Sunday, November 11, 2018


This month’s entry is written by my brother John L. Tillman, Stanford graduate and Rhodes Scholar who contributes to almanacs and encyclopedia, often from memory.  Though nearly twice the length of my usual blogs, the subject warrants it.

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The "War to End All Wars" ended in armistice at 11:00 a.m. on November 11, 1918. On this date each year, Allied nations honor the service and sacrifices of all military veterans. France observes Armistice Day, the British Commonwealth Remembrance Day and the United States Veterans Day (Armistice Day before 1954). The celebration now commemorates veterans of all their countries' wars, but citizens should also reflect on the meaning of the Great War of 1914-18 in particular.

How World War I began and ended both merit remembrance. The lessons of its end have been applied both correctly and inappropriately in the century since the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. American General John Pershing wanted to fight on and force Germany to surrender unconditionally. The bloodied, impoverished, war-weary Western Allies preferred a quick end to hostilities, followed by a punitive peace against Germany and Austria-Hungary.

The lessons of the war's start may have even more to teach great powers today. The international “July Crisis” began with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo, Bosnia on 28 June 1914. It culminated with the British declaration of war on Germany on 4 August. 

The conflict would never have gone global, and having done so, would have ended sooner, had national leaders made better decisions from before the war to its aftermath. All the major belligerent states blundered badly. That isn't purely hindsight. In each country, members of the public and government urged wiser courses.

The miscalculations were largely based upon wishful thinking. Each nation and alliance concluded that it could take advantage of the July Crisis to achieve all or some of its often overly ambitious war aims. 
When a Slav nationalist, Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip, murdered Austro-Hungary’s imperial heir Ferdinand, Vienna with reason suspected that Belgrade was behind the assassination.  Thus, Austria-Hungary felt compelled to attack Serbia in retaliation for the outrage. It also coveted some Serbian territory. 

The global catastrophe thus began at 11:10 a.m. on 28 July when Austria declared war by telegram on Serbia, a month after the Archduke's murder. Austria shelled Belgrade the next day. Vienna calculated that it could beat Serbia before Russia could mass on their common border, or that Russia might not even join the fight.
The still-small war could have remained “some damned thing in the Balkans,” but Mother Russia felt compelled to back her Pan-Slavic protégé’ and fellow Orthodox “Little Brother” Serbia. Many in Russia knew that the Czarist empire wasn't ready for a modern European war, having lost to emergent Japan in 1905. Russia had previously promoted disarmament, since it lacked the funds and industry to buy or build the new weaponry adopted by its adversaries, especially Germany.

Russia, however, calculated that, with Austria-Hungary busy against Serbia, she stood a good chance of taking Slavic Galicia, present-day westernmost Ukraine, from the Dual Monarchy. Russia mobilized faster than expected, so Austria had to divert troops from its initial invasion of Serbia, which was defeated.

Germany decided to mobilize in response to Russia's moves. Relying on the prewar Schlieffen Plan, Berlin hoped to fight on the defensive against Russia, assumed to mobilize slowly, while swiftly defeating France in a sweeping right hook around Paris. Then western divisions would be quickly transferred by train across the Fatherland to block any Russian invasion of Prussia or German Polish territory, then invade the Motherland in order to acquire more territory and set up puppet states as buffers against the huge, but underdeveloped empire.

The Schleiffen Plan relied on France's aggressively invading its former territory of Alsace-Lorraine on the left bank of the Rhine, to recapture the provinces and avenge its humiliating loss to Prussia in 1870-71. With much of its army thus drawn east, the strong German right wing could sweep along the Channel Coast to encircle the capital and much of northern France, cutting off French forces in Alsace-Lorraine. 

The problem was that the maneuver required invading neutral Belgium, risking Britain's entry into the war over the flagrant breach of international law. German planners were willing to take the chance because they thought that Britain would get drawn in to aid France regardless, and that its small but professional army couldn't make much difference in a war of vast conscript armies.

Besides the alliance system and mobilization schedules, Germany's grand strategy might help explain the decision to violate Belgian neutrality. The global aspects of The Great War included German Weltpolitik strategy, envisioning not only a reordered Mitteleuropa under its control or that of its ally Austria, but a Mittelafrika. While Britain sought to unite its African colonies along a Cape-Cairo railway, Germany wanted to connect its East African (Tanganyika) and Southwest African colonies, which would interrupt the north-south route. Germany also hoped to appropriate the Belgian Congo and, ideally former French and Portuguese colonies. Conquering Belgium obviously would further the scheme. If Britain joined the war and was beaten, it could pressure traditional ally Portugal to hand over Angola and Mozambique to the victorious Kaiser. Defeating France not only promised occupation of its African colonies, but possibly of its rich iron ore deposits just west of Alsace-Lorraine. Thus, success in war might bring riches beyond the dreams of German avarice.

