Patrick K. O’Donnell is a military historian and award-winning author of six books (read an excerpt of They Dared Return, here ). If you’re one to read the scrolling credits, you’ve seen that he’s done historical consulting for Band of Brothers and for documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Fox News. This Lady Gaga / Katy Perry / Top 40 listener is an expert on WWII espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency on the modern battlefield.
The founder of the Drop Zone.org, an award-winning online oral history Web site, has gathered over 3,000 oral history interviews, which he’s personally conducted with veterans from World War I to the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. PopMatters is chuffed to have him with us for 20 Questions. Read on.
Give Me Tomorrow: The Korean War’s Greatest Untold Story—The Epic Stand of the Marines of George Company
Patrick K. O’Donnell
(Da Capo; US: Nov 2010)
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
In May, I went to the G.I. Film Festival to attend the screening of a movie on the Korean War, which ties into my latest book, Give Me Tomorrow and released at the same time as They Dared Return. Instead, the festival switched up the movie titles and played The Last 600 Meters, a movie about the Battle of Fallujah in 2004. My jaw dropped when I saw footage that I had shot during the Battle of Fallujah as a combat historian with a Marine rifle platoon. The movie brought me back to the sounds and smells of gunfire that I had personally endured and chronicled in a book called We Were One.
2. The fictional character most like you?
I really admire Robinson Crusoe. He was fiercely independent, able to make do with the resources he has at hand. Perhaps the ideal that I admire the most in him is that he was able to have fun in circumstances that most human beings could never endure.
3. The greatest album, ever?
I can’t pick one, but Rush’s Moving Pictures is close because I love the lyrics. However, most people roll their eyes when they find out what I like to listen to on a daily basis, which is Top 40: Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, etc.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Trek, obviously. Who couldn’t love Captain Kirk? Plus, Roddenberry created it all and was way ahead of his time. I’m definitely a classic Star Trek fan and have watched every episode multiple times.
5. Your ideal brain food?
I love mental gymnastics—really stretching your mind. An ideal way to do that is through board games. I play some of the most obscure things you’ve never heard of, including Wilderness War, which is based on the 1750s struggle for North America in the French and Indian War. There’s nothing like having a bunch of nerd-like friends who wear pocket protectors as your opponents. To them, it’s more of a blood sport, and it becomes the ultimate challenge. Plus, you get to learn a lot of cool history.
6.You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
This may sound trite, but I’m so proud of my daughter Lily, who I call the “cute-a-saurus” and “the greatest daughter in the world.” I dedicate all my books to her.
They Dared Return: The True Story of Jewish Spies Behind the Lines in Nazi Germany
Patrick K. O’Donnell
(Da Capo; US: Nov 2010)
7. You want to be remembered for ...?
I’d like to be remembered for being a good father, but also as a historian who gathered and preserved the oral histories of veterans of World War II and other wars. Since 1992, I’ve gathered over 3,000 oral history interviews, which I’ve personally conducted with veterans from World War I to the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
For me, the most inspirational people are everyday Americans who have done extraordinary things. An excellent example is Rocco Zullo, one of the main characters in my book Give Me Tomorrow.
Zullo was a Marine First Sergeant who against all odds led the men of George Company up an 11-mile road and fought through a division of Chinese troops, knocking out several machine gun nests and bunkers along the way. Zullo was shot through the stomach multiple times, pronounced dead, lay in a makeshift morgue freezing to death in temperatures of 30 degrees below zero.
Miraculously a Marine from another unit found him alive! He was rushed into surgery. He spent years in VA hospitals. Nearly to a man, all of George Company thought Zullo died during the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir. To their amazement, he surfaced 35 years later at their first reunion.
I admire men like these who are forgotten heroes—people who could be your uncle or great-grandfather or your next door neighbor.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
The lighthouse of Alexandria—it just looks cool.
10. Your hidden talents…?
My hidden talent is creativity, which most people think is odd for a historian. I think my greatest strength is being able to take a tiny thread of history, pull on it, do research, and tell the true story of what happened.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
When I got out of Fallujah, one of the Marine officers I was with looked at me and said, “It’s the simple things in life that count now.” I often forget that advice, but I really believe it. I’m really into the simple things in life like friendship, nature, and trying to live life fully.
We Were One: Shoulder to Shoulder with the Marines Who Took Fallujah
Patrick K. O’Donnell
(Da Capo; US: Oct 2007)
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
In October 2004, I was loaned a scapula and a St. Christopher’s medal. The scapula was worn by an OSS spy who went behind the lines in Nazi Germany five times on missions that almost cost him his life. He told me I could borrow it when I went to Iraq and later accompanied a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah.
The St. Christopher’s Medal was worn by a member of the 509 Parachute Infantry Battalion during World War II. The 900-man unit was reduced to less than 50 men during the Battle of the Bulge. He never received a scratch.
I borrowed both during Iraq, and the men gave them to me to keep after I returned. I don’t consider myself religious, but I consider them my most valuable possessions.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or ...?
Neither. Give me my Diesel jeans.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
I would invite the main character of They Dared Return, Frederick Mayer. A naturalized Jewish American who barely escaped the Holocaust, he did the impossible and parachuted behind the lines into the Reich’s most fortified area, and then impersonated a German officer. Mayer gathered priceless intelligence that helped the war effort, destroyed 26 trains, and later facilitated the surrender of Innsbruck, Austria, and over 10,000 SS troops. He went back to Nazi Germany to avenge his people and make a difference in the war effort.
I would also invite the architect of the Third Reich and the Holocaust, Adolf Hitler. My final guest would be a man whose rise many have likened to the rise of Adolf Hitler, a man who has denied the existence of the Holocaust, the President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
I’d like to travel to the future 100 years from now in America and look back at how things have changed.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
Hit man, duh. They Dared Return is about the first CIA or OSS. So therefore, we have to have a hit man, right?
Actually, I’d probably prefer to take a vacation.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or ...?
Anything totally unhealthy, like junk food. Give me another Chips Ahoy, please.
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
My favorite refuge is Monument Valley in Arizona and Utah. The place looks like Mars, and I love Native American culture.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
I admire the founding fathers of our country and what they stood for. I will quote Thomas Jefferson, “I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around [the banks] will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered. The issuing power should be taken from the banks and restored to the people, to whom it properly belongs.”
Photo (partial) by © Ron Rammelkamp
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
Later this month, They Dared Return and my seventh book Give Me Tomorrow: The Korean War’s Greatest Untold Story—the Epic Stand of the Marines of George Company will be released in time for the 60th anniversary of America’s forgotten war: Korea.
My next book after that involves the American Rangers, who trace their beginnings back to the French and Indian War.