Mission 31: More Mystery Men of the 321st

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The story behind THE TAIL GUNNER novel, based on the WWII experiences and collection of Keith B. Lile

March 14, 2014 — On this day in 1945 Dad wrote:

1945 Diary

This plain, rough-edged diary was where Dad recorded the second half of his missions. Hand scrawled notes not only spell out the targets, they allude to the events and frustrations of the day. KBL Family Collection

Flew 33rd Mission — Vitegro Bridge by Campo. 1 hole by tail. Knauss pilot. Mac & George got in a little a little scramble. Got a swell picture of Betty today. It looks swell. Heard from Carol and it was good to hear too. No letter from Betty. Kink heard Ruth was getting hitched.

Betty was Bish’s fiancée and Carol was his oldest sister. Mac, George, and Kink are mystery men. Reid Knauss was one of the very few men Dad kept in touch with after the war. I recall him and his wife visiting a couple of times when I was a kid. They lived in Moses Lake, WA.

While Dad’s diary entries are pretty sparse, I realized later that he was keeping his own mission journal. For some reason, it seems that the base recorders were no longer adding to his typed list.

WWII soldier, Corsica.

Stand down on Corsica. While the subject of this photo is unconfirmed, he may be the mysterious George or Mac that Dad named in his diary. KBL Family Collection

To that, however, his diary is far more interesting than a list of missions and targets only. His entries at least give a sense of what made the missions worth it. They were flying for the Bettys, Carols, Ruths, and other folks back home.

WWII soldier in taverna.

Was this “Kink” after he heard the news that Ruth was getting hitched? Her loss, perhaps. Based on the style of architecture in the bar, my best guess is that it is somewhere on Corsica. KBL Family Collection

These young guys, most of them between 18 and 24, were doing what it took to survive. The pictures here are likely the pictures snapped to send back home—to prove that they were still alive even though they’d seen and done things they’d rarely, if ever, talk about later.

Their stories are hidden in time, but are slowly emerging as more people connect through groups like the 57th Bomb wing Association.

Boys on Corsica

The fine men of Corsica. The young one may be Dominique Taddei. Location is likely Bastia. KBL Family Collection

If you know any of these men, please post a comment below or email me so that I can update these posts. Dad noted some names in his diary, but not much more.

—Stephanie Lile

 Next Post: Briefed for Austria

Mission 31: Mystery Men of the 321st

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The story behind THE TAIL GUNNER novel, based on the WWII experiences and collection of Keith B. Lile

Men from the 321st.

Two unidentified men from Dad’s collection became the guide spirits “Valentine and StuBoy” in the novel. KBL Family Collection.

March 13, 2014 — At one point in the novel when the main character Sylvie shows her friend Penelope the box of World War II photos and letters she saved, Penelope asks Sylvie to call someone out for her. “I need a World War boyfriend,” she says, pawing through the box to find a suitable fella. She spots a guy in a cap and sweatshirt and declares that he’s the one. “You need one, too,” she says, selecting a strong sultry guy sitting in a windowsill for Sylvie. At first Sylvie refuses to play, but gives in since she knows that Penelope will just bug her until she caves. Sylvie pretends to have some magic powers, only to find that the two fellows in the photos Pen slipped onto the table have, indeed, emerged from their photographs.

The two spirits are StuBoy and Valentine. They offer both important insight and comic relief throughout the story. Who they are in real life, I have no idea. These were just two of the multitude of unidentified men in Dad’s collection.

The character Franco"

I call him “Franco” but what his real name was, I don’t know. He became the model for the bartender at the base bar on Corsica. KBL Family Collection

Other mystery men from the box of photographs became characters in the book as well, providing me with faces to picture as I wrote.

Franco is the gangly bartender who mixed strong drinks and listened to boys’ woes. It’s on the night that Bish is crumpled into the bar with a Cinq Frances note that Franco tries to console him. Bish won’t have it and makes a drunken dash into the hills where he is ultimately found by the signadori and her ewe.

Young Air Corps Kid

This young recruit was the model for the character “Jimbo” in THE TAIL GUNNER. His “part” was ultimately cut, but the kid will always be Jimbo to me. KBL Family Collection

Another character who emerged from the box was little Jimbo. In a previous post, I relayed the outtake of the boys’ Atlantic crossing. While Jimbo doesn’t fare well on that journey, this photo provided me with a face to go with a made-up name.

