “It’s a curse because it never shuts off.”  But the challenge of perfecting equipment for loading ammunition was another time at bat, swinging for the bleachers.  And he connected.

“It’s outta here, folks!”

Mike got involved in hand-loading ammunition to feed his growing collection of firearms.  Starting with a Star single-stage press, the Dillon evolutionary process led to the rotating multi-stage concept so common today.  The numbers told the story: from the 300 to the 650 and beyond, each indicating the expected ammo production per hour.  Different tool heads allowed an owner to load a variety of calibers on the same machine—an elegant concept.

Eventually man and moment met.  In the late 80s Mike obtained one of a very few civilian General Electric M134 miniguns, a highspeed six-barrel gatling that spewed 3,000 rounds or more of 7.62 mm per minute.  But the design was unnecessarily complex—the reasons had to do with corporate security—and required considerable maintenance.  Mike began pondering improvements by the process he called “water cooler engineering.”  He and other Dillonites often congregated around casually to commiserate on things.  The upshot: a simpler, more easily produced and maintained minigun.  Ironically, Mike found that he had unknowingly reverse-engineered GE’s original design. 

The Dillon M134D was an immediate hit.  Mike logged a lot of travel time demonstrating the minigun to potential users in the U.S. and abroad.  In fact, the SUV-mounted gun, dubbed Raptor, was unavailable here owing to federal regulations but it found a market among sheiks and emirs the Middle East.  But the U.S. armed forces seized upon the newer, slicker minigun to mount it on vehicles, aircraft, and ships for in-port defense.  Dillon Aero received a commendation from Special Operations Task Force 160 in appreciation of the 134D.

Meanwhile, the Dillon Precision side of the house was going gangbusters.  At first, everybody did everything, from designing and assembling reloaders to shipping them and answering the phones.  But as the business grew, Mike discerned the advantage of more specialization to meet customer needs.  His staff features longevity, and today some of the original hires are still working. 

Mike’s ironclad warranty is famous in the industry.  The company will replace any part or major component, no questions asked.  Aside from the ethical aspects, Mike said that customer loyalty was enhanced by his policy, and in all those years he only suspected a couple of clients taking advantage of his offer.

That was Mike Dillon: dreamer, pragmatist, inventor, ethicist, friend.  And just the nicest man.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016


The older you grow, the faster time flies.  But you knew that.

So it’s not surprising that I awoke the first of this month with a dizzying sensation.  My first book, The Dauntless Dive Bomber of World War II, was published in October 1976, forty years ago!


Where did they go?

Actually, there was some warning since the bow wave had spilled over my literary prow last year, the fiftieth anniversary of my first published article.  I was a sophomore in high school when I began writing a Pacific Northwest column for Drum Corps World, leading to a few contributions in modeling publications.

Now, fifty books and nearly 700 articles later, it’s inevitable to look back and reflect.

I wrote my first six books and perhaps 100 articles on a Royal Standard my father bought before I was born.  I used it so much that some of the vowels started fading from heavy use.  I have no idea how many ribbons I went through in those 14 or 15 years, but I also bought carbon paper by the sheaf.  In those days “cut and paste” involved scissors and paste—or Scotch tape.

The best class I ever took, including all those college journalism courses, was my high-school freshman typing class.  That was in the winter of 1963-64, and it required dedication because Mr. Simpson and Mrs. Gilliland could only manage it before school.  So I dutifully fetched myself to the unheated basement of the Athena First Baptist Church before trudging the remaining five blocks to McEwen High. 

Finally I earned my forty words per minute pin (I was oafishly proud), the same year as my first state rudimental drumming championship. 

As slow and as tedious as the process could be in the seventh and eighth decades of the 20th century, that old Royal made me into more than a fair typist.  It forced me to become a writer.  To avoid repetition, each time I sat in my cushioned chair, I needed to focus not only on what I was going to say, but how I was going to say it.  Otherwise I would have consumed additional dead trees by retyping entire manuscripts.  After awhile I was able to retype pages rather than chapters.  That made a big difference, increasing my productivity.

The concept of the SBD book began several years before publication, when my father and two flying buddies purchased the only flying Dauntless.  It was an Army A-24B (Banshee rather than Dauntless), operated by Multnomah County, essentially metro Portland.  It was getting expensive to operate as a mosquito-control aircraft, modified with a tank and pump in the aft cockpit with spray booms affixed to the permanently closed dive brakes.  Our consortium bought a purpose-built spray plane, a Cessna Ag Wagon, and swapped it for the Dauntless.