In mid-August Russia launched an offensive against East Prussia sooner than Germany expected, though the Kaiser's forces defeated the invasion. But not before Germany transferred troops intended to fight France eastward, where they arrived too late to help. For reasons beyond the scope of this post, the Schlieffen Plan failed. Both sides on the Western Front were soon mired in trench warfare, with mud from autumnal rains adding to the misery. 

The Great War introduced large numbers of submarines, tanks and powered aircraft to military operations. The first known dogfight occurred during the August 1914 Battle of Cer between Austria and Serbia, when an Austrian pilot pulled out a pistol to shoot at a Serbian pilot, who escaped. 

That month a millennium event occurred when airplanes supplanted cavalry’s traditional reconnaissance role.  Germany’s Rumpler Taubes—birdlike flying machines—provided vital information on Russian movements during the strategic Battle of Tannenberg, and simultaneously the Royal Flying Corps’ less primitive BE-2s warned of the developing threat to the British Expeditionary Force. 

Most belligerents failed to appreciate the advantage that modern weapons afforded the defense. Russia had experienced their effect against Japan in 1905, but, had its army learned the lesson of 20th century firepower, the country couldn't afford quantities of machine guns and quick-firing artillery. German infantry was supported by more machine guns than France and Britain, but still fewer than would become common on both sides. Infantry tactics were scarcely advanced over 19th century line of battle formations, despite far more lethal weaponry.

So, Russia, Germany, France, Britain and eventually Italy all could have stayed out of the war between Austria and Serbia, sparing the world squalid slaughter, famine, pestilence, revolution and societal collapse that took the lives of tens of millions, maimed millions more and impoverished great nations. But what if the United States had not come to the aid of the Western Allies?

The hideous casualties on the Somme and at Verdun in 1916 bled Britain and France almost to death. The French army mutinied in 1917. After Germany knocked Russia out of the war in 1917 and signed a treaty with the new Communist regime, troops were freed for offensives in the West and in support of Austria against Italy. If Germany, starved by the Royal Navy's blockade, didn't win decisively in 1918, then an armistice would be necessary. 

But Germany had made another error. Its leaders knew that unrestricted submarine warfare risked bringing America into the war. But they accepted the odds to try strangling Britain as its navy laid siege to Germany. President Woodrow Wilson didn't join the war even after a U-boat sank civilian liner Lusitania (secretly carrying ammo from America to Britain) in 1915. However, in 1917 Germany offered to help Mexico reclaim parts of the U.S. Southwest in order to keep America out of the European war. The “Zimmermann telegram” was intercepted and gave reelected (“He kept us out of war!”) Democrat Wilson a casus belli.

Knowing that the Yanks were coming Over There, the Allies held on, stopped Germany's spring offensive, and awaited the arrival of millions of green if eager doughboys, supported by the sailors of a respectable navy.

The human toll was massive, the result of war on an industrial scale.  Military deaths to all causes ran from 8.5 to 11 million; civilian losses might top 8 million including war-related disease and starvation.  The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1920 remains somewhere between 40 to 100 million deaths. 

The rest is sad and terrible history. Germany fell to a conglomerate of French native and colonial forces, the British Commonwealth led by Australian shock troops, remnant Belgians, and hordes of Americans in giant divisions. 

At Versailles in 1919, Germany was punished severely, arguably leading to the rise of the Nazi Party. Austria-Hungary was broken up on the basis of nationalism. Russia descended into the dark night of Bolshevik barbarism.  The Yugoslav state so devoutly wished for by Princip (who died in prison) proved a bad idea and fell apart soon after the demise of the USSR. 

Another, even more terrible European world war followed in 1939, spreading globally. Then the long, costly Cold War, 1947-91, and hot wars within it. Then a new series of Balkan Wars late in the 20thcentury. Then yet more war in no small part caused by France and Britain's divvying up the Ottoman Empire with little regard to natural geographical, linguistic, ethnic and religious boundaries. Just the opposite of what befell Austria-Hungary's constituent states. 

The world had a shot at being a better place in the 20th and 21st centuries had America stood in bed in 1917, and not gone Over There.  But U.S. financiers had enormous stakes in protecting loans to the Allies.  The War to End all Wars probably wouldn't have done so in any case, but our involvement may have guaranteed seemingly endless war since 11/11/18.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018


October in Northeastern Oregon was always a special time when I grew up in the 1960s.  There were two special events that month, bearing nothing in common other than the crisp, nippy air of Umatilla County well into the fall season.

