Thomas E. Simmons is the author of The Man Called Brown Condor: The Forgotten History of an African American Fighter Pilot and Forgotten Heroes of WWII: Personal Accounts of Ordinary Soldiers. He lives in Gulfport, Mississippi.
Q: How did you come to write your biography of John C. Robinson, The Man Called Brown Condor?
A: In 1973, the 75th anniversary of the founding of Gulfport, Mississippi, the Herald Newspaper (now the Sun Herald) published a special edition with photographs and articles on the history of the city.
In a short reproduced piece from a pamphlet entitled “A Walking Tour of Gulfport,” written during the Great Depression by a group of ladies who had gotten some sort of grant under a Roosevelt “New Deal” WPA program, there was a sentence that said, “And if you cross the G&SI railroad you will come to the Big Quarter, home of the Brown Condor of Ethiopia.”…
I had been a pilot since the age of 16, and the article struck me as hinting that a black man from Gulfport may have been a pilot who flew in Ethiopia. If so, I asked myself, how could he have accomplished that back in the ‘30s since flying was universally closed to blacks at that time?
I asked around in the Big Quarter and found an older black woman who said she had known him when they were children and that he did become a pilot and was in some kind of war over in Africa, but she couldn’t remember any details.
Thus began what has turned out to be a 30-year-plus quest to rediscover this man, John Charles Robinson, who was and is a remarkable American hero.
A: At first I thought I might write a magazine article if I could find enough information about Robinson. I learned from interviewing several older people that had known Robinson that he had gone to Ethiopia and participated in the Italo-Ethiopian War.
I began there. My friend Roland Weeks was publisher of the Herald Newspaper and he allowed me to spend hours in the paper’s morgue looking through microfiche files of the newspaper for the years 1934 and 1935.
The paper had followed Robinson’s adventures but not with front-page articles. It was the age of segregation. I reviewed every page of every daily for the years 1934 and ‘35. On the back pages of the front sections I did find a good amount of information on Robinson, enough to know that there may be a book there.
I located Robinson’s sister, living in Queens, New York, and visited her. She gave me a great deal of information. Person by person I discovered bits and pieces of his life. Every time I thought I had hid a blind end, a small door would open and another and another.
In 1988 I published a small book called The Brown Condor with the information I had at the time. I was never satisfied with that book. There was no Internet for me to turn to at the time, and I felt with the limited resources what I had was all I going to get.
Still, I was disappointed in the book. I had grown to respect John Robinson. It was hard enough for me to gain a pilot’s license at age 16 and I knew that due to prejudice in the aviation community of the 1920s and ‘30s that it only through desire, determination, dedication and skill that he had gotten his license.
I suppose I grew to like the man and wanted to do a better job if I could find more information. That happened. In the 30 years since the first book was published, information become to come to me from readers such as Jim Cheeks who flew with Robinson.
John Stokes, Robinson’s nephew, brought me invaluable information including dozens of taped interviews with Robinson’s contemporaries that his brother, Andrew, had recorded. The Internet opened up more histories on the Italo-Ethiopian War.
With all the information collected over those 30 intervening years I knew I had to write a new, complete biography of The Man Called Brown Condor.
As proof I got it right, I received an invitation from the president of Ethiopia to come to Addis Ababa and speak on Robinson and the new book on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of his death.
The president had known him and while there I met four men in their 90s who had been under Robinson’s instruction as members of the first class of the new Ethiopian Air Corps in 1946. They said I had gotten it right, meaning the book. I must have, for John Robinson’s ghost leaves me alone these days.
Q: How did you choose the World War II veterans who are featured in your book Forgotten Heroes of World War II and how did you work with them to tell their stories?
A: Those of my age in small towns grew up surrounded by heroes, only we didn’t know it. Men had come home from World War II and did the best they could to put the war behind them, go to school or find a job and get on with their lives the best they could.
I came home from the Army (a Cold War warrior) and my wife and I were sort of adopted by the “older” crowd…. Only I didn’t know them and neither did their own families.
In conversations over coffee, or at parties, or boating or fishing, I heard only hints of their days in service during World War II. Over the years, as I got more interested in writing, I knew these older friends of mine held memories of World War II. I threw a little bait about wanting to write, but they did not take it.
Those whose stories appear in the book were chosen because I had learned enough casually to know they had been in the cauldron of war, but nothing more.
I took several years to gather their stories. As so often is the case of men who had been in serious combat or other trying situations, they didn’t want to open the doors to such memories that had been so tightly closeted away that not even their own families knew of them.
I was persistent in a way that gained their trust. After all, they had known me for some time and knew I would not abuse their trust. The word “hero” would embarrass them.
Let me give you one example of how I got two Marines, one a banker and the other a business owner, to give me their horrific stories. I had already collected a few stories from men in other services they knew, but both told me they didn’t want to talk about it.
I had obtained the diary of a Japanese soldier who died on Saipan. I invited the two Marines who were friends of mine to dinner. At dinner I read that diary to them. As I read, I saw recognition and interest in their eyes. Both had been in the 4th Marine Division and both had fought on Saipan though they didn’t know each other at the time.
As I read, one or the other would remark something like, “I know that road junction, I was fighting there.” When I finished, I asked them to think about my request. Later, each told me, “Tom, I’ll talk to you about it.”
One, whose wife and children knew that he had been a prisoner of the Germans, knew nothing about the details of what he had been through. He had never talked about it.
Every man whose story is in the book had never told anyone what they told to me. I noticed something common to all of them. Once I got them to start talking about what they had been through, they couldn’t stop until they got it all out. It was if stones were rolling off their shoulders.
They had carried the weight of their experiences all alone all the years. It was hard for them and it was, in a different way, hard for me. I was honor bound to do their stories justice, to tell them without any embellishment.
To tell each man’s story, I had to do tons of research on their units, the battles, the weapons, the terrain and much more to put their stories in context with accuracy. I must have done so, for each man was still my friend after publication. Only four are still living. I have had family members thank me and tell me, “We never knew.”
Q: What do you see as their legacy today?
A: That is easy. They, the men who fought World War II, simply saved Western democracy. And most people today, especially those under 45, don’t know how very close we came to losing that.
And there’s another thing about those who came home and those who didn’t. Too few today know anything about them or the war they had to win no matter the cost. Yet every day, the lives of every man, woman and child in this country are affected by that war.
So little is taught about World War II in schools today. It is as if patriotism is a bad thing. Many such stories as those found in my book were never told because no one asked them and no one ever thanked them.
On a flight not long ago I saw a gentleman in a wheelchair in the terminal. He was wearing a ball cap with Marine insignia and the words Iwo Jima. I went up to him and knelt down to face him at his eye level and said, “ I thank you for your service.”
He looked at me and tears welled up in his eyes. He said, “You are the first person who ever thanked me.” I shook his hand and walked away with tears in my eyes. Their legacy of freedom lives but most citizens today enjoy it without knowing the cost of that gift.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am just finishing a novel called By Accident of Birth that should be out within 12 months. The novel follows the life of a woman from birth at the fall of Vicksburg through the Cuban struggles for freedom to Paris and the beginning of World War I: 50 years of her life.…
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I have just begun working on a sequel to By Accident of Birth.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb