Airplanes In My Novels: The Curtiss P-40

Airplanes In My Novels: the Curtiss P-40

Curtiss P-40E pursuits peel off after a target below. USAF photo in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Jack Davis flies the Curtiss P-40E in both Everything We Had and the second novel in the series, A Snowball’s Chance, under production as I write this post.

The Curtiss P-40 was America’s front-line pursuit airplane in 1941. It wasn’t as fast or glamorous as the RAF’s Supermarine Spitfire or the Luftwaffe’s Bf-109E. Development of those two airplanes kept them operationally viable through 1945, but the P-40’s performance remained more or less the same from the P-40B through the P-40N. Even changing the Allison V-1710 engine for the Rolls-Royce Merlin in the P-40F didn’t improve that performance. A nearly complete redesign of the P-40, the P-40Q, resulted in an airplane with a top speed of 400 mph, but by then the war was nearly over and the other pursuit types in USAAF service – the P-38, P-47 and P-51, not to mention the first generation of jet fighters like the Lockheed P-80A Shooting Star – were superior in almost every way.

Curtiss P-40B pursuits of the 20th Pursuit Squadron at Nichols Field in the Philippines before the beginning of the war. USAF photo in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The P-40 had two major virtues for a pursuit airplane in 1941 and 1942: first, it was competitive with the Japanese Zero, and second, maybe more important, it was what we had in quantity to equip our own pursuit groups and send overseas to our Allies. In North Africa, the P-40 was used extensively and successfully as a fighter-bomber. In China, the record of the American Volunteer Group (better known as the Flying Tigers) was compiled using a handful of obsolescent P-40B models, the same airplane that equipped the 20th Pursuit Squadron in the Philippines.

The P-40E equipped most of the USAAF pursuit squadrons sent to the Southwest Pacific in 1941 and 1942. For fighting Zeros it was adequate, being as fast as the Zero in level flight and able to break off combat with the Zero by diving away. The Zero wasn’t known for being sturdy, and would come apart under punishment that the P-40, or any other American combat airplane, would simply shrug off.

At the time of Everything We Had, the P-38 was only beginning to become available, and was still overcoming problems associated with compressibility issues at high speeds. The P-38 was the first airplane to encounter Mach buffet, a phenomenon poorly understood in 1941 or for some years afterward. The Republic P-47 Thunderbolt was in development but wouldn’t be available in any numbers until 1943. The P-51 Mustang was originally designed for the RAF as a substitute for the P-40, and was also still in development.

So the P-40 was the only pursuit, other than the Bell P-39 Airacobra, available in any numbers to equip the USAAF. As for the P-39, stay tuned. I’ll talk about that airplane sometime before Christmas, when Boxcar Red Leader, the third book in the series, comes out.

Airplanes In My Novels – The B17D Flying Fortress

Airplanes In My Novels — the B-17D Flying Fortress

In my book, Everything We Had, I refer to aircraft no longer well known, even in the aviation world, and probably not among everyone in the “warbird” community. So here are some pictures and comments to supply the lack.
Most people at all interested in World War II aviation know two airplanes: the B-17G Flying Fortress and the P-51D Mustang. Great airplanes, but note the letters “G” and “D” in the designation. Those letters tell you that the airplane referred to is seventh or the fourth major modification, respectively, to a basic airframe.
In Everything We Had Captain Charles Davis and his crew fly a Boeing B-17D Flying Fortress, and between the “D” and the “G” lie a lot of changes. Compare these two pictures:

Boeing B-17D in flight. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The above picture is a Boeing B-17D, the airplane Charlie and his crew took across the Pacific to the Philippines. Now compare that picture with this one:

Photo Credit: By National Archives via the United States Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell AFB Alabama.Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Rcbutcher using CommonsHelper. Original uploader was Bwmoll3 at en.wikipedia 19 August 2006 (original upload date), Public Domain,
The most immediately obvious change is the tail. Look how it goes from what the crew in the day called the “shark fin” to a longer fillet extending halfway down the fuselage. This was to give the aircraft greater longitudinal stability at high altitude.
The second most obvious change, well, gun turrets! The B-17D had neither power turrets nor a tail gun position, features that became standard after the “D”.
There were other changes like increased fuel tankage, better crew armor, greater bomb load, etc.
The B-17G was a more effective weapon for these changes, many of which were originally embodied in the earlier B-17E and B-17F. Nonetheless, our Air Corps went to war in the B-17D, because that was what we had to send at the time.

Spin Recovery in the P-39

Spin Recovery in the P-39

The first time I was in a spin it was in a sailplane with very docile handling characteristics, the Schweizer 2-33. Spin recovery is a necessary skill to master in a sailplane, since you spend a lot of time turning inside a thermal a few miles an hour above stall speed. Misjudge that, let your speed drop, tighten the turn a little bit too much, and you depart controlled flight.