The first was deer season, and the Blue Mountains sang their siren song.  Opening weekend was taken seriously, to a degree that urban dwellers probably cannot fathom today.  There were times when Friday was an excused absence from high school for boys intent on filling their tag on Saturday.  (I do not recall any huntresses in our student body though later I enjoyed hunting with a friend and his wife on two continents.)  In fact, our school paper published the names of students who fetched home some venison for the family table.

In that far-off time—chronologically and culturally—nobody knew how many rifles or shotguns were stashed in cars and pickups in the MHS parking lot.

That’s because nobody cared.

That’s also because there was never a problem. Ever.

However, the October starting date did pose some interpersonal conflicts.  I’d have to consult some classmates from ’67, but I vaguely recall that the Girls League neglected to consult the guys, and managed to schedule the annual dance for opening weekend of deer season.  

I also vaguely recall that the next year the girls remembered the previous flail, and moved the event back a month.

Just in time to hit the opening weekend of elk season.

Meanwhile, October also was pheasant season, overlapping deer and preceding elk.  Our ranch, about five miles out of town, was rich in ground cover beloved of Chinese ring-necks (Phasianus colchicus), and Dad had installed a water trap in one of the gulches between wheat fields.  More than once I recall seeing six or more roosters perched on the fence beside the county road late Friday afternoon.  A convocation of feathered friends.  

Think they were there the next morning?  No way.  They knew.  So help me, they knew!

Chinese Ring-necks were introduced to North America in 1881, thanks to Owen Denney, then consul general in Shanghai.  Denney imported other batches over the next few years, releasing them in Washington and Oregon.  The hardy birds took hold and prospered.

Dad had longtime friends from the Willamette Valley who were avid bird hunters.  For years Portland merchant Henry Deines and his sons, with an older nimrod called Pete, gathered at “Fifth and Broadway”—the intersection of the state and country road--around dawn on Saturday.  Occasionally they had a setter to sniff out birds in the stubble.  

Thing about pheasant—given a chance, often they’ll run rather than fly.  That’s why a good dog is such an advantage, holding the bird in place until it’s flushed close enough for a 12 gauge, or maybe a 20.  But even then there’s no guarantee of meat, and more than once I heard the phrase, “Well, at least I got to burn powder.”

Hunting alone was a rite of passage in those days. Like nearly every other young male of my nativity, a life event was tromping the stubble with my single-shot 12-gauge, seeking the wily pheasant.  I don’t recall specifics, but I suspect that Dad dropped me off with instructions to rejoin the road a quarter mile up.  No feathers, no meat, no gunpowder, but a growing sense of self reliance.

Then there was Halloween.

My home town ran 900 to 950 residents with an eight-year grade school and a four-year high school named for a maternal great-grandfather.  Because the local American Legion post sponsored a junior drum and bugle corps, some of us made friends with corps members around the Northwest.  I had a serious crush on a severely cute color guard member from the Seattle Thunderbirds, and early on discovered the power of the press.  Being inordinately shy, I used my status as a regional Drum Corps World correspondent to maintain contact with her a couple of times a year.

But I digress.

The grade school provided Halloween entertainment for kids of all ages.  Activities included costume contests—I no longer recall the who or how of judging—but I have vague recollection of fashioning my own outfit for the parade. Thanks to my mother’s indulgence with her kitchen supplies, circa 1958 I bulked myself out with tin foil, posing as Russia’s Sputnik satellite, complete with bent wire hangers as antennae.  (The good ole USA launched Explorer several months after the Evil Empire’s success.)

When we got to high school age, social opportunities arose.
A few times kids from Western Oregon came to visit and participated in the holiday festivities.  They seemed most interested in the cake walk, wherein perhaps ten contestants circled five or six chairs while the music played.  When the phonograph operator raised the tone arm, the music stopped and everyone scrambled for a seat.  Single elimination with a reducing number of seats until the last two players were left.  The winner got a cake or a tray of cupcakes, and of course good manners dictated observance of The Kindergarten Rule: share with others.

Mostly the visitors were polite youngsters whose parents shared the values of our own.  But occasionally some big-city attitudes showed through.  One fall evening a guest asked, “What do you do for fun around here after dark?”

Without thinking, I said, “Oh, we go down to Main Street to watch the traffic light.”

That seemed preposterous of course, but I stuck to my assertion.  So we walked five blocks down to Main and up two more to the main intersection.  Two of my classmates were seated on a bench, engaged in an animated conversation, but I dared interrupt.  “Hi, guys.  What’re you doin’?”

And so help me, Dennis said, “WE’RE WATCHING THE TRAFFIC LIGHT.”

True story from an October long ago.

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.

(If 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.