Author Archives: tomburkhalter

About tomburkhalter

Tom Burkhalter lives in Hickory, NC. He volunteers at the Hickory Aviation Museum.

Boxcar Red Leader – A Review

I have the privilege of knowing veterans who have been kind enough to read and review my work over the years. Among them is a gentleman named Larry Huggins.

Larry is the real deal. Two tours in Vietnam, flying the F-105D Thunderchief, and the  F-105F “Wild Weasel.”

About the Weasels. There’s an old adage among fighter pilots regarding ground-attack missions: “One pass, haul ass.” In other words, don’t stick around to duel with the flak guns or, in more modern times, SAMs. Yet that was the mission of the Wild Weasels, to seek out and destroy SAM sites in North Vietnam. For courage and dedication to duty, the Weasels were among the very best. For sheer skill, also among the very best.

Larry survived combat in one of the most heavily-defended pieces of airspace in the world, and ended up a brigadier general, having flown in his career everything from J-3 Cubs to the F-16.

Now, when someone like Larry has kind words for an aviation story you’ve written, that’s pretty damned special to the writer. I know it is for me. Here, quoted with his permission, is what Larry had to say about Boxcar Red Leader:

Picked up your latest book at HAM on the way to Seabrooke Island, SC for our family reunion on Wednesday. Read it straight through Thur night. I can not for the life of me know how you can write like you are in the cockpit and at the controls of real airplanes. For someone that has not been in real dogfights, you sure as heck know as much about them as many combat ready fighter pilots do! Tom, you are simply amazing! Keep these books coming.

I wrote Everything We HadA Snowball’s Chance, and Boxcar Red Leader for a lot of reasons, some of which I’ve mentioned in this blog. But one major reason I wrote those books was to remember those guys, holding the line against the Japanese, in a time and a place where it was by no means certain that we’d be able to win. I think it important that we, as Americans, remember what we, as Americans, can do, when in Kipling’s words, fate lays upon us our task.

Thanks, Larry. Praise like this helps a writer keep going. And I’m hard at work on that next book!

 

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The Vast Ocean

This morning I finished reading Norman Dixon’s fascinating book, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence. It was sufficiently thought-provoking that I suspect I will have to go back and reread it several times, taking notes and making comments as I go.

However, I don’t intend to summarize the book or my impressions of its content. Instead I want to comment on the bibliography and chapter notes at the end of the book.

Perusing the bibliography of a non-fiction book is sometimes an exercise in self-congratulation and sometimes one of self-flagellation. I consider myself fairly well-read, and I was thinking, as I turned to the bibliography at the end, that I would find any number of books that I had already read. Partly this was because many of the factual accounts and a number of the conclusions reached by Dixon were in accord with things I had already read.

I didn’t count the number of works and papers cited by Dixon in his bibliography. They were numerous, somewhere between one hundred and two hundred, at a guess. I’m not a professional psychologist, so I didn’t think I’d be familiar with many of the papers or their authors, but I really did think at least some of the works cited by Dixon would be known to me. Or, at the least, I thought I’d know the authors.

Apparently I’m not as well-read as I thought. I recognized a mere handful of the authors, such as Liddell-Harte, Forester, and Glenn Wilson. The only book I read in that long list was Forester’s. That’s C.S. Forester, better known for his Horatio Hornblower series, but here cited as the author of a novel titled The General, which I read with great interest if not exactly pleasure when I was much younger.

In thinking over the reasons for this, one might be that Dixon’s work was first published in the mid-1970s, when I was still at university. Much of what I’ve read that would be relevant to Dixon’s subject matter I encountered 15 to 20 years later, when I became interested in the subject. So perhaps the relative familiarity of Dixon’s work derives from reading authors who came after him.

Or perhaps I’m not as well-read as I thought.

Regardless, I had to chuckle at myself when my certainty of a smug experience consisting of, “Yes, I’ve read that, very good” and “Aha, but of course he quoted from this,” and “I remember reading that, most intriguing” to a steadily growing confusion when I realized I had read virtually none of his sources!

This in turn led me to wonder at what point one may truly regard oneself as well-educated. One might perceive a certain complacent self-satisfaction in that term, perhaps, and that might be the lesson I should derive.

