Saturday, September 29, 2018


One hundred years ago today, Second Lieutenant Frank Luke violated orders, took off from his squadron’s base in France, and disappeared.  Eventually his fate was learned, but his flight into Legend crossed the boundary into the land of Myth, and it’s remarkable there’s never been a movie about him.  A headstrong, talented maverick who habitually bucked The System has been the formula for more than one motion picture—and Tom Cruise can eat his heart out.

As an Arizonan and a pilot I’ve long been fascinated with “The Arizona Balloon Buster.”  My early interest extended well beyond the legend of the fighter ace to include the historiography of the Luke Legend.

Frank Luke, Jr., was a first-generation American descended from German emigrants.  He was born the fifth of nine children, graduated from Phoenix Union High school and worked at mining while enjoying riding, shooting, and bare-knuckle boxing.

Luke enlisted in the Army in September 1917, applied for pilot training and won his wings in March 1918.  Reputedly in his “pursuit” training class he finished first in “air work” and second in gunnery.  Sent to France, he was assigned to the 27th Aero Squadron that July, flying racy Nieuport 28 fighters.  America never fielded a home-grown “pursuit” during the Great War, hence our reliance upon foreign products.

Brash and self confident, Second Lieutenant Luke was apt to get cross-threaded with Authority. His original squadron commander, Major Harold Hartney, was inclined to cut the lad some slack.  But Luke’s cockiness struck many squadronmates the wrong way.  His aloof nature brought him few friends, but he was particularly close to another German-American, Lieutenant Joseph Wehner. Both had been investigated for their Teutonic origins but were accepted as loyal Americans.

Luke’s solitary nature extended into the third dimension.  He was chided for breaking formation, going hunting on his own, and when he returned from a solo sortie saying he downed a German plane, few believed him.  The claim went unconfirmed.

Meanwhile, Luke went his own way.  He enjoyed helling around on a motorcycle, reputedly racing down narrow lanes shooting his .45 automatic at trees along the road.  He also indulged his ballistic interests by playing with captured “Hun” machine guns.

Not well understood was the context in which the Luke legend emerged.  Essentially Frank was the meat in a political sandwich layered between Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell, commanding U.S. aviation in France, and the CO of the 27th Aero.  In September 1918, with the St. Mihiel offensive shaping up, it was imperative to neutralize German observation balloons.  The tethered Drachen afforded an unrestricted view well beyond the Allied trenches, providing invaluable information and artillery direction.

Mitchell directed the First Pursuit Group to destroy the German balloon line, and the bulk of the work descended upon the 27th.  The previous squadron CO, Canadian Harold Hartney, moved up to command the group in August, succeeded by Captain Alfred Grant.  Whereas Hartney had been inclined to tolerate the headstrong Arizonan, Grant was not.  

Nonetheless, Hartney leaned on Grant to produce results for Mitchell.  It probably galled Grant no end, but his champion balloon burner was Frank Luke.  Grant was forced to tolerate the Arizonan’s maddening ways because the twenty-one-year-old “cowboy” got results.  

Luke gained his first confirmed victory on September 12.  Seventeen days later he ran his score to eighteen including fourteen balloons.  Thus, Luke scored nearly half the Drachen credited to U.S. squadrons in that period.

But the results incurred a bitter price.  On their best day, September 18, Luke and Wehner downed three German balloons and two airplanes but Wehner died protecting his partner.  Luke was grief stricken and vowed revenge.  One of his remaining friends was Lieutenant Ivan Roberts who assumed Wehner's role as wingman.  On the 26th, flying their first mission together, Roberts went missing, later declared dead.

On the 28th Luke notched two more victories, running his tally to fifteen, easily the top score in the U.S. Air Service.  He spent the night with a French squadron and returned to the 27th’s field the next day, facing an irate Grant.  Grounded pending disciplinary measures, Luke ignored orders and took off for a forward field near Verdun.  Probably he hoped that Hartney would cover for him.  After all, Hartney had recognized the talent in Luke’s hot hands and the burning ambition behind those blue eyes.  A veteran of two years of combat, Hartney likely accepted that with fliers like Luke all you could do was stand back and let them shoot while they lasted.  In any case, the group commander issued a pro-forma reprimand to the miscreant and allowed him to take off that evening.  Luke buzzed the American front lines, dropping a note, “Watch Hun balloons on the Meuse.”