But not to worry, not in the 2-33. Center the controls to break the rotation, stick a little forward to pick up airspeed, and the sailplane is flying again.

That’s two pretty simple, even instinctive moves. You can do it in a second or less.

The pilot’s manual for the P-39 Airacobra sets out a recovery technique that’s a little more complicated. There are two phases, pre-recovery and recovery. In the pre-recovery phase, the pilot has to close the throttle, set the propeller control to the low RPM position, and pull the control stick into your lap. Get it? The throttle is at your left hand, the propeller control is just behind the throttle, so that’s a one-two movement as you pull the stick back into your lap.

Now remember the airplane is not in a controlled maneuver. The manual describes the spin as being oscillatory in rate. Sometimes it spins fast, sometimes it spins slow. You don’t have any control over the rate. You have to decide when the airplane is slowing down or speeding up. You have to know that because, to effect recovery, you have to apply full opposite rudder when spin is at its slowest. All this time your surroundings — clouds, ground, horizon — are spinning around you. Imagine standing on one of those old playground merry-go-rounds, right in the center, as your friends push on it to make it go faster. That’s a start on what it would be like, except this spin happens in three dimensions, not two. So you wait for the rudder to take effect and push the stick full forward while applying ailerons against the spin. The actual language used in the manual is interesting: “The spin is usually oscillatory in rate, and it is mandatory that the opposite rudder be applied when the spin is at its slowest.” I particularly like that word “mandatory.” It’s the sort of emphasis you don’t often find in a pilot’s manual.

If you follow the procedure above, “…the airplane will recover in one-half turn. If the procedure is not followed closely, the airplane may not recover.” I think the implications of that last sentence deserve examination. You must follow the procedure closely, i.e., you do exactly what the manual says, or you’re going in.

No wonder the manual begins the section on spins with the statement “Deliberate spinning is not recommended.”

Just for a little context, follow the link below, which takes you to a War Department film on spin and tumble tests in the P-39. Bell Aircraft test pilots did these tests because pilots flying the P-39 insisted that the airplane would, in the right circumstances, literally tumble end over end.  You’ll probably also see why the manual included words like “mandatory” and “closely.”

Somewhere in England . . .

Somewhere in England…

I believe I must have a very serious fan, which makes me humble and grateful, for the following reasons.

Those who follow my blog (and thank you for your discerning wit and good sense in doing so!) know my last entry was on November 11, 2017. Last November I was engaged in the National Novel Writers Month contest, wherein I generated enough material to finish my latest novel, Thanks for the Memories, and start writing the next novel in the series, The New Kids.

Between then and now I finished Thanks for the Memories: a Novel of the SW Pacific Air War July-September 1942, a task that turned out to be harder than I expected, although I don’t know why I expect it to be easy. It never has been.

When I published the work on Kindle last Monday evening I was surprised and gratified to see, the next morning, that it already had a sale! Then I looked at the market and found that first sale went to someone in England.

I like to think that, somewhere in England, someone was just waiting for my next novel to come out, and gleefully snapped it up the moment it appeared. Or, maybe, with morning tea/coffee, they were looking for a book to read, and there I was.

Either way, I’d like to thank that wonderful person, and hope someday to shake them by the hand and thank them face to face.

Oh, by the way, for my fans in England, the war as experienced by Jack and Charlie Davis will move to England within the next few books. But no more hints! I’m working diligently but it does take time to produce a good product.

Hopefully any of my readers who see this will reply, and even leave a review on Amazon!

Searching for Monsarrat

Searching for Monsarrat

Some weeks ago I was in a used-book store – the only one surviving here in the metropolis of Hickory, NC – and the cover of a book caught my eye. The book itself was the memoir of a U-boat commander, but what caught my eye was the advertisement of a foreword by Nicholas Monsarrat.

Nicholas Monsarrat, as a young man, served as an officer of the Royal Navy during World War II, eventually commanding a frigate in the North Atlantic. He wrote a novel about it, titled The Cruel Sea, which was also the first of many books by Monsarrat that I read. Seeing his name made me think it would be interesting to reread The Cruel Sea, since I lost my copy in a move twenty years ago.

Alas, the used-bookstore didn’t have it. That was disappointing but not surprising. You don’t go to a used-bookstore for consistency, you go for the delightful surprise, now as much as forty years ago.

It also didn’t surprise me that Barnes & Noble (the only surviving big-box bookstore in my aforementioned metropolis of residence) didn’t have it. They have Hemingway, and occasionally such former lights of the literary scene as C.S. Forester or Robert A. Heinlein, but not The Cruel Sea nor anything else by Monsarrat, a man who enjoyed enormous success as a writer for three decades.