Other key characters in the story were Smitty and Poe. To Sylvie, Smitty was “Granda Chuck.” To Bish, Smitty was the nickname of a clever chameleon who could blend in anywhere, anytime, a quality that landed him in military intelligence.

Poe, on the other hand, was the quiet poet-pilot character who was handsome enough to snatch any girl who came his way, only he didn’t.

Unidentified man of the 321st.

This mystery man was the model for the character “Poe” in THE TAIL GUNNER. From the KBL Family Collection.

If you know the true identities of any of these men, please post a comment below or email me to add to the knowledge base. Dad noted some names in his diary, but not much more. These are the men I owe this story to. They are the unknown men of the 445th brought to life in the pages of THE TAIL GUNNER.

—Stephanie Lile

Next Post: More Mystery Men of the 321st.

Mission 31: Men of the 321st

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The story behind THE TAIL GUNNER novel, based on the WWII experiences and collection of Keith B. Lile

B-25 crew from the 321st, 445th. From left to right front: Carney, Lile, Lowrey; Top: Doe, Knauss, Epstein.

B-25 crew from the 321st, 445th. From left to right front: Carney, Lile, Lowrey; Top: Doe, Knauss, Epstein. Courtesy KBL Family Collection.

March 12, 2014 — As I sorted through Dad’s collection, I found that a few of the photos were actually marked or signed with people’s names. Those people became the anchors of my research, providing launch points for looking up information such as enlistment records and mission reports. Thanks to the dedicated people at the 57th Bomb Wing Association, I was able to identify the men in the only crew shots Dad kept—those from his training crew in South Carolina and the crew of Dad’s Mission 17, the only time that training crew flew in combat together.

Captain Bowling, c. 1944

This bent and mouse-chewed photo is marked “Captain Bowling.” The patch on his jacket identifies him as being with the 445th bomb squadron. Photo c. 1944-45. Courtesy KBL Family Collection

Today’s post features what I call “The Captains.” This set of images is among the best photographic quality of the bunch, most of which were probably taken by an Army photographer. During the war, many photographers were trained to take reconnaissance photos but no doubt snapped pics around base as well. These portraits appear to have been taken at the camp on Corsica.

If you know any of these men, please post a comment below or email me to add to the knowledge base. I know the names as Dad noted them on each photo, but I don’t know much of anything else. Thanks to all of the friends, family, and interested historians who continue to put faces with names and lives.

Captain Webb, c. 1944-45

This photo is marked “Capt Webb.” From the KBL Family Collection.

Captain Weld, c. 1944-45

Photo marked “Captain Weld.” Looks like it’s time for mail call. c. 1944-45. From the KBL Family Collection.

Captain Skeeby

This photo just says, “Skeeby” but I put him with the captains due to the hat and the similarity of photo type. c. 1944-45. From the KBL Family Collection.

Paul Hannah

Further research will no doubt tell me if this photo marked “Paul Hannah” should be with the “captains” but nonetheless, the photo quality and composition is remarkable. Check out the silhouette in the door window. From the KBL Family Collection.

For reference, the 321st Bombardment Group contained the 445th, 446th, 447th, and 448th squadrons. Each squadron contained about 460 men.

As you might imagine, identifying all of these men is a daunting task, but little by little, we discover their stories. Little by little we unearth their buried lives.

Thanks for following.

—Stephanie Lile

Next Post: More Men of the 321st

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Now taking pre-orders.

Mission 31: The Dream-Hunters of Corsica

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The story behind THE TAIL GUNNER novel, based on the WWII experiences and collection of Keith B. Lile

Paper money, 1944.

Money from Corsica and Italy. The woman on the 5 francs note inspired the signadori scene in THE TAIL GUNNER. These women of Corsica have the rare ability to release people from the Evil Eye. c. 1944.               KBL Family Collection

March 11, 2014 — During my research on Corsica, I came across a rare book by Dorothy Carrington that described the dream hunters of Corsica. Called mazzeri, these dream hunters are people who wander the island in a transitive state under the light of the full moon. When they see the face of a human in the face of the animal they hunt, death is said to follow for the human within one year. Somewhat opposite of the mazzeri, are the signadori.  Known as the wise women and guardians of life, the signadori are imbued with the age-old skill of releasing people from the Evil Eye.