Over the next hour or so three Drachen erupted in flames and Frank Luke disappeared.  His body was recovered in 1919 and Frank Sr. accepted the Medal of Honor recognizing Lieutenant Luke’s exceptional heroism.

Lapse-dissolve, fade to day.  In 2008 racing journalist Stephen Skinner published the definitive Frank Luke book, The Stand.  After years of travel and extensive archival work, Skinner used the skills of a cold-case detective to reconstruct Luke’s last flight.  The conclusion: the first of the three balloons fell to a 95th Aero pilot, Lieutenant Granville Woodard, who was shot down and captured.  Therefore, Luke received credit for all three balloons destroyed that evening.

The enduring part of the Luke Legend is that Luke perished in a Tombstone-style shootout near Vaux-sur-Somme.  Critically wounded, he force-landed behind the lines, drew his Colt, and died facing German riflemen.  

In the 1980s I worked in the late Doug Champlin’s world-class fighter aircraft museum in Mesa, Arizona.  The museum's SPAD was a magnificent reproduction of the type XIII bearing Luke’s markings, with original Hispano-Suiza engine, instruments, and Vickers machine guns. We hosted members of the Luke family, who expressed heartfelt appreciation for Doug’s tribute to Frank Jr. It was an intriguing meeting, and I enjoyed comparing notes with Frank’s grand nephew—we were both partial to the Colt Model 1911.  

Relatives said that because of Frank’s fate, nobody else pursued an aviation career but his example remains always there, even beyond Luke Air Force Base: the Arizona gunslinger who carved notches in a brief, blazing trail across the French sky.

(Blogger does not permit me to publish in black font this month.  Please bear with us!)

Wednesday, August 29, 2018


The aviation history firmament lost a star this month: Henry Sakaida, a valued friend and colleague of nearly fifty years.  He died after an extremely short illness of seizures caused by glioblastoma.

Henry's grandparents emigrated from Japan and his parents began a prosperous nursery near LA.  He took over the business on behalf of the family and ran with it.  But Henry was one of the most American of all Americans I've known.  He said that if his son wanted to learn Japanese, he'd have to do it on his own because only English was spoken in the House of Sakaida.  He liked to drive fast (his Toyota had a Mitsubishi Zero gunsight) and twirl six-shooters.

I met Henry in the early 70s as a mutual friend of Marine Corps Medal of Honor ace Ken Walsh.  Henry had helped Ken locate the family inscribed on a Japanese flag captured on Okinawa, beginning a long friendship between them.  Their relationship extended to me during a visit with Ken in Santa Ana near Los Angeles.

(Sidebar: no sooner had I parked in Ken’s driveway than he emerged from the shop, wiping his hands and asking, “Do you need a tuneup?”  He’d entered Marine Corps aviation as a slick-sleeve private, combined mechanic and radioman.)

As a self-taught historian, Henry was a bulldog of a researcher.  He ferreted out the 22nd Bomb Group mission report of June 1942 showing that Lyndon Johnson lied about his reputed heroism in the self-serving 1964 book by Martin Caidin.  Titled The Mission, it capitalized on the reputed drama of the Democrat presidential incumbent in a desperate aerial battle with a leading enemy ace.  Almost none of it was true: Johnson’s aircraft aborted with engine trouble far short of the target.  

Henry found the relevant document in the Australian War Memorial when it was "unavailable" in the U.S.  Our Naval History article became the basis of a CNN special report.  

Mainly Henry reveled in putting former enemies in touch with one another, most notably Sakai with the Dauntless gunner who hosed him at Guadalcanal in ‘42, and the P-47 Thunderbolt pilot who ventilated General Adolf Galland's Me-262 in '45.

Henry's book count topped 15, frequently with Osprey in the UK.  His hardcover tomes on the I-400 class submarines and Captain Minoru Genda's fighter wing remain landmarks.  I published his Saburo Sakai volume at Champlin Press mid 80s, and it's become highly collectible.

Like many of us in the naval and/or aviation history fields, Henry succeeded without benefit of letters behind his name.  Several years ago when I spoke at the Naval War College, the PhD head of academics conceded that much, perhaps most, of the cutting-edge work was accomplished by outsiders.  He could have been talking about Henry, who by diligence and enthusiasm became one of our most accomplished insiders.