What did surprise me was that, although some few of Monsarrat’s books are available on Kindle, those few did not include The Cruel Sea.

I still remember taking home The Cruel Sea and opening the first page. One of the things I love most about reading is how one can be in a different time or place, or even a different world, when one opens a book. That experience is what Monsarrat delivered. I spent the next few days aboard HM Corvette Compass Rose and HM Frigate Saltash. I learned something of why the sea is cruel, and men more cruel still. I learned about the convoy war in the North Atlantic, not as broad sweeping history, but from a skilled writer who was an eyewitness and distilled his experience into a message I haven’t forgotten to this day.

In subsequent years I took other voyages with Monsarrat. Not only did I learn why the sea was cruel, but I learned about policing in British Colonial Africa in The Tribe That Lost Its Head, and how a ship (well, a motor torpedo boat) could die of shame, of how a Kappillan of Malta led and comforted his people in time of war, and, finally, sorrowfully, of a Master Mariner who lived for centuries, only to see the lights go out on Nelson’s flagship after Trafalgar. That master mariner was supposed to sail on after Trafalgar, but Monsarrat died before he could complete the tale.

Mark Twain once wrote that if a writer is remembered more than 50 years after his death he’s a great writer indeed, and there may be some truth in that. Homer’s prose has endured for millennia, partly because The Iliad and The Odyssey are good stories, and partly, one suspects, because they provided accessible examples for generations of school-children to learn the Greek language. Would we know Homer today if it weren’t for the latter reason? Possibly; but we cannot be sure of what makes any given body of work endure, or even to exist in the first place. The process of writing requires time, and leisure time was hard to come by for most humans throughout the great majority of human history. It could also be that in any time there are few writers like Shakespeare, whose works are good enough to appeal and so create a market where preserving their work is profitable. Good enough, one might point out, to be printed and read in times when printing was a relatively expensive process, and books accordingly dear and so inaccessible to many even among the relatively educated.

So perhaps in this digital era when publishing is accessible to anyone who cares to make the relatively modest effort required to do so, the observable fact that writers come and go on an even shorter scale than a half-century should not surprise us.

But it is less than a half-century since Monsarrat died in 1981. As far as I can tell I was not the only one to think Monsarrat talented and worth reading. Perhaps not a Homer, nor yet a Shakespeare, even though both writers, apart from the demi-god status posterity has conferred upon them, might find Monsarrat a worthy colleague.

According to Wikipedia, The Cruel Sea is the only one of Monsarrat’s many novels that is still widely read. Perhaps, but if so you would never know from how hard it is to find. Doubtless there are a variety of reasons for that, but for me, I’d like to stand once more on the deck of Compass Rose in the freezing North Atlantic, or the sunnier route to Gibraltar, and see what insights age and experience bring to the reading.

Like Looking Through a Window

Like Looking Through a Window

If you haven’t seen Peter Jackson’s documentary film “They Shall Never Grow Old” you should do so. In many ways it might be one of the most incredible films I’ve ever seen.

The film takes archival footage from the Imperial War Museum and BBC oral history interviews with World War I veterans to tell the story of soldiers in the Royal Army during World War I. Jackson chose this point of view for a look in depth at one aspect of the history of the war, and one may easily imagine a monumental documentary series done in the same fashion consisting of who knows how many episodes, covering different campaigns and services. The Royal Navy and the Royal Flying Corps are not mentioned, and I’d purely love to see the same treatment given to the RFC!

Everyone has seen the silent black-and-white film taken during the war. It tends to be grainy, either over- or under-exposed, scratched, jerky, and the motion of people looks awkward and hurried. The latter is due to the frame rate imposed by hand-cranked cameras in use at the time, which might be cranked at anywhere between ten frames a second or eighteen.

Jackson and his production team took the original film and processed it so that the original black and white appears very close to something that would have been shot as B&W with contemporary methods. The images are clean, crisp, properly exposed, and move at a frame rate restoring natural motion.

That in itself is a remarkable achievement.

However, the colorization process resulted in something positively unique. I’m going to say nothing more about it. You simply must see the film.

All of that, however, is as nothing beside the use of imagery to tell a story, and I will give one example. The series of images with the soldiers in the Sunken Lane prior to the Battle of the Somme will rend your heart. The images are clear enough that you can see the emotion on those faces. You may think you know what to expect in terms of fear and apprehension and even excitement, but that’s knowledge without experience.

These faces are right in front of you, almost as if you were looking through a window and not watching a film. And, as Peter Jackson points out, most of the lads in that picture were probably dead within an hour after it was taken.

