On Being Duped by a Source: Thoughts on Interviewing Airmen – and Anyone Else

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Has an important source for your book lied to you?

If the answer is yes, and the book is published, then what happens? Ask Charles Pellegrino.

Charles Pellegrino’s “Last Train from Hiroshima” was receiving rave review and racing up the amazon ranking like the bullet train. Then the publisher, Henry Holt Company, pulled the plug and announced it was recalling the book as if it were a runaway Toyota. The reason was that the one of the sources may have been a fraud and another “character” in the book might not have existed. A non-fiction book which has built a story structure based on what turns out to be an imposter, is no longer non-fiction. It becomes fantasy. This has to be an author’s worst nightmare. His source material is tainted. His publisher is demanding an explanation and the author fails to satisfy the publisher as to authenticity of his sources.

The case is right up dark alley of the International Crime Author’s Reality Check. As a group, we have our radar out for reality lapses.

“Last Train from Hiroshima” is a non-fiction book. It is supposed to be based on fact. The stuff that happened was supposed to have happened. The characters involved were supposed to be actual people who lived through and participated in World War II. It was supposed to debunk the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. One of the author’s sources turned out to be an imposter.

The press had a field day with the circumstances surrounding the writing of the book, the author’s response to questions about his research, and the publisher’s dramatic decision to withdraw the book. Not to mention that James Cameron optioned the book for a major Hollywood film.

The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/09/books/09publishers.html

The Telegraph (UK): http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/7361952/Hiroshima-book-pulled-from-shelves-over-doubts-about-sources.html

The Mercury News: http://www.mercurynews.com/breaking-news/ci_14498194?nclick_check=1

I asked veteran author Bob Bergin to give us his views, based on his research experience. Bob is the right author to talk about these matters. For years he’s researched material for a number of books about the World War II Flying Tigers and has interviewed many of the survivors of that small group of pilots. He has first hand experience about talking with people who participated in events that happened sixty years ago. Bob has also come across some imposters.

In the essay below, Bob shares his experience of the difficult research stage that all writers must proceed through and what dangers to look for on the way.


On Being Duped by a Source:
Thoughts on Interviewing Airmen – and Anyone Else

Bob Bergin

Christopher Moore and I both like a good war story – particularly when it’s told by a man who was there. When Publisher Henry Holt pulled back The Last train From Hiroshima, it quickly got our attention. A source told untruths to the unfortunate author – and the author built a good bit of his book around them.

Now that is an awkward thing to happen – and happen it does. It could happen to any one of us who does interviews. It makes one think. Can a writer protect himself from being had? And how does an author keep from becoming a dupe? I think there are two ways: one can be lucky, or one can go into an interview prepared.

The interviews I’ve done over the years have involved a variety of military types, but in my earliest efforts I was a specialist of sorts – and that taught me something.

My focus was the American Volunteer Group (AVG) Flying Tigers. Fewer than 100 pilots and 200 support personnel comprised the group. They existed as a combat unit for only the first seven months of World War II. In that time they were credited with destroying 297 Japanese aircraft in the air and another 150 “probably destroyed,” which makes the AVG Flying Tigers one of the most effective units in the history of aerial warfare.

I had an affinity for the Tigers from my earliest youth. They were a colorful lot, rowdy on the ground, exceptionally effective in the air. And they operated in the skies over Burma, Thailand and southwest China, the part of the world I would become much involved with. Through one of those quirks of fate, I found myself involved with a Thai aviation foundation when it came across the only wreckage ever found of one of the AVG Flying Tiger’s 100 original P-40 aircraft. My long and close association with the Flying Tigers stemmed from that.

By the time I did my first formal interview of a Flying Tiger I already knew the group well. I had arranged their visit to Thailand to see the P-40 wreckage, joined them on two trips to China and attended their reunions. Two of the pilots lived near me and became good friends. When an editor suggested a formal interview of one of them, I had already heard all the stories and read their history – several times. But for that first interview I did a lot more reading. I wanted to learn everything I possibly could about the man I would interview. When I started asking questions, I wanted to know as much about his AVG career as he did.

I may not have reached quite that stage, but knowing as much as I did, made that first interview a reasonably smooth process. That was the way to go, I decided, and from then on, solid preparation preceded any interview I did, be it of airman, soldier, or spy.

All the Flying Tigers I knew had good, vivid memories. The events we talked about had taken place 50 years before, or even longer, but there were few problems. A forgotten name or place was no big deal. It was misremembered situations that I had to be careful of. One pilot told of strafing passes he made during a raid on a Japanese airfield. Years after he was gone I located the combat reports of that day. Under “ammunition expended,” he had written: “none.” He had flown top cover and was not one of the shooters. There was no intention to deceive, I’m sure of that. He said what he believed. He had been on many raids and his mind had probably transferred the vivid details of one raid to another. But there were few instances of that.