Sir Isaac Newton once remarked, if I remember the quote correctly, that however brilliant he was perceived by the rest of the world, to himself he always seemed like a small boy bending over to pick up pebbles on a beach that bordered a vast ocean. Curiosity impels me to look that up, and a moment’s Google search reveals the following from the Cambridge Library exhibition on Sir Isaac:

“I don’t know what I may seem to the world, but as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/exhibitions/Footprints_of_the_Lion/introduction.html

So perhaps from time to time it does one good to be reminded how very, very vast that ocean of knowledge is, and perhaps to understand that any one man’s collection of pretty shells and pebbles is necessarily limited.

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The Struggles

In 2015 I published my first ebook, a collection of short stories titled The Struggles. The market for short stories is pretty slender these days, and at least two of the stories in the collection, “The Visit” and “Purple Heart,” have gone the rounds for decades. I figured that if those stories are to see the light of day, Amazon Kindle is the way to go.

Writing short stories can be fun, even though I’ve always seen myself as a novelist. I think there’s a kind of knack to writing short stories that’s a little different from the one needed to write novels. That knack can be learned, like most things, but for me it’s kind of hit-or-miss. If the story doesn’t have it, I toss it back in the hard drive while the germ germinates a little more in my mind. I doubt some of those seeds will ever come to fruition.

Besides, when I started writing, in 1968 at the ripe old age of 14, I saw myself as a novelist. Writing short stories came along a few years later.

When I published The Struggles it was as much an experiment as anything else. The experimental part was to work with Amazon Kindle and gain some understanding of their publication process. Everything We Had was in process, and before I undertook trying to publish My First Novel, I wanted a better idea of what I needed to do.

So, an experiment…but maybe I’m wrong to write “as anything else.”

Writing a short story really is different from writing a novel. For me that difference touches that ineffable and indefinable term “art.” It’s not that a novel isn’t “art,” but it’s art in a different way. There’s something poignant about a short story, like looking down a street in the city in the rain, wondering what’s in the dark doorways hidden in shadows. A novel takes a walk down that street and looks in each doorway until you get to the end of the street. A short story might take you into one, and it’s what happens when you open it. But the mystery of those other doors, those other paths not taken, that mystery still remains.

Or, a short story is like a brief, intense love affair, while a novel is more like a marriage, or at least a “long-term relationship.” Or something like that.

Anyway this post was inspired by the fact that, yesterday, as I was looking over my sales reports on Amazon, I noticed the sale of an ebook. Oh, I thought, wonder which one that was. Boxcar Red LeaderA Snowball’s ChanceEverything We Had? When it wasn’t any of those, I suddenly remembered The Struggles — and there it was.

Someone bought a copy of The Struggles. I don’t know who you are, friend, but thank you, and I hope you enjoy it. Because those stories in many ways were harder to write and took more from me than the novels.

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Looking Forward with the Past

As readers of my previous post on this blog know, Boxcar Red Leader is now available on Kindle as an ebook and via KENP. It’s also available via CreateSpace as a paperback. Sales are not in the NYTBS range…yet! Many thanks to those of you who purchased and read the book, and the other two in the series so far. Please, tell all your friends, and if you feel so inclined write a review of the books on Amazon. You have no idea how much it helps!

So that’s one piece of news, and the other is about the two subsequent books in the series:  Thanks for the Memories and The New Boys. Not going to give anything away, but the survivors of the first three books will continue in those two volumes.

So, a little historical context:

Thanks for the Memories takes place in the summer and fall of 1942 in New Guinea. The Japanese, having been turned back at the Battle of the Coral Sea, and having suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Midway, are still nowhere close to being defeated. Allied forces in the South and Southwest Pacific theaters still operate on the slimmest of shoestrings. Yet with the resources at their disposal they must find a way not only to hold their ground but begin rolling back the might of the Japanese Empire.

In some ways that sounds like alternate history, doesn’t it? “The might of the Japanese Empire.” But any student of history will assure you, there was nothing “alternate” about the Japanese Army and Navy — particularly their Navy! — in 1942. Allied victory at Midway turned on the slimmest of margins; in five minutes, Dauntless dive bombers turned three Japanese carriers into blazing wrecks and salvaged victory from what was shaping up as a major defeat. Those five minutes in many ways overshadowed the valor of American airmen, mostly Navy but also Air Corps, who gave their lives and their blood in attacks foiled by flak and Zeros.

