From record-setting referee to Dirty Eddie’s war

Author Lee Cook (centre), with VF-17 veterans at the VF-17 reunion in 1994

Author Lee Cook (centre), with VF-17 veterans at the VF-17 reunion in 1994 - Credit: Courtesy Barbara Jackson

The 12-year dream of publishing Dirty Eddie’s War, the life story of world-class athlete and American WWII Fighter ace Harry March, has been fulfilled for Upwell author, Lee Cook this month.

“Harry March’s unique journal remained with his family for 74 years until I discovered it in the course of my research into the famed WWII fighter squadron VF-17,” recalls Lee.

“There have been numerous personal accounts and memoirs from servicemen who fought in the Pacific War, but in most cases, they are a retrospective look at events with experiences recalled with the benefit of hindsight and the passage of time,” Lee explains.

“What is unique about the diary of Harry March is that it is a story of its time and his words are just as poignant now as when as he recorded them. He provides a snapshot of the war as he saw and experienced it, at a time of cataclysmic world events.”

Harry's exploits have been brought together as a complete story of his life and chronicle the action seen by this heroic pilot, largely through genuine extracts from his diary pieced together with additional research on the Pacific War. It reveals the personal account of a pilot's innermost thoughts, both of the action he saw, the effects of his harrowing experiences, and his longing to be reunited with the love of his life back home.

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March was a talented athlete and US national pentathlon champion in 1940, destined for Olympic glory, but for the advent of the Second World War. Following his graduation from the University of North Carolina, he joined the US Navy with the goal of becoming a fighter pilot. Disregarding official regulations, March kept an unauthorised diary from 1942-1944 to record his experiences throughout his combat tours.

He depicts life onboard aircraft carriers and the brutal campaign and primitive living conditions on Guadalcanal, dealing with the shattering loss of close friends and comrades. He captures the intensity of combat operations over Rabaul and the stresses of overwhelming enemy aerial opposition. After his heroic exploits, March returned home and resumed training in track and field to prepare for the 1948 Olympics in London. Tragically, a swift and severe illness cut his life short at the age of only 27. His devoted wife Elsa raised their only daughter alone and never remarried.

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“My fascination with the legendary squadron VF-17, goes back to early 1993, when I saw a limited-edition print called The Jolly Rogers by Nicholas Trudgian advertised in Flypast magazine,” recalls Lee. “In the summer of that year, I saw a signed copy of the print at an air show, loved it and bought it.”

Lee knew someone who was writing to fighter pilots in the United States and he found out that among his correspondents was Tom Blackburn, the skipper of VF-17, one of the four pilots who had signed the print. Lee started writing to Tom who sent him a full roster of everyone from the squadron who was still alive. Lee then wrote to the 26 people on his list and was later invited to the Fighting Seventeen reunion at Oshkosh, Wisconsin, USA in July/August 1994.

“Meeting the surviving pilots led me on a journey of discovery about the squadron’s record-breaking achievements in the Solomon Islands and I was challenged to record their history.” This resulted in the publication of three books on the subject. “The picture on the cover of my first book, The Skull and Crossbones Squadron—VF-17 in World War II, was the one which I had bought at the air show,” remembers Lee.

“Eight years after the publication of my first book, a recurrence of an old injury forced me to take a break from my career as a boxing referee and this gave me the opportunity to write two further books on VF-17, which were published in 2011.”

Lee resumed working as a boxing official and from 2015 to 2020, was the busiest professional boxing referee in the World. When the COVID pandemic put a hold on his refereeing career, he was faced with the uncertainty of what to do. He decided to focus on completing his fourth book, Dirty Eddie’s War.

Lee had been researching the life of Harry March, one of VF-17’s ace pilots, while working on his previous books. He had written a manuscript and after 34 rejections stopped counting. The events of early 2020 gave him the opportunity to review the book and try again.

“Taking advice from a fellow author who I met on a tour around Europe in 2019, I followed up a lead to approach North Texas University Press and submitted a proposal in April 2020. I was surprised to receive a reply the same day expressing their interest. The lockdown then passed by in a blur of revisions, further research and documenting sources, all to meet set deadlines. It was a massive learning curve.

“After facing a climate of total rejection for 12 years Dirty Eddie’s War was completed and published in August 2021; I just wouldn’t give up,” says Lee.

“My goal throughout my research has been to perpetuate the memory of the courageous men of VF-17 who fought against the Japanese. I wanted to document their exploits and ensure that they will be remembered in the future for their many achievements.”

Dirty Eddie's War is published by University of North Texas Press, and available to buy now.

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