Most of my non-fiction writing is in the field of aviation, primarily the history of people, units and events, though I am also interested in technological developments and their influence on events.
I first ran across "serious" aviation writing when I was 10 and found William Green's "All The World's Aircraft, 1954" - the first book I read that seriously dealt with aircraft development beyond picture books. Over the years I read many books by Bill (as I came eventually to know him), and 25 years later he was the first editor to professionally publish an article by me about an aviation topic (a feature about people in California who restored, owned and operated antique airplanes). Not only did he publish the article, he used my photograph for the cover of that issue of Air Enthusiast Quarterly! In the years that followed, Bill became a friend through the mail, a source of valuable insight about writing, and an enthusiastic supporter of my efforts. I've had a lot of success that way with fellow authors.
In addition to writing about airplanes, I take pictures of them in flight. As a result of both activities, I have flown in everything from a Curtiss Jenny to an Air Force F-4E Phantom (definitely the best rollercoaster ride ever), and have additionally been up in World War II airplanes - the P-51 Mustang, P-40 Warhawk, SBD Dauntless, B-25 Mitchell, and many many many times in a T-6. As a pilot myself, I have about 200 hours in a Stearman biplane trainer as a member of a club back in the 1970s. I am certain my personal knowledge of flying as a pilot has helped me put a reader "in the cockpit" in my writing.
While I have advanced college and university degrees, I consider myself an autodidact, and I see the involvement with airplanes as my key to the world of self-education, as I would ask myself "what was that airplane used for?" which led to such questions as "how did that war happen?" I was also fortunate to grow up in a home with lots of books and a father who enjoyed history; between that and forays to the Denver Public Library (a Saturday spent in the stacks at the Main Library was a day in heaven), my education was very eclectic in subject matter.
The Bridgebusters: The True Story of the Catch-22 Bomb Wing
"He had decided to live forever, or die in the attempt." — Catch-22
The men of the 57th Bomb Wing flew out of Corsica during World War II and bombed vital bridges throughout Italy to sabotage German supply routes. Their missions were dangerous and never-ending. One bombardier in the wing was a young New Yorker named Joseph Heller, who would later turn his experience into the classic 1961 war novel Catch-22. Now aviation historian Thomas McKelvey Cleaver takes a closer look at the real-life men of the 57th, whose camaraderie in the face of death inspired the raucous cast of heroes and antiheros in Catch-22.
Joseph Heller’s classic novel turns on the impossible dilemma that trapped the World War II aviators flying bombing missions over Europe: Anyone would be crazy to keep defying enemy guns and deadly flak day after day. But if you asked to be grounded you were obviously sane, and so you had to keep flying. Thus Joseph Heller and his fellow aviators were forced to pile suicide mission on top of suicide mission—as the number of total required flights was continually upped, and the promised release back home receded perpetually into the future.
Now, veteran aviation historian Thomas McKelvey Cleaver exposes the true story behind the iconic novel, digging into contemporary letters, war diaries, and other hitherto-unseen primary sources from the unit Joseph Heller himself flew with. In his fresh research, Cleaver uncovered the gripping stories of young men who daily challenged death in their fragile flying machines—and the missing explanation of how Heller himself escaped from the nightmare that his fellow airmen remained mired in. The Bridgebusters reveals:
Cleaver’s electrifying account of the daring exploits of American aircrews—and the moral dilemmas they faced—is not to be missed.
The Bridgebusters: The True Story of the Catch-22 Bomb Wing will be released in hardcover on May 9th, 2016. It is available for preorder on Amazon.com.
Fabled Fifteen: The Pacific War Saga of Carrier Air Group 15
The record of Carrier Air Group 15 in World War II speaks for itself: Fighting Squadron 15 scored 312 enemy aircraft destroyed, 33 probably destroyed, and 65 damaged in aerial combat, plus 348 destroyed, 161 probably destroyed, and 129 damaged in ground attacks. Twenty-six Fighting 15 pilots became aces, including their leader, Commander David McCampbell, who became the U.S. Navy’s Ace of Aces. Twenty-one squadron pilots were killed in action and one in an operational accident aboard their carrier. Bombing Squadron 15 and Torpedo Squadron 15 scored 174,300 tons of enemy shipping, including 37 cargo vessels sunk, 10 probably sunk, and 39 damaged. As well, Musashi, the world’s largest battleship, was sunk, along with one light aircraft carrier; one destroyer; one destroyer escort; two minesweepers; five escort ships; two motor torpedo boats; and Zuikaku, the last surviving carrier that participated in the Pearl Harbor attack. Incredibly, every pilot of Torpedo 15 was awarded the Navy Cross, the highest award for bravery after the Medal of Honor, during this tour of combat for valor in the face of the enemy by torpedoing an enemy ship under fire.
