An interview with Stephen Skinner, author of THE STAND
Where did the idea for this book originate?
In France in 1993. I had gone there with Randy Gaulke, a friend of mine [WWI re-enactor and editor of http://www.meuse-argonne.com], and the town of Murvaux was one of our stops. He had put together our itinerary and was serving as a tour guide of sorts, but I had asked him to include it on our trip because I was always interested in Frank Luke.
I had photocopied all this material on Frank Luke and when we got there it was raining. So I got out of the car and had Randy hold the umbrella while I scoured through all of my papers and books that I had brought. We tried to judge exactly where Luke came down, then we got permission from the land owner to walk out there. We waded through four inches of mud for half an hour until Randy said "I don't think we're going to get any closer without a time machine."
But I went away frustrated because I realized how little I knew or anyone else knew about what happened on the day Luke died. It sort of whetted my appetite to learn more. I didn't really decide to do a book then, but the idea originated there.
Did you and Randy really find where Luke went down?
No, no. Not at the time. We were way off. By like half a mile. But I didn't learn that until much later.
When did you decide to write THE STAND?
I'm going to say in mid-1999. I had done a ton of research on Luke after my '93 trip and I went back in 1998. I tried to use existing research to better locate exactly where Luke died but when I got there I still found that I lacked the data to really determine anything. Books said one thing, the memorial plaque - which was missing at the time - said another, and there was so much conflicting information.
So I got back from my trip in late 1998 and started researching [Luke historian] Sonny Frey and found that all of his materials had been sitting in this big steel cabinet near Denver for eight years and no one else had accessed them since the early '70's.
I had copies of all the Frey papers in my possession by early 1999, thanks to Steve Lawson and Andy Parks. We went through and reconstituted and then inventoried all of his material for the first time since the 1960's. But that was really just the tip of the iceberg. By the middle of the year I was pretty sure I could get enough material to justify a totally new work on Frank Luke.
So are the Frey papers your primary source?
No, not at all, but they're a significant source. Frey's work created more questions than answers, but without him I'd never have found what truly happened to Luke. His work led to so many other things.
Let's go back to the memorial plaque for a moment. The plaque honoring Luke just outside of Murvaux had been missing for some years. You were responsible for restoring the plaque and refurbishing the monument, right?
Well, I raised the idea and the money, but a lot of other people made it happen. Scott Hamilton [editor of theaerodrome.com], Billy Haiber [author of September Rampage], Phil Rivers [superintendent of the US Meuse-Argonne Cemetery at Romagne], Tim King [television producer], Lillian Pfluke [coordinator for the Paris bureau of the American Battle Monuments Commission] and a lot of others were really helpful.
I contacted the Battle Monuments Commission and met Lil Pfluke, and she told me that they'd love to put the plaque up but it was never a government project. Since it was put up privately, they weren't responsible to maintain it. So Lil asked me if I thought I could raise the money and I said I'd try. She said if I could come up with the money that she'd work out the legalities and act as a government liaison with French bureaucracies - there's a lot of them, unfortunately. So I asked every organization I could find to support the project and the response was amazing.
We raised more than enough money... enough to have the plaque manufactured, mounted, and have the stone monument itself sandblasted and refurbished. I went over in November of 2000 to oversee the work and set the unveiling for Saturday, the 18th. Billy did a lot to help organize everything. He and Phil sort of picked up the ball and ran with it. They were fantastic. Everything went great and the French press picked up on it as well. I was surprised.
I hear the American Battle Monuments Commission has asked you to work on several other monuments in France as well?
Yeah, they've got a bunch of projects but they've only mentioned one so far in particular... the monument at the training center at Issoudun. Its pretty run down. The Commission asked me if I could supervise the restoration and raise the money.
What did you say?
I said "Wait until I finish the Luke project." They wanted someone with experience overseeing something like this and they needed somebody who could raise the money and had a track record.
