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Like Looking Through a Window

If you haven’t seen Peter Jackson’s documentary film “They Shall Never Grow Old” you should do so. In many ways it might be one of the most incredible films I’ve ever seen.

The film takes archival footage from the Imperial War Museum and BBC oral history interviews with World War I veterans to tell the story of soldiers in the Royal Army during World War I. Jackson chose this point of view for a look in depth at one aspect of the history of the war, and one may easily imagine a monumental documentary series done in the same fashion consisting of who knows how many episodes, covering different campaigns and services. The Royal Navy and the Royal Flying Corps are not mentioned, and I’d purely love to see the same treatment given to the RFC!

Everyone has seen the silent black-and-white film taken during the war. It tends to be grainy, either over- or under-exposed, scratched, jerky, and the motion of people looks awkward and hurried. The latter is due to the frame rate imposed by hand-cranked cameras in use at the time, which might be cranked at anywhere between ten frames a second or eighteen.

Jackson and his production team took the original film and processed it so that the original black and white appears very close to something that would have been shot as B&W with contemporary methods. The images are clean, crisp, properly exposed, and move at a frame rate restoring natural motion.

That in itself is a remarkable achievement.

However, the colorization process resulted in something positively unique. I’m going to say nothing more about it. You simply must see the film.

All of that, however, is as nothing beside the use of imagery to tell a story, and I will give one example. The series of images with the soldiers in the Sunken Lane prior to the Battle of the Somme will rend your heart. The images are clear enough that you can see the emotion on those faces. You may think you know what to expect in terms of fear and apprehension and even excitement, but that’s knowledge without experience.

These faces are right in front of you, almost as if you were looking through a window and not watching a film. And, as Peter Jackson points out, most of the lads in that picture were probably dead within an hour after it was taken.

One further thing among many deserves mention. The interviewees make the point that after the war, the people on the home front didn’t want to hear from the veterans what it was like. I think it would be interesting to know why that’s so, because to me it seems short-sighted, if only from the perspective of ignoring history. An experience in history paid with so much blood and suffering and waste and destruction should be told and retold and examined from every angle. It was called “the war to end all wars” and so it should have been. We all know it was not, and in fact was followed within a generation by another war even more terrible in all respects.

We owe it to those who were there to hear and understand, as best we are able, their story. Peter Jackson has given us a unique opportunity to do exactly that.

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Merry Christmas!

Here in Hickory, NC, it’s just after 7:00 a.m. on December 24.

But I have friends and readers in New Zealand and Australia, and, going east with the sun, in India, Italy, Germany, France, and Great Britain. For many of them it’s already Christmas Day.

So it doesn’t seem in the least premature to me to wish everyone, worldwide, whether you believe in Santa Claus or not, a very happy and a very Merry Christmas!

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Searching for Monsarrat

Some weeks ago I was in a used-book store – the only one surviving here in the metropolis of Hickory, NC – and the cover of a book caught my eye. The book itself was the memoir of a U-boat commander, but what caught my eye was the advertisement of a foreword by Nicholas Monsarrat.

Nicholas Monsarrat, as a young man, served as an officer of the Royal Navy during World War II, eventually commanding a frigate in the North Atlantic. He wrote a novel about it, titled The Cruel Sea, which was also the first of many books by Monsarrat that I read. Seeing his name made me think it would be interesting to reread The Cruel Sea, since I lost my copy in a move twenty years ago.

Alas, the used-book store didn’t have it. That was disappointing but not surprising. You don’t go to a used-book store for consistency, you go for the delightful surprise, now as much as forty years ago.

It also didn’t surprise me that Barnes & Noble (the only surviving big-box bookstore in my aforementioned metropolis of residence) didn’t have it. They have Hemingway, and occasionally such former lights of the literary scene as C.S. Forester or Robert A. Heinlein, but not The Cruel Sea nor anything else by Monsarrat, a man who enjoyed enormous success as a writer for three decades.

What did surprise me was that, although some few of Monsarrat’s books are available on Kindle, those few did not include The Cruel Sea.

