Author, Historian and Filmmaker
Tell a little about yourself, and how you got interested in WWII
I was born in 1944 and while I was growing up the war still seemed very close. Everybody had been involved, everybody had stories to tell, and I was an avid listener. A lot of Australians had photos taken in New Guinea and beyond, and many of them showed aircraft nose art, particularly the F-7 Liberators decorated by Al Merkling. Exotic, fascinating stuff, and the idea that some of the aircraft might still be there really captured my imagination.
I got the opportunity to go to Vietnam briefly as a correspondent for an Australian magazine, and flew missions in the oldest airplanes: the A-1 Skyraider and the AC-47. That A-1G, 132582 - long after I'd left it was hit in the wing by AAA. Went down on April 26, 1968 but pilot got out and was rescued by Special Forces. I flew two Spooky missions from Bien Hoa with 4th ACS - nothing on the first one, but on the second one we went to support a ground position that was under attack. Yes, it was really something - I've never heard anything like it before or since! I flew with the pilot Captain Chuck Boatwright.
How did your interest in 5th Air Force begin?
My primary focus was really the four-engined bombers: B-17, B-24 and later, the B-29. I used to make a weekly visit to the second-hand bookshops in Sydney, and you’d often find tantalizing fragments of a story that had never been told. For instance, I remember finding an old January 1943 National Geographic Magazine with Howell Walker’s story of “American Bombers Attacking From Australia”, illustrated by his superb and quite unique photos of 19th Bomb Group B-17s. Of course the full story didn't come together until many years later, when I was able to cross-match the photos and the few bare facts in the article with data from old Allied Combined Headquarters logs that Lex McAulay dug up in Canberra. We were able to identify all the planes, their pilots, the mission and the date: an attack on Lae Airstrip on July 4, 1942, led by Captain Felix Hardison in B-17E "Tojo’s Physic" 41-2640.
How did you begin researching and writing history?
When I was young, about the best available reference to the B-17 was William Green’s Famous Bombers of the Second World War. I’d been collecting photos for a while and had written a story about the YB-40s for Airpower Historian, but it all began after I read Len Morgan’s books about the P-51 Mustang and the P-47 Thunderbolt. I wrote to Len offering to provide the photos if he would write a book on the B-17 as part of his “Famous Aircraft” series. He told me to write it. So I contacted as many veterans and other sources as I could and set out to create the kind of book I was always looking for, and partly succeeded.
My first two books were for Len Morgan’s “Famous Aircraft” series: the B-17 and the B-24. Then there was Hell’s Angels for Challenge, The A-1 Skyraider for Arco and three for Doubleday: Log of the Liberators, Flying Buccaneers and Saga of the Superfortress. Along the way I did “In Action” books for Squadron on the B-17, B-24, B-26 and B-29, plus a Superfortress “special”, a “Fighting Colors” on the B-17 and finally Pride of Seattle. I wrote Claims To Fame: The B-17 Flying Fortress with Roger Freeman.
Tell about writing "Flying Buccaneers"
Doubleday wanted a follow-up to Log of the Liberators and I suggested either the Fifth or Seventh Air Force as worthy subjects. (At that stage they already had Roger Freeman’s The Mighty Eighth and Kenn Rust was lined up to do a Twentieth Air Force book for them. Those were the golden days of the Military Book Club.) My editor Harold Kuebler asked which I’d like to do first, and I chose the Fifth. I’d seen that old television show that General Kenney presented – Air Power? – and I also knew about the kind of commander he was and what he’d achieved.
Veterans have always been my primary source, with their recollections set against the official records. It’s not an exact science, but I think it’s valid. During the great days of the Air Force Book Program I used to go to the U.S. every year or so and visit the photo archives at 1221 South Fern Street, a short walk from the Pentagon. I visited AFSHRC at Maxwell AFB, the National Archives, the Air Force Museum in Ohio and veterans around the country. Later I relied on others to help me with research in the United States: Dick Drain, who’s done a monumental job of researching the 5th Bomb Wing and the 390th Bomb Group, Bill Greenhalgh at AFSHRC in Alabama, and Murray Green in Washington D.C. I also used a lot of microfilm.
Sales of Flying Buccaneers were very disappointing compared to my earlier Log of the Liberators. Looking back, we probably should have called it something more indicative of the subject. When somebody commented in the 22nd Bomb Group newsletter that it sounded like a “swabby book” I was less than amused. But yes, those low level shots, particularly ones like Here’s Howe coming off Simpson Harbor, really fired my imagination. Still do.
Tell about "Pride of Seattle"
I’d grown up with legends like the Memphis Belle. When I looked at the rest of the first Seattle-built B-17Fs I liked the way those early aircraft went to so many different theatres around the world, and their long and varied service as skip bombers, armed transports, and finally as trainers. There were some great stories there, many never told or since forgotten. And by then B-17F "Black Jack" 41-24521 had been discovered off New Guinea.
Talk about your documentary "Black Jack's Last Mission"
As I recall, I first heard about the discovery of B-17F "Black Jack" 41-24521 from David Pennefather. A short time later my wife Sandra and I had dinner with Richard Leahy in Sydney and he showed me photos of the wreck that he’d taken, including a wonderful shot of the cockpit. I gave him a couple of wartime photos of Black Jack.
