The story behind THE TAIL GUNNER novel, based on the WWII experiences and collection of Keith B. Lile
March 15, 2014 — On this day in 1945 Dad wrote:
Flew 34rd mission today— Started to Austria for first time. Couldn’t get in due to the weather. We were going to Bomb Canal Dia Azzingo, didn’t get up to it. Went over the Hoodinii Air Field a couple of times. Didn’t have any escort – plenty worried. Finally on way back to Italy our Area cover showed up. Knapp came back with tail prop on bomb gone and bounced all over the runway, lucky he didn’t blow up. Heard from Mac – got two pictures. 11th day since Rome.
The next day, the 445th, “Briefed for Austria again – standown. Went up to sick call – very good shape – I went out to line to clean my guns – good shape. I wrote Mac tonight. No mail in first bunch. Went to show and stopped at 47th to see Painter for ship. Went to show with Stumpe. Got more mail – Wendell, Phyllis, Carol & 3 from Betty. Finished letter [I] had to Betty told her I was very displeased. I didn’t sign other than name. Feel pretty low. (Sigh La Geni) Returned Keels letter, (wrong address).”
These entries are embedded with little clues that took me months of studying the collection and other sources to connect. A tiny contact print that I’d overlooked a dozen times revealed the candid shot of Dad down at the line, cleaning the guns on his plane.
The painter he referred to was working on the darling of the 445th, Miss Fancy Pants, painted on the nose of a B-25. I have a feeling everybody stopped by to check on her progress.
The various squadrons, Dad mentions the 447th, were camped out along the shores of Corsica. Men were often ferried to the airfield in jeeps for their missions, but probably had to walk everywhere else most of the time.
I wondered most of all about Dad’s reference to “La Geni.” A Google search turned up “Le geni du mal” a famous sculpture in St. Paul’s Cathedral in Liege, Belgium that is the personification of Lucifer, or more accurately “the spirit of despair.” I don’t know if this artwork was what Dad was referring to, but it would certainly fit the feeling he no doubt had at the suspicion that he was losing his girl.
All of these little clues simmer in the writer’s subconscious to form scenes and plot points. Some make it into the book; some become “nice-but-not-necessary.” One of the toughest parts of revision is recognizing which tidbit is which. For me, THE TAIL GUNNER, and Dad, it was the Betty storyline that eventually got cut.
On March 17, a not-so-lucky St. Patrick’s Day, Dad wrote, “Have been grounded for medical – Mission went to pass again – target was Ora. Didn’t get in – went to alternate. Finkhouse didn’t do so hot – Brown either. Knauss made 1st Lt. today. I didn’t fly with them. I wrote Betty a pretty rough letter I guess – she needs a scolding too. Has been going out with some 4-F.”
Men who were declared unfit for military duty (for a variety of reasons) were classified as 4-F. Neither Dad nor his brother, Wendell, held 4-Fs in very high esteem. That Dad’s girl was spending time with a 4-F while he was dodging flak no doubt made him “plenty PO’d.”
All this was happening while Dad was grounded for medical. Since he couldn’t go shoot at bad guys, he spent his time instead developing “shots of Rome.” It was from those photos that I was able to track his adventures some 60 years later through that ancient city.
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