I enjoyed knowing Henry so much that I put him in two of my novels: Hiroyoshi Sakaida, a recon floatplane pilot in Dauntless and Rufe/Zeke aviator in Hellcats.  Actually, Henry’s middle name was Hiroshi, as many Japanese-American parents give children an ancestral middle name.  Unlike many novelists’ friends who appear as partial characters, my Sakaida was cut from whole cloth. Hiroyoshi was Henry, the Imperial Navy’s extroverted wild and crazy guy with no shades of gray.  He's still pending as a MiG driver in Sabrejet, if that ever gets finished.

Henry was one of the most generous people ever.  He spent more time, effort, and money than I could guess, tracking down families of foreign KIAs (often Russians) and returning their relatives' medals or artifacts.  Henry's travels took him as far afield as Mongolia.  He and a colleague went there at least twice seeking relics of the 1939 war, and became known to the border guards.  "Oh, those crazy Americans again."

My wife Sally got acquainted with Henry during two or three of his visits.  She summarized, "What a cool guy."  On the first trip he arrived at the door with three steaks for us to share for dinner.  Secondly he attended our 2016 post-election Deplorables Party (wearing a Soviet winter hat) and enjoyed conversing with Sergei Sikorsky--in Russian.

My bookshelf displays a color photo of Henry beaming from the cockpit of a Zero, wearing Imperial Navy helmet and goggles.  The 1981 inscription: “Anytime, anywhere but only on my terms!”

That was my friend Henry, who really did live life on his own terms.

Sunday, June 17, 2018


Like so many of my Boomer vintage, my father is absent this Father’s Day.  Dad departed the pattern in 2014, not quite ninety-two.  I was with him early that morning when he stopped breathing, as I had been with my mother fourteen years before.  Just “luck of the draw” that I was present both times, as my brothers’ time slots had been determined well before.

Because so much of my life revolved around aviation, when I think of Dad I recall our times together not only flying but restoring and maintaining antiques and warbirds.

Like his father, my dad was really smart—engineering bright, and he entered Oregon State intending to graduate with an aeronautics option.  But along the way he got a chance to work with Douglas Aircraft in the LA area.  In 1941 the company was straining to meet production goals, and Dad’s education landed him a job as a draftsman.  He was impressed with the DB-7 which the Army Air Force called the A-20, a sporty twin-engine, single-pilot light bomber with a gunner and occasionally a bombardier.  Rumor Control held that the Marine Corps was going to get Havocs, and that sounded really good…

Jack Tillman became an excellent aviator.  He’d partly completed Navy flight training in World War II when events intruded, but he retained the precision attitude toward flying that was a naval trademark.

More significantly, Dad conquered the potentially debilitating polio that he contracted after the war.  He visited a friend in Puerto Rico—one “Honest Joe” Foster whose social circle included playwright Thornton Wilder of Our Town fame.  Apparently there had been an outbreak of polio on the island dating from 1942, and Dad was one of hundreds of victims, then age 24. 

Dad’s often-absent father, J.H. Sr., partly oversaw Dad’s treatment in a Portland hospital.  Sr. made a lot of money in the construction business—he had bid on the Golden Gate Bridge—and was more lavish with funds than attention.  But the one thing he did right was to bring Dad’s 80-pound Doberman to the hospital.  Dad could hear Clipper’s approach by the growing chorus of Eeks and laughs as the dog approached Dad’s room.  Clipper leapt onto the bed, delighted at the reunion, until someone in authority demanded his removal.  Dad, ever the pragmatist, said, “You remove him!”

Clipper stayed awhile.

Upon release, Dad began rehabilitation.  Both his lower legs were badly atrophied, and he walked with a pronounced limp the rest of his life.  I remember seeing the Canadian walking sticks in a closet at the ranch house before we moved into town in ’57.  In 1947, a year before I was born, he boarded Blaze, his buckskin mare, slung the sticks across the saddle with his Winchester Model 70, and rode into the Blue Mountains to hunt elk.  At that point my mother told her parents, “I’m going to marry him.”

