Home » Interview with Barrett Tillman

Interview with Barrett Tillman

Published: 17 April 2010

Barrett Tillman is a professional author, speaker, and consultant, with 50 books and approximately 550 articles published.  He has received six writing awards and continues working in the military/aviation/naval field.  His current book is Whirlwind, the first history of all allied air operations over Japan in WW II.

The interview took place in March 2010.

AHFHow did you get contact to publishers when starting out?

Tillman: My first publisher was Naval Institute Press in Annapolis, which released my first six books and one other since then. I was only vaguely aware of NIP when I started book writing, and wasted some time 1972-75 trying to link up with a mainline New York publisher. At that time there was little interest in military topics owing to anti-Vietnam feelings, so I continued magazine writing when I was not busy on the family ranch in Northeastern Oregon. But eventually I sold my first book to Naval Institute: The Dauntless Dive Bomber of WW II was published in 1976 with three more books in 1979. After that, I kept busy year to year.

AHFHave you got any specific training (history degree, writing courses)?

Tillman: I was always interested in writing, partly because I read so much as a child and teenager. I missed a lot of school due to illness, and developed the habit of reading recreationally. Therefore, I majored in journalism at the University of Oregon and received a bachelor’s degree at the end of 1971, as I’d had to transfer from Oregon State in my sophomore year since there was no major at OSU. I “aced” every writing class I took, including a screen writing course at a community college in the 1990s, but I never assumed I would do well. I had learned the importance of staying focused.

AHFHow did you first become interested in military history and what made you choose the topic of your first book?

Tillman: I was always intrigued with military, naval, and aviation history—I cannot recall a time when I was not. Part of the influence undoubtedly was reading some of Samuel Eliot Morison’s volumes in the 1960s, both for the content and for the richness of his style.
My first book (noted above) was an operational history of the Douglas SBD Dauntless. Oddly, there had never been a full-length history of the type, and my interest was focused when my father and two partners restored and flew an A-24, the Army version of the SBD, in the early 1970s. I was intimately involved in the restoration process and got about six or eight hours in the back seat. I realized that no one else was as well placed to write the Dauntless story, so that became the subject of my first book and established the format for those which followed.

AHFHow did your interest in the Second World War begin?

Tillman: My father was trained as a naval aviator in WW II but did not get to combat. Being born in 1948, I was in the heart of the “baby boomer” generation, and what everyone called “the war” was part of the cultural landscape. Like my interest in the military generally and in aviation, I was just naturally drawn to WW II, though I was also interested in The Great War, mainly for the aviation aspects.

AHFHow do you select topics for books?

Tillman: Without trying to sound too grandiose, I select book topics by what I call “negative market analysis.” I look for deserving subjects that have not been covered before, or which deserve a new or more thorough treatment. Because so few operational histories of WW II navy aircraft had been written by the 1970s, I decided to focus on “tailhook” airplanes beginning with the Douglas SBD, then the Grumman F6F and TBF, and even the Vought F4U. By 1979, when my Corsair book was published, there had been numerous treatments of the “U-bird” but mostly from the technical aspect—what I call “rivet counter” texts. So I had the field mostly to myself, more by luck than by design.

AHFWhich archives have you used and how do you find working in them?

Tillman: My first few books were written with the help of two main archival sources: the Operational Archives Branch of the Navy History Office in Washington, DC, and Grumman, Douglas, and Vought company files. Grumman was especially good in that regard because, unlike nearly every other aircraft manufacturer, it had a dedicated history office separate from public affairs. But I want to acknowledge the excellent help of Dr. Dean Allard and his staff in the Navy Yard. When I approached him with requests for SBD documentation, he was immediately receptive. He treated me as a colleague, even though I was a 22- to 24-year-old farm kid who happened to have a newly-printed journalism degree. I’ve never forgotten his tremendous courtesy.

AHFWhat in particular needs to be kept in mind in archival research?

