March 1, 2014 — In the novel, The Tail Gunner, the ghostly character “Bish” is a World War II tail gunner who seeks the help of 17-year-old Sylvie Stevens to set right a terrible wartime wrong. While the character is based loosely on my dad, who flew 59 missions in the back-end of a B-25 bomber, the “real” tail gunner was the guy who saved a treasure trove of WWII images and ephemera for decades, nearly burned it all, then stashed it again, all the time never sharing it or even saying much about the war or his experiences in it. That was my dad, too.
At the opening of the book, Sylvie, finds her grandpa’s box of WWII photos and letters while helping her aunt clean out the hayloft of their horse barn. Most of that scene is based on the real find, made about 1996, three years after Dad died. The picture above, with multiple prints found in that stash, became an inspiration for the whole book.
Dad was 69 when he died of a heart attack, a surprise to us all, including him. Although he never much talked about the war, his bomber jacket (as seen in these photos) survived as did all the images and his diary. I’d dusted them off, put them in archival sleeves and files, and tucked them away again. But the stash haunted me. I moved across the country to Washington, D.C., moved from there to Los Angeles, and still the stash called to me. When my friend phoned to say she was driving down from Tacoma to LA for a visit, I asked her to collect the files from my mom and bring them to me. Now when I think back, I’m pretty sure it was Dad, speaking to me in the only way he could, demanding that I find and fabricate his story.
The first chapters of a non-fiction book, Boys, Bombs and B-25s, were written in 2006. While that book never came to be, I did spend nearly eight years and a Masters in Creative Writing pounding out the novel that has. This book, The Tail Gunner, became a work of fiction for two reasons. The first, because there were so many gaps in Dad’s emotional and actual journey; and second, because I wanted to explore how we can deal with loss in creative ways.
So many pieces hidden in Dad’s stash became triggers for various scenes and chapters. So many required in-depth research, none of which I could have done alone. Through that process, I’ve come to realize the importance of cataloging and digitizing the KBL Family Collection and making it available online. That is part of The Tail Gunner project as well. My hope is that through publishing the novel and creating an online resource for WWII researchers, that we’ll be able to identify some of the unknown soldiers pictured in the collection, connecting them with their family and friends.
I often imagine that the real tail gunner—Keith B. Lile, 12th Army Air Corps, 57th Bomb Wing, 321st Bomb Group, 445th Squadron—is hanging around just like Bish, hands in pockets, change jingling, urging me to get this project done. And so here we are, on launch day of “Mission 31.” We have the target in sight, but we need your support to complete the tour. Join the crew by ordering your copy of The Tail Gunner today.