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A New Appreciation

Often, we cannot truly appreciate someone or what they have experienced or done until we’ve walked the proverbial mile in their shoes. In the case of people who lived long ago, however, that’s often impossible, so we have to experience vicariously what they experienced. We can only read well-written accounts of what they did, but good writing nonetheless can help us develop a deep appreciation for their experiences.

That certainly was true for me in the appreciation I’ve gained for two World War II veterans. First, it was the appreciation for my uncle’s war experiences when I followed his tank tracks during World War II. As I’ve written before in this blog, he was a tank driver for forward observers of the 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion, 3rd Armored Division, the tip of the spear thrusting deep into Hitler’s Germany. The books Death Traps by Belton Y. Cooper and Spearhead by Adam Makos only deepened my appreciation for what Uncle Dillon went through.

I have been gaining a similar appreciation for the “bomber boys” of the USAAF 8th Air Force following my visit to the Mighty 8th Air Force Museum in Pooler, Georgia, where I purchased Masters of the Air by Donald L. Miller. He recounts in vivid detail what those boys (they were all so young!) experienced in playing their role in defeating Hitler’s Nazi military-industrial machine.

The pilots, copilots, navigators, bombardiers, and gunners in the B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators of the 8th Air Force faced unimaginable conditions even on the best of days. Freezing temperatures, unpressurized fuselages, tight quarters, and poor atmospheric circumstances that led to mid-air collisions of bomb-laden aircraft flying in extremely tight formations were part of every flight.

Then added to those conditions, when their fighter escorts had to turn back, were the vicious air attacks by the Messerschmitt Bf 109s and Focke-Wulfe 190s and the flak from below. Flak was an especially feared enemy during the bomb runs, when evasive action was impossible while the bombardier kept the plane on a straight and steady course to the target. Then there were the renewed fighter attacks during the bombers’ attempt to return to their bases in England.

Finally, if they made it that far, were the harrowing landings in often badly damaged and barely airworthy wrecks. Many of them made it that far only to crash short of their base, in the English Channel or in the English countryside or on the runways. But it was not over even then because if they survived to return safely, they lived and relived, over and over again, the scenes they had witnessed over the enemy’s airspace. Seeing their comrades’ planes plummeting to earth in flames, seeing men bail out of planes without parachutes, seeing their own fellow crewmen dismembered by enemy machine gun or cannon fire or flak and bleeding to death, unable to help them.

Perhaps the most gut-wrenching account in the book is one that Stars and Stripes correspondent Andy Rooney recounted. The belly turret of one Fortress was badly damaged by gunfire. The gunner was trapped inside. The crew worked feverishly but unsuccessfully to extract him. But I’ll let Miller and Rooney describe the rest:

“Just before landing, the Fortress’s hydraulic system, which was riddled with shell holes, malfunctioned, making it impossible for the pilot to put down the wheels. . . . The pilot would have to make a belly landing. ‘There were eight minutes of gut-wrenching talk among the tower, the pilot, and the man trapped in the ball turret. He knew what comes down first when there are no wheels. We all watched in horror as it happened. We watched as this man’s life ended, mashed between the concrete pavement of the runway and the belly of the bomber.'”

Such brave, young men having to make such life-altering decisions!

The personal connection that increased my appreciation for those young fighters in the air was my wife’s uncle, Sgt. Paul Bagosy, who was a tail gunner in one of those B-17s, a member of the 546th Bombardment Squadron, 384th Bomb Group. (He’s kneeling on the far right, front row, of the accompanying crew photo.) Because enemy fighter pilots liked to attack the bombers from behind, the tail gunner was in a vulnerable position. Many of them, including the one who manned the tail gun in the B-17 shown in the accompanying photo, didn’t make it back. Unlike many of his fellow airmen, however, Paul lived to complete the required 25 missions and returned home.

As writers, we must hone our skills so that we can help readers experience, even if it is vicariously, what our characters, whether real or fictional, are experiencing. Cooper, Makos, and Miller (with help from Andy Rooney) certainly did that for me. Having a personal connection to the things of which we write helps, but we must nonetheless work to pass that connection along to our readers, helping them see what we see, feel what we feel, and make that connection their own. Our work is certainly cut out for us!

What things, people, or events have made that connection for you? How has it affected your writing?

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