From the desk of Ronald R. Gilliam


The Genius of El Cid

Published in Military History Quarterly Magazine, Autumn 2011

In October 1094, citizens of the Mediterranean port of Valencia peered nervously from their white stone walls at a menacing line of wheeled siege towers. A sea of black, camel-skin campaign tents stretched beyond that, the siege deployment of a huge army. For 10 days and nights, the relentless thunder of thousands of enemy drums shook the air, punctuated by war cries and the screams of archers riding up to send a shower of flaming arrows over the city walls. The investing army was Muslim—Moors from the Maghreb, veiled Tuaregs from the Sahara, black warriors from Senegal. Part of a fundamentalist Islamic reform movement, these African warriors—called Almoravids (men of frontier garrisons)—had crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to wage holy war on the Christians of the Iberian Peninsula. They followed 78-year-old Yusuf bin Tashufin, a charismatic, religious eccentric whose African empire stretched from the Niger River in West Africa to Gibraltar. His goal: defend the centuries-old Muslim rule in Iberia. At Valencia, bin Tashufin's victory seemed inevitable. The siege force outnumbered the city's defenders perhaps as much as six to one. But leading the Valencians was the maverick Castilian knight Rodrigo (Ruy) Díaz de Vivar. Known as El Cid, or "the master," Rodrigo today is legendary for his exploits during the Reconquista, the long campaign by Christian armies to take Spain back from the Muslim forces that first swept over Iberia in the eighth century. Hollywood would base an epic movie on his feats, the 1961 El Cid, with Charlton Heston in the lead role.

read more

  'Viva la Aviacion Nacional!' - Mexico's Early Aviation Enthusiasm

Published in Aviation History Magazine, January 2005

The banquet at the army tent camp at Laguna Salada, a dry lake used for aircraft testing, was over by 10 p.m., but the musical entertainment was just starting. So when General Abelardo Rodríguez abruptly ordered him to bed, Roberto Fierro Villalobos, the guest of honor, turned in reluctantly. Four hours later he was up and making a final walk-around of a high-wing monoplane with Baja California painted on its silver fabric-covered fuselage. Then, taking a last gulp of coffee and exchanging abrazos with fellow fliers and the general, also governor of Mexico's territory of Baja California, he climbed into the open cockpit, checked the instruments and advanced the throttle. The 223-hp roar of a Wright J-5C Whirlwind shattered the nocturnal silence. Moving ponderously with its 1,750-pound load of gasoline, the plane – called the BC-2 – lumbered 750 meters across the salt flats, slowly gaining speed, then heaved itself aloft and disappeared into the starry black sky. General Rodríguez telegraphed Mexico City that Major P.A. (piloto aviador) Fierro had taken off from Mexicali at 2:05 a.m. PST, May 30, 1928, en route to Mexico City nonstop... 

read more


Turning Point of the Mexican Revolution: the Battles of Celaya

 Published In Military History Quarterly, Spring 2003

'Muchachos! Before it gets dark…we'll burst into Celaya in blood and fire!' So predicted General Pancho Villa as he watched his famous Division del Norte march out of Salamanca, Mexico, early on April 6, 1915. During Mexico's five-year-old revolution, the division had earned a reputation as invincibile and its commander had become a folk hero. Always attacking, Villa relied on his cavalry's boldness and fury to put his enemies to flight, and that was how he planned to rout General Alvaro Obregon's Constitutionalist force from Celaya. That tactic, however, was just what Obregon was counting on.