Looking back, the AVG interviews were easy. I was dealing with known quantities, the real McCoy. But there were others out there: impersonators, fabricators, the ones who wanted to be Flying Tigers. I met one of those only once, at an air show. He was regaling some young people with his tiger tales, but vanished quickly when he learned that I had a bit more knowledge of the AVG than those to whom he usually told his stories.

I was well into my relationship with the AVG, when a friend passed me a paperback, China through the Eyes of a Tiger. “Must be one of your friends,” he said. “Do you know him?” The author’s name was not familiar. He could have been a pilot with the 14th Air Force, I thought. They came after the AVG, and were also called Flying Tigers.

I started reading. The book purported to be an account of an AVG Flying Tiger pilot. It took only minutes before I was sure: The man was a fraud, not a Flying Tiger. It’s hard to describe, but given my familiarity with the real tigers, what this man was saying simply did not feel right. This was not the world of the Flying Tigers I knew. His was a different reality. And I suddenly realized what I had. I had heard about him so long before, that I had already forgotten: Captain Incredible!

Captain Incredible first came to prominence in 1990, after he started selling his book. One of the AVG pilots, R.T. Smith wrote an expose for a popular aviation magazine. Captain Incredible was a veteran, and he had served in China, but he was an enlisted man, not an officer, and he had never been a pilot or in any way associated with the AVG. Yet here he was, claiming to be an AVG pilot, to have shot down at least four Japanese aircraft, and probably seven more – and he had the chest full of medals to prove it. He spoke at VFWs, schools, air shows and other venues to which grateful citizens frequently invited him and where he sold his book. After he was exposed he didn’t go away. He ducked under the radar and continued with his book selling and speaking engagements. A second expose, a lengthy newspaper article in 1999, got considerably more attention and apparently finally did him in.

Captain Incredible was a charming and convincing man, so much so that no one ever bothered to check his credentials. Even in years gone by that would have been easy enough. In today’s world of the internet, it’s unforgivable.

But I never crossed paths with the Captain. My interests in aviation expanded and I went off to do other things: to Burma to explore a mysterious shoot-down of a World War II bomber on the Thai-Burmese border in 1961; to China for the first interview of a Korean War era Chinese Mig ace, and much more recently to interview the pilot who dropped China’s first h-bomb. Investigating the fate of two AVG POWs in Thailand, I became interested in what happened on the ground in WWII’s China-Burma-India theater. I focused on the operations of the Free Thai and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). It was a series of new worlds, each requiring a lot of research before I felt competent to do interviews. But that was all part of the fun. And somewhere along the way I met the Me 262 thief.

An acquaintance who knew my interest in aviation history told me he had met someone I really had to talk to: an American WWII pilot who had been shot down over Germany, then stolen a German airplane to get back to friendly lines. The airplane was a Messerschmitt Me 262, the first operational jet fighter. Now that was worth a telephone call.

My prospective interviewee was eager to tell me all about it. He had been attacking an airfield when his aircraft – a twin-engine P-38 fighter, as I recall – was hit by ground fire. He bailed out and reached the ground unobserved. Realizing he was close to the airfield, it struck him that he might just be able to steal an airplane to get back to friendly lines. And indeed he found an unattended Me 262. He had never seen one of these before, but from briefings he knew they existed. He managed to get into the aircraft, took off and made his way back to friendly lines – concerned all the way about being shot down as an intruder by Allied aircraft. But of course he wasn’t. This was the first example of the Me 262 to fall into American hands.

I didn’t know much about Me 262s, but after hearing him out, I said the first thing that came to mind: “How did you even know how to get the engines started?” A jet would have been so different from the piston engine aircraft he flew.

“Ah, well,” he said. “I can’t tell you. That has to remain secret.”

I replied to that with an astonished, “What?”

“When I was debriefed back in England, I was told that knowledge of this new airplane had to be restricted, and that I could never speak of it – even after the war was over.”

“But the war was over fifty years ago,” I said, “And you have been telling people that you flew it.”

“Yeah, but I haven’t been telling the details. I can’t tell the details. They’re still secret. ”

And there my interview of the Me 262 thief ended.

I’ve had several similar, if more mundane encounters, usually with individuals who were vets with great war stories, told with great gusto, but which came apart on close examination. On the whole, the people I choose for interviews are known quantities. They’re in the history books, or otherwise well known. Often members of the same unit could confirm their legitimacy – even when clouded by the fog of espionage like the Free Thai Movement or the Office of Strategic Operations (OSS).

In the end it all comes down to knowing your subject matter – and knowing it well. Alexander Pope said it: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Beware that your incomplete knowledge could make a charming fabricator’s tale sound credible. Know your stuff, check your facts – all of which is just part of your job as a writer – and in the end you will be smarter than the bad guys.

Bob Bergin is a former U.S. Foreign Serve officer who writes about the history of aviation and OSS operations in Southeast Asia and China. He has written three novels set in Asia. His most recent, Spies in the Garden, was released in February 2010.

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