Inspired by the woman pictured on the Corsican five francs note in Dad’s collection, I wrote a memory tap scene in which Sylvie is able to see Bish’s memory of an encounter with a signadori. The old woman and her pet ewe find Bish passed out in a hay store along the road and offer him a safe place to hide from the wandering mazzeri. Possessed by the grief of his acts during Mission 17, Bish accepts the old woman’s help and is cured of the Evil Eye, barring one last step. He must deliver a tiny lamella (a prayer note written on soft metal) to the place of his destruction.

Orphic Prayer Sheet

This tiny Greek prayer sheet in the Getty collection represents ancient beliefs in a better life after death. It inspired a critical element of the  book’s plot. From the J. Paul Getty Museum collection.

 

Unable to complete this task in life, it becomes the focus of Bish’s last mission, except now he must secure Sylvie’s help in order to succeed in the world of the living. The problem is, however, that Bish’s lamella is lost.

Can Sylvie help Bish find another route of retribution or will they give up? Reserve your copy of THE TAIL GUNNER to find out.

—Stephanie Lile

 Next Post: Faces of the 321st

Mission 31: Camped Out on Corsica

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The Story Behind THE TAIL GUNNER novel, based on the WWII experiences and collection of Keith B. Lile

Keith Lile

Even a tiny print can tell a story. Keith Lile and unidentified buddy in casual gear. Probably on Corsica, 1944-45. KBL Family Collection

March 10, 2014 — As the fourth largest island in the Mediterranean, Corsica’s proximity to France and Italy has made it a target for invasion. Its people, however, are strong and independent and have stood up for their rights throughout history. They have also maintained their traditions and beliefs despite the changing tides of leadership.  After France fell to Germany in 1940, Corsica fell under Nazi rule. It wasn’t until 1943, after Mussolini was imprisoned, that German troops—an estimated 12,000 of them—occupied Corsica. They were met by Resistance forces who held them at bay. One month later, the Germans pulled out of Bastia, Corsica’s key port city, and Allied forces cleared the island for their own use as an Air Base for the 57th Bomb Wing. Hence it was that in the last months of 1944, Corsica became my Dad’s home.

It took a while to figure out the different locations seen in Dad’s photos. Some are still a mystery. But the general rule of thumb came to be that if the guys were in tents, it was Solenzara, Corsica; if they were in buildings, it was Ancona, Italy.

Tent camp on Corsica

Charlie Wilson at the camp at Solenzara. Note the tents in the background. Corsica, 1944-45. KBL Family Collection

It was from Solenzara Airfield that Dad flew his first missions. It took me a while to figure out what those first missions were. His diary contained handwritten mission notes, but it started at mission 36. Where were the first 35? Finally, while paging through his diary, I discovered that the first page and the endpaper were slightly stuck together. When I liberated the pages, I found his typed mission list, noting the date, time, and target of each of his first 36 missions. It was from that list that I was able to track down the mission histories and determine whom he flew with on each mission. Strange how things come together when you finally figure out what you’re looking at.

B-25 mission list for Keith Lile

The partial mission list for B-25 tail gunner Keith B. Lile, 1944-45. Defense area was Italy. KBL Family Collection

As it turns out, he was part of a strategic bombing effort called “Operation Bingo” that was designed to breakdown the railroad supply line through Brenner Pass in northern Italy and into Austria. But not all life on Corsica was mission-related. Stand-down time was filled with other chores and duties, as well as special interest activities.

WWII camp shack

Based on the evidence at hand, this is thought be “Berman” (Dad never used his full name) and the photo-printing shack on Corsica. 1944-45. KBL Family Collection

It was on Corsica that Dad met a buddy named Berman who had set up a darkroom on base where they printed photographs. “Went down to the shack to do some printing,” was a common note in Dad’s diary. My theory, although I have no hard evidence to prove it true, is that most of these images came from Berman’s shack or another one like it they built in Italy. While none of the photos in Dad’s collection will ever win a Pulitzer, they do provide a unique view of camp life.

—Stephanie Lile

Next Post: The Dreamhunters of Corsica

Mission 31: On the Other Side of the World

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The story behind THE TAIL GUNNER novel, based on the WWII experiences and collection of Keith B. Lile

Moroccan money, 1944

Upon arrival at North Africa, men were issued local money. These well-worn notes were never spent. KBL Family Collection.

