Photo by Kelly A. Tooman
About Bill Warnock
Award-Winning Author & Military Historian
I authored The Dead of Winter, a 2005 book chronicling present-day efforts by me and several colleagues to recover missing U.S. soldiers killed during the Battle of the Bulge. Whenever I speak about the “MIA Project” at public or private events, someone invariably asks what ignited my interest in military history.
It began in my early years when my father took me to see The Battle of Britain, a movie set in 1940 during the pivotal struggle in the skies over England. Hunched wide-eyed in my seat, I watched as British bullets slaughtered German airmen in blood-splattering violence (blood my father later said was just ketchup). In one poignant scene, an RAF fighter pilot presented his two young sons with model Spitfires. I immediately wanted one, too. My father did better, building me a Spitfire, a Hurricane, and a Messerschmitt. In doing so he recognized potential in the little plastic models. They could be more than toys.
He set up a workshop in our basement and began crafting replica warplanes. I later joined him. Our hobby turned more serious after the two of us joined the International Plastic Modelers Society. We traveled to competitions where painstaking attention to detail and realism brought awards and recognition. I also met modelers who collected military memorabilia, and I developed an interest. Steel helmets from around the world soon adorned shelves in my bedroom, but it didn’t end there.
In junior high school, several friends and I produced a Super 8 movie about the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, a project for our Eighth Grade history class. I wrote a two-page script and shot most of the footage. We used helmets from my collection as props, though we had to tailor uniforms from old coats purchased at my church’s “clothing closet.” We simulated a grenade blast using a black-powder charge that I concocted by following a recipe in a U.S. Army technical manual purchased by mail-order. While many boys my age stuffed girlie magazines under their mattresses, I stashed the Improvised Munitions Handbook (something my mother eventually confiscated). We later created a short film about the Vietnam War, an even more realistic-looking production with actual U.S. Army uniforms and an M-16 rifle I fabricated from wood and metal in shop class.
Also during that time, I acquired a metal detector and began hunting for artifacts on a nearby War of 1812 battlefield. Research led me to a secluded spot that nobody had searched. My discoveries included musket balls, grape shot, canister shot, and a couple British buttons, plus a cast-iron shell fragment that I found lying on the ground under an old pine tree. I used tent pegs and string to lay a grid over the site and map the location where I found each object.
Like my father, I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force following high school. I hauled the metal detector with me to Germany after being assigned to Spangdahlem Air Base for two years. On my days off, I searched for World War II artifacts by driving to the Belgian Ardennes where the Battle of the Bulge raged forty years earlier. The spruce forests yielded more rusty relics than I had room to keep, but my focus quickly shifted from soldier accoutrements to the soldiers themselves, after a chance meeting.
On my twentieth birthday, I met Charles B. MacDonald, a Bulge veteran and the million-selling author of Company Commander, a classic World War II memoir. We happened to be lodging at the same hotel in Belgium, and he invited me to spend the day with him. “Mac” introduced me to Bulge historian William C.C. Cavanagh who lived nearby. We sat around Will’s dining room table, and I listened as Mac critiqued a book-length manuscript that Will had completed. I learned more about writing than in all my school years. My two new friends sparked a burning passion in me to learn and write about the men who fought the great Ardennes battle.
Both men are now deceased, but my interest in the Bulge continues as does my work to locate its missing soldiers and airmen. Will and Mac also had a hand in my second book, a history of the U.S. 741st Tank Battalion. They are the ones who first brought the battalion and its combat record to my attention. Aside from books, I write feature articles, each entailing years of research. One resulted in my receiving a Distinguished Writing Award from the Army Historical Foundation.
In all my work, I’m devoted to preserving history and unlocking its secrets, all in an effort to present hitherto untold stories that contribute to the historical record.