They first approached me right after the Luke monument restoration, in mid-2001, and of course I've been working like a madman on THE STAND since then. So I'm definately interested but not until THE STAND is published. Then I'll have a chance to evaluate things and see what my next project will be. (note - the American War Memorials Overseas has since completed this project).
Let's talk more about THE STAND. What are some of the biggest surprises you found during your research?
Well, the internal squadron scandal that led to Frank's death was one of the biggest. Everybody knows that Luke didn't get along with [27th Aero commander Alfred] Grant, but there were a lot of inner workings within the squadron that are still unknown. It was a horrible mess and it was directly responsible for Luke's death.
I guess the famous arrest was another big surprise... finding the two lost witnesses to Frank's death was also a big deal. That's probably an understatement. It was a huge deal.
And of course the neatest thing of all was figuring out how he really died. That was the primary goal all along and the real drive behind this book. For the first time in ninety years we can actually piece together, minute by minute, exactly what happened during the final moments of Luke's life.
What kind of hurdles did you have to work through during the writing of THE STAND?
One thing that was really difficult was deciding how to tell the story. It would have been easy to write a clinical, academic book that satisfied all the scholars but I wanted something that would be readable.
I wanted people to want to read this book. I wanted them to enjoy it and be as fascinated with it as I was. So I decided to concentrate on storytelling. I wanted a plot that unfolds around the reader. Then I wanted to take them on a journey through time and follow the Luke researchers through the twentieth century to where we are now. There's still tons of footnotes and documentation so nothing is lost academically, but I think this is a book that you'll like to read.
When you spoke with the families of those involved, what sort of reaction did you get?
Fantastic. I think everyone involved realized that this story is bigger than any of us and it needs to be told. The Frey family gave me all of Sonny's private papers - stuff that was never sent to any museum - all this stuff that had never been released before. They said their dad would have been so thankful to see what I was doing, and that really meant a lot to me.
The Mangels family bent over backwards to cooperate. They dug up information that they forgot they even had. The Luke family was more than wonderful... they're as fine a friends as you could ask for. The same goes for the Stout family, the Hartneys, the Lennons and all the others. I can't think of anyone who really just blew me off or refused to help. I think doing the monument made a difference. Word got around about that and people had some assurance that if they helped, that this book would actually happen.
Tell me about Murvaux [the village near which Luke died]. Norman Hall never actually went to France and Frey went there twice. How much work did you do there and what did you accomplish?
Well, first of all, I wouldn't criticize Hall [author of 1928's The Balloon Buster] for anything. He didn't go overseas but he still did the best he could from here, and that was pretty good. I've scrutinized everything I can from Balloon Buster and he didn't get the details of his death right, but it's probably the best work on Frank's early years that will ever be produced. I can find no serious faults in it. In fact, much of what I've found actually corroborates his work. I was running across old documents and family histories that actually backed up much of what Hall wrote.
And Frey was actually in Murvaux four days, not two. He was under a lot of pressure because at the time we were pulling troops out of Europe and he was in the Air Force and was leaving in a matter of weeks. So considering the time he had available he did extremely well. He didn't solve the mystery, but if it weren't for him we could never have figured out what really happened to Luke.
But how much time have you spent in Murvaux?
I don't really know. I've been there six or seven times and every time I was there anywhere from a few days to a week and a half.
But there was a lot of work to be done there. I wanted to completely reconstruct the entire village as it was in 1918 in order to better understand what Luke was up against. We had to go through town records dating back some two hundred years to verify the identity of each of the witnesses. That was a real nightmare. Those old French people always named their sons after their dads so you could never tell who was who.
Of course there were scores of interviews that had to be done. And I wanted to do on-site archeological work to locate the anti-aircraft guns and hopefully figure out which one got Luke.
How certain are you?
About 98%. What you're really working with is not "proof," but probabilitites. I mean, you can never be 100% sure unless you were standing there in 1918. But everything points to this one gun position... everything. The angle of fire, the elevation of the gun, the caliber, the witnesses, the timing, everything.
Put it this way: if the guy who manned this gun was tried for murder he'd get convicted. It's beyond reasonable doubt.
