We’re excited to announce that Fabled Fifteen: The Pacific War Saga of Carrier Air Group 15 is now available from Casemate.
In this new release, author Thomas McKelvey Cleaver documents the Air Group’s six months at war, with details on their combat tour and daily life aboard the USS Essex during the Pacific War.
To learn more about the research and interest in this topic, we talked to Thomas McKelvey Cleaver about his experience writing this book.
What fascinates you about revisiting the past and bringing it to life in a book?
Michael Connelly once said in an interview that “authors of non-fiction history can bring the dead back to life.” I think that’s true, and I enjoy doing it, particularly when I am able to do so by telling their real story, not the made-up stuff.
When and how did you become interested in Military history?
I grew up in a private “military museum,” of the detritus of war brought back by my ancestors – which at one time included the sword of the Sergeant of the Hessian Guard at Trenton Barracks, taken from him on Christmas Day 1776 by my ancestor – and was curious about it. Also, being interested in airplanes, I would want to know what this or that airplane was used for, which led to reading about the wars they had been in, then asking why that war started, which led to more reading, and so on.
How much research did you do for the book? Can you give us some tips on this?
The one good piece of advice I ever got about writing in the only writing class I ever took is that “writing should be like a bikini – enough to cover the subject.” Research should be the same, perhaps enough for a one-piece instead of a bikini because you have to go through things you may not use in making the bikini, in order to find that out. But also, don’t get paralyzed about it. Too much research is eventually as bad as too little, since it leads to paralysis that one can ever make full use of it. Also, I don’t know of one single writer of non-fiction history who has not found the one thing they would really have liked to have used in the work – a week after the book’s gone to press and no changes can be made! That kind of event forms an entire sub-genre of “writer’s stories.” I have one of my own for “Fabled Fifteen”: the week after I was told there could be no major changes to what was in the manuscript, John Bridger’s son happened to mention while we were talking that his father’s childhood friend and squadron-mate in Bombing 15, Wendell Phillips, was still around. Fortunately (or sadly) for history, it turned out he was one of those who has finally stopped talking about things, but he did tell me briefly that everything that needed to be said had been said by his old friend in his memoir, which I had used for research. But still, my experience of interviews is everyone always has something more to say, and in this case it will never be said. That happens, one lives with it. Nothing is ever perfect.
Why did you decide to write this book? What prompted you to put this story down on paper?
Two things: One, I had always been interested in the story of Air Group 15; as I said in the author’s forward, I had met some of them over the years. Two, I found the only other book ever written on the subject in a used bookstore a few years ago, and realized on reading it how bad it was, that it was merely a recitation of the collected combat reports, and the author didn’t even take the time to be sure names were spelled the same on consecutive use and most of the “facts” were wrong to anyone with the slightest knowledge of the subject! Interestingly, when I did start my research, and when I contacted the surviving members of the group, and the descendants of those who had passed on, every single one of them hated that book, for that reason. Every single one of them wanted to see a history of what their comrades had done, what their ancestor had done, that would tell the reader who they were as people – why they had done what they had. I knew that kind of history was my forte, so I plowed on. In the end, I was doing the book for them; it’s nice to discover the readers out there agree.
What do you like most about your book? Why should we read it?
From my own experience in the Navy and stories other friends of mine told of their experiences, I knew I had never come across a book that got into the day-to-day experience, the “grind” if you will, of life aboard an aircraft carrier during wartime. The closest was Michener’s novel “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” and Dr. Hal Buell’s memoir of life as a divebomber pilot, “Dauntless Helldivers.” So I decided that was a story I wanted to tell since it would be “new.”
According to the guys who know what they’re talking about (Naval Aviators) who have read it, this is the first book that gets close to what the real experience of carrier warfare in the Second World War was like. The best comment I got from that sort of source was a good friend who flew torpedo bombers with Air Group 2, the unit that replaced Air Group 15 on the USS Hornet. He read the manuscript for me and told me it took him right back to his days on the Hornet that summer of 1944. So I know I definitely “got it right.”
As a former enlisted man in the Navy myself, I went out of my way to insure that the “enlisted man’s voice” is heard in the book. Too much of aviation history sticks with pilots, who were largely officers. I was very fortunate to gain access to Ted Graham’s diary that was notes for the book he planned to write after the war had he survived, and Ronnie Gilbeau’s diary, and a number of letters from others. I am indebted to Stan Whitby, the nephew of the Stan Whitby in the book, who collected a lot of these memories fifteen years ago when they were all still around, and provided me that material. I just knew that voice had to be heard, and I am gratified that the naval aviators who have read the book have all commented favorably on its presence.
You can purchase your own copy of Fabled Fifteen here.