Torpedo Squadron Eight, for example, was nearly wiped out at Midway. Their commanding officer, John Waldron, was one of the first to go. Despite the death of their commanding officer, VT-8 pressed home their attack against odds that were literally, obviously, suicidal. Only a single man, Ensign George Gay, survived. His survival and rescue were flukes of pure luck.

The Japanese who witnessed the attack said that Torpedo Eight came on like samurai.

This type of courage was seen again and again in the Pacific.

That’s the war of Everything We Had, A Snowball’s Chance, Boxcar Red Leader, and Thanks for the Memories. Well, OK, so it’s a land war a long way to the south of Midway. The spirit was, is, the same.

But with The New Boys we’ll start looking across the Atlantic, to the war in Europe. That, of course, will be new ground entirely. Other books are in the research and planning stages.

While I get busy writing those two, everyone enjoy Boxcar Red Leader! Don’t feel shy about dropping me a line here to tell me what you think.

Thanks again!

— Tom Burkhalter

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Boxcar Red Leader

On November 1, 2010, I sat down in happy anticipation to begin the first draft of a novel. I was a contestant on NaNoWriMo, aka National Novel Writers Month. I had this pesky idea about an Grail novel set in the far future, and I’d written bits and pieces and really loved the idea, and really loved those little pieces, and I thought, I can do this, I can bull on through and at the end of the month I’ll have a first draft!

Yeah!

Yeah, ah, no.

Three days in and I’m doing pretty well. I was ahead of the 1700-words-per-day schedule I set myself. I was happy.

Day four. I sat down. I put my fingers on the keyboard.

Nothing.

Crickets.

OK, that happens. But when it kept happening and Day Six rolled around I knew I was in trouble. Not bad trouble. The space-fantasy novel was still doable. IF…

If I could figure out where the mental block was coming from.

So I opened that gaping hole in the back of my head and looked down into the yawning pit, and I yelled, “W?T?F?”

Echoes.

OK, I yelled. OK! So you don’t want to do the sci-fi-fantasy novel about one of your favorite things of all time! What DO you want to do?

The next thing I knew I was in the New Guinea jungle, on a godforsaken airstrip with a bunch of half-trained kids trying to stay alive flying a piece-of-junk airplane, the Bell P-39, against the Emperor’s Finest in the Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero, at the time — mid-1942 — one of the premier fighter planes in the world, flown by some of the best pilots in the world.

When the month was over I had a first draft. Back then I called it The Sluggers and the Palookas, because I had to call it something, and that was the working title my subconscious came up with. Hey, I’m just the fingers on the keyboard around here. Someone else is calling the shots.

And that’s true, because, over the next two years as I developed the story, I realized that Sluggers, that by then was called I Wanted Wings, had not one but two prequels. For NaNo 2011 I started the novel that eventually became Everything We Had. Only, well, the first sixteen thousand words were set in Manila in 1938, while Charlie was still a cadet at West Point and Jack had yet to take his first flying lesson.

So that took a little while to sort out, but eventually Jack Davis sailed into Manila Bay with the 21st Pursuit Squadron and Charlie Davis shanghaied Al Stern to be his navigator, and set out in his B-17D to cross the Pacific alone.

So there used to be this thing called Script Frenzy, which was like NaNoWriMo except with a movie script, and I wrote a screenplay called “The Bronco Busters,” and that was a major part of A Snowball’s Chance.

And all this time those boys in New Guinea slept in my hard drive. Not with any real degree of patience, I might add. Rowdy bunch, those Air Corps pilots.

But now six and a half years of work have borne their fruit, and Boxcar Red Leader is on the market.

That seems so strange a thing to write.

I mean, it isn’t like I’m done with those guys, the ones that made it through alive. They have plenty of trials and tribulations ahead of them.

Only…

One phase ends. Another phase begins. And, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not this week, but soon, within a couple of weeks, more likely than not, I’ll be back there in New Guinea.

And soon after that Jack will be in the States, facing new challenges.

I don’t exactly know how all that will play out. But as soon as I know I’ll share.

In the meantime, Boxcar Red Leader is available on Kindle. Enjoy!

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Airplanes in My Novels: the Much-Maligned Bell P-39

Bell_P-39_Airacobra_in_flight_firing_all_weapons_at_night

Bell P-39 night-firing. Note engine exhausts and air scoop behind the cockpit. Wing guns are .30-cal., the two guns firing through the propeller are .50-cal., and the 37-mm cannon is firing through the prop spinner.