March 9, 2014 — One of the mouse-chewed letters in Dad’s collection was from my Uncle Wendell written while Wendell was living in Puyallup, Washington going to high school. In a letter dated August 8, 1944, he writes,

“It’s been about 15 months since I have seen you. You must be a lot different. Do you have any idea as to what side of the ocean you shall be sent? I should think the Pacific side is the most probable, because the war in Europe can not last much longer. The Germans can’t last much longer. The Russians are certainly cleaning up on them. The Americans are also starting to roll. What is your view point?”

Egyptian woman

Woman from North Africa, possibly Egypt. 1944. KBL Family Collection.

Somewhere along the way, this letter found Dad and he kept it with him through the war and far beyond. If you’ve been following this blog, you know that he was sent across the Atlantic to North Africa. There, awaiting assignment, he probably read and re-read this letter many times.

“Do you know definitely what type of plane you shall be assigned? You are still a tail gunner, I suppose….Some time ago you wrote and said that you would soon be flying for two-hundred hours or more. Did you mean piloting or just the same as usual?”

Mohammed Ali Mosque

Mohammed Ali Mosque in Cairo, Egypt. KBL Family Collection.

I don’t know how Dad answered, but I’m pretty sure he shook his head at the questions of his over-eager and naïve little brother. The reality of the conflict had landed him in another world, one where the money came from the “Banque D’Etat Du Maroc” and people rode camels and wrote in Arabic. War torn buildings were not uncommon and the heavy tents smelled of nervous sweat.

Egyptian street scene

Street scene in Egypt. From the KBL Family Collection.

There are pictures in Dad’s collection from Cairo and Jerusalem, but there is no written documentation of his having visited there. Perhaps he and his buddies did so while waiting for transport to Corsica, perhaps they simply bought the tourist photo packs. Either way, it was a far cry from Puyallup with its berry fields and hop farms.

Egyptian street scene

An engraving from about 1890 of the same street seen above in 1944. “Bab Al-Wizir Street was a main thoroughfare between the citadel and a city gate (Bab Zuweila) made fashionable during the 19th century when Sultan Muhammad Aly was in residence.” From the Washington State Historical Society Collections.

In 1944, the 12th Army Air Force had helped secure both North Africa, then Corsica and southern Italy. They were on the move northward and needed flight crews to keep up the push. Dad was one of those men. The strategic bombing plan was to crush the railways and supply routes from northern Italy into Austria and Germany. Dad was assigned to the 445th squadron of the 321st bomb group and the 57th bomb wing, and as they ferried men from North Africa to Corsica, Dad took up residence in the camp near Solenzara on the east coast of Corsica. On December 10, 1944, he flew his first mission. Fifty-eight more would follow.

Mission 31: Crossing to Casablanca

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March 8, 2014 — One thing I had a hard time figuring out was why it took so long for Dad to go from America to Corsica and into active duty. His movement orders showed him shipping out in early September 1944, and not flying his first mission until December 10. Then I found out about troop ships and U-boats. It was my phone call with Norm Doe that filled in the blank. “Only the lucky fellas got to fly over,” said Doe. “The rest of us had to take a troop ship, zigging and zagging all over the Atlantic to dodge U-boats.” Some ships went so far south they hit fleet-crippling hurricanes.

Recalling a September trip to Florida I’d taken when the talk around town rumbled with, “the air is still and the rates are low because it’s hurricane season,” I began researching troop ships that didn’t make it to or from North Africa and why. I imagined all those men packed like sardines and what would happen if a hurricane hit.

Troop ship bunks

Troop ships crossing the Atlantic were jammed with men. On one former cruise ship, the swimming pool was emptied to accommodate bunks stacked six-men high. Image courtesy of NARA.

The Crossing, September 1944

A hurricane was the last thing they expected. Nearly 5,000 men packed like they were already dead, in bunks so tight they felt like pickled sardines. Valentine was the only one not on board before it sailed out of Newport News. He’d missed the train when the father of a young girl had met him on the platform and belted him in the jaw, made him propose—to make right for Valentine’s supposed unborn kid, and the stupid girl who had offered herself up like peanut butter on warm toast to an airman who said he might not ever see home again. But for Valentine, his misfortune was also his salvation.

The hurricane hit when they were seven days out, zigging and zagging across the Atlantic. After one night of breathing tobacco, barf, and bean-powered farts, Bish and a bombardier named McNeary gave up the crowded bunks and went up top.

