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.
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.
“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!
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?