Before I started writing Boxcar Red Leader, I knew there was an airplane called the P-39, that it was built by Bell Aircraft, and was fairly unique among fighter designs of the era in having tricycle landing gear and the engine mounted in the fuselage behind the pilot, to leave room in the nose of the airplane for a 37-mm cannon. The propeller driveshaft passed from the engine behind the cockpit, under the pilot’s seat, and connected to a gearbox that drove the propeller. The P-39 was a contemporary of the far-better-known Curtiss P-40. I also knew the airplane was called the “Iron Dog” and there seemed to be a sizable contingent of former P-39 pilots who actively disliked the airplane. There’s even a verse about it, in the old Air Corps folk song “Give Me Operations:”

Oh, don’t give me a P-39
The engine is mounted behind
She’ll stall and she’ll spin
And she’ll auger you in
Don’t give me a P-39!

Evidently the center of gravity and the center of lift in the P-39 were in a very sensitive relationship, far more so than in other, more conventional airplanes. This resulted in an airplane very sensitive to pitch inputs, such that only very small increments of elevator control were needed to effect pitch change. This goes directly to the “she’ll stall and she’ll spin” verse above. When pulling gee in a tight turn one pulls back on the stick; if not done with skill, the turn will tighten to the point where the g-load exceeds the lift generated by the wings, causing what is known as an “accelerated stall.” Entering a stall from a turn will lead to a spin, and evidently the P-39 had interesting spin characteristics, to the point where many pilots were convinced the airplane would actually tumble end over end.

On the other hand, there were pilots who absolutely loved the Airacobra. Chuck Yeager flew the airplane in training, loved it, and relates in his autobiography a conversation he once had with a Russian pilot who flew the P-39 – successfully! – against the Luftwaffe. Edwards Park flew the P-39 in New Guinea, and his account of that time is written in his book, Nanette: Her Pilot’s Love Story, a narrative I recommend as one of the best books about flying I’ve ever read.

My perception is that much of the dislike directed at the P-39 resulted from the pilots who were thrown into the airplane straight out of flight school and then expected to fly the P-39 against the experienced Zero pilots of the Imperial Japanese Navy in the skies over New Guinea. Most of these pilots had never flown an airplane more powerful or faster than an AT-6 trainer. Later in the war pilots like this would be sent to an OTU, or Operational Training Unit, to encounter the P-39 or P-40 under the relatively benign conditions of a stateside training base. In the Pacific, in 1942, kids fresh out of flying school were put in P-39s and P-40s and sent out against the Japanese. The loss rate, from accidents and combat, was horrendous.

The P-39, like the P-40, was equipped with the Allison V-1710 engine. The V-1710 was a fairly good engine, but in the P-39 and the P-40 it had only a single-stage supercharger, and, as a result, the performance of both airplanes fell off sharply above 17,000 feet. If what you have to defend Port Moresby and Seven-Mile Drome from Jap bombers flying at 23,000 feet is a P-39, you face a difficult tactical problem, one not helped by the fact that the defenders of Seven-Mile rarely had enough warning to climb high enough to intercept Japanese bombers with any hope of success.

Between the high loss rate and the poor performance, compared to the A6M2 Zero fighter the P-39 found itself matched against, it’s no wonder the pilots disliked the airplane.

Still, I kind of like the P-39. I’ll never have a chance to fly one, to see for myself just how sensitive and well-balanced those controls are, or if she really will tumble, but there’s something about the way the airplane looks.

Over and above any of that, the P-39 was one of the two pursuit airplanes the Army Air Forces had at the beginning of World War Two available in significant numbers. It didn’t matter, from that perspective, how the pilots felt about the airplanes. It was what they had.

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One-Week Promotional Deal

Beginning tomorrow, April 17, 2017, Everything We Had and A Snowball’s Chance will be available at Amazon Kindle at discount pricing for one week! Sales for both books start at $0.99 US, so it doesn’t get much cheaper than that. Buy early, because the longer you wait, the more the price rises until at the end of the week I’ll be back to sales at the original cost.

Enjoy the books!

Note: Boxcar Red Leader is in final draft review form. I won’t say when it will be available, but it won’t be long. Read the first two books now so you’ll be ready when it comes out!

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