Eventually Dad bought out his partners, and we proceeded with a full restoration in Portland and Salem environs in 1971.  At some point in the process, nearly standing on my head in the rear pit with a light in one hand and a pop-rivet gun in the other, I got an Inspiration.

I had missed a lot of school due to childhood asthma.  Never got a perfect attendance pin.  So I became a recreational reader at a tender age.  History interested me and aviation fascinated me.  I realized that although the SBD was a war-winning aircraft against Japan, it had never received a full-length treatment.

And there I was, restoring one. 

The format for my nascent book immediately took shape, and remained constant with subsequent volumes on Hellcats, Corsairs, Wildcats and beyond.  I knew that you could find technical information on almost any WW II aircraft—what I called “rivet counter” texts.  The biggies in the genre had a steady following, including Gordon Swanborough and William Green in the UK and Peter M. Bowers here, among others.  (I got to know Pete pretty well—what a character.)  But I wanted to do more.  I’d begun flying in 1965 and eventually logged hundreds of hours in airplanes older than I was.  Therefore, my SBD book should include both technical and personal/operational coverage, and readers responded well.  I had found my niche.

Meanwhile, we flew the Dauntless until 1974 when Dad sold it to Oklahoma warbird collector Doug Champlin, leading to a cherished friendship.  But during the precious hours I flew with Dad in the Dauntless, restored as a Navy SBD-5, my fascination with the subject increased.  I had begun researching a book in 1971-72, but the Vietnam War and its aftermath put severe dents in the military market.  However, eventually I sold the idea to Naval Institute Press in Annapolis, with publication in October 1976.  The timing seemed worth the wait because at length the Bicentennial celebration overcame much of the anti-military residue from That Crazy Asian War.

Today I’ve adopted an historian’s motto: Do It Now.  None of my WW II books could be written today as they were at the time, owing to accelerating attrition.  Some of the friends I made in writing Dauntless Dive Bomber became lifelines far downstream, especially two USS Enterprise aviators: Dick Best of Midway fame, and Jig Dog Ramage who led Bombing Squadron 10 in 1944.  None of the contributors remain today. 

Many years later I was privileged to know Douglas engineer Ed Heinemann.  His team had modified the Northrop BT-1 into the SBD-1.  The only thing I was able to tell him is that the holes in the dive brakes and landing flaps were exactly the diameter of a tennis ball.  I only learned that esoteric fact because my younger brother dated a high-school player.

The book not only set the format for my other aircraft histories, but gave me an entry into the professional history world.  When I made my first visit to the Navy’s operational archives in D.C., I was probably a 24-year-old Oregon ranch kid with a journalism diploma and fewer than a dozen magazine credits.  Yet Dr. Dean C. Allard treated me as a colleague, based on our previous correspondence.  He could not have been more welcoming or more supportive.

Four decades later, Dauntless Dive Bomber remains in print, both print and electronically.  That’s how much things have changed since 1976.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016


Conventional wisdom holds that what is past is prologue.  In that regard, the West’s long-running battle with islamo-fascism has a similar clash still in living memory.

The geopolitical clock was running in 1934.  Despite a Europe wracked by the lingering effects of the 1914-1918 Great War, that summer the five-year countdown to another conflagration ran inexorably onward.  The sands of time draining in history’s hourglass were pressed from above by the weight of an emerging political philosophy: fascism.  It was bound to collide with Western democracies.

Fascism is usually seen as an extreme right-wing, one-party state.  However, fascism shared much with communism since both were highly authoritarian philosophies—presumably populist but in fact antidemocratic--in which national priorities prevailed over rights of the individual. 

A chart of the political spectrum frequently portrays fascism on the far right and communism on the far left, but that is a skewed depiction.  In fact, both belong on the left—communism at the far end--with anarchy properly laid on the far right.  Democracies fall somewhere in between.

Historically, both philosophies are outgrowths of 19th century socialism.  A distinguishing feature is that communism is ostensibly international socialism, while fascism is national socialism.  The best example of such philosophical overlap is the Nazis in Germany—the National Socialist Workers’ Party.

The roots of fascism were Italian national “syndicalism,” evolved from a form of French socialism.  In the turbulent political, economic and social aftermath of WW I, fascism gained strength in Europe.  In Italy around 1920, future dictator Benito Mussolini drew upon both sides.  He denigrated the traditional right as backwards and the left as destructive.  In order to avoid constant turmoil, fascists believed in an extremely strong central government, yielding Mussolini’s “century of authority.” 

After fighting among communists, socialists and anarchists, at least nominally fascist movements took power in Mussolin's Italy in 1922, Adolf Hitler's Germany in 1933, and Francisco Franco's Spain in 1939.

