Interview with an Author: Jay Stout


Jay Stout is a former Marine fighter pilot and the author of 11 books, many on World War II. He is new book is entitled Vanished Hero: The Life, War and Mysterious Disappearance of America’s WWII Strafing King.  You can learn more about Jay at his website or buy the book on Amazon.



Heather:              You’ve had a very interesting military career. Can you tell me a little bit more about it?

Jay:                        Sure. I was a Marine for 20 years from 1981 to 2001. Like any Marine, I loved it. I miss being a Marine every single day. I also was a fighter pilot during that period. I flew F-4s and F/A-18s, to include combat missions, during the first Gulf War in 1991 in the F/A-18 Hornet. My career was aviation-oriented. Just like I miss being a Marine, I miss being a fighter pilot every single day. It was a great life. As much as I’ve done since then, I still look at that as the most rewarding part of my adult life.

Heather:              How do you transition out of being a fighter pilot on an F/A-18 Hornet?

Jay:                        Sometimes, not very well. I get bored easily. You look for other outlets either through work or through hobbies. I’ve taken up golf. Obviously, I’ve done a lot of writing which consumes a lot of time, and I spend time with my family. You find things to do. I think everybody, no matter what their career is, when they switch careers, has the same issues and challenges in finding other ways to get themselves engaged.

Heather:              Let’s talk a little bit about one of your interests: writing books. You’ve written about events during a lot of different wars. What is it about World War II that seems to interest you more than other time frames?

Jay:                        It’s hard to say. For some reason, I have a visceral attraction to that time period. I was one of those kids who never wanted to be anything else other than a fighter pilot. I grew up reading a lot of stories from World War II. After retirement, I had a decent amount of writing talent, plus the background of being a fighter pilot myself, plus a knowledge of World War II. It seemed just natural for me to continue to write about those things that either hadn’t been written about, or perhaps could have been written about a little bit differently, and from the perspective of somebody who’s actually done some combat flying himself.

Heather:              What perspective do you think that gives you when you go to write some of these stories?

Jay:                        Just the feel. Not only the physical feel of being in the cockpit but the emotional part as well. When somebody is shooting at you, it’s actually quite terrifying. Anybody who says that it’s otherwise, at least in the beginning, has either got something wrong with him or he’s lying. I know what it’s like to pull a lot of Gs, that is to make a very hard turn, and I know what it’s like with snot coming out of your nose into your oxygen mask, and for your helmet to come over the top of your head to where you can’t see anymore, and what it feels like to actually start to lose consciousness. I know what it’s like when you release bombs off of one wing and it tips up a little bit in response. Just those little nuanced things that a writer or historian who hasn’t lived that life isn’t going to be familiar with, isn’t even going to think to write about. I think that’s what I bring to the table that so many non-military writers just can’t because they’ve never lived that life.

Heather:              You’ve picked two groups to write entire books about; the 352nd Fighter Group and the 303rd Bomb Group. What is it about those two groups, and what was it about a bomber group that attracted you to the stories?

Jay:                        The 352nd Fighter Group was in that sweet spot of fighter groups where it had been in service for a great period of the war.. It did very well, but it hadn’t been written about to the extent that some of the other fighter groups had been written about. It had a lot of great personalities in it. Perhaps, at least as important, was that Robert “Punchy” Powell was a big advocate of the group. He had flown P-47s and P-51s with the group and was very successful.

After the war, he helped form an association and collected and archived a huge amount of material about the group for about 30 years. Not only official documents but stories from the men who had served. All that material he made available to me. That was just a really rich resource. He was a great guy. The group was a great performing group. I really enjoyed writing the book.

As far as the bomb group, it always seemed to me that the bomber guys were the bravest guys. Because, whereas a fighter pilot can turn and dive away or refuse combat, the bomber guys had to fly through the flak. They had to endure the fighter attacks. They had to fly close formation and make their ways to the target regardless of what they were feeling or what they felt that particular day. That took a tremendous amount of bravery. It was a bravery that makes a person climb out of bed and climb into that airplane and fly missions day after day after day knowing that it’s not necessarily their skill that’s going to ensure that they survive even though skill is important. A huge amount of their survival was dependent on luck. That wasn’t necessarily the case with the fighter pilot.