It kind of moved on from there, although my first intention was to write about it, not make a film about it. So I got up early one morning and called Harold Kuebler at Doubleday, but that went nowhere because nobody was looking for the plane (and it didn’t have ten skeletons in it, as Ralph De Loach commented later).
I had been helping some people with a film about the B-29, and that led to the idea of making a television documentary about Black Jack. In retrospect, a book would have been far easier, but I don’t regret what we tried to achieve with "Black Jack’s Last Mission". To order the DVD and learn more about the B-17 and her crew, visit B17BlackJack.com.
What was it like working with former pilot Ralph De Loach?
Unfortunately, he remembered very little about his wartime service. But taking him back to New Guinea and "Black Jack" was a dream come true, the experience of a lifetime. I’ll always remember what he said as we landed at Port Moresby: “I never thought I’d see Seven Mile again”.
Talk about working with Rod Pearce, David Pennefather and Richard Leahy
It was very interesting to meet and work with these truly “hands on” people. I trace serial numbers by digging out loading lists from the archives or peering at photos through a magnifying glass, they get serial numbers by diving to the bottom of the sea and prying the Radio Call plate from the cockpit!
Tell about some of the articles you have written
I’ve only done two stories for Flightpath (one about B-17F "Black Jack" 41-24521 and one about the last mission of B-17E 41-9234) but over the years I’ve written for the Sydney Morning Herald, Daily Telegraph, Flying Review International, Air Combat, AAHS Journal, Air Classics, Air Force and a few others.
Speak about your collaborations with other authors
I wrote Claims To Fame: The B-17 Flying Fortress with Roger Freeman, and that was a real privilege. Roger was an amazing man and a true friend. He was always generous, always ready to help fellow researchers, and knew more about the Eighth Air Force than anyone ever has or ever will. I miss him. And John Preston, who did the beautiful colour artwork for my Doubleday books, he was great to work with, and he’s gone too. I did a chapter on the B-17 armed transports for Fred Johnsen’s Winged Majesty.
How do you feel about Pacific wrecks that remain today?
I have no firm opinion one way or another on this. Although I hate the “theme park” notion of history, it’s great that “authentic recreations” like B-17 Nine-O-Nine and B-17 "Liberty Belle" are flying. The B-17E "Swamp Ghost” is a touchy subject but I think it’s too important historically to be left to just fade away. One of the saddest stories I ever heard was about Gordy Williams’ valiant but failed attempts to save 5 Grand from Kingman just after the war. Not many happy endings really.
You describe yourself as retired, what do you do now?
I’m currently working with Jack Fellows on Hawaiian Patrol, a book project devoted to the thirty-three B-17Es that were flown to Hawaii in December 1941. No publication date. I still want to know the exact colors that were specified for the Hawaiian Air Depot (HAD) scheme when the order was issued on 10 December 1941, and what General Jacob Rudolph meant when he said the “lack of proper colors” prevented him getting the result he wanted.
List of publications by Steve Birdsall
Books, magazine articles and publications by Steve Birdsall.
- Aviation History Magazine "Pacific Tramps" (May 2016) by Steve Birdsall pages 21-27 cover art by Jack Fellows
- Ken's Men Against the Empire (2016) by Lawrence
J. Hickey, Steve Birdsall, Madison Jonas, Edward Rogers and Osamu Tagaya. International Historical Research Associates
- Flightpath Magazine August-October Issue 2012 "Rabaul October" by Steve Birdsall
- Eagles of the Southern Sky (2012) by Luca Ruffato and Michael Claringbout associate editors Larry Hickey, Gordon Birkett, Ed Dekiep and Steve Birdsall
- Pride of Seattle: The Story of the First 300 B-17Fs (1998) by Steve Birdsall
- Claims To Fame: The B-17 Flying Fortress (1995) by Roger Freeman and Steve Birdsall
- Flightpath Magazine "B-17 At Black Cat Pass" by Steve Birdsall
- Warbirds September / October Issue 1989 "Black Jack's Last Mission" by Steve Birdsall
- Black Jack's Last Mission (1988) produced and directed by Steve Birdsall
- B-17 Flying Fortress in Color - Fighting Colors series (1986) by Steve Birdsall
- The B-24 Liberator Famous Aircraft Series (1985) by Steve Birdsall and Ernest J. Gentle
- B-26 Marauder in Action Aircraft No. 50 (1982) by Steve Birdsall and Don Greer
- B-17 Flying Fortress Famous Aircraft Series (1980) by Steve Birdsall, artwork by Richard Groh
- Saga of the Superfortress: The Dramatic Story of the B-29 and the Twentieth Air Force (1980) by Steve Birdsall
- Superfortress The Boeing B-29 (1980) by Steve Birdsall
- B-29 Superfortress in Action - Aircraft No. 31 (1977) by Steve Birdsall
- Flying Buccaneers: The Illustrated Story of Kenney's Fifth Air Force (1977) by Steve Birdsall
- Log of the Liberators: An Illustrated History of the B-24 (1973) by Steve Birdsall
- B-17 in Action Aircraft No. Twelve (1973) by Steve Birdsall
- Combat Special B-24D: The Story of the "D" Air Combat Special, 3 (1972) by Steve Birdsall
- The A-1 Skyraider (1970) by Steve Birdsall
- Hell's Angels B-17 Combat Markings (1969) by Steve Birdsall
- The B-24 Liberator - Famous Aircraft Series (1968) by Steve Birdsall
Thank you for the interview, Mr. Birdsall