Serenade To The Big Bird: On Writing About WWII

PortalsofHell-small TheBraveAndTheLonely-smallMany of you may think of me as a writer of Westerns. But I’ve also written some books about World War II, in particular, my War Torn Series, now re-released as Kindle books by Wolfpack. I’m making plans to start another WWII series, and to that end, I’ve been studying the war, reading books, and watching documentaries and news reels.

When we see a WWII vet today we see old men in their nineties, and that bends our perspectives. We don’t stop to think that these ninety year olds were very young men when they put their lives on the line for our country. They were for the most part citizen soldiers who, before the war, were high school football players, newspaper boys, factory workers, store clerks, farm-hands, truck drivers, salesmen, teachers, and the like. But the war changed that, and many of those young men became pilots, bombardiers, navigators, and gunners on board the B-17s and B-24s that flew 9 hour long missions at altitudes that produced 40 below zero temperatures. They had to deal with anoxia from frozen oxygen masks and frostbite on their face beneath their goggles. They were confronted by German fighters and a sky full of deadly anti-aircraft fire. In 1942-43 it was almost statistically impossible for bomber crews to complete a 25-mission tour in Europe, and those who flew those missions, did so with an acceptance that they would not be going home.

For the last several weeks I have been reading books about the 8th Air Force. These books are, for the most part, memoirs written by men who have been able to put enough years between the actual events and the time of their writing, to be able to revisit that time without the sense of doom that so ruled their lives then. One of the books, SERENADE TO THE BIG BIRD, is very different because it is a contemporary account. I first read this book when I was still in high school, and was struck by the fact that the author, Bert Stiles, had taken some of his instruction at the Army Air Corps training base in my home town of Sikeston, MO. And, since I lived very close to the airport…I have vivid memories of the blue and yellow BT-13 biplanes that were constantly in the air.

SERENADE TO THE BIG BIRD is by far the most compelling of the books, because there is such an immediacy to it…. he literally wrote between missions while still on edge from attacking fighter aircraft, bursting flak, frost-bitten hands, the horror of seeing aircraft flown by friends exploding all about him, and of watching men trying to escape from burning bombers, only to have their parachutes on fire as they started their fatal five mile fall. All of this, Bert writes in the presence of the moment.

It is also the most intense of all my reading research, because IT WAS NEVER INTENDED TO BE A BOOK. These were merely sketches he wrote as a means of coping with what he was facing. And what makes the book even more poignant is that the author of these sketches became one of the 40,000 American airmen killed over Europe. Bert Stiles did not survive the war, and it was his mother who, in 1947, had his notes published in book form.

James Jones, Norman Mailer, Herman Wouk, are writers whose literary skills have preserved for all America, the human story of WWII as told by its participants. There is no doubt in my mind that had Bert Stiles survived the war, his name would have been as well-known as these brilliant novelists. Even though he was writing for himself he was able to, like casting a pebble into a pond, create entire passages that seventy year later, can still send ripples through our very souls.

Over 60 million were killed during WWII. Among the dead might have been a scientist who cured cancer, a physicist who discovered a new and unending source of energy, a statesman who could have brought about world peace, as well as an author, whose stories could have moved millions of readers.

In two of my books, now on Kindle, published by Wolfpack, PORTALS OF HELL, and THE BRAVE AND THE LONELY, I follow the lives of B-17 crews flying missions over Europe during WWII.


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