All of this took place between May 19 and November 14, 1944. No other American combat unit in any service came close to a similar score in such a short time period.
Air Group 15 participated in the two greatest naval battles in history, the First and Second battles of the Philippine Sea—also known also as the Marianas Turkey Shoot and the Battles of Leyte Gulf, which saw the end of Japanese naval power, as well as Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s rampage across the Central Pacific that fall, which marked the high tide of the carrier war. On June 19, 1944, forever after known as the Marianas Turkey Shoot in the First Battle of the Philippine Sea, Fighting 15 shot down 68.5 attacking Japanese aircraft, a one-day record unmatched by any other American fighter squadron.
In documenting the saga of Air Group 15’s momentous six months at war, Thomas McKelvey Cleaver’s Fabled Fifteen provides an intimate and insightful view of the group’s fabled lone combat tour, including details of daily life and human interactions aboard the fleet carrier USS Essex during the busiest phase of the Pacific War.
Hardcover copies of Fabled Fifteen signed by the author and Jim Duffy, the last living ace who scored at both the Marianas Turkey Shoot and the Battle of Leyte Gulf, are available for $40.00S (which includes shipping in the USA). Please click here to contact me for details.
F4F Wildcat and F6F Hellcat Aces of VF-2 (Aircraft of the Aces)
The first VF-2 was a prewar unit that had been dubbed the 'hottest outfit afloat' due to the skill of their non-commissioned pilots. This first unit only saw combat at the Battle of the Coral Sea, but VF-2 pilots flying Grumman F4F Wildcats were able to rack up 17 claims there during the bitter 48-hour period of fighting. The second 'Fighting Two' was armed with the new Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat fighter. Arriving in Hawaii in October 1943, the squadron so impressed Cdr Edward H 'Butch' O'Hare, the Medal of Honor winning first US Navy ace of World War 2, that he requested the squadron replace VF-6 in his Carrier Air Group 6 aboard USS Enterprise. No other US Navy unit created as many aces as VF-2, whose pilots went into action over the Carolines, Marianas, Guam, Iwo Jima and the Battle of the Philippines Sea.
Using exquisite photographs and first-hand accounts from the elite fliers themselves, this volume tells the story of the ace pilots who comprised both the original VF-2 and the second squadron.
Illustrated by Jim Laurier
Aces of the 78th Fighter Group (Aircraft of the Aces)
The 78th FG was originally established as the fourth of the P-38 fighter groups that were expected to perform fighter escort in the newly formed Eighth Air Force. Arriving in England in November 1942, the group lost most of its personnel and all of its aircraft as attrition replacements to units in the North African theatre in February 1943. Left with no flying personnel other than flight leaders, and no aircraft, the group was re-equipped with the P-47 Thunderbolt and newly trained P-47 pilots in March 1943. The 78th flew its first sweep along the Dutch coast in April in company with the 4th FG. Along with the 56th FG, these groups would be the first units in VIII Fighter Command, and as such "wrote the book" on long range fighter escort in the ETO. The 78th FG would ultimately prove to be the only Eighth Air Force fighter group to have flown the P-38 Lightning, P-47 Thunderbolt, and P-51 Mustang in its operational career. Flying from Duxford, in Cambridgeshire, the group's pilots shot down 316 enemy aircraft in air combat, with a further 144 claimed as probables or damaged. Once turned loose in 1944 to attack German airfields, the 78th was also credited with the destruction of 320 aircraft by strafing.
The story of the 78th FG is researched through extensive first-person interviews with eight surviving pilots and ground personnel of the unit, and also using previously recorded interviews with two leading ace pilots who are no longer alive. Photos will be gathered from surviving group members where possible, with emphasis on never-before-published imagery, in addition to other photos from historical collections.
Illustrated by Chris Davey
Air Combat Annals
The annals of aerial combat are as immensely deep as they are immensely wide. Aviation stories—especially combat aviation stories—never fail to fascinate and instruct listeners and readers across national or generational boundaries. They have been sought out and devoured from the earliest days of flight, and their popularity has done nothing but grow ever since.
Thomas McKelvey Cleaver started collecting live-action tales of aviation combat heroics—from the aviators’ own lips—at a tender age, and he has been sharing them with the reading public, chiefly with subscribers to Flight Journal, for decades. Air Combat Annals is a notworthy collection of his writing and storytelling, and it includes exciting material never before published. It is a fitting tribute, mainly to American combat airmen of World War II, but also to several Axis pilots as well as American combat aviators who flew in the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Air Combat Annals is available as a Kindle download from Amazon.