My new book is out! Lost Eagles (University of Michigan Press) has finally released. It has taken a long time to reach this point and I must admit, its publication lets me sigh with relief. For me, this book was a departure in many respects. True, it's a biography. At the same time it tells a much larger story, of how America deals with its missing in action.
This book demanded I write it. I know that sounds weird, but hear me out. I was born in Virginia but raised in Battle Creek Michigan. My parents owned an antique store in the tiny town of Galesburg. I encountered Zinn while writing Terror of the Autumn Skies and was shocked to learn he was born in Galesburg and raised in Battle Creek. How was that possible? I should have heard of him before then. After all, someone who was a WWI aviator would have drawn my attention much earlier. Where were the statues or the streets or schools named after him?
Answer: There weren't any.
Initially I was excited that he was a member of the famous Lafayette Flying Corps. He was a member of the French Foreign Legion, the original "Band of Brothers." To me these were incredible and caused me to dig deeper into his life. When you work on such a book, you have to go where the research takes you. What I discovered was that Zinn pioneered searching for missing servicemen, specifically aviators. Up until he came along, the Graves Registration Service didn't look for the missing but if they found them, they tried to identify and inter them. Zinn changed that. He said, in essence, "we can look for these boys and bring them home." No one had ever done or even suggested that before. Of the 200 missing airmen from the Great War he recovered the remains or personal effects of 194 of them.
Fred Zinn went on to set up the system for tracking missing airmen in WWII and served for a while in the OSS - the foundational origination for the CIA. While he was a writer, he never wrote an autobiography. His son told me that with his dad it was never about him, it was about the men. So when I wrote the book I was compelled to honor that. Between each chapter of his life story, I included a chapter on some of the missing men Fred Zinn searched for. For WWI history buffs, this is something that will be a real treat for the readers.
Picking the aviators to include in the book was not easy. It meant a lot of research at the National Archives and in Zinn's files at the Air Force museum. I selected pilots spread out across the country - from all sizes of towns. Some were recovered by Zinn, some were not. I tried to pick aviators that were not the "big names" in the WWI community, with one exception (Victor Chapman of the famous Lafayette Escadrille). I wanted to bring some stories to light that most history readers had never heard before.
The aviators covered two world wars - which expanded my horizons in terms of research, though the focus was clearly on the WWI cases. I researched a lot of pilots, their final missions, and what happened after they died. I got some wonderful stories by doing this, though a few never made it to print.
This book lured me into the records of the OSS at the National Archives. I was a little humbled at first, it is a huge records group and navigating it is more of an art than a skill. Every box I opened (and there were dozens) was filled with stories of intrigue, daring, spy work and espionage. I am convinced I need to go back and put out more books on the OSS. There's a lifetime's worth of stories in those records.
My favorite chapter of the book is the last one because it goes back to almost every pilot featured and tells the story of what happened after their death. There are some real moving stories there. I don't see myself as a religious person, but some of these stories make you realize there are forces at work in the universe we simply don't and can't understand.
I wish I could have covered more of the aviators but ultimately that was not possible. As an author you have to draw a line every now and then about what goes into the book.
My only real regret (other than never meeting Mr. Zinn) is that the only commemorative marker to Fred Zinn was stolen in the 1970's. Battle Creek and Galesburg don’t have a statue, a park or a street named after him. In these times where the media tries to force us to question our military actions around the world, his story is one we cannot question - how we treat our honored missing.
So order the book and check it out for yourself. If you are an aviation history buff, I think you'll enjoy it. If you are a military history aficionado, you'll love it. If you have a family member who was an aviator that never came home, this book will hopefully give you a new perspective.