We Never Stop Learning

by John Delach

Mostly, I read non-fiction; history and biographies being my go-to subjects. My challenge to the author when I select a new book: “Tell me things I don’t know.”


Since high school, I have been a student of World War II, particularly the war in the Pacific. I have read more books about both the war in general and the Pacific theater in particular than I can count. The first book I ever read cover to cover was, U-Boats at War, then a Ballantine paperback that retailed for 35 cents. While in college, I began collecting Samuel Eliot Morrison’s definitive sixteen volume set: History of Naval Operations During World War II. I devoured each volume multiple times.


Bill O’Reilly and his co-author, Martin Dugard, released their most recent “Killing…” book; Killing the Rising Sun, earlier this month. I grabbed a “first edition” copy at Barnes and Noble (30% off) a week ago. I set aside the book I was reading about Sully Sullenberger to take on their direct, no-nonsense style. I had previously read their Kennedy, Patton and Reagan books and I find these authors’ approach to be an easy and delightful read.


“Tell me things I don’t know.” As readable as the book was, by Page 274 of 294 pages of the written word, I had yet to learn something new from their enterprise. Ah, but then I reached Chapter 29 that chronicles a meeting in the Oval Office during the winter of 1948, almost three years after the war ended.


President Truman invited four senior Army Air Force officers to meet with him. General Carl Spatz, the man who commanded all of our air forces in Europe during the war and who was to become the first commander of the newly separated branch of service, the United States Air Force. General James (Jimmy) Doolittle, who led the 1942 raid on Tokyo flying twin-engine, B-25 bombers off the deck of aircraft carrier, USS Hornet, an act thought impossible. The third guest was a relatively unknown Air Force officer, Colonel Dave Shillen. Shillen’s claim to fame was solving the concept of aerial refueling thereby extending the range of our bombers well beyond previous limits.


The last invitee was Colonel Paul Tibbets, the former commander of the 509th Composite Group, the top secret unit designated to drop the atomic bomb in anger. More importantly, Tibbets, flew and commanded, Enola Gay, the B-29 named after his mother, to drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.


As O’Reilly and Dugard tell it, these four officers were ushered into the Oval Office where they stood awaiting the president. Three chairs were arranged in front of Truman’s desk. When the White House porter arrived, he directed General Spatz to sit in the right-hand chair to honor his rank. General Doolittle sat in the middle chair and Shillen was directed to the left chair. The usher led Colonel Tibbets to an unseen chair next to the president’s desk.


When Truman arrived, he congratulated General Spatz on his new command, General Doolittle, for his service and bravery for that 1942 raid and he told Colonel Shillen this  about his breakthrough: “We’re gonna need it bad someday.”


Quoting from the book:


Finally, Harry Truman turns to face Colonel Paul Tibbets. The president says nothing at first, letting their shared moments form a connection.


For ten long seconds, the president does not speak.


“What do you think?” Truman finally asks.


“Mr. President,” Tibbets replies, knowing full well what Harry Truman is talking about, “I think I did what I was told.”


Truman slaps his hand down on the desk, rattling the legendary “The Buck Stops Here” placard placed there after the war.


You’re damn right you did. And I’m the guy who sent you.”


That revelation alone was worth the price of admission.