Robert L. Richardson: A Story Worth Sharing

While researching another book, Robert L. Richardson came across a story worth sharing from a pilot who will turn 100 later this year that became his latest title, Spying From the Sky: At the Controls of U.S. Cold War Aerial Intelligence from Casemate Publishers.
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Robert L. Richardson was born and raised in Spokane, on the edge of Idaho in eastern Washington. Like many in his generation, writing was a third calling: raising a family and having a career put historical research and writing on the back burner until retirement. His first book, The Jagged Edge of Duty, was published just before his 68th birthday. His second, Spying from the Sky, was released in March 2020. His third, and probably final book, A Mustering of Heroes, is expected to be in print in 2021. The historical research that is required of these books is appealing to him, and writing some of the untold, personal stories of our Greatest Generation are very much to his liking.

Robert L. Richardson

Robert L. Richardson

Richardson believes that World War II and its consequences are too enormous for anyone to comprehend. That the losses, the destruction, and the emotional toll are beyond anyone's compass. But within that horrible carnage, the small stories can be told. The service, bravery, and sacrifice of the young men who fought that war can be recounted. Their stories, told on a more human scale, permit an understanding of what it was like for America at that time and place.

And as the Cold War settled onto America and its allies, and its enemies, the potential consequences became unimaginably more frightening. The future that could have resulted was averted, in very significant part, by the collection of critical intelligence by a small cohort of strategists, managers, and operators. Telling that story has been satisfying.

He believes that there are as many stories to tell as there were men and women in service. And some, representative of so many others, can be compelling. It's the recounting of those stories that makes his research and writing so engaging and rewarding.

In this post, Richardson shares how his latest release, Spying From the Sky, was inspired, his experience getting it published, and much more.

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Name: Robert L. Richardson
Book title: Spying from the Sky: At the Controls of U.S. Cold War Aerial Intelligence
Publisher: Casemate Publishers
Release date: March 30, 2020
Genre/category: Biography/Aviation History
Previous title: The Jagged Edge of Duty (Stackpole Books, 2017)

Elevator pitch for the book: Spying from the Sky profiles the life and service of Col. William Gregory—the man who commanded the CIA's U-2 operation during the terrifying Cuban Missile Crisis.

What prompted you to write this book?

I first encountered Col. William James ("Greg") Gregory while doing research for The Jagged Edge of Duty. At that time, I was primarily interested in his combat tour in North Africa during the summer of 1943, a time when the Allied forces were beginning to turn the tide against the Axis. In the critical weeks leading up to the invasion of Sicily in July 1943, Allied air forces, including Greg's P-38 squadron, had challenged and defeated the Luftwaffe over the Mediterranean skies. As with most Allied aviation units at that time and place, casualties in Greg's squadron were high.

During our first interview, in asking Greg about his later career, he rather casually mentioned that after the war he had "gotten into the high altitude program." At the time, this reference meant nothing to me. But in the course of our many subsequent interviews, I began to comprehend that Greg's later career with the USAF, and the CIA, was perhaps more fascinating, and contributed vastly more to American security than his successful combat tour in North Africa. His leadership, and the contributions of the men under his command, would in the summer of 1964 shape the security of the entire world.

It was evident to me that his was a story worth sharing.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication?

Greg and I, with prompting from my wife, agreed over dinner in November 2017 to produce his story. There was little change in direction over the course of the research and writing. I was strongly motivated by a desire to put a completed book in Greg's hands. At the time, Greg was 97. I had to hurry.

The book was complete in just over a year. I knew that finding a publisher, and bringing the book to market, could take months. (Eighteen months would pass from the time I signed a contract with Stackpole for The Jagged Edge until the book was available.) I didn't know if we had that much time. So Greg and I arranged for a limited edition, private publishing run under the title Eagle 5 x 5. That version was completed in mid-January, 2019. Greg was able to autograph and deliver copies to his friends and family, many of whom had no idea of his exceptional career.

That publication run was not registered with an ISBN number. Searching for it online will yield no results. This was intentional, because I was confident that a mainstream publisher would be interested in the book, even though it might not be completed in Greg's lifetime.

I was right on one point, and wrong on the second.

I spent 5 months to complete further research, to make further corrections, and to add more material. I offered the book to Casemate on June 3, 2019. They responded very promptly with a contract offer, which I signed on July 24, 2019. The book was edited, retitled as Spying from the Sky, printed, and ready for distribution in just 8 months.

Had I known Casemate could so nimbly bring a book to market, Greg and I would never have gone to the time and expense of producing a privately-published version.

So in effect, Greg has two biographies. One in a very limited edition, and one now available worldwide. He is very pleased with the results.

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Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

As noted above, I was astonished at how quickly a book could be brought to press. I have been very impressed with Casemate.

I have also learned that an author's responsibility does not end with a manuscript. In the case of SFTS, some important graphics were not of sufficient quality, and it was necessary for me to contract privately with a graphic artist for upgrades. It was a similar situation for certain of the photographs.

And I was reminded that the cost to print a book is largely determined by page count. And page count is itself strongly influenced by the number of graphics and photographs. So while Casemate made very few reductions to text, we battled a bit about which photos and graphics could be retained in the final form.

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

Many.

For example, in the earliest days of America's offensive in North Africa (Operation TORCH), I was surprised at the poorly developed strategic and tactical doctrine for the air forces, a condition that led to frightening losses. Also, during Greg's combat tour in North Africa with the 49 Fighter Squadron, I was very surprised at the number of missions that ended with poor results: Targets not found, missions aborted due to fuel shortage, and rendezvous missed. I was also astonished at the sheer overpowering momentum of the American mobilization program. It was a force that could not be matched by the Axis.

In the two books I have finished, my intention has been to describe the individuals and their experiences, and to provide context. In developing SFTS, Greg gave me critical benchmarks in his career, and quite a lot of useful details about his experiences. To provide context, it was necessary to rely to a considerable degree on recently-declassified CIA documents. To me, those documents were revelatory.

And having lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis as a 15-year-old high school student, I was shaken to learn how nearly the Soviets came to having its nuclear force in fully operational status in 1964. Given two more weeks undetected, the Soviets would have very likely changed the course of world history.

I was also pleasantly surprised at the steady evolution of overhead intelligence platforms by the American intelligence community. Starting in the early 1950s, intelligence planners recognized that the ultimate overhead reconnaissance system would be satellite based. But they also realized that developing that system would take decades. And so, in incremental steps, the CIA and USAF developed short-term platforms representing intermediate stages that would fill the gap to satellite reconnaissance systems: The B-57, RB-57, and U-2 are examples.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

I believe that few readers have a comprehensive understanding of the importance of overhead intelligence to American leadership during the Cold War, or of the efforts by the CIA, DOD and USAF in satisfying that intelligence requirement. This book will provide that understanding, and the narrative approach makes it quite readable.

Further, even less known are the individuals who managed those overhead reconnaissance aircraft, and who flew those dangerous peripheral and overflight missions. This book will also give names to those Air Force and civilian "Stratonauts." 

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

Be guided by carefully developed chronologies. Establish clear causal relationships. Dive deeply into available research sources (National Archives, CIA library, Air Force Historical Research Agency, Archives of the NSA, and others).

*****

If you’re an author who would like to be featured in a future post, send an email to Robert Lee Brewer with the subject line “Author Spotlight” at rbrewer@aimmedia.com.