Interview with Jay A. Stout
WHAT IS YOUR BACKGROUND? WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF?
I was born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1959. My father worked for the FAA and my mom raised my two sisters and me while working as a book keeper for various businesses. When I was younger we moved around quite a bit, including a stint overseas, but ultimately we settled back in Indiana. I graduated from Danville High School in 1977 and Purdue University in 1981.
For most of my life I wanted to be nothing but a fighter pilot. But while I was at college I was turned down by the Air Force because my major discipline, agronomy, was not considered a technical degree. Still, the Marine Corps didn't care, and one day a Marine Corps recruiter literally grabbed my arm while I was walking through the student union building and asked me what I wanted to do with myself. I pointed at a poster he had of an F-4 Phantom II and said, ‘I want to fly those!’ He indicated that I would have no problem doing just that and had me sign on the dotted line.
The odds against me getting through all the tests and medical screenings, not to mention flight school, and finally into the cockpit of the F-4 were about 100-to-1, but the right mix of timing, luck, and a little bit of talent worked to my favor.
THEN WHAT HAPPENED?
I did go on to fly the F-4 just like the recruiter promised. Flying the F-4 was fun, but it was aging and the Marine Corps wasn't spending a lot of money to maintain it. Following my F-4 tour I flight instructed on the T-2C Buckeye. It was one of the ugliest jets around, but I had a blast teaching on it. I then transitioned to the F/A-18 and flew with VMFA-451 during DESERT STORM. After that, I didn't get shot at through the rest of my career and finally retired from MCAS Miramar in San Diego during 2001 after 20 years of service. I then started a career with Delta Air Lines but was furloughed immediately following the terrorist attacks of September 11. After flying F/A-18s for a year as a contract instructor with the Kuwait Air Force I came back to the States and now work for a major defense contractor as a senior analyst.
SO HOW DID YOU GET STARTED WITH WRITING? ANY SPECIAL TRAINING?
I was probably better at writing than most of my peers, but I didn't have any special talent or training. Writing is mostly just hard work. During my freshman year at Purdue I took a semester of advanced composition so that I could test out of English. I busted my backside and got a big, fat 'C.'
"Anyway, I was like a lot of people: 'I've always wanted to write a book.' Well, after DESERT STORM there was no one writing any of the sorts of first-person accounts of the fighting that I had enjoyed reading as a young man. I figured that I had been there and that I could write about it as well as anyone else, so I gave it a shot.
THIS WAS HORNETS OVER KUWAIT?
Yes, and I did everything wrong. I just wrote it and sent it straight out to about a ga-jillion publishers without an agent or even a proposal or a query letter. Most of the manuscripts came back with notes that essentially said, 'Thanks, but no thanks,' or 'You suck and so does your book,' or 'Don't ever bother us again.' Of course, not exactly in those words. There were a couple of bites though, and eventually after a rewrite or two and some tough editing, Naval Institute Press published it in 1997.
The Marine Corps hated it. In the book I used some colorful language and I picked on some of the senior generals, and some of the Marine Corps's policies. I slammed the AV-8B Harrier and questioned the role of women in the military. But because of my frankness and honesty I made a lot of friends and sold a few books. I think that the Naval Institute Press was pleased.
Now, many years later, I sometimes cringe when I pick it up and read bits of it. Not because my stance on any of the controversial issues has changed, but rather some of the writing seems very amateurish. I could write it so much better now. Still, I think the publisher purposely edited it that way in order to keep the book honest--so that there was no doubt it was written by a warrior rather than a professional.
WHAT WAS YOUR NEXT BOOK?
Eric Hammel of Pacifica Military History asked me to approach Hamilton 'Mac' McWhorter and collaborate with him to write about his World War II experiences as a Navy fighter ace. Eric is one of the savviest and best World War II historians around and he understood the value of getting Mac to record his experiences. The result was THE FIRST HELLCAT ACE. Mac was one of the finest gentlemen I've ever known. He was genuine and modest and understood that war isn't about blowing things up and covering oneself in glory. Instead, he knew it's about dead friends and dead sons, dead brothers, dead husbands and dead fathers. Working with him to help him write his book was a pleasure although sometimes he was so modest I had to really press him for details, otherwise the reader would have had nothing to work with. 'And then I shot him down' just wasn't enough! We made it work though, and I'm pretty proud of what we produced. This is a fine book about one of the best aerial marksmen of all time.
