Red Burning Sky is a historical spy thriller based on the real-life story of Operation Halyard, the largest rescue operation of American Airmen in history. Known primarily to students of World War II, this was a daring plan to evacuate hundreds of airmen stranded behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia, while simultaneously avoiding detection by the Germans. Facing overwhelming odds, it’s considered the greatest rescue operation of World War II.
Congratulations on your new book Red Burning Sky. Can you tell me a little about your book?
The novel is inspired by a real-life event from World War II, Operation Halyard. Halyard was the rescue of more than 500 downed Allied fliers in Yugoslavia. It’s one of the lesser-known corners of WWII history. In fact, I call Operation Halyard “the greatest military rescue you’ve never heard of.” The mission was politically and diplomatically sensitive, and even after the war, it wasn’t publicized the way one might have expected.
The first question that might come to a reader’s mind is, “Wait—why were that many Allied fliers on the ground in Yugoslavia, to begin with?” They were mainly bomber crews that had been sent to hit the German-run oil refineries in Romania. Their ingress and egress routes to and from the target took them over Yugoslavia. The refineries were heavily defended, and over time, a lot of bombers got shot down. Crews often bailed out over Yugoslavia, and they found themselves parachuting into a very complicated situation on the ground.
Yugoslav guerrillas and civilians hid the airmen in barns, haylofts, and cellars. Over a period of many months and repeated bombing missions, the numbers of downed fliers grew into the hundreds. It was just a matter of time before the Germans who occupied the region caught on. So, the forerunner of the CIA, the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, parachuted agents into Yugoslavia to coordinate a rescue.
What inspired you to write Red Burning Sky?
I wanted to bring Operation Halyard to life for modern readers, and in Red Burning Sky, I do that through the eyes of three main fictional characters.
One is a downed airman, Bill Bogdonavich. He comes from a Serbian-American family; his father emigrated from Yugoslavia after World War I. The father’s nostalgia for the Old Country and the son’s disdain for the old ways have always been a source of friction between the two. The younger Bogdonavich was born in the United States; he’s never been to Yugoslavia before. And now that he’s had a B-24 blown out from under him, he becomes dependent on people just like his dad for his very survival. Over time, he learns to appreciate why they are the way they are, and why they do things the way they do.
The second main fictional character is one of the rescue pilots, Drew Carlton. Drew has a checkered military record, and he wants to find his courage, redeem himself, and get back into the fight.
And the third main character is a teenage guerrilla named Vasa. He wants to prove himself a man and help save his people from both Nazism and Communism.
What about Operation Halyard spoke to you?
Halyard was a daring airlift rescue mission: A special unit of C-47 Skytrains landed on dirt airstrips in Yugoslavia that had been built only with hand tools. I’m an old airlifter myself—I flew as a flight engineer on the C-130 Hercules and the C-5 Galaxy. I’m amazed by what those WWII fliers accomplished with the technology of their day. Sometimes they landed at night on primitive fields lit only by burning hay bales. These aviators pulled off something that would be challenging even now, with modern airplanes and night vision goggles. They did it because they didn’t know they couldn’t do it.
Do you have a favorite character in your book?
My favorite character in Red Burning Sky is Vasa, a very young Serbian guerrilla who helps protect downed airmen. Believe it or not, that character was inspired by someone I knew. When I was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I took a terrific course on Russian novels. The professor was Dr. Vasa Mihailovich. In his teenage years, Dr. Mihailovich took arms during Yugoslavia’s civil war in the midst of a world war. After Tito formed a Communist government in Yugoslavia, Mihailovich left the country and spent five years in refugee camps. Eventually, he made his way to the U.S., where he worked on a Chrysler assembly line to pay his way through college. He became a respected scholar of Russian and East European literature.
The actions of my character Vasa don’t necessarily reflect the experiences of the real Vasa. But I named that character in honor of my old teacher.
What can fiction teach us that cannot be taught by non-fiction?
Fiction teaches us empathy. Nonfiction can teach us the facts, and nonfiction is essential, especially for anyone interested in history. But fiction can put you in the shoes of historical characters. Fiction shows you what it felt like to be there. Fiction lets you feel the pain, hear the gunfire, smell the smoke.
Through my character Vasa, I hope readers will feel the pain of seeing friends and family suffer under enemy occupation. Through the character Bogdonavich, I hope to convey the fear associated with air combat, and then the constant fear of capture. Through Drew Carlton, I hope readers will empathize with the struggle of a man trying to overcome his fears and rise to meet his duty.
What lessons can a Junior Officer take from your book?
Red Burning Sky and the story of Operation Halyard offer at least two good military lessons. One is that you can do more than you think. As I mentioned above, the Halyard rescuers accomplished something nearly impossible, because they didn’t realize it was impossible.
The second lesson echoes what we learn in Survival School: If you’re shot down in enemy territory or otherwise isolated from U.S. command, keep faith in your country and in your brothers and sisters in arms.
On a more academic level, I think the book shows how even for familiar history like World War II, there are still untold stories. There’s always more to learn. And even when you know the historical facts, there are always different perspectives to consider.
