Writer begins military "career" 50 years after active duty service ends

  • Published
  • By William J. Sharp
  • 11th Wing Public Affairs
He served briefly in the Air Force in the late 1950s as a draftsman and as a petroleum, oils and lubricants specialist assigned in England.

During three years of service, Robert Coram got to refuel a lot of aircraft. Off duty, however, he got into a lot of trouble resulting in three courts-martial convictions and an undesirable discharge, a type of discharge that existed at the time. Later, his discharge was upgraded to general.

Twice he received punishment for having a female companion in his living quarters and once for misuse of a government vehicle and misappropriation of government property. With respect to the latter, Mr. Coram said alcohol got the best of him. He and a friend who worked in supply "liberated" a chair and a lamp from his friend's unit and the two tried to sell the items in downtown Liverpool. They picked a bad place to park, however - right in front of a police station - and it didn't help that Mr. Coram was wearing a flight suit over his civilian clothes.

"I was 19 at the time," Mr. Coram said. "Sure, I'm embarrassed about what happened. I regret it, and if I could do it over, I would. My gift, it seems, is not in service as so many people do, but in writing about those who served."

So, in certain respects, it is ironic that 50 years later the veteran writer-author has published books about two legendary and battle-hardened Air Force fighter pilots - Cols. John Boyd and George Day. That the books got written at all he attributes to growing up.

"Today, I have the best job in the world, Mr. Coram said. "I am probably the only person in America writing biographical books about American military heroes. Giants walk among us, particularly in the military, and it seems they walk at the moments we need them most."

On a recent visit to Bolling, Mr. Coram talked about his books, "[John] Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of Air Warfare, (2002)" and "American Patriot: The Life and Wars of Colonel Bud Day, (2007)."

"To me these men, while quite opposite in demeanor, meet all criteria for great biographical sketches," Mr. Coram said. "First, above all else, the story has to be big, with a larger-than-life character at the center. Next, you have to have that character play out his or her life on a really big stage. Finally, there has to be an underlying moral component to the person's life that is intriguing - for example, someone who faces tremendous odds and obstacles and yet somehow manages to triumph."

Mr. Coram, from Edison, Ga., has written for The New Yorker, The Atlanta Journal, the Atlanta Constitution, Atlanta Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Esquire and the New York Times. Twice he received Pulitzer Prize nominations for stories he wrote about drug smuggling and for a series of articles that stopped development of Cumberland Island.

Mr. Coram spent about three years writing the Col. John R. Boyd (1927 - 1997) book. Colonel Boyd served in the Army Air Corps from 1945-1947 and in the Air Force from 1951-1975. There are few middle-of-the-road opinions about Colonel Boyd. He has been called everything from crackerjack jet fighter pilot, visionary scholar, and military strategist to foul-mouthed insubordinate. Character aside, Mr. Coram said much can be learned from the colonel.

"People who attend the service academies are told, 'always do the right and honorable thing,'" Mr. Coram said. "But what they're not told is that there is sometimes a price to be paid for that. I think the language in Colonel Boyd's To Be or To Do speech is the essence of his message to the world. It describes a crisis all Airmen face at some time in their careers - do I want to be somebody or do I want to do something amazing? I think anyone who has researched Colonel Boyd can see the value he places on integrity."

Because the colonel's message delivery was often harsh and critical, and it didn't seem to matter who the message recipient was, many feel he sacrificed promotion for matters of principle, but the principle seemed to always focus on the greater good.

For example, the colonel crafted many theories. Many credit the colonel as being the chief architect of Gulf War invasion strategy. Additionally, he crafted the E-M (Energy-Maneuverability) theory of aerial combat, which focuses on thrust and drag ratio. Boyd wanted to know how fast a pilot could gain energy when he pushed the throttle to full power. He wanted to standardize the information so that every aircraft could be compared regardless of weight. Further, the colonel is described as chief architect behind the F-15 and F-15 fighters. One of his select few 'Acolytes' - a term he used to describe a small circle of trusted colleagues - similarly went on to develop the A-10.

"Colonel Boyd changed the world in which he lived and he changed the way people think about warfare," Mr. Coram said. "I think many Airmen of today, especially the field grade officers, understand and appreciate the colonel's work. I suspect that work is going to receive greater recognition over the coming years."

The colonel earned the nickname "40-second Boyd" because of a standing offer he had for all fighter pilots. If they could defeat him in simulated air-to-air combat in under 40 seconds, he would pay them $40. He was called out on this offer many times from pilots worldwide, but he reportedly never lost a match.

Many consider the OODA Loop - observation, orientation, decision, action - as the colonel's most important contribution to modern warfare. The loop is a process by which an entity reacts to an event. According to the theory, the key to victory is to create situations where one can make appropriate decisions more quickly than one's opponent.

Mr. Coram spent more than three years writing the book on Medal of Honor recipient Col. George E. "Bud" Day. Colonel Day served more than 30 years in the armed forces, first with the Marine Corps in 1942, then with the National Guard in 1950. He was called to active duty in the Air Force in 1951 and entered jet pilot training. He served two tours in the Far East as a fighter-bomber pilot during the Korean War.

"People wonder why I wrote the book since Colonel Day had already published an autobiography," Mr. Coram said. "The answers are obvious. First, he's too modest and humble to tell the full story about himself and second, I can add perspective and details on his life that he can't because of subjectivity."

Shot down over North Vietnam on Aug. 26, 1967, Colonel Day spent 67 months as a prisoner of war. He was the only person to escape from North Vietnam and make it through some 30 miles of enemy territory, across the demilitarized zone, and into South Vietnam before being recaptured. He is also credited with living through the first "no chute" bailout from a burning jet fighter in England in 1955.

At the time he was shot down, Colonel Day was one of the nation's most experienced jet fighter pilots, with more than 5,000 hours of flying time. He has flown all of the modern Air Force jet fighters including the F-80, F-15 and F-16 aircraft. Colonel Day holds numerous combat awards - 70 total of which 50 are for combat - and is the nation's most highly decorated officer.

"The three-and-a-half years I spent with him are perhaps three of the greatest of my life because he's a great warrior and one of God's good people," Mr. Coram said. "The qualities he manifests are the qualities we think of as uniquely American. He came out of the Midwest, he is a man of common sense and good judgment, and he is a champion of justice.

"He is also someone to admire," Mr. Coram said. "Other POWs look at Colonel Day as a symbol of strength and courage. The see a man they know could not be broken."

That in itself, Mr. Coram explained, makes the colonel a symbol for all.

"People who wear the uniform are in the profession of arms. At the core of military service is a person's agreement to be placed in harms way. I think all Airmen must wonder at some point, "what will happen if I'm captured by the enemy?" Reading about Colonel Day's life shows people of all generations the standard of conduct for anyone who becomes a POW. Colonel Day is a model of behavior from which all can benefit and learn."

Colonel Day's story is the sort of lesson Mr. Coram takes to heart. It's also a lesson he likes to share.

"In writing about military heroes, I have come to embrace what my father tried to instill in me long ago," Mr. Coram said. Coram's father was a top (first) sergeant in the Army who served 33 years and Mr. Coram often jokes he had an extended boot camp instead of a childhood. It may have taken awhile, but his father's lessons are taking hold, he said.

"The values inherent in the people in uniform - patriotism, loyalty, integrity, devotion, selflessness and love of country, to name a few - are things I have learned to appreciate more and more over time, and I am proud to pass on what I've learned to others," he said.

Mr. Coram is currently working on a book about Marine Maj. Gen. Victor "Brute" Krulak. He just began the book and hopes to have the book completed in about three years.