One further thing among many deserves mention. The interviewees make the point that after the war, the people on the home front didn’t want to hear from the veterans what it was like. I think it would be interesting to know why that’s so, because to me it seems short-sighted, if only from the perspective of ignoring history. An experience in history paid with so much blood and suffering and waste and destruction should be told and retold and examined from every angle. It was called “the war to end all wars” and so it should have been. We all know it was not, and in fact was followed within a generation by another war even more terrible in all respects.

We owe it to those who were there to hear and understand, as best we are able, their story. Peter Jackson has given us a unique opportunity to do exactly that.


Just Listen

Just Listen

I do volunteer work at the Hickory Aviation Museum.  There’s a couple of simple reasons I enjoy it.  One reason is that I’m an airport bum.  Ever since I was a kid watching airplanes take off and land is a source of never-ending pleasure for me.  But the other reason is something I came to by stages.  It keeps me coming back.  It’s the people.

We have a pretty unique bunch of people at the Museum, including a number of old guys who took part in World War II.  Most of them are aviators because that’s our focus, but we’ve got all types, and all have a story to tell if you just learn to listen.

But being around those guys has taught me a lot.  I’ll share some of it with you.

For me, the hardest thing in the world was learning to just listen.  I’m a terrible know-it-all, so why listen?  It took me years to learn the trick of it and I’m still learning, every time I have the chance.  You never learn it all.  Usually you’re taken by surprise.  It starts with just a few words someone says.  The first thing to learn is to understand why those words catch your attention, when it’s just a few words, or a chance to watch a man’s face as he speaks.

My father’s friend Lloyd White was one of those who taught me.  Lloyd flew P-47 Thunderbolts with the 9th Air Force in World War II.  He told me about flying ground support missions during the Battle of the Ardennes.  Lloyd was just a little guy with a soft Southern accent.  Maybe it was the contrast, that soft accent, because somehow you could hear the sound of the guns beyond the words.  The very young man that was Lloyd White took fearful chances because, “well, those boys up there with the rifles needed our help.”  Lloyd passed away in 2009.

I saw Robert S. Johnson, one of the great 8th Air Force Thunderbolt aces, watch another gentleman, a former B-17 pilot, tell the story of losing most of his squadron to Luftwaffe fighters.  Bob Johnson slowly, calmly lit a cigarette while he listened.  He never took his eyes from the other man’s face.  The look on Bob Johnson’s face taught me something about listening.  Bob went west in 1998.

There was an older gentleman who worked at the same FBO I did, thirty years ago, who told me about his last mission flying a B-17 in the Pacific.  The airplane was badly damaged by Japanese fighters and antiaircraft.  He and everyone else on his crew were wounded.  The last thing he remembered was lining up on final.  What outfit was he with?  What airfield was he landing on?  What was the target, the date?  Who were his other crew members?  I’ll never know that now.  Just, “somewhere in the Pacific, back during the war.”

And simply to list names of World War II vets means nothing.  One ended up flying cargo all his life and stopped logging flight time after 35,000 hours.  Another flew 40 missions with the 8th Air Force as a navigator.  Others flew B-26 Marauders over Europe, or B-24s with the 15th Air Force out of Italy.  Art Sulteen, who is no longer with us, flew P-47 Thunderbolts with the 8th Air Force.  They all have or had war stories.

It took me a long time to understand that “war stories” are jewels beyond price.  But by the time I learned to listen, to be quiet and really listen, and to know enough about history and aviation to fill in the blanks and ask the right questions, there weren’t so many war stories around.  Not the first-hand stories told by the guys who were there, who did that, where you can look in their faces and their eyes when they talk about how it was over Berlin or Tokyo or Schweinfurt or Rabaul or over the Hump.  If you know what to look for you can see the young man still there, below and among the wrinkles of age, because memory brings that young man back for just a little while.  The old geezers themselves know this.  They never feel as young as when they are among themselves, swapping stories about life the way it was.

Something else you must learn.  Those old geezers feel no one understands them, and that no one believes their stories.  Mostly that’s why they stopped telling stories, except among themselves, when they don’t have to justify something as true or not because the other person knows enough to judge for themselves.

So you must learn to understand what it is that you see and hear, what is being offered to you for free, because the price was paid long ago and not by you, sitting there safe and warm and well fed, doing nothing but listening.  Even then listening isn’t always a comfortable place, not if you listen with the proper frame of mind.  Not if you can put yourself in their place, just for an instant, even in the smallest way, and just listen.

Take the opportunity if you can and while you can.  And remember, if you’re ever around an airport with a bunch of old geezers swapping what they might call lies and/or war stories, that there are ghosts standing among them — the ghosts of the ones who didn’t grow old.  The ones who didn’t come back.

They too have a story to tell.  It’s in the silence between the words of the war stories.

Just listen.