Tillman: Not even the most comprehensive archive has all the information a researcher needs. Archives are of course necessary, and the logical starting point, but not all archivists are fully supportive. I’ve encountered a couple of individuals who did not want to co-operate or who were openly resentful, especially if I noted obvious errors in their files. But as a rule, primary sources are preferred to fallible memories. When I find contradictions among participants of a particular event, I’ll usually side with those whose versions closely match the records.
Additionally, writers should keep in mind that the official record often contains gaps and outright errors. An excellent example is Above and Beyond: The Aviation Medals of Honor (Smithsonian Press, 2002). It would have been easy to accept the official accounts and build a text around the 100 or so citations. But even before I began that book, I knew of instances in which the published version was inaccurate and, in a few cases, intentionally misleading. (MoH citations from Southeast Asia sometimes misrepresented where events occurred because they actually were on the wrong side of a line on somebody’s map.) There’s always room for honest error in military accounts owing to the normal confusion of combat, but there are also personal and institutional agendas, so we need to be aware of them.

AHFHave you tried to contact veterans and interview them – if so, how did this work out?

Tillman: Veterans have been absolutely essential to my work. The operational approach I take to aviation subjects relies upon not only pilots and aircrew, but upon maintenance and support personnel as well. For instance, my current book devotes an entire chapter to the Seabees and engineers who built bomber bases in the Pacific. Believe me, as a pilot from a tender age, I knew the value of good mechanics!
It’s rare to find a veteran who does not want to discuss his military service. I can only think of a handful who have declined, either because of painful memories or more often due to declining health. I’m glad that I started interviewing in the early 1970s when so many WW II vets were still around, and their memories were still relatively good. Otherwise much of what I’ve been able to publish would likely have been lost.
The internet has been a tremendous resource, permitting direct contact with people who otherwise might not be approachable. I actually prefer email contact with many vets because it’s far less intrusive than the phone, and easier than normal correspondence.

AHFWho decides on the contents of an index, and how do you decide what’s listed and what’s not?

Tillman: The situation varies from one publisher to another. I’ve worked with houses that want authors to do their own indexes; with others who have indexers on staff; to others with hired indexers. While I don’t enjoy indexing, I do it when I have to, but generally it’s not a major problem.

AHFWhat are your plans for future books?

Tillman: My current book for Simon & Schuster is a long-overdue look at USS Enterprise (CV-6), the most decorated warship in American history. There hasn’t been a full treatment of “The Big E” since Edward P. Stafford’s excellent 1962 volume, and a great deal of material has come available since then. Of course, the down side is that so many sailors and aviators have died in 48 years, so I’m scrambling to interview a representative cross-section. I’m working in person, by phone and by email.
What I hope to achieve in the Enterprise book is not another battle history but rather the cultural history of an exceptional institution. I’m not sure whether that approach has been taken with other ships, but Enterprise was a remarkable example of loyalty up and down, with leadership at all levels. The text is due before year end (2010) and I’m pleased with progress thus far.
Otherwise, I’m still discussing other prospects with my agent for future books. He’s Jim Hornfischer, himself a first-rate naval historian, but I’d like to do something different. I’d especially welcome a chance to write more fiction.

AHFWhat has the greatest challenge for you as a historical researcher been?

Tillman: Nearly all my research had produced more material than I could use for a given book. Therefore, the greatest challenge is narrowing the focus, and I suspect that most historians would report similar situations. For example, I found far more Japanese material for Whirlwind than I could use, and the same applied to the carrier strikes on Kure in July ’45. Sometimes I can use additional material in magazine articles, but a lot of information goes back on the shelf, possibly for reference years downstream.

AHFIn hindsight, are there any things in your books that you would have done differently?

Tillman: I don’t think so. My original concept for aircraft operational (versus technical) histories was sound, and the format established in Dauntless Dive Bomber remained valid for the subsequent books. However, in retrospect I should have become proactive as a marketer much sooner than I did. It took quite awhile before I realized that very few publishers were going to expend much effort—let alone money—in adequately promoting my books.

AHFHow did you manage your time between daily life (work and family) and work on the book; do you have a regime in regards to work time on the book?

