Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Revisiting B-29s and Red Erwin

"Nor law nor duty bade me fight/Nor public men nor cheering crowds..."

— William Butler Yeats

I've known about radio operator Staff Sergeant Henry "Red" Erwin's bravery under fire for almost as long as I've been alive. I did not, however, know Erwin until long after I first wrote about him. To save his B-29 Superfortress crew in embattled skies over Japan—The Empire,

American bomber crews called it—Erwin grabbed a loose phosphorous bomb burning at 1300 degrees Fahrenheit, held it in his grasp, and threw it from the bomber. The B-29 was named CITY OF LOS ANGELES and was piloted by Captain George A. "Tony" Simeral.

Sustaining burns over his entire body that should have been fatal, Erwin proved all of the important truths about those who fly and fight. Initiative, boldness and courage matter. Aviation, lest anyone think otherwise, is not solely about pilots. Erwin's deed rises to the standard for the Medal of Honor: "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty..."

I first wrote about Erwin while living in San Diego, submitted the story to STAG magazine on April 3, 1962, and got a rejection slip. I submitted it to CLIMAX magazine on April 15, 1962. Editor-in-chief Al Silverman wrote back on May 8, 1962 ("you did a good job") and
offered $150. The story appeared in the October 1962 issue of CLIMAX under the title "Handful of Hell at 20,000 feet."

I did not get to know Erwin, however, until I wrote a book titled "B-29 Superfortress Units of World War II" (London: Osprey Publishing, 1992). All those years later, I had a brief acquaintance with the airman I was writing about. Suddenly, Red Erwin (1921-2002) was briefly a friend at the other end of the telephone. He could not have been more gracious.  I dedicated that book to Marc Reid (1951-2001), a dear friend who struggled with lifelong health issues without once losing his fanaticism for aviation.

Together with co-author Fred L. Borch, an expert on awards and decorations, I wrote about Erwin again in the July 7, 2008 Air Force Times newspaper. By then, Erwin was no longer around to assist. Despite the severe burns he'd suffered he lived a full life and died at age 80.

I wrote about Erwin a fourth time in a book titled "Mission to Tokyo"
(Minneapolis: Zenith Press, 2013). The book covered the air campaign against Japan but focused on the March 10, 1945 firebomb assault on the Japanese capital, which was the most destructive bombing event  in history. Simeral's crew, with Erwin aboard flew that mission, ordered by Major General Curtis E. LeMay and witnessed on the ground by Yoko Ono. "Mission to Tokyo" is a current book and can be gotten from me, or ordered here.

On May 13, 2015, I flew abord the world's only airworthy B-29, named FIFI and operated by the Commemorative Air Force. I sat in the radio operator's position next to a plaque honoring Erwin.

It was not easy waging war in the skies of The Empire. In the fraternity of those who fly and fight, there was no braver man. There was no better man. Henry "Red" Erwin—all honor to his name.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Writing about Gates, the F-22, and air power

My next book will be about the dismantling of the U. S. Air Force.

The nation's air arm has never been smaller in size than it is today. It has never operated equipment as old as its equipment today.

The process has left us without all of the platforms we expected to have today—381 F-22 Raptor superfighters at the "high end" of the tactical air

arm; operational F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters at the "low end;" the first examples of a new bomber; the first couple of squadrons of a new air refueling tanker; a new combat rescue helicopter.

We have none of these things today.

Robert Gates didn't begin the process of shrinking the Air Force. That process began right after the first Persian Gulf War in 1991. But the Gates years (2006-2011) were the years when we were supposed to recapitalize the nation's air arm. Instead, Gates assigned top priority to Iraq, surrounded himself by Army officers, fired the Air Force's top leaders (in 2008), killed the F-22 (in 2009) and was on watch when our bomber, tanker and rescue programs went astray.

Gates left this nation without the long-range, land-based air power that is essential to survival in peacetime and to success in war.

It would be better if someone who worked in the Pentagon wrote about this topic. Gates declined my request for an interview in 2006 and hasn't responded to my request for an interview in 2015. Gates treated his Air Force concerns with only a few pages in his memoir, "Duty." The book confirms his public statements that he was at odds with Air Force leaders from the beginning.