I still remember taking home The Cruel Sea, and opening the first page. One of the things I love most about reading is how one can be in a different time or place, or even a different world, when one opens a book. That experience is what Monsarrat delivered. I spent the next few days aboard HM Corvette Compass Rose and HM Frigate Saltash. I learned something of why the sea is cruel, and men more cruel still. I learned about the convoy war in the North Atlantic, not as broad sweeping history, but from a skilled writer who was an eyewitness and distilled his experience into a message I haven’t forgotten to this day.

In subsequent years I took other voyages with Monsarrat. Not only did I learn why the sea was cruel, but I learned about policing in British Colonial Africa in The Tribe That Lost Its Head, and how a ship (well, a motor torpedo boat) could die of shame, of how a Kappillan of Malta led and comforted his people in time of war, and, finally, sorrowfully, of a Master Mariner who lived for centuries, only to see the lights go out on Nelson’s flagship after Trafalgar. That master mariner was supposed to sail on after Trafalgar, but Monsarrat died before he could complete the tale.

Mark Twain once wrote that if a writer is remembered more than 50 years after his death he’s a great writer indeed, and there may be some truth in that. Homer’s prose has endured for millennia, partly because The Iliad and The Odyssey are good stories, and partly, one suspects, because they provided accessible examples for generations of school-children to learn the Greek language. Would we know Homer today if it weren’t for the latter reason? Possibly; but we cannot be sure of what makes any given body of work endure, or even to exist in the first place. The process of writing requires time, and leisure time was hard to come by for most humans throughout the great majority of human history. It could also be that in any time there are few writers like Shakespeare, whose works are good enough to appeal and so create a market where preserving their work is profitable. Good enough, one might point out, to be printed and read in times when printing was a relatively expensive process,and books accordingly dear and so inaccessible to many even among the relatively educated.

So perhaps in this digital era when publishing is accessible to anyone who cares to make the relatively modest effort required to do so, the observable fact that writers come and go on an even shorter scale than a half-century should not surprise us.

But it is less than a half-century since Monsarrat died in 1981. As far as I can tell I was not the only one to think Monsarrat talented and worth reading. Perhaps not a Homer, nor yet a Shakespeare, even though both writers, apart from the demi-god status posterity has conferred upon them, might find Monsarrat a worthy colleague.

According to Wikipedia, The Cruel Sea is the only one of Monsarrat’s many novels that is still widely read. Perhaps; but if so you would never know from how hard it is to find. Doubtless there are a variety of reasons for that, but for me, I’d like to stand once more on the deck of Compass Rose in the freezing North Atlantic, or the sunnier route to Gibraltar, and see what insights age and experience bring to the reading.

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What Charlie Davis Saw

Tag end of September at the Hickory Aviation Museum and a little bit of magic happened with the arrival of Madras Maiden, a B-17G owned by the Liberty Foundation.

When you get a chance just to see a B-17G, walk around it, go inside and spend some time at the crew stations, take that chance. If you get to talk to the crew, do it. Get to know some of the people that keep pieces of history like this alive. If you get a chance, help them work on the airplane! Maybe you don’t know anything about Wright radial engines, but I bet if you offer to help them wash the oil from those radial engines off the airplane they’ll be more than happy to let you.

I doubt I’ll ever get to fly a B-17, but at least I did get to sit in the pilot’s seat, and I’d like to thank John Hess of the Liberty Foundation for that. And John, as you probably figured out, I somehow managed to squeeze my over-large self into the left seat without bumping the controls or switches!

That’s how I got to see what Charlie Davis saw.

Shameless self-promotion: Charlie Davis is a character in my novels. He flies B-17s from the first book, Everything We Had, and continuing through the fourth book, Thanks for the Memories.

When, in the second book, A Snowball’s Chance, Charlie looked out over the left wing at that “blank-blank No. 1 engine,” here’s what he saw:

OK, OK. So in my mind’s eye I deleted the fuel truck and the ramp, the tower and the terminal and all that other stuff belonging to KHKY and the present day, and the wing was olive-drab all the way down, and the airplane was actually flying, enroute to Darwin from Del Monte Field on Mindanao, at a time when we were losing the war.