WHAT CAME NEXT?
At Eric Hammel's suggestion I wrote FORTRESS PLOESTI. Although a gob of books have been written about the big low-level raid of August 1, 1943, no one had ever covered that story and the subsequent campaign the next year that turned the place into rubble. I really spent a great deal of time researching this work which was published by Casemate in 2003. It's a one-of-a-kind effort and I've never had anyone say anything negative about it. Instead, I've gotten a ton of responses from veterans who are genuinely happy that someone put what they were doing so long ago into context. The Fifteenth Air Force in Italy did a lot of tremendous work but never got the publicity that the Eighth Air Force in England got. I still love reading it and feel that it's one of my best books. And it won a silver medal from the Military Writers Society of America.
HOW ABOUT TO BE A U.S. NAVAL AVIATOR?
Again, Eric Hammel played a role. He steered Motor Books International [Zenith Press] at me. They were looking for someone to write their naval aviator title for their "To Be a...." series. It's different than anything I'd done before: Large, soft-cover format with lots of photographs and descriptive text and captions. I thought it would be a no-brainer; after all, I'd been through the training, albeit twenty-some years earlier. As it turned out, it was a lot of work. After all, although I'd been through jet training I had no idea about how the helicopter or multi-engine training pipelines worked. And although I considered myself a pretty good self-taught photographer, I was a bit worried that I might have gotten in over my head. But, things went well. I traveled a bit and talked to a lot of the kids who were going through training. And I took a lot of photographs. The book has turned out great.
AND THAT BRINGS US TO THE IRAQ BOOK.
Yes, HAMMER FROM ABOVE-MARINE AIR COMBAT OVER IRAQ. An agent, E.J. McCarthy of The E.J. McCarthy Agency, called me up out of the blue. He asked what I had in mind for my next book and I told him that I was fiddling around with doing something about Marine Aviation in Iraq. This was just after Saddam had been driven from power. Anyway, E.J. was encouraging and signed me aboard. After I'd done a few sample chapters he sold the book to Random House. It was published by Ballantine under the Presidio imprint."
"The book follows the Iraq campaign in early 2003 up to Baghdad and it does so through the eyes of different types of Marine aviators, and all in the context of the ground campaign. For instance, on one day we might fly a mission with a UH-1N crew, and the next day go flying with the Cobras, and then perhaps an F/A-18 or CH-46E crew. There's been nothing like it done before--certainly not for the Marine Corps. This is a big book by a big publisher. I'm very pleased with it. It's been well-received critically and by my Marine Corps brethren.
TELL US ABOUT SLAUGHTER AT GOLIAD--THE MEXICAN MASSACRE OF 400 TEXAS VOLUNTEERS
Two weeks after the fall of Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and the rest of the men at the Alamo, the only other standing force on the side of the revolution was the garrison at Goliad. Those men fought a courageous battle but surrendered to a much larger Mexican army under terms that were supposed to see them returned to the United States. Instead, they were betrayed. A week later, Palm Sunday, March 27, 1836, on orders from Santa Anna, they were brutally shot, bayoneted and clubbed to death. The number killed was likely double that killed at the Alamo.
As a young jet instructor I was stationed not far from Goliad. The more I learned about what happened to these men...their horrible deaths...the more frustrated I got that their story was unknown--certainly outside of Texas. So, I wrote the first comprehensive account of this tragedy; the book has done real well, even winning awards from The Sons of the Republic of Texas and the Military Writer’s Society of America.
AND THE MEN WHO KILLED THE LUFTWAFFE?