They found an empty lifeboat and parked it there, out of sight, beyond the smell. The air grew warmer with each degree south they roamed.

“Leastways we’ll already be in a boat if we get hit in the night,” said Bish.

They eased the boredom with cards and a water-stained copy of short stories. They were reading the “Pit and Pendulum” by flashlight, that opening of deepest darkness that they’d come to live and know so well, when the sea opened up and swallowed the ship up to her stacks.

Rain came after that, and a million shrieks of trapped sardines, swilling in a sea of fear, not dead yet, but terrified at becoming so.

The ship heaved from side to side, righting itself only to meet the next wave. Captains in the convoy broke their vow of darkness and lights streamed on, showcasing the hungry swells that curled around the escort ship and hurled it into the General Buckner’s side. Sardines flapped everywhere.

Bish and Knauss clung to their lifeboat, afraid they’d be tossed across the deck.

Boys began spewing from the hold. Fear streaked their faces, puke bubbled on their lips. The crew tried to keep them below, but they fought their way out—into the hurtling rain and the angry wind.

Stuboy and his buddy Jimbo stumbled toward Bish and Knauss’s lifeboat, panicked and delirious. “She’s going down!” they yelled. “She’s going down.”

“Shut-up StuBoy,” yelled Bish. “She’s not going anywhere.”

“There’s a crack down below,” said StuBoy. “The water’s coming in fast.”

“Get in,” yelled McNeary. “We’re riding this mother out here.”

Lightning cracked the sky and the wind chewed at their clothes and skin. As a huge wave broke over the bow and starboard side of the ship, Bish reached for StuBoy and StuBoy fished for Jim. McNeary held Bish by the belt and tried like hell to reel everybody in. Water gripped and gurgled. Buttons popped, pockets ripped, fingernails bit into flesh, but the angry storm was too strong.

“Jimmmboooo!” called StuBoy, as Jim’s hand was sucked from his grasp. “Jimmmmbooooo!” StuBoy’s cry was eaten by the wind as the three boys watched Jim get dashed against the deck rail like a rag-doll before being swallowed by the sea’s watery tongue.

While that scene didn’t make it into the final version of the book for a variety of reasons, it’s still one of my favorites. It’s not because Jimbo drowns, it’s for the pure visceral aspects of it. I can totally imagine Dad ditching his bunk for a lifeboat up top. All my life, he made a point of never sitting with his back to the door. I always thought it was to greet people as they came in, now I know it was for many other reasons; survival being the first and foremost.

Mission 31: Going to Greenville

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B-25 training crew in Greenville, SC. From left to right front: Doe, Knauss, Stout; Back: Lile, Carney, Lowrey.

B-25 training crew in Greenville, SC. From left to right front: Doe, Knauss, Stout; Back: Lile, Carney, Lowrey. KBL Family Collection.

March 7, 2014 — Using historical collections as inspiration can be both frustrating and a surprising delight. Early in the research process for THE TAIL GUNNER, I had the good luck to speak with Norm Doe. Norm had been a pilot who flew with Dad on the training crew in Greenville, North Carolina. He remembered Dad, but said they never flew together in combat. When I checked the mission reports, however, I found that wasn’t actually true. Norm, Dad, and all but one guy from the training crew had flown together in combat once. Once, on Dad’s Mission 17.

From that discovery, I pulled a key plot point and began to build a cast of characters. Each B-25 had a crew of six: Pilot, co-pilot, navigator, bombardier, radio operator, and tail gunner. In real life, the Greenville crew was Norm Doe (pilot), Reid Knauss (co-pilot), Chuck Stout, Daniel Carney, James Lowrey, and Keith Lile (tail gunner).  In their only combat flight together just one fellow, Chuck Stout, had been replaced by Philip Epstein. On a side note, the movie Casablanca was written by a Philip Epstein, but I’ve never been able to confirm whether or not it was the same man.

B-25 crew from the 321st. From left to right front: Carney, Lile, Lowrey; Top: Doe, Knauss, Epstein.

Combat B-25 crew from the 321st. From left to right front: Carney, Lile, Lowrey; Top: Doe, Knauss, Epstein. KBL Family collection.

With these discoveries, my assumption that the crews stayed together through the course of combat was sorely mistaken. Mission reports show that the men and planes rarely flew together with any consistency. But that’s not to say they didn’t develop lasting friendships. Reid Knauss and Dad remained friends, and there were envelopes of negatives in Dad’s stash for Doe and “Old Buddy” Cooper.