By the spring of 1915, Mexico's chaotic revolution had entered its bloodiest phase. Fighting had begun late in 1910 as guerrilla supporters of reformer Francisco Madero battled President Porfirio Diaz's government troops. After a couple of key rebel victories, Diaz resigned in May 1911. Madero was acclaimed president that autumn, but he came to alienate several populist leaders, such as Emiliano Zapata and Pascual Orozco, and fighting between the new government and various rebel bands erupted.

read more

Lockheed's Stealthy Counter-guerrilla Night Recce Planes
Published in Aviation History Magazine, July 1996

Night in Vietnam mostly belonged to the Viet Cong. Despite the South Vietnamese army's well-known abhorrence of night operations, the Saigon government insisted on maintaining outposts – little triangular, mud-walled, brick-towered forts built by the French – in areas dominated by the Viet Cong (VC). In 1962, these unsupported outposts were frequently overrun in VC night assaults. The United States had 222 aircraft in Vietnam by the end of that year, including 149 helicopters. Many of the helicopters were armed gunships, but they proved to be of little help in night operations because their noise always warned the guerrillas.

In frustration, the U.S. Department of Defense turned to its scientific and technical arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA handed the problem to the Lockheed Missiles & Space Company in Sunnyvale, California...

 read more

The Women's Air Raid Defense: Hawaii's WWII 'Shuffleboard Pilots"
Published in Aviation History Magazine, May 2002

A torrential tropical rain was falling on the evening of January 12, 1942, as a small convoy of cars drove through the main gate of Fort Shafter, headquarters of the U.S. Army's Hawaiian Department. The buildings there were bullet-pocked and fire-blackened from the December 7 air raid by the Japanese. At the end of the road to the Signal Corps yards on the mud flats, an Army Air Forces officer and a dozen young women, saddle shoes and bobby socks visible beneath their raincoats, emerged from the cars. After checking in at a sentry box, they gingerly filed over 50 yards of slotted duckboards to a tall wooden 'penthouse' perched atop a low concrete warehouse — Building 307. Another guard checked their identity badges before allowing them to climb the exterior wooden staircase to enter a blackout vestibule shrouded in rain-damp Army blankets. Then, after hanging up their rain gear, steel helmets, and gas masks, they stepped into a cavernous, well-lit room.

read more

BOOK REVIEW (Aviation History magazine, March 1998)

The Cream of the Crop: Canadian Aircrew 1939 - 1945

By Alan D. English, McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal & Kingston, 1996

Canadians have been captivated by aviation since the Wright brothers. At the end of World War I perhaps 40 percent of Royal Air Force aviators on the Western Front were Canadian; many later became bush pilots and opened the Far North to development. So as World War II neared, Canada's leaders saw aviation as their country's chief contribution to the Allied effort – and a way to avoid the horrendous infantry casualties of 1914­-18. In 1939, the minuscule Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) launched the British Commonwealth Air Training Program; by the war's end, the "aerodrome of democracy" had trained 44 percent of all Commonwealth aircrew and boasted the world's fourth-largest air force, with 250,000 personnel.

read more

Around the World in the 'Flying Carpet'

Published in Aviation History Magazine, May 2004

One hot afternoon in April 1931, a Stearman C3B biplane, its fuel tanks overflowing and cockpit crammed with two weeks' food and water, struggled into the air from the French Foreign Legion airstrip at Colomb-Béchar, Algeria. The plane fairly glowed in the sunlight, with golden wings and scarlet fuselage, and bright American flags painted on its golden tail — a good move, since rebellious North African nomads were known to shoot at French military aircraft. Leveling off at 500 feet, it headed south toward the Legion outpost at Gao, on the Niger River, 1,300 miles straight across the Sahara Desert.

To Richard Halliburton, in the front cockpit, the Sahara appeared 'a burned crust of gravel without a dip or a crack…the horizon a straight line.' The navigation chart was also featureless. Since magnetic compasses tended to be inaccurate over such distances, pilot Moye Stephens was following the military motor track — a ghostly trace on the stony surface below them, covered in places by drifting sand. At only 500 feet, heat and blowing sand stung their searching eyes. Several times they lost the faint track, then had to climb to 5,000 feet and circle until they again detected it.

read more
Moye Stephens: Aviation Pioneer and Adventurer

Published in Aviation History Magazine, July 1999

Moye W. Stephens' introduction to aviation was the Dominguez Aviation Meet, the American West's first airshow, held near Los Angeles in 1910. '1 was not quite 4 when my parents took me to the event,' Stephens later recalled, 'but my mother was to comment later that it left its mark on her son.' That experience would lead him into a life of aviation pioneering and adventure — and on a remarkable journey around the globe.