John Carter of Mars

“John Carter of Mars”

Or, A Hero, Literally, of the Past

Disney’s remake of the Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure story A Princess of Mars flopped at the box office, losing about $200 million, reported as perhaps the largest all-time loss on a single movie.  See Michael White’s article at:

The article also cites one analyst who attributes the flop to the film being over-budget and “poorly marketed.”  I’m not sure what “poorly marketed” means, exactly, in this context; maybe it was.  Let’s be sure we understand something: for a film to flop as badly as did “John Carter of Mars,” then there’s probably something more to it than just poor marketing.  So perhaps poor marketing was a factor in the film’s failure, but a contributory rather than a decisive one.

Other than the marketing, then, what other causes might one find for the film to flop?

I’d like to share with you what I saw unfold on the screen, but be aware that I’m not a screenwriter nor in any way connected to Hollywood.  I can only write this as someone who enjoys a movie.

“John Carter of Mars” has a lot of things in its favor.

The cast was excellent – of course, I’m a big fan of Ciaran Hinds and James Purefoy – Lynn Collins, cast as Princess Dejah Thoris, was creditable and delectable – and if I don’t name anyone else it’s just because those three are the standouts.  So I don’t believe that lack of acting talent was at fault.

Whatever else it might be I found the film a stunning visual spectacle, at least as far as the recreation of Barsoom goes.  The six-limbed green Martian fighting men, the Tharks, were superbly conceived and the CGI behind them was awesome.  In short, Tars Tarkas lived and breathed on the silver screen, and so did all his green-skinned brethren.  Likewise, the sets and miniatures were seamlessly believable and beautifully constructed.  I was particularly impressed with the way features like mesas (from the Arizona desert, perhaps?) were skillfully reworked into the ruins of Martian cities.  That was well enough done that it actually made me wonder if some of those mesas were the remnants of long-lost civilizations.

In general, the artistic quality of creatures, sets, models, costumes, weapons, artifacts, were all well-thought-out and first rate, Academy Award quality, in my humble and admittedly flyover-country opinion.  Given the reported production cost of $250 million, however, it shouldn’t be surprising that the film has fantastic production values.  Nonetheless, I think they captured the spirit of Burroughs’ vision quite well.  In fact, I rather think Burroughs would have thought that in some regards, the various artists involved in this film had read his mind.

With that deliberate reference we segue to the remaining element of the film: screenplay, or story.

Before I get to the screenplay maybe we should look at the story in A Princess of Mars, as written by Burroughs.  I’m not going to recap the plot.  If you want to know, read it for yourself.

Consider this: it may not be possible to get away with things as a writer in 2012 that one could take for granted as a writer in 1912.  I’d never read the Mars stories, but I thought I’d read them before watching the movie.  One of the things that struck me the most about Princess was the positive lushness of Burroughs’ description of Mars, its cities, people, creatures and terrain.  In some respects the book is more of a travelogue than a story, more Gulliver’s Travels than Lord of the Rings.  Of course, everyone on Mars goes naked – quite a stimulating thought for readers in 1912, before Hollywood really took off, before television was available, even before commercial radio.  I’m sure imagining the lissome Dejah Thoris, clad only in jewels that glittered in the reflected light of the hurtling moons of Barsoom, was quite a pleasant task for the male readers of 1912!  I didn’t find it unduly burdensome, either, a hundred years later.

Consider also that in 1912 the only mass market entertainment was the pulp fiction serial – the format in which A Princess of Mars was first published.  In fact, that’s how the book reads, like a serial, going from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, and even ending on a cliffhanger – i.e., will John Carter make it back to Barsoom and his beloved Dejah Thoris and their unhatched son?

As for us here on Earth, though, that hundred years between 1912 and the present carries a lot more baggage than the rise of mass media.  Let’s not forget the effect that two horrendous world wars, innumerable “brush wars” and “police actions” and “wars against terror” and “Cold Wars” have had on our psychological and cultural perceptions of the heroic as well, not to mention such non-romantic things as “shell shock,” “combat fatigue” and “PTSD.”

Then too, John Carter survives his adventures because, in essence, he has super powers on Mars, as a result of which he not only whips up on the bad guys but wins the hand of the Princess of Helium.  If all you have to do to solve most of your problems is lay about you with your trusty sword in a fashion that even Conan the Barbarian might envy, then where’s the conflict for the protagonist?

That, however, may be the problem.  I wouldn’t say that the audience of 2012 is necessarily more sophisticated than that of 1912, but the point is that by the present day any one of us over the age of twenty has seen this idea – on the screen, at least – I don’t know how many times, but certainly a lot.

In this respect think of the various incarnations and variations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that have appeared over those same years, both in film and in print.  I’ve often wondered what it might have been like to sit in the audience in a theater in 1931 when the film version with Bela Lugosi first came out, back when the horror film genre hadn’t been done to death – or undeath, all things considered.