I also found a telegram from Betty saying that she had a week off and she was heading to Greenville from Kansas City on the train. It was, I deduced, their last visit before he shipped out in August of 1944. No wonder he had that little pale green Enlisted Man’s Pass (complete with an address to report to for STD shots) tucked away amidst his treasures.

All of these little facts congealed into a series of plot lines that worked their way into THE TAIL GUNNER. From the fateful Mission 17 to the last visit of Bish and Merrilee, these plot points wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t pulled them from hours of research. Sometimes, our role as writers is as much to find the story as invent it.

Help complete the mission.

Help complete the mission.

Mission 31: Miami Beach Blues

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KBL Family Collection

Keith B. Lile at Lile’s Sport Spot, Puyallup, WA in 1941. From the KBL Family Collection.

Sometimes you write a pretty decent scene but it ends up being dumped in later drafts. Why? Usually because it doesn’t move the story forward. One thing I learned from my faculty readers at NW Institute of Literary Arts was that each piece of a story has to move it forward, has to count. So, while I’d done a ton of research on the wartime transformation of Miami Beach, it wound up being more of a backdrop to an entirely different scene that did make the final cut. The following scene, however, is worth posting here along with some postcards Dad collected and kept with him through the war. It’s an add-on to yesterday’s post and the discovery of the mysterious “Betty.” 

Here, too, is the beginning of an idea found in the character named Smitty. 

Orange Blossom Express

The Orange Blossom Express that traveled from New York to Miami. 1941-From the KBL Family Collection.

Out take from Draft 1 of THE TAIL GUNNER ~

Miami Beach, Florida: August 1943

Dear Miss Flora (or is it Mrs. Rasmussen by now?),

I’ve finally begun Basic after all those weeks of traveling and waiting. Seems the Air Corps has taken over Maimi Beach, and how. Our barracks is a swank old hotel, the Edgewater, complete with all the fixings, pool, bar, and rooms with their own toilets. Me and three other guys share a room and so far spend our days getting drilled in all aspects of Army rights and wrongs, with most guys setting their sights on the pilot spots. After they test us a million ways come Sunday, they say they’ll know what we’re made of. Who will be a pilot, a bombardier, a navigator, gunners, ground crew, etc. I made my first flight ever from Washington, D.C. to the Miami Airport. Swell! After that, I don’t care what position I fly in, I just want to get up in the air! They say we have to volunteer to serve on the flight crews—they can’t make us do it—but with the added pay and action, who wouldn’t jump at the chance?

Time for PT now. Nothing quite like the feel of sand in your boots, and how! Two hours everyday and we’re up at 5:15am. Worse than the old farm.

Bish (Keith B.)

P.S.  Smitty says that from now on they’re calling me “Bish the Fish” and it’s not just because I love swimming in the ocean!

Miami Beach, Florida

Coconut Grove at Miami, Florida. During wartime, the beach became a training ground. 1941-KBL Family Collection

“Bish, stop with the love notes and skedaddle!” Smitty called to him from the doorway.

“Hey, hush up. It’s no love note. Flora’s practically my other mother.”

“She gonna keep Officer Millhouse from making us drop and give him twenty for being late?”

Bish stomped into his boots, jammed on his cap, and ran. They’d been through the long lines of uniform and bedding allotments. Khakis for casual, training greens, shorts and tee shirt uniforms for PT, even Army-issue underwear. They only gave you the gear if you made it through the first battery of tests.

“You know you’re really in when they give you the suit coat,” Smitty had explained.

“That’d be just dandy.” Bish had lit up at the thought of it. He still had the suit jacket he’d saved for and bought at Halverson’s Department Store for his debate competitions in high school.  “I look good in suit coats.”

“It ain’t about lookin’ good, it’s about kicking some Nazi arse—or so says the RAF.” Smitty chewed on a cigarette butt. “And to do it, we gotta look the same, leastways till you start to spot the nuances.”

Bish shrugged. He’d already begun to get the stripes and stars down, the marks of status in the military. Faces were the next trick, but ever since his shoe-shine days, he’d known he had a knack for that. Here it was just a game. And it would start all over as soon as his nine weeks was up and he shipped out to Who Knows Where.

Bish and Smitty fell into formation, adding themselves to a line of about 50 boys. At 80 degrees and about 90% humidity, they were swallowed in a sea of sweat by the time they reached the beach.