Stephens made his first flight when he was 17, in a Curtiss OX-5-powered Standard J-1 World War I-surplus training plane. From that time on, he had to fly. Tall and self-confident, the Hollywood High School senior talked an airport manager into letting him work in exchange for flying lessons, 'serving as a combination grease monkey and beast of burden.' Each hour's work would earn one minute of instruction — all of it in the air, fortunately.

read more

The Real 'English Patient'

Smuggled German Spies into Egypt - But Was He a British Double Agent?

Published in WWII History, March, 2010

On the morning of May 15, 1942, a strange motorcade rolled out of Campo Four, located 170 hot, dusty miles south of the Italian base at Jalo oasis in northeast Libya.  In accordance with the rules of war, the two Canadian Ford station wagons and two trucks captured from South African forces sported the German Balkenkreuz (straight cross) and Afrika Korps 21st Panzer Division palm tree stencils, partly rubbed out and sprayed with dust, however, and barely visible in the camouflage paint scheme.
The six passengers were in nondescript khaki shorts-and-shirt uniform with unobtrusive insignia, the minimum to avoid being shot out of hand as spies.  Their mission was clandestine rather than covert.  For the next three weeks they would hide in plain sight, concealed in the vastness of the greatest desert on the planet, the Sahara.

read more

15.3 MB
Military Aviation's Revolutionary Beginnings

Published in
Aviation History magazine, May 2000

When revolutionary fighting broke out in January 1911, Mexico became a proving ground for military aviation and a magnet for a colorful array of flying soldiers of fortune from Europe and the United States.

Rene Simon, a young French pilot with movie-star looks, pulled back on the controls of his Bleriot XI monoplane. Its 150-hp Gnome Rotary engine was working hard at El Paso's 3,700-foot elevation when the birdlike machine bounced off the dusty fairground and into the desert winter morning. At perhaps 1,000 feet, Simon veered south and crossed the Rio Grande ... into Mexico. Below, among Chihuahua's arid, rock-strewn hills, he could make out groups of men wearing huge hats, on horseback and carrying rifles. It was February 1, 1911, and the revolution against Mexican President Porfirio Diaz was at last underway.

When the
insurrectos saw the first flying machine of their lives, they were too fascinated to fire at it. Simon, one of five daredevil stunt fliers who had been thrilling crowds across the Gulf states, felt uneasy about flying in a war. He decided to drop some cigarettes the next time he flew over troops. When he landed a half-hour later, a Mexican officer came up to take his report. The Federal Army commander at Ciudad Juarez, just across the river from El Paso, had chartered the stunt-flying troupe---known as the Moisant International Aviators---to reconnoiter the position of rebel leader Pascual Orozco between airshows in El Paso. Simon had just flown one of the world's first aerial military missions over an active battlefield.
 The Real 'English Patient' and the  Search for Egypt's  'Lost Oasis'

Published in
Aviation History  magazine, March 2009

Unlike the title character of the 1996 film The English Patient, the real-life Laszlo Almasy didn't leap from moving trains or have a passionate affair with a British colleague's wife. But the movie is partly based on fact: Almasy was among the first to explore Egypt's Western Desert from the air---a risky business in the interwar years. Flying a de Havilland Gipsy Moth, Almasy located the fabled lost oasis of Zerzura in 1932.

In 1835, British  Egyptologist Sir John Wilkinson described Zerzura from a camel herder's account as "an oasis abounding in palms, with springs, and some ruins of an uncertain date." After he identified it as "Wadee Zerzoora," described in 15th-century writings as a "white-washed city of the desert [where] ... you will find great riches," and lost its location, the spot became a sort of holy grail for British Sahara enthusiasts. When in 1930 several of them founded the informal Zerzura Club in a gritty Greek bar at Wadi Halfa, Zerzura remained Egypt's only undiscovered oasis that was known from accounts in the Arab literature.

read more
Website Builder