What are you reading now?
I just finished reading a nonfiction book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson. It’s a great overview of current science, written for the layman. Much of the science I learned in high school is outdated, and I badly needed an update.
What books do you recommend which influenced your thinking on leadership?
The novel Twelve O’Clock High, and the 1949 film based on the novel, are classic studies on leadership in a crisis. The character of Brigadier General Savage, played by Gregory Peck in the film, takes over a hard-luck bomb group. The unit’s previous commander is depicted as a good man who overly identifies with his men. He’s over-protective in a situation where he must send them into harm’s way. General Savage comes in and makes the hard decisions to turn the unit into an effective fighting force, but he does so at an emotional cost to himself.
Are there any authors (living or dead) that you would name as influences?
The French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry helped inspire me to fly and to write. I find that a lot of American readers haven’t heard of him. I might not have either if I hadn’t stumbled across him in the public library in my hometown of Oxford, NC when I was a kid. His books such as Wind, Sand and Stars, Night Flight, and Southern Mail put me right in the cockpit with him, and that’s when I knew I wanted to become a flier. Saint-Ex flew airmail in the days when planes were made of cloth and pilots were made of steel. He died serving his country and the Allied cause during World War II. His aircraft went down over the Mediterranean in 1944.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading — and why?
My book club would focus on war literature, especially the great novels from World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War. We’d start with classics written by veterans, such as All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque, The Winds of War, by Herman Wouk, The Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer, and The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien.
Give us three “Good to Know” facts about you. Be creative. Tell us about your first job, the inspiration for your writing, any fun details that would enliven your page.
First job: I grew up on a tobacco farm in North Carolina. I started working in the fields before I started first grade. My father taught me to drive a tractor when I was six years old. My legs were too short to reach the clutch and the brakes, so when I got to the end of a row, I’d just turn off the ignition.
The inspiration for my writing is a simple love of words. I’ve known I wanted to be a writer ever since I could read. I’ve always been a very active person: flying, hunting, fishing, scuba diving, etc. But even if I were physically disabled, I think I could enjoy life as long as I could read.
Oddly enough, scuba diving helped inspire my previous World War II novel, Silver Wings, Iron Cross. One of the book’s main characters is an executive officer on a German U-boat. During my college years, I was a member of the Scuba Club at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We did a lot of wreck diving off the Outer Banks. Many of the shipwrecks off the NC coast are freighters and tankers torpedoed by German U-boats during WWII. A lot of people don’t realize naval combat came that close to the American mainland during the war. One of the wrecks we dived on was that of a German U-boat, the U-352. Seeing these ghost ships on the bottom of the Atlantic fired my interest in that part of WWII history.
Writing a book is tough, were there any surprises as you set out on that journey?
I was surprised at how the characters take on lives of their own. They seem to talk to you, to tell you what they want to do. Sometimes, when you really get into the zone, it’s as if you’re just watching the characters and writing down what they do and say. It almost feels as if you’re channeling the story from somewhere else.
What advice would you give to an aspiring military author? Is there any advice they should ignore?
Two things: One—writing isn’t mystical. It’s a skill that you learn over time, just like anything else. If you aren’t good at it now, that doesn’t mean you won’t become good at it later, with practice and dedication. Two—attend as many writers’ conferences and workshops as your schedule and pocketbook will allow. That does a couple of things for you. It helps you improve your craft, and it gives you opportunities to meet editors and agents who can help you.
Any additional words?
My grandfather, Thomas Morgan Daniel, was a World War II veteran. He was a mechanic on B-17 Flying Fortresses with the legendary Eighth Air Force, and I grew up hearing his stories. That inspired my interest in aviation and in WWII history. Of course, when I knew him, he was old, and we naturally think of WWII veterans as old people. But it’s important to remember that when they went through these searing experiences, they were very young. They took on tremendous responsibilities early in life. I hope my novels help readers imagine what it might have been like to face great danger and tough decisions in your early twenties or even in your late teens.
Red Burning Sky is out Feburary 22. Purchase Red Buring Sky Here
Tom Young served in Afghanistan and Iraq with the Air National Guard. He has also flown combat missions to Bosnia and Kosovo, and additional missions to Latin America, the horn of Africa, and the Far East. In all, Young logged nearly 5,000 hours as a flight engineer on the C-5 Galaxy and the C-130 Hercules, while flying to almost forty countries.
Young’s military honors include the Meritorious Service Medal, three Air Medals, three Aerial Achievement Medals, and the Air Force Combat Action Medal. Young retired from the Air Guard in 2013 after more than twenty years of service. In civilian life, he spent ten years as a writer and editor with the broadcast division of the Associated Press. Currently, he works as an airline pilot based at Reagan National Airport near Washington, D.C. Young holds B.A. and M.A. degrees in Mass Communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Young’s well-received military adventure novels include Silver Wings, Iron Cross; The Mullah’s Storm; Silent Enemy; The Renegades; The Warriors; and Sand and Fire. Learn more at TomYoungBooks.com.
*** This interview is a Sponsored Post ***