Tillman: Coming from an agricultural background, I inherited a strong work ethic. But if I hadn’t, it would have been necessary to develop one because a full-time writer usually does work full time. I work at least part of almost every day of the week, and often seven full days, depending on magazine deadlines and long-term projects such as books. Since I married late in life, it was seldom necessary to juggle “normal” routines other than the seasonal requirements of a working ranch. From late fall to early spring there wasn’t much to do, so that’s when I traveled for research and did most of my writing. Once I was on my own, it was necessary to work more or less full time. Fortunately, I’m married to a wonderful lady who understands that requirement, but we still find time for us.

AHFHow do you as an author view the Internet, both as a source and as a competitor to books?

Tillman: While working on the Tailhook Association magazine in the late 1980s I was dragged into the computer age with a doorknob in each hand and skid marks on the floor. I did not repeat not want to have to learn an entirely new and intimidating technology. But after awhile I realized that if I were going to continue as a professional writer, I would have to master computers.
I acquired internet access around 1997, and frankly I was unimpressed with most of what I saw. At that time, the information available on subjects that interested me represented the proverbial river: half a mile wide and about two feet deep. Most of the early historical material online was naturally lifted from existing publications, frequently superficial and often with gaps. But after awhile I acknowledged the tremendous potential, and began researching online more and more. One of the greatest revelations occurred when I came across a site with all the Pearl Harbor investigations in one place. That was an eye-opener.
As far as the internet competing with my books, we’re all familiar with the Google settlement, and there’s no way of preventing some material from being lifted and put online. Generally I’m not concerned about it: my books are fairly esoteric so it’ll be quite awhile before most of them are pirated by Chinese websites!

AHFWhat is the key bit of advice you would give to those who want to write a book on military history, especially World War 2?

Tillman: DO IT NOW! According to the Veterans’ Administration, we are losing WW II veterans at the rate of more than 2,000 per day. I think we’ve probably past the point where fewer than half of surviving vets retain good (read: accurate) memories of their experiences. After all, the average WW II veteran was born in 1919, and even the teenagers of 1945 are now 82 or 83, long past their life expectancy. There are exceptional individuals who remain active and interested into their nineties, but they’re understandably rare. So it’s more important than ever to record those experiences today—and sort out the inevitable contradictions later.

AHFWhat is your opinion of the recent rise of interest in the Second World War in popular culture? What effect might it have on the historical research community?

Tillman: I remember in 1993-94 during the runup to the 50th anniversary of VJ Day, the conventional wisdom seemed to hold that WW II history would decline after 1995. I discussed it with some of my colleagues such as John Lundstrom and Rich Frank, and none of us believed it. As I recall, there were at least two reasons: millions of WW II veterans were still living, and millions more of their relatives, which ensured continuing interest. But additionally, we knew that much, much, more information remained to be found, analyzed, and used. Just consider the Civil War, the most popular subject in U.S. history. We’re still learning things about that period, over 140 years later.
As I’ve noted, WW II remains a tremendous cultural effect for the nation, however much or little any individuals know or care about the subject. Probably the impact of WW II on my generation is less than the Great War compared to the European experience. But when you consider the consistent interest in WW II as part of the popular culture, there’s no doubt of its effect. We all know the work of the prominent historians—Ambrose, Hastings, Ryan, Toland and others—but movies and TV have a greater effect on young people. Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers undoubtedly are the most prominent but there’s also Clint Eastwood’s two Iwo Jima films and now the HBO cable TV miniseries The Pacific. The end is nowhere in sight.

AHFCan you live off the proceeds?

Tillman: Yes, I’m proud of the fact that I’ve made a good living as a self-employed author for so long. Since graduating from college in 1971 I’ve only had two “real” jobs (both in publishing) for a total of seven years. Sometimes I joke that I’m in a “high-risk” profession, the risk being malnutrition, but I’ve been fortunate that I’m seldom out of work. It’s all the more remarkable: I’m busier now than I’ve ever been, even in the recession.

AHFYou dab in some fiction as well. Easier to write than fact or does it entail a lot of research as well?