And so in my mind’s eye I looked ahead of the airplane to see what Charlie might see, and here it is:

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So you have to ignore the jets at the right and the modern artificial horizon at the lower left corner, but I love the evening sun streaming in from the right. Up ahead of the instrument panel you see the astrodome, which was there only on the “E” and following models of the B-17. But imagine Al Stern sticking his head up into the astrodome to shoot the sun, and maybe grin at Charlie before returning to his navigator’s table.

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You look to the right to check on your co-pilot, where so many of Charlie’s ill-fated co-pilots sat.

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And there are things in this picture that wouldn’t be there in 1941 or 1942, but I hope most people realize that, among other things, the plastic water bottle wouldn’t be there.

Maybe it isn’t perfect. But going to Shiloh or Gettysburg, and looking at those carefully manicured and tended fields, that’s not the way it was on those bloody days that made those awful battles remembered.

Here’s what matters to me: I got to sit there and imagine, and, yes, dream a little bit.

If you get the chance, you should too, just to see what Charlie Davis and the real-life people I drew him from saw.

Thanks again, Madras Maiden. You really are the stuff of dreams.

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A Friend Is Gone

When I got back from a long sojourn out of town I found out that a friend, Col. John Parker, USAF-Ret., had died.

A few years back John told me he wanted to live to be at least 102, because then he and his two brothers would all be over 100 years old. John was, I think, 97 years old, and if you live through 33 missions over Germany and a lively career in the USAF which included service in Vietnam, living into your late 90s ain’t bad.

In the time I was privileged to spend with John I learned to always carry a voice recorder. John would tell stories that started from the here-and-now but then, with no more transition than a sentence or two, would take you into his seat at the navigator’s table of his B-17, guiding the bomber to a target in Germany with flak exploding all around. Sometimes it could take your breath away and make your hair stand on end, to be sitting with this little, quiet guy, telling you in his soft, matter-of-fact voice about seeing the lead bomber take a hit from flak and start burning. And that would happen right beside you, and the seventy years distance in time fell away.

I hope I captured a little of that, because now that direct line to the past is gone. That’s part of my mourning for John’s passing.

Because it can be quite an education, being around someone like John Parker. Little bits and pieces of the past, of how it was, would simply be there for anyone with the eyes to see and ears to listen. And there’s something about those guys who served in World War Two that was hard to put your finger on, for all it was there.

Maybe because that time was still with them, still part of their lives, who they were.

Like the time I thought I’d have to keep John out of a fist-fight with another old codger. See, once upon a time we had a lot of WW2 guys at the Hickory Aviation Museum, and one of them was named Bob Morgan. (Bob would be quick to tell you he wasn’t THAT Bob Morgan. You know, the “Memphis Belle” guy.) Bob was special in his own right. He logged 37,000-odd hours flying cargo and charter after being in Air Transport Command (ATC) during the war, flying, among other things, the Curtiss C-46 over the Hump to China. That wasn’t safe duty. Losses to weather and terrain on the Hump run were pretty much the same as in flying combat.

So when Bob Morgan met John Parker the first time they shook hands and had a conversation that, to the best of my recollection, went something like this:

BOB: Well, John, you look like you were old enough to be there. What did you do?

JOHN: Me? Navigator. Eighth Air Force. You?

BOB: ATC.

JOHN (innocently): ATC? Oh, Allergic To Combat?

And Bob’s face got red and his teeth gritted, and after 60+ years that wartime gibe stung to the point where I thought Bob would take a poke at John, and I found myself repressing laughter and getting ready to step between them if I had to.

Here’s the thing: John wasn’t a big guy, maybe five-five, with big ears and a resemblance to the cartoon character Sad Sack. Bob wasn’t all that big, but he was a good bit bigger than John.

And not that Bob wasn’t a tough old bird.

It’s just that I know who I would’ve bet on to finish that fight.

Bet on, without thinking about it.

But John is gone, and the world diminished by his passing.

I miss him.

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Filed under Oral History, Uncategorized, World War II

Somewhere in England…

I believe I must have a very serious fan, which makes me humble and grateful, for the following reasons.

