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Telling a Hero's Tale

Why I decided to write about the career of fighter pilot Alex Vraciu.

Fighter pilotAs a nonfiction writer who engages in the field of biography, I often give talks to groups around the state. During the question-and-answer portion, one of the queries I always get is how to come up with a subject to write about. I usually advise the questioner to pick a subject her or she will enjoy spending time with, as the writing of a biography can take years. I point to a lesson I learned from David McCullough, who had begun to research a biography of the famed Spanish painter Pablo Picasso. Early in his research, McCullough discovered that he disliked the man and did not want to write about him. He was able to convince his publisher to switch to a new subject – Harry S. Truman – a decision that resulted in a bestseller and a Pulitzer Prize.

I have followed McCullough’s example and try to select subjects that I respect and whose career I have some interest or knowledge about. That was the case in my newest book, the IHS Press youth biography Fighter Pilot: The World War II Career of Alex Vraciu. Back in the spring of 2008, I was trying to think of a new book project to work on. I was flipping through some back issues of Traces magazine when I came across the special issue we did to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. On the cover of that issue was a photograph of an American pilot leaving his airplane after successfully shooting down a host of Japanese aircraft in the Pacific.

The pilot was Alex Vraciu of East Chicago, Ind. During the war, Vraciu had shot down 19 enemy aircraft, including six dive-bombers in just eight minutes during the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Here was a story that combined a number of my interests – aircraft, World War II and, especially, the Pacific theater. I had always been fascinated by the American effort against the Japanese, especially the long distances involved and the savageness of the fighting.

Vraciu had retired to Danville, Calif., and, with the assistance of a former colleague from the IHS Press, Doug Clanin, I wrote the former ace and asked him if he would be willing to cooperate with me in writing his biography. At first reluctant, Vraciu finally gave his consent when he learned that the book was part of the IHS Press’s youth biography series – books aimed at the middle school/high school audience. Vraciu had given numerous talks before young audiences about his wartime experience, and saw this as another opportunity to tell the story of his service to a new generation.

I traveled to Vraciu’s home and spent a couple of days with him talking about his life. He provided great details about growing up in northwest Indiana, attending DePauw University, training as a navy pilot and flying with his mentor in the air, Butch O’Hare. Vraciu also shared his large collection of photographs with me, many of which are reproduced in the book. It has been an honor to tell his story.

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