"This was a book that I'd always dreamed of writing. I grew up reading exciting accounts of air combat, and when I got older I studied the strategies and tactics behind the air war against Germany. But rarely were the two ever combined in a single work. I've done that in this book; I take the strategies that the USAAF leadership crafted to win the war and shape them around the crown jewels of the book--the personal accounts of air combat. It works really well while making the case that it was the USAAF that defeated the Nazi air force and set the conditions the Allies needed to win the war. This book won the San Diego Book Award for History and Politics.
AND NOW YOU'VE WRITTEN FIGHTER GROUP: THE 352ND BLUE-NOSED BASTARDS IN WORLD WAR II.
Yes, I'm really excited about this. It is the most comprehensive and best-written book ever done on a single fighter group. Although it was representative of similar units in the USAAF, the 352nd Fighter Group, part of the Eighth Air Force, was one of the most successful. There was something special about it that simply isn't definable. However, I'm confident that the reader will get a sense of that specialness by following the different personalities through their missions and through the discussions of the 352nd's heartaches and triumphs. The book isn't a dry recounting of mission numbers, but rather it is an involved and personal story that makes sense of the equipment, tactics and human characteristics that made the unit tick. This book also won the San Diego Book Award for History.
UNSUNG EAGLES: THE TRUE STORY OF AMERICA’S CITIZEN AIRMEN IN THE SKIES OF WORLD WAR II WAS A NEW/OLD BOOK, RIGHT?
Yes. Back during the late 90s I thought it would be neat to do a book about the sorts of flyers who weren’t famous, but who flew, fought and then came home and got on with their lives. These were the regular types that you didn’t hear much about but who nonetheless did remarkable things. These were the men who, in the aggregate, actually won the air war. Anyway, I interviewed more than twenty of them and wrote a pretty nice manuscript. However, because none of them were “big names” and because I was a nobody, no one wanted to publish it. But many years later, during 2013, I dusted it off and offered it again. Because I’d had a number of successful books by this time, I had several offers. Casemate ended up publishing it and did a really nice job. The downside is that most of the men in the book had “gone West” in the intervening years. It was sad. However, that their efforts were honored is indicated by the review in Smithsonian Air & Space which declared that the book was a “classic,” and “…was the finest compilation of first-person accounts of what it is like to go to war in the air that this reviewer has ever read.” Like the previous two books, it also won the San Diego Book Award for History.
HELL’S ANGELS: THE TRUE STORY OF THE 303RD BOMB GROUP IN WORLD WAR II IS A LITTLE BIT DIFFERENT.
I normally write about fighter pilots. However, I’ve always been fascinated by the bomber crews who flew against Nazi Germany. The odds, particularly early on, were horrid, yet these men kept flying even though they were volunteers and didn’t have to. The truth was that no matter how skilled and well-trained they were, fate played a huge role in whether they lived or died. Their perseverance was a magnificent act of bravery. And in this book I not only cover the combat crewmen, but also tell the stories of the support personnel; these were the mechanics, the armorers, the clerks, the medics, the cooks and bakers and candlestick makers…without them, not a single sortie could have been flown.
HOW ABOUT PROFESSIONAL ARTICLES?
I've had quite a few articles published in various professional journals and newspapers--mostly about aviation and military topics. Some of them have just been scholarly discussions. Others challenged the military leadership. One of them was read on the senate floor. A couple of them had me standing tall on the wrong side of a big desk. A combination of them cost me the opportunity to advance any further in the Marine Corps. I don't regret a single word. Particularly since I was right. Still, I do have a sense of self-preservation and there are a couple of articles that I did not publish because the kitchen got way too hot. Even now, in the civilian world. Nevertheless, I think that it's important to get the right word out. It's easier to sleep that way.
ANY RECOMMENDATIONS FOR WOULD-BE WRITERS?
Start. A person can think of a thousand reasons not to begin a work. Bottom line: 'It ain't gonna get wrote if you don't start it.' And then, don't give up. Finish it. And if it gets rejected, keep fixing it and sending it out. Don't stop until it's published. I have not one shred of doubt that the top 20 American classics never got published because their writers gave up. Those manuscripts are sitting in an attic or garage somewhere and will never see the light of day because the writers didn't have the energy and guts to see them get to print.