In the 60s Dad built the ranch into a major feedlot operation but refused to be separated from aviation.  He had grown up around aircraft, occasionally cadging rides at Portland’s Swan Island Airport with aerobatic legend Tex Rankin.  It was then the largest flying school in the country.  Dad sailed to Alaska and the Yukon as a teenager and enjoyed rides in Bellanca floatplanes—classic examples of aviation’s Golden Era.

Dad flew occasionally after the war but returned to aviation full time in the late 60s.  He bought a former crop sprayer—a 1940 Naval Aircraft Factory N3N-3 biplane trainer--in Colorado, had it restored to airworthy condition.  With a friend he flew it out to Pendleton, Oregon, in 1967 where the restoration was completed.  Subsequently when we re-opened Barrett Field at my hometown (Athena, Oregon, population c. 950) he built a permanent hangar and we based the Yellow Bird there until Dad sold it c. 1985.

Meanwhile, Dad and two friends acquired what was then the world’s only flying example of the Douglas Dauntless, the war-winning Navy dive bomber of Midway and Guadalcanal fame.  Around 1970 they traded Multnomah County (urban Portland) straight across for a new Cessna Ag Wagon spray plane, and a two-year restoration began.  Finally Dad bought out his partners, and we completed the Army A-24B as a Navy SBD-5 in 1972.  I was blessed to fly six or eight hours with Dad in “the Doug” as he called it, forming the basis of my first book, an operational history of the SBD in 1976.  Forty-two years later the book remains in print.

Eventually Dad sold the Dauntless to Oklahoma collector Doug Champlin, beginning one of the cherished relationships of my life.  In 1982 I moved to Arizona to run Champlin Fighter Museum Press, and spent four memorable years there.  Doug died in 2013 but he remains one of the touchstones of my professional and personal life.

Along the way, I flew nearly 600 hours with Dad—mostly in the N3N.  It’s a “rudder airplane,” requiring dexterity on the pedals, but despite his residual polio, Dad was complete master of the Yellow Bird.

I will always remember one particular flight:

Normally approaching for landing, Dad would shake the stick indicating that we were changing pilot-in-command.  Usually it was obvious because one or the other was driving.  One afternoon, approaching Barrett Field, the stick quivered and I eased my connection with the controls.

The N slid down the glideslope, the Wright rattling away, and I followed through on the controls as I normally did. 

The bird paid off at about 45 knots, settling onto the 1,500-foot grass strip in a perfect three-pointer.  Soft as an angel’s kiss.

When Dad cut the throttle and mixture he lifted one flap of his cloth helmet, turned around in the front cockpit, and said, “That was the best landing you ever made.  Why can’t you always do it like that?”


Eventually I wrote a poem about that episode, available on my website.

However, Dad was interested in things beside aviation.  Apart from the independence he enjoyed as a rancher, he was also civic minded.  He served on the board of the hospital where I was born, drove the local ambulance, organized and funded the rural fire department, supported our Boy Scout troop, and provided land for the sheriff’s department to build one of the finest shooting ranges east of the Cascades. 

That was Jack Tillman—a mentor to young men in two states and dogs of all ages everywhere. 

Thursday, May 31, 2018


Donna Wild Foss died this month at age 100.  She was the oldest person I knew, and one of finest.  The fact that she was married to aviation, political, and sports legend Joe Foss until his death in 2003 was significant, but also beside the point. 

I was privileged to belong to the Foss circle for about thirty-five years, and am grateful that the relationship continues.  But during “Didi’s” memorial service in Scottsdale this week, there was time to reflect upon her life and what she meant to so many of us.

Didi was born in Michigan in October 1917.  She lived a full, righteous century on Earth, leaving a ton of admirers.  She is survived by her daughter Coni Foss and son Dean Hall; two grandchildren; three great grandchildren; and a great-great grand daughter.

Joe met Didi in 1951 when he attended a jet transition course at Williams Air Force Base near Phoenix.  As he told it, one day the runway temperature was 146 F but he was intrigued with the visiting tall, slender, blue-eyed manager of a local business group. 

As they say, time passed.

Nearly eleven years later Joe and Didi’s paths crossed again.  Joe described her as talented, outgoing, and positive with a warm personality.  Accurate on all counts. 