A hint of what that might have been like came to me a few years ago while I was watching Toho’s “Godzilla” (1956).  As the monster moves through downtown Tokyo, smashing buildings and setting the city on fire with his gamma-ray breath, it occurred to me to think about the Tokyo audience that would have sat in a theater in 1956 to watch this film.  I mean, it’s fairly obvious that “Godzilla” is just a guy in a rubber suit smashing up model houses and buildings on a stage miniature set.  How is this even remotely scary?  Here’s where understanding historical context comes in handy:  I suddenly realized that not one person in that audience less than twelve or thirteen years old could fail to be aware, from personal experience, that the city of Tokyo, like many Japanese cities, had been leveled in fire-storms (just like the one being produced on screen) caused by American bombing raids, with enormous suffering and loss of life and property.  In fact, more people were killed in the Tokyo raid of March 6, 1945, than were killed by the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima.  So imagine, if you will, what a Japanese survivor of the Tokyo fire raids in 1945 might have felt, watching the monster Godzilla march across the screen.

But historical context also requires us to ask this question: would an American audience of 1956 feel the same thing that the Japanese audience felt?

For either country, by now, Tokyo has been destroyed by so many monsters on screen over the years that one has to wonder what’s left of that frisson of fear I imagine swept over the Japanese audience of 1956.

Were the screenwriters aware of this problem?  That question, for now, is rhetorical.  It would be interesting to learn what was said in the writer’s conferences as the script took shape, though.  Deducing anything from the script by comparing it to the events of the books is a process unlikely to produce valid results, and runs the risk of being wise after the fact, but let’s look briefly at what was done.

The screenwriters altered the beginning of the story a little, but not materially.  Instead of being a simple prospector with a partner killed by the Apaches, John Carter is wanted by the US government for some unspecified service, evidently because he’s a “Virginia cavalryman.”  Being from the South, knowing a little about the War Between the States, and having lived in Virginia where those cavalry regiments were raised, I understand the reference, but how many people in a modern audience will?  Could we say that this part of the script is intended to promote a certain understanding of John Carter as a war hero who just wants to be left alone to look for his cave of gold?  Then, when John Carter is beaten and thrown in jail by the US Cavalry troopers, perhaps the intention is to cast John Carter as something of an underdog, promoting sympathy for his character?  While he is in jail, the script produces a flashback of a domestic scene which was nowhere part of the original books; John Carter’s only wife was Dejah Thoris.  So, John Carter now has a certain mystery, a past hinted at but no more than that; a past, perhaps, that drives him.  Then the writers threw in an element that Burroughs introduces in the second novel, The Gods of Mars, i.e., the infiltration of Barsoomian society by the evil, secretive Therns – in the movie, the Therns are depicted as near-immortal super-scientists (lacking only the overgrown, bulging foreheads) who reminded me almost irresistibly of an Oriental society preserving ancient secrets, so beloved of pulp fictioneers back in the 1920s and 1930s.  I don’t remember if Sax Rohmer’s character, Fu Manchu, was one, but that character is archetypical of the sort of menace I’m describing.  The point would seem to be to create a menace whose super-powers, so to speak, are sufficient to counter-balance those of John Carter.

So in the screenplay one finds an attempt to create a past for John Carter much different from the one in the book, presumably in an effort to create depth for the character.  In the long run, though, the story isn’t about what happened to John Carter in the past, nor even how that past might affect his actions on Barsoom.  The story is about John Carter saving Helium – this time.

I see the real problem is something a little more fundamental, and I think it is that, in both the screen and print versions of the story, the characters of John Carter and Dejah Thoris come across as two-dimensional.  In a male-dominated society, or an audience dominated by men, a beautiful naked woman to be desired and possessed might not need much depth, at least in 1912.  She is what she is; how much depth does Helen of Troy have, or need, in the Iliad?  But the story in the book, and to a lesser but still significant degree, in the film, is told from the point of view of John Carter.  He has to be more than tall, dark, handsome, and handy with a sword.

Is it fair of me to say this?  That’s it’s as simple as poor characterization?  Maybe not, but that’s my impression; it’s what I got from watching the movie.  Perhaps the question might be this: did anyone else, watching the movie, have that same lack of engagement with the main characters?

If we don’t really care about the two main characters, how can we care about the story?  One can’t help but wonder how a different script might have changed things.  The problem is that I have no idea how I would make a character like John Carter come to life, much less a woman like Dejah Thoris.  I think the screenwriters were largely faithful to Burroughs’ vision, and that may be the problem, since I see that same lack of characterization as a flaw in the original stories.

If you don’t see that, ask yourself this.  If you were going to write your own story involving the characters of King Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere, how would you give them life in words?  When so much has been written about them over the years? 

To me, the problem is largely the same.