Tillman: My historical fiction is mainly the direct result of my nonfiction. The best example is my novel Dauntless (Bantam 1992), which follows Pensacola classmates from Midway to Guadalcanal. The story was resumed with Hellcats (Brassey’s 1996) with fast carrier operations in 1944-45. If I ever finish the trilogy it will be in the Korean War. Dauntless was definitely the easiest novel I’ve written: I said I spent 20 years researching it and about four months writing it! But I enjoyed those WW II books because it’s fun to have fictional characters interacting with historic figures, whether Admiral Nimitz or Lt. Cdr. Max Leslie of Bombing Three, whom I was privileged to know.
I did have to conduct considerable “original” research for a short story in a Steve Coonts anthology titled Victory (Tor, 2003). “Flame at Tarawa” was written from the first-person perspective of a flame thrower operator—a subject about which I knew almost nothing. But I obtained enough detailed information to make it credible, and I think it’s the best fiction I’ve done. I even got letters from WW II vets who thought it was an actual memoir and urged me to enjoy my retirement! I still think that “Flame” would make an exceptional movie.   

AHFAny service, any nationality, any theatre, what was the best aircraft (survivability,manoeuvrability etc) to fly in 1944?

Tillman: If I were to climb into my time machine and set the dial for 1944, I would manage to materialize in the cockpit of a Hellcat. Mainly that’s because of my naval orientation, but I’d probably be just as satisfied with a P-47. Both had those tremendous Pratt & Whitney engines, extremely rugged airframes, and six or eight superb Browning .50 calibers. Both had ample opportunity to engage in repeated combat, which wasn’t always possible with other types. Furthermore, the ability to survive battle damage that would destroy other fighters is a major attraction to any aviator, and I’m partial to radials anyway because that’s what I grew up flying.
As for bombers, well, there was the B-29 and everything else. It was more than an evolutionary step up from the B-17: it was at least half a generation beyond the prewar designs. Unfortunately, the Superfortress was the victim of political machinations in Washington that forced it into combat before it or its crews were ready. But with a tremendous amount of hard work, the many difficulties were conquered and it became a war-winning weapon system.

AHF: Is a plane only as good as its pilot?

Tillman: Absolutely. For proof, look no farther than the Grumman Wildcat against the Mitsubishi Zero in the year after Pearl Harbor. (John Lundstrom’s First Team tells the entire story.) Contrary to what’s usually written, the Zero was not much faster than the F4F but outperformed it in nearly every other category: acceleration, agility, turn radius, climb rate, and ceiling. The Wildcat should not have been able to survive against the Zero in anything like similar numbers. Generally the same thing can be said about the Curtiss P-40. But by refusing to play the enemy’s game, American pilots used their strengths to exploit the hostile machinery’s limitations. I knew Joe Foss well, and he insisted that if the same American and Japanese pilots traded cockpits, the results would have been essentially the same. It wasn’t because Americans were inherently superior aviators, but they were smart aviators. Ignoring the wartime claims—which are always subject to error—the Wildcat outshot the Zero about 1.3 to 1, which was a solid victory.

AHFIn your new work Whirlwind: The Air War Against Japan, 1942-1945 you go into new depth on the Japanese side of things. How hard was it in obtaining this information?

Tillman: It took some spadework on occasion, but generally I obtained more than enough Japanese information. Partly that was due to the exceptional co-operation from my friend and colleague Henry Sakaida plus a few other U.S. and Japanese researchers. But the postwar Strategic Bombing Survey contained a wealth of material at all levels, from fire fighting up to the command relationships between the Imperial Navy and Army. (I’d describe that situation as “lousy” under the best circumstances.)
I’m still struck by the seeming contradiction in obtaining detailed Japanese and US information on some subjects. I first encountered it in Clash of the Carriers (Caliber, 2005) when assembling the appendices of ships engaged at Philippine Sea. Nearly all the IJN skippers were found on the internet, but it’s amazing how few US web sites identify ship captains, even among veterans’ associations. Morison’s Marianas volume was my starting point but I found several gaps and errors, so the appendices for Clash contributed to our overall data base. And of course that’s what history should do!