Then in 1966 Joe began his second television program, The Outdoorsman.  Didi, already something of a TV pioneer and noted photographer, joined the production company.  By then they were both single.  The series ran nine years, hunting and fishing on at least three continents. 

In the first season Joe was stricken with an undiagnosed malady.  It was serious: “I was down to the one yard line and the Grim Reaper was about to score.”  Joe had ingested toxic chemicals on a field trip, and Didi’s insistence on taking him to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, saved his life.

Then she saved his soul.  She prayed for him constantly, passionately, successfully.  Upon recovery Joe became a converted Christian and thereafter never missed a chance to witness for his faith.

Joe and Didi married while filming in Hawaii in January 1967, and remained together until he departed the pattern thirty-six years later, to the month.  She said, “Joe does the things I can’t do; I do the things he won’t do—and together we make a good team.”

For all the attention Didi received as “Mrs. Joe,” I was impressed with how she remained her own person.  Probably the most illuminating experience I had with her was a rare one to one conversation.  She asked about my career as an author, not so much seeking advice as context.  Then she said that she’d been thinking about a book based on the wives (or spouses) of other celebrities—how they fit into the respective communities yet retained their individuality.  One of her closest friends was Jo Schirra, as Joe was tight with astronaut Wally Schirra.  Jo and Wally were about as different as any couple I ever knew: Jo’s reserve contrasted vividly with Wally’s extroverted Gotcha personality.  But I realized that Didi was on to something.  Unfortunately, she did not get to pursue the project but I still think it would have been insightfully original.

Although Joe contributed to Tom Brokaw’s 1998 best seller The Greatest Generation, Joe never bought into the hype.  He said “We weren’t the greatest.  We just did what we had to do.”  He was right, of course—he believed that the greatest Americans were those who founded the nation against vastly greater odds than the Allies faced in WW II.

Yet I still think of the “War Two” vets as The Guadalcanal Generation because that was where Joe came to national prominence.  And, being focused on naval aviation, I knew or met dozens of other veterans of the 1942-43 Solomons campaign when America really could have lost a significant part of the war, however temporarily.

One of “my” other Marine Corps aviators was Brigadier General Fritz Payne, a fighter pilot like Joe flying F4F Wildcats.  Fritz died in 2015, age 104.  I’d not seen him in many years, as he was unable to travel, but he remains the oldest person I ever knew.  Didi was the next oldest.

Nearly all the WW II survivors I know anymore are well into their 90s, and a few remain remarkably active and alert.  But they’re the exceptions.

According to the census, in 2010 there were 131,000 centenarians in the U.S., a huge 82 percent increase in ten years (72,000 in Y2K).  The reasons needn’t concern us as much as what we can learn from our eldest elders.

When I think of Didi, Fritz, and their contemporaries, two things occur to me: wisdom and patience.

Wisdom presumably is a natural byproduct of aging.  Simply living ten decades (or five or nine) exposes us to a body of knowledge.  The lessons are there for anyone who cares to absorb them.

I think of a survivor of Japan’s brutal Bataan Death March that killed thousands of U.S. and Filipino troops in 1942.  I asked, “Who survived?”  The veteran, then in his seventies, said, “The lifers.  They’d been around, and they knew you can’t do everything.  They learned what was important, so they had priorities.”  He added that many youngsters, though more physically fit, lacked that wisdom.  They wore themselves out trying to do it all.

Patience is the province of age.  Especially in the 21st century when generations have grown up with—and grown accustomed to--immediate gratification.  But that’s an artificial environment that does not reflect the reality of Planet Earth.  Evolution is Patience writ huge.  We humans did not rise to the top of the food chain merely because we wanted to.  It took about 200,000 years.  The Great Wall of China required a couple of millennia.  So if attaining social progress (however it’s defined) or any other goal seems glacial at times, perhaps it’s not.  Perhaps it’s simply Situation Normal.  Centenarians knew that, and their wisdom often was mistaken for indifference by younger, hotter heads who arrogantly and/or naively believe themselves equal to their elders.

So keep that in mind, you millennials.  Slow down and take advantage of the hard-won patience and wisdom of those who’ve seen reality and know it for what it is.  If Didi, Fritz and others are any indication—and they are—their perspective is a screaming deal.  Wisdom of the ages.  For free.