Fascism’s appeal was widespread among many nationalist factions: at least ten other nations followed the Italian and German paths by 1939, in Europe, Asia, and South America.  Other countries sprouted significant fascist movements, including much of the British Commonwealth.  Their emergence reflected growing disaffection with the naiveté and pacifism still evident two decades after the armistice of 1918.

The international “peacekeeping” body, the League of Nations established in1920, had no means of enforcing peace, and quickly descended into irrelevancy. Including civil wars and revolts, more than 40 conflicts on four continents arose during the 1930s, though only about a dozen lasted a year or more.  The most significant were the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) with heavy foreign involvement, and Japan-China (1937-45.) 

Other notable conflicts involved Paraguay-Bolivia (1932-35), Italy-Ethiopia (1935-36), Palestinians versus the British (1936-39), and Finland-Russia (1939-40).

Adolf Hitler came to power as chancellor in 1933 and immediately began expanding the armed forces.  In July 1934 parliament passed legislation making the National Socialists the only legal political party, and the next month President Paul Hindenburg died, leaving Chancellor Hitler as head of state.

Hitler wasted little time proceeding with his agenda.  In October 1934, only nine months after becoming chancellor, he withdrew from the League of Nations by demanding military equality with France and Britain.  After secretly forming the Luftwaffe (partly in Russia) Hitler announced its existence in 1935.

Fascism’s advance did not occur in a vacuum.  In 1933 members of the Oxford Union voted that they would “in no circumstances fight for king and country” because presumably nothing was worth another Great War.  The vote came six years after Cambridge students easily passed a resolution for pacifism.

In March 1936 Hitler seized the Rhineland, a demilitarized zone between France and Germany established after World War I. In two days the crisis passed: Germany remained free to pursue its wider goals.  The upshot set a deadly pattern: the democracies’ perennial unwillingness to challenge aggression. 

Thus emboldened, in 1938 Hitler renounced the Versailles Treaty signed after WW I and ordered his general staff to prepare for full-scale war by 1940.

A native Austrian, Hitler wanted his homeland in German Reich, but the Vienna government declined.  Faced with possible invasion in 1938, Austria sought assistance from Britain and France, who refused. Hitler invaded in March.

Next Hitler set his sights on Czechoslovakia.  He insisted that the Sudetenland—heavily ethnic German—join the Reich.  The Czech government was willing to fight, however poor its chances, but again France and Britain opted for “peace,” declining to support the Czechs.  Naïve Europeans believed Hitler’s previous statement that Sudentenland was “the last territorial demand I have to make in Europe.”  The seal was set in September, and in March 1939 Hitler seized the rest of the nation.

Then in August 1939 Hitler and Stalin astonished the world by signing a mutual nonaggression pact, only three years after the anti-Comintern alliance. The path was clear for Germany to direct its attention against traditional enemies: France and Britain.  Neither had demonstrated any willingness to oppose fascist aggression, convincing Adolf Hitler that pacifism had stripped the democracies of their courage.

Unlike Italy and Germany, Japanese fascism did not produce a dominant individual.  But an amalgam of army, government, and industry leaders pushed an anti-democratic agenda that led to a de-facto fascist state from 1931.

Japan had ten prime ministers through the 1930s, only four being elected.  Emperor Hirohito had ascended the throne in 1926 but sat as head of state rather than head of government.  It was a time of extreme unrest, with army and right-wing factions resorting to assassination on occasion.

In 1931 Japanese forces invaded Manchuria and established a puppet state, Manchukuo.  The League of Nations was incapable of resolving the dispute, though held Tokyo responsible.  Consequently, Japan pressed its military advantage while withdrawing from the league. 

Increasingly aggressive in eastern China, Japan pressed ahead with full-scale war from 1937.  Japan seized Shanghai and Nanking, the Nationalist capital.  In December the rape of Nanking began with an estimated 300,000 Chinese killed or raped.

Thus was set the stage for the Second World War, which conceivably could have been averted had the democracies displayed some intestinal fortitude. 

In the 1930s fascism was ascendant in Europe and Asia.  Today, Islamo-fascism continues its march toward the global caliphate.  Yet in the West, even the phrase “radical Islam” draws venomous responses from the American president and a chorus of liberal feel-gooders.  The West lacks a 21st century Churchill, let alone a Charles Martel, the French leader who repelled Islam’s hordes at Tours in 732.

We live in historic times: we are witness to the decline of Western Civilization, a victim of the virus of political correctness.