Those who follow my blog (and thank you for your discerning wit and good sense in doing so!) know my last entry was on November 11, 2017. Last November I was engaged in the National Novel Writers Month contest, wherein I generated enough material to finish my latest novel, Thanks for the Memories, and start writing the next novel in the series, The New Kids.

So between then and now I finished Thanks for the Memories: a Novel of the SW Pacific Air War July-September 1942, a task that turned out to be harder than I expected, although I don’t know why I expect it to be easy. It never has been.

So when I published the work on Kindle last Monday evening I was surprised and gratified to see, the next morning, that it already had a sale! Then I looked at the market and found that first sale went to someone in England.

I like to think that, somewhere in England, someone was just waiting for my next novel to come out, and gleefully snapped it up the moment it appeared. Or, maybe, with morning tea/coffee, they were looking for a book to read, and there I was.

Either way, I’d like to thank that wonderful person, and hope someday to shake them by the hand and thank them face to face.

Oh, by the way, for my fans in England, the war as experienced by Jack and Charlie Davis will move to England within the next few books. But no more hints! I’m working diligently but it does take time to produce a good product.

Hopefully any of my readers who see this will reply, and even leave a review on Amazon!

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To End an Era

Twenty years ago I met this old guy at an air show. He looked like the kind of guy you picture as a grandfather, a sweet benign smile that lit up his eyes, soft-spoken, white hair where he had any hair left on his head. Wrinkles. Age spots. Thick glasses.

He had his log of missions flown in World War II. Turns out he was a flight engineer / upper turret gunner with the 2nd Bomb Group, 15th AF.

“That’s when I shot down an ME-109,” he said, pointing to the date written in the log. He was the only veteran assigned to a new crew. The other gunners used the wrong lubrication on their weapons, and their guns jammed up as a result. He, however, knew the proper way to lubricate his machine guns so they’d operate in the severe cold of the stratosphere where the 2nd Bomb Group flew their missions. “Boy, after that, my crew thought I walked on water.”

Then he told me about the “Last Man Club.” Local veterans of World War One started it. There was a prize for the last man still alive of the original group. I don’t remember what it was. Maybe it was a bottle of brandy, or champagne. Maybe they all contributed to a fund. The point was, it went to the last man. The last man who remembered going over the top at Chateau-Thierry or Belleau Wood. What that was like.

A good friend of mine, Brad Kurlancheek, sent me a link to a story about the Doolittle Raiders and their version of the Last Man Club, which inspired this post. Here’s the link; it’s well worth a look.

http://www.history.com/news/one-final-toast-for-the-doolittle-raiders

Richard E. Cole, who served as Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot, is the last man living who remembers what it was like to take off in a B-25 from the pitching deck of the USS Hornet, April 18, 1942.

The image that struck me the most from that article was the picture of the silver cups the surviving Raiders used to toast each other during their reunions. When one of the Raiders died, they turned his cup over.

Now only Richard Cole’s cup is left. The last man. All the other cups belonging to all the other Raiders have been turned over.

To me there’s something poignant in that image. Who, after all, gets to turn over Cole’s cup? Imagine being the one appointed. You aren’t a Raider, but for some reason — maybe because you are the eldest surviving child of a Raider — you’re chosen to perform the ceremony, because make no mistake, that’s what it is, a ceremony. In the simple act of turning over a silver cup, you perform something mundane and earth-changing at the same time. You end an era. The last living link to that morning, April 18, 1942, is severed. After that, history consists of silver cups, turned upside down. Those upside-down silver cups will be an exhibit in a museum. People walk by and look at them and wonder what all the fuss is about, and why those guys decided to have those cups made. Why those guys wanted to remember that morning when America was losing the war, and they volunteered to be at the very tip of the spear America would build over the next three years to hurl against Japan.

At another air show, twenty years ago, I had the chance to shake hands with a man who was part of that spear. I got his autograph, and I shook his hand and thanked him. Just a simple, normal handshake, a courtesy you perform without thinking.

Only the man was Thomas Ferebee, bombardier on the Enola Gay, and the hand I shook was the one on the bombsight, August 6, 1945, over the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

A man, or a silver cup turned upside down; and a link to history, that whispers to you, whose message you must make the effort to hear, to really listen to that whispering.

Listen. Just listen.

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