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.