Job Creation

Job Creation

I remember thinking that when Ronald Reagan first proposed the idea of “trickle down economics” aka “supply side economics” back in the early ‘80s that it sounded like a good idea.  The rich invest in new businesses which create jobs which means a good deal all around, right?

Since then we’ve seen a lot of rhetoric about economics, and precious little of it seems supported by anything other than propaganda.  So I’d like to add a few anecdotes from my own life on this subject.  Now, any statistician will tell you that a sample of one is inherently biased.  So perhaps those of you reading this would like to consider your own experiences and weigh in on the subject.

The first full-time job I had after college was an extension of a part-time job I had during my last year in school.  I worked for several years as night manager of a fast food restaurant.  The interesting thing about this is that my boss, the guy that signed my paycheck, wasn’t rich.  At least he wasn’t borne rich.  He’d come over from Cuba at 15, in 1960, with the shirt on his back.  He worked 60 hours a week for $60 washing dishes when he landed in New York City, became a waiter, saved his money, then he and his wife bought the restaurant franchise where I worked.  Jesse, the last I heard of him, owned two restaurants and a half-interest in a jewelry store.  I always thought of Jesse as a great American and a true success story.  In the time I knew him, he kept a payroll of three full time and anywhere from six to twelve part-time employees going, mostly college students.

The second full-time job I had was working in a small flying school as a dispatcher.  Look, no one who hasn’t been in that business will appreciate it when I say that Norman, the owner, who probably didn’t make a hell of a lot out the school, kept it going for at least ten years that I know of.  Any business in aviation is chancy; look how many major airlines have failed in the last twenty years.  Business in general aviation is almost like asking to fail.  Somehow, though, Norman kept going.  While I worked for Norman I saw dozens of instructor pilots come and go, student pilots get their ratings and hire on as instructors, then leave for charter jobs.  Pilots, most of whom don’t know much about anything other than flying, were always criticizing Norman for the way he ran the business.  I don’t recall ever seeing any of them bring in a single new student pilot, which, somehow, is what Norman managed to do fairly regularly.  Even in the lean times Norman kept the school going and paid his employees regularly.
I have a lot of respect for Norman.  I hope he managed to sell out for something decent and live comfortably.  He sure as hell earned every penny the hard way.

I worked for a firm of lawyers for about six years.  Most law firms are relatively small businesses, a couple of partners, some associates, maybe a paralegal or two, a secretary, perhaps a receptionist if it’s a well-to-do firm.  This too was a family-owned business, and I worked for the family.  No one invested in us.  If people needed the service we provided, they came through the door, and we helped them when we could, and they paid us accordingly.

Most recently I’ve worked for an engineering firm.  I won’t say much about that except this: it’s a small business, family owned, and except recently, with the down-turn of the economy, the only investment that business has had is in the hard work and devotion of its owners, people for whom I have the utmost respect.

So out of a career spanning nearly forty years and I truthfully don’t know how many jobs, almost all of them have been for small businesses that usually were family owned.  One thing I’m sure of: the only investment made in those businesses was by the owners and operators.  I don’t want to get into any discussion of whether they did it themselves; that’s true up to a point, certainly.

My point is this: my experience, this sample of one, is that jobs come more from entrepreneurs and small businesses, people with a dream, if you will, than large businesses.  Does this refute trickle-down economics?  That isn’t my intent.  I think one should consider, however, that the American Dream isn’t about the little guy going to work for the big guy which is the essence of “trickle-down economics” however you look at it.  I’ve worked for people who lived the American Dream, and I sure as hell know the difference.

How about you?

Hard Men, Desperate Times

Hard Men, Desperate Times: the 19th Bomb Group in the SW Pacific
During the early morning hours of December 8, an Army cook just coming off duty at Clark Field on the island of Luzon tuned in his Zenith Transoceanic radio to the Honolulu radio station. He heard the announcer broadcasting that Japanese aircraft were attacking Pearl Harbor. At more or less the same time, the radio operator on duty at the Cavite Navy Yard on Manila Bay overheard a message transmitted in clear from Pearl Harbor: AIR RAID PEARL HARBOR THIS IS NO DRILL.

By 0600 Philippines time all units of the Asiatic Fleet, the Far Eastern Air Force, and US Army ground units were on full alert. P-40 pursuits at Clark, Iba and Nichols Field were prepared to take the air to intercept the long-anticipated Japanese air attack. B-17s of the 19th Bomb Group at Clark Field went aloft to avoid being caught on the ground. General Brereton, commander of the FEAF, requested permission to bomb Japanese airfields on Formosa; the refusal of permission by MacArthur is a decision that remains shrouded in mystery and controversial to this day. By 1100 hours no attack had materialized. P-40 pursuits had to land to refuel. The B-17s, finally given permission to attack Formosa, landed at Clark Field to refuel and bomb up.

