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Barrett Tillman
Author, United States Navy & Aviation

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Tell us a little about yourself
Speak about your focus on USN aircraft
Mention about your research processes for writing
Tell a little about your book, about aviation Medal of Honors
What are your feelings on recovery of WWII relics?
What are your hopes for the next years?
Any future projects are on the horizon for you?

Tell about yourself and how you got interested in WWII?
My father trained as a Marine Corps aviator in WWII so I was naturally interested in the subject. As a child on the family ranch in Oregon I was always aware of aircraft: crop sprayers, private planes, and especially B-36s on low-level routes out of Fairchild AFB at Spokane, Washington. My dad even talked to the pilot who reported the first UFOs on the day of the sightings! We also maintained a private airstrip for "crop dusters." I spent a lot of time there. My early reading included Samuel Eliot Morison and Edward P. Stafford ("The Big "); those were important influences.

Read ReviewSpeak about your focus on WWII USN aircraft
Because of my father's background, I gravitated toward naval aviation. When I finished college in 1971 (about the time we were restoring the world's only flyable Dauntless) I realized that there was a serious shortage of authoritative books on tail hook airplanes. Consequently, I was able to focus on that market.

Mention about your research processes for your books
I don't attend many reunions anymore--mainly Tailhook--but previously I did a lot of traveling. I got to know a pretty wide selection of naval aviators from WWII onward, and it became a small community of sorts. Naturally, I worked in the archives as well, mainly at the Naval History Center in Washington, DC. Dr. Dean Allard who ran the operational archives in the 1970s was especially helpful. The most fun research, of course, is flying. Besides the Dauntless (A-24) we flew an N3N trainer for about 20 years. It's very helpful to have some flight time in the birds I write about, and I've been fortunate to get rides in several helicopters (I can almost hover a Huey), A-6s, and an F-15. I have one "trap" on the Independence, riding a C-2 COD.

Thus far I've had 31 titles published, including a couple of monographs and 6 works of fiction. Undoubtedly the most important was On Yankee Station with my friend John Nichols, a high-time Crusader pilot and MiG killer. It was a critical appraisal of naval aviation over Vietnam, and it was adopted by the Air Force and Marine Corps for professional reading but not the navy--go figure! After Desert Storm we learned that at least one air wing took some copies to the "sandbox" as a reality check on tactics. That was very gratifying.

Have you ever traveled to the Pacific, Guadalcanal, etc?
I'd love to visit the Solomons but have only been to the Philippines for a ship reunion in 1977. It was interesting to transit San Bernardino Strait at night, as Kurita did.

Tell a little about your new book
Read Review
"Above & Beyond" was a challenging, rewarding project. It would've been easy to rewrite the 100-odd citations and fill in some background but I knew going in that much of the official record contains errors. In fact, some MoH citations are as much wrong as right. John Nichols was the only US witness to LCDR Mike Estocin's action, and it took decades to correct the record--Estocin died; he did not "exit the area!". The Pacific provided more than a dozen air MoHs, including of course BGEN Walker. His son Doug was very helpful, as were some other relatives including kin of Luke, Pease, Vance, and Knight. Squadronmates of others were likewise supportive, so I feel that the book contains a solid balance. Some of the errors and political aspects that I describe may upset a few readers, but I feel that it's important to set the record straight while it's still possible.

What are your feelings on the preservations of relics?

The US military is badly in need of a uniform policy on wreck recovery. Currently, the Air Force is extremely supportive, witness recovery of the Greenland P-38s and B-17. The US Navy, however, claims that it still owns everything it ever owned even if the plane or ship has been stricken, burned, bulldozed, and dropped in the ocean. It's absurd. Many, many historic aircraft are rotting because the navy bureaucracy will not allow civilians to recover those items without specific permission--even if the navy has no such intention and if salvor wants to trade the item to the Naval Aviation Museum!

What is your hope for the next years of WWII research
I've learned that we cannot assume anything. If you know a veteran of any era, and he's willing to talk, Do It Now! Most won't take time themselves to write or record anything but many will do so if you make it easy for them and provide the means. You just need to be objective -- I've known a lot of vets (including a few famous ones) whose memories are faulty after so long, or because they've "improved" their stories over the years. But let 'em talk, then sort out what they say in context of the record and--this is important--what other vets say as well. Eventually you can
sort things out.

Any future projects are on the horizon for you?
My current book is one in a series, "The Alpha Male's Guide to the US Air Force." It's from the folks who publish History For Dummies, and I'm enjoying the change of pace. Already I hear from readers who say, "Oh no! TILLMAN writing about the blue suiters? Man bites dog!"

Whirlwind starts with a Doolittle Raid prologue and continues through VJ Day--limited ops over Japan itself. There's a short segment on the Aleutians to Kuriles ops 1943-45. I've tried finding somebody to do some research in the National Archives about JCS targeting and tasking (division between AAF and USN) but haven't turned up anyone yet. Any suggestions welcomed! To be published by Simon & Schuster in 2009-10.

Thank you Mr. Tillman for the interview!
Read reviews of Barret Tillman's books, and link to link to ordering information.
Also, visit his personal webpage at: btillman.com

Last Updated
February 18, 2014

 

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