Retired General T. Michael "Buzz" Moseley, the former Air Force chief (2005-2008), shown in a photo taken with me in Paris in 2007, hasn't written a book. He should. Moseley is an articulate advocate for air power and for America's airmen. I've also urged retired Lieutenant General David Deptula to write a book. He is another staunch spokesmen for the profession of aerial arms and for those who fly and fight. There are others who could weigh in, too, like former Air Combat Command boss retired General John Corley.

I would also like to see a book from Moseley's successor, retired General Norton Schwartz. I believe Schwartz deserves enormous credit
for his efforts under difficult circumstances. The fighter mafia in the Air Force has not always been kind to Schwartz and I would like to see him put his thoughts on paper. The same goes for former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne.

With the exception of Gates, I've interviewed everyone named here more than once, both during the Gates era and more recently. We are fortunate to live in a nation where our top leaders are accessible and willing to talk about even controversial events.

Most of them, that is.

It would be better for them to tell the story. If they don't, I will. I hope to have my book completed at the end of July.

I'd like to find out how much interest there is. If you have thoughts about
my planned book or if you think you'll want one when it's ready, please let me know.

Any insights you have to offer will help. Make a comment here or call or write. I'd really like to hear from you.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Starting into the sixties with my Lettera-22

My first paid magazine item was a short op-ed in the November 1955 Air Force magazine.

I had other stuff published before my first full-length story, "The Night Intruders," which ran 5,000 words.

From an early age, I wanted to fly and fight. I was an airman from 1957 to 1960, in Korea.

I moved to San Francisco to become the great American writer. My literary prose looks laughable now, my poetry worse. I studied Ernest Hemingway and pretended to care about Andre Gide.

I loved a fiction account of a B-26 Invader bombing mission in a small literary magazine in San Francisco in 1960. I met Robert C. Mikesh who'd flown B-26s in the Korean War and was later a museum curator and author.

In 1960 in San Francisco, I was a file clerk for Bethlehem Steel. In 1961, I worked for Sherwin Williams Paint near my parents' home in a Washington, D.C. suburb. Photo shows me banging on my Olivetti Lettera-22 in my parents' back yard, age twenty-one.

Larry Harry, who'd been in Korea with me, blew into town. He suggested we hitchhike across the country to position ourselves to find work in the Far East. I'd submitted "The Night Intruders" to ARGOSY and SAGA and had it rejected. I sent it to REAL. Larry and I hitched across the country, getting 52 rides ranging in length from 800 feet to 1,200 miles.

Two strong but odd memories persist from crossing America that hectic, hot summer of 1961.
An Ivy League kid who reeked of Eastern Money (older than us, but still a kid) gave us a lift in his shiny new car and proclaimed, with some arrogance, "I'm a New Frontier Democrat!" The other memory: Gherman Stepanovich Titov.

Don't remember him? It's okay. "I am eagle!" cosmonaut Titov proclaimed on car radios of people who gave us rides, asserting Soviet supremacy. Until I looked him up just now to refresh my memory, I didn't know Titov shared my September 11 birth date (in a different year).

Returning to San Francisco where I'd lived months earlier, neither Larry nor I found a way to get to Asia. Larry went back into the Air Force, retired a colonel, survived cancer, and died of a heart attack on a cruise ship near Noumea, New Caledonia. Larry Harry (1938-2011) was one of my half dozen best friends throughout life.

I became a file clerk with the Western Pacific Railroad (a hefty, union-negotiated $16.96 per day). The boss would answer the phone by saying, "Hello, Miscellaneous," the name of our department.
My father telephoned person-to-person from the other coast to tell me something had come in the mail from REAL about my story. "They want to pay you a hundred dollars for it," Dad said.


Soon, I was living in a San Francisco boarding house called Baker Acres where I met Pierre M. and Jerome B. Curtis, two more lifelong best friends. I'm including surnames in these recollections only for those no longer with us. Oh, and I met Charlotte, too, but never mind about that.