The Japanese struck Clark Field at 1240 while most of these airplanes were on the ground. An airman outside one of the hangars looked up and saw the incoming bombers. The reality of war had not yet sunk in; the airman called everyone’s attention to the “pretty Navy formation.” Fifty-four Japanese bombers unloaded on the field, but the worst damage was caused by strafing A6M2 “Zero” fighters. When the Japanese left, they had destroyed half the bomber and pursuit strength of the FEAF and achieved air superiority over the Philippines. By the end of December the 19th Bomb Group evacuated to Darwin, Australia, leaving only a remnant of P-40 and P-35 pursuits of the 24th Pursuit Group to continue the fight against the invading Japanese.

America did not have extensive resources to commit to fighting the Japanese in the early part of the war. The 19th Bomb Group, at the time it arrived in the Philippines in late 1941, was the only heavy-bomber group deemed combat-ready in what had only recently changed from the Army Air Corps to the US Army Air Forces. The 19th Bomb Group was equipped with B-17D bombers, which had neither powered turrets nor tail guns. The 35 B-17Ds of the 19th Bomb Group represented over a third of the total production of B-17 bombers to date, including prototypes and the “B” and “C” versions. The B-17E was starting to come off the production line at Boeing’s Seattle, Washington plant by the fall of 1941 but would not reach the Pacific until January 1942. The early-model B-17E had tail guns but the bottom turret was remotely operated and largely ineffective; gunners complained its mirror-based periscopic gunsight gave them vertigo. This model only saw combat in the Pacific. By the time the 8th AF in Europe incorporated bomb groups equipped with the B-17E, the bombers had the manned ball turret in the belly.

The 19th Bomb Group was temporarily joined by the 7th Bomb Group in January of 1942, in time to operate from Java against the Japanese coming south to seize the oil fields in Borneo, Sumatra and Java. Parts, especially engines, were in short supply. New aircraft were in even shorter supply. The original air route to the Philippines took the B-17s over or near Japanese territory. This route closed with the start of the war. A South Pacific route, via Palmyra Island, Canton Island, Fiji and New Caledonia, was used instead. US heavy bombers had to fly about 8000 miles from California to Australia to reach the SW Pacific war zone. This was originally considered such a feat of airmanship that when the first squadrons of the 19th Bomb Group flew across the Pacific to the Philippines in October 1941, the pilots received the Distinguished Flying Cross for the feat. Only a year later, the flight would be considered routine.

The remnants of the Philippine veterans from both pursuit and heavy bomber outfits had to contend with bad weather, lack of intelligence (including inaccurate or nonexistent navigation charts), wet and soggy airfields, lack of spare parts, bad food, malaria and other less appetizing tropical diseases, all before they could even fight the Japanese. A formation of 6 B-17s of varying types too often represented a maximum effort on a mission.

To prosecute the war against the Japanese the 19th and 7th Bomb Groups operated from Singosari in Java and from Batchelor Field, 50 miles south of Darwin. Missions to attack the Japanese fighting American and Philippine Army units on the Bataan Peninsula had to stage out of Del Monte field on Mindanao. Fifteen hundred miles separates Darwin from Del Monte, and at least another 500 miles from Del Monte to targets on Bataan, meaning a two-thousand-mile round trip for one bombing raid. In contrast, from 8th Air Force bases in East Anglia to Berlin is also about 500 miles. Imagine operating from bases on the east coast of Greenland, flying to a forward base in East Anglia to attack Berlin, then returning to Greenland via East Anglia. At the end of these two-thousand-mile round trips, the bombers need repairs for combat damage as well as routine maintenance. The crews themselves provided the repair work. The reason for this is simple, if brutal: the ground support echelon of the 19th Bomb Group was either trapped on the Bataan Peninsula or had come south to Del Monte Field on the island of Mindanao before the war started. A few crew chiefs and mechanics were ferried out of Del Monte, or were smuggled out on submarines from the island of Corregidor in the mouth of Manila Bay, but many of them died fighting on Bataan, or in the infamous Death March, or became POWs when the Philippines surrendered to the Japanese in May 1942.

The 7th Bomb Group was reassigned to the China-Burma-India Theater in March 1942. The 43rd Bomb Group was on the way, but wasn’t yet operational. Through the summer of 1942, the 19th Bomb Group remained the only operational heavy-bomber unit in the SW Pacific. Always under strength in personnel and aircraft, suffering from losses and combat damage, operating from makeshift forward airfields with limited repair facilities, the 19th fought a desperate war until it was relieved and sent home late in 1942. It would later be re-equipped with B-29 Superfortresses and sent to the Pacific once again, to participate in the final defeat of Japan, there at the beginning and at the end.