“Private!” Colonel Milhouse’s voice seemed to blast a hole through Bish’s head, cannoning from one ear to the other. “Set that cap on straight or you’ll eat it.”

Bish fixed his cap, setting the bill perfectly straight to shield himself from Milhouse’s glare. His head flushed, and beads of sweat trickled down his temples.

Bish eyeballed the ranks for Smitty who, being part chameleon, always managed to blend in with the other men whenever a commander was near. Bish found him four guys down, looking as if he’d borrowed the expression of the fear-faced boy standing next to him. Smitty was a master of disguise, and how. But Bish didn’t much go for that. He meant to stand out—but only just enough. How else was a little guy to get ahead?

“Private Bishop!” Milhouse yelled. “What’s the goal of Basic Training?”

Bish took a deep breath. To beat the crap out of us and erase any sense of who we were before we came here. Bish hid his real thoughts and blurted out his second option. “To turn us into fighting machines, sir.” But as soon as he’d said it, he knew he’d gone wrong.

“Drop and give me ten then try again.” Milhouse towered over Bish as the private pressed through ten push-ups. Little drops of sweat made dark spots in the hot, bright sand.

Bish finished and stood up, stick straight. He remembered now.

“What’s the goal of Basic Training?” Milhouse thundered at him again.

“To prepare us for anything and everything. To test our will, find our strengths, and eliminate the weak.”

“That’s more like it private.” Milhouse moved down the line. “How about a round of ‘Wild Blue yonder’ for private Bishop? Sing and run, everyone, sing and run!” Milhouse  jogged down the line till he reached the front and disappeared from view.

Bish pummeled through the sand, dropped to his knees with the rest of the command, and ran again. His mind drifted back to his days on slopes of Mount Rainer. Knee-deep powder, ski wax on his fingers, and a sense of freedom he’d never known before. Sand and snow are not so different he thought. Accept one doesn’t melt.

It was only at the end of training, back in his room for clean up and chow, that Bish began to realize how lonely one could be even when surrounded by people. He’d made a habit out of making friends, but here the air was filled uncertainty. The only thing most guys knew was that they were going somewhere else in nine weeks—divied out to technical school, and later an operational group. What was the point in getting tight?

“It ain’t about makin’ friends, Bish. It’s about making connections.” Smitty took a long drag on a cigarette. He was from St. Louis, which was by his definition, the center of the universe. If they knew anything there in the trading captial of the West, they knew people. “The more connections you have, the better you make out in the end. It’s always good if people owe ya.”

Girls at Miami Beach, Florida.

Miami Beach “Peaches.” 1941 From the KBL Family Collection.

That night, as the ocean breezes kicked in and the temperature dropped a few degrees, Bish walked the long stretch of Ocean Drive. Hotels and restaurants lined the street that ran along the beach. At any other time this place would have been the playland of the rich and famous, but now it was the teaser before the storm. Bish parked at a bench that looked out over the dune to the Atlantic. Somewhere beyond the miles of blue ocean war raged in Europe, Hitler marched his troops through the houses and farms of millions of innocent people, leaving them cowering, cold, and dead. The day’s news reel announced that Allied forces had managed to wrest northern Africa from Axis forces, but still that was but one step in a long and bloody march.

Bish flicked open his breast pocket. He’d gotten a letter from Betty today. She’d teemed with delight at his description of Miami Beach and all its splendors. The hotel barracks, the theater classrooms, restaurant-casinos turned mess halls.

“You’ll be a Colonel one day, I just know it!” she had written. The thought of it made Bish go dry in the mouth. Career military had never been his dream. He would do his job, his patriotic duty, and get out—if he managed to stay alive. He was just rolling with the punches now, waiting to see where the Air Corps would place him in their elaborate game of GI Joe.

Betty had sent news from Puyallup. Most of the boys he’d gone to school with were now gone, like him, into duty. Some of her girlfriends had taken jobs at Boeing and Bremerton—welding, riveting, and doing other “dirty” labor. Betty had taken a job as a typing clerk. Verla and Bill had gotten engaged when Bill was on leave. “Hint, hint.” She was so nervous and excited for him she could hardly breathe.

Typical Betty, thought Bish. Always hinting. Bish pulled a handkerchief out of his back pocket and wiped his face A deep breath. A body shake to cast-off the weight