Didn't you learn French in order to conduct all this overseas research?
Sort of. I had always wanted to learn French anyway and this was a good excuse to start working on it. But I still talk at a child's level. Every French document in the book has been translated again by native French speakers working from the original document. Accuracy was critically important and my French isn't nearly good enough for a perfect translation. It was done professionally by native Frenchmen. Same for the German documents.
What were some of the keys to deciphering Luke's last moments?
One thing I had to do was determine where - and I mean exactly where - things happened. I needed to know where the French witnesses were when Luke went down and it took scads of interviews and pouring through hundred-year-old family address records to place them. Were they inside their house? Which room? Outside their house? Working out in a field or walking along the D102? That sort of thing. If a guy says he saw Luke die but I find out that he was in a room with no windows, then his testimony fails. You can eliminate possibilities by tracking down the locations of the people in involved.
I needed to know exactly where Mangels was during Luke's attack on his balloon and we found that out as well. That's really an amazing story and I found out completely by accident.
I needed to know where Moore and Kadinger and Higgs were [of the 7th US Balloon Company] and where Koenig and Kuhn [of the 2nd US Balloon Company] were... Kuhn nearly shot him down, by the way. There's an irony. Luke almost died from friendly fire. If Kuhn had gotten him we wouldn't be having this conversation and Luke would never have gotten the Medal of Honor. Instead he dies twenty minutes later and bang... he's a hero.
But I needed to know exactly where Luke went down - people thought they knew where he went down but they were way off. The exact spot had been lost over time. That's been a real chore.
Did you find it?
Yeah. Within a few steps. We know right where his plane came to rest, and we found the precise location where his body was found within about six feet. Finding where he went down eliminated some possibilities as to what could have happened to him, so that was important.
Why is THE STAND different from other books that came before it?
There weren't that many books that came before it. Almost every book so far has relied on known documents to create a theory on what happened to Luke and I didn't want to do that. I wanted original research. I didn't want to confuse things by making more theories. There's enough unfounded theories already floating around. I wanted to establish facts and determine what really happened to Frank Luke.
And if the data simply didn't exist to prove one theory correct over the others, I wanted to work in reverse - through process of elimination - and try to disprove theories until only one remained. So that, I think, makes THE STAND different right up front.
The other thing is that I've had more time. As you said, Hall never got to France and Frey only spent four days there. I've been at this for fifteen years and I've had the advantage of instant communications over the internet. That allows me to look harder. I turn over more rocks than the other guy. And I was able to because I had more time than they did.
What is the sense of personal pride in this work?
It's more like fear than pride. The people who are my mentors - at the League [of WWI Aviation Historians], at the aerodrome [www.theaerodrome.com] - they're the ones who will read this book.
I've looked up to them my whole life. They wrote the books that I grew up reading. They edited the magazines and wrote the articles that I learned from, and now they'll judge my life's contribution to WWI aviation research. Is that scary or what?
But in the end, all of us realize that anything that furthers WWI aviation research is a good thing. Its just really wild to have your work read by all the people that you've looked up to for so long.
Book Tour Sponsors:
The original book tour for THE STAND, 2007-2009
Sept 21-23, 2007
Dawn Patrol Rendezvous
National Museum of the Air Force
Oct 5, 2007
U.S. Air Force Academy
Colorado Springs CO
Nov 10, 2007
Arizona Veterans Memorial dedication
Bullhead City AZ
Nov 10, 2007
Mojave Daily News
Bullhead City AZ
Indianapolis Militaria Show
Apr 3, 2009
May 11, 2009
Glendale Public Library
July 11, 2009
Cross & Cockade/Klas Restaurant
August 1, 2009
Hope Hotel and Conference Center
September 25-27, 2009
Dawn Patrol Rendevous
National Museum of the Air Force
October 6, 2009
Warbird Radio LIVE, 10 am Eastern
October 17, 2009
Over the Front Seminar
San Antonio TX
US Air Force Academy
Colorado Springs, CO