Most World War II fighter pilots will agree with me, they’ll say, “The bomber guys were the bravest and the toughest.” Much the same thing, the 303rd Bomb Group Hell’s Angels saw action through most of the war. They were one of the early bomb groups. They weren’t as famous as some of the other bomb groups although they had some tremendous accomplishments. Again, they had a real strong bomb group association, a real strong archivist, a lot of material for me to work with and they shared readily.

Heather:              Now you’ve got a new book. What’s the name of that book, and what’s it about?

Jay:                        This book is called, “Vanished Hero: The Life War, and Mysterious Disappearance of America’s World War II Strafing King.” It’s a book about Elwyn G. Righetti. He was a fighter pilot during the war. He actually earned his wings before America entered the war and was immediately made a flight instructor. It was part of the effort that turned the United States Army Air Forces from about 25,000 men to 2.5 million men.  He was promoted very quickly and was a lieutenant colonel by the time he was 27.  He was given more and more important postings within the training command. The whole time, he wanted to go to combat. Because he was so good at his training job, he was kept there in the training command.

Finally, towards the end of the war in the fall of 1944, he was sent to England and joined the 55th Fighter Group which was flying P-51 Mustangs, and quickly established himself as a very aggressive, talented fighter pilot. He became an aerial ace, and earned 7.5 aerial victories during the time of the war when a lot of fighter pilots never even saw a German aircraft airborne.  He was aggressive in terms of finding things to shoot up on the ground, lots of locomotives, anything valuable to the Germans, almost to the point of recklessness. In that short period he became a squadron commander and then the group commander, and became the leading ground strafing ace. He destroyed 27 aircraft on the crowd.

He was shot down on the group’s second-to-last mission in April of 1945 and crash landed. He had been shooting up an enemy airfield. He called out over the radio, “I’m fine. I think I may have broken my nose but otherwise, I’m okay. Let the family know I’m okay. I’ll see you in a couple weeks when this is all over,” and was never heard from again. The supposition is that he was probably captured and lynched by German civilians. No trace of him has ever been found. There’s never been anyone who has come forward to offer any evidence of what happened to him. It’s a really interesting story.

Heather:              How did you get involved with the story?

Jay:                        I was approached by a researcher who was collecting material on the Righetti story. He was diagnosed with cancer. Based on what he had read, he believed I was the best choice to write a book about Righetti. He was really hopeful that I would take the project on. I agreed to do so. He sent me cartons of material. Sadly, he passed away before I finished the manuscript.

At first, I felt compelled to write the story. But as I got more and more into the story, I found that it was one of the most interesting books I’ve done as well as one of the most difficult books I’ve ever done.

Heather:              What was so difficult?

Jay:                        Much of the book revolves around the letters that the family wrote back and forth. I felt that I got to know him pretty well, along with his family. When he was lost, I felt some sense of loss myself. Certainly, nothing that the family endured. I also felt really bad for the family. It was heartbreaking.

Heather:              I think the heart of a really good book is that it’s personal.

Jay:                        I think that’s something the reader will identify with.  They’ll see his personality right away and the personality of his family.

Heather:              What was surprising when you did the research on this book?

Jay:                        It was surprising that I connected so much with him and his family.  I’m surprised at how much the death of somebody who passed away or disappeared more than 70 years ago now still has effects. He has a sister who’s still alive. I know that she’s affected. His daughter is still alive. She misses having a father and so do his nephews miss having an uncle. There was a hole left in the family and there’s still vestiges of that hole even after all this time.

Heather:              Is there anything else you’d like to say about the book?

Jay:                        One thing. When there’s a close family connection, although I didn’t share every word with them, there were parts of the manuscript that I asked them to review and check. They only saw very small portion of the book. In the end, I really hope they like it. I hope they’re gratified by the work and the effort that went into it.

Heather:              Thanks so much for your time, Jay.

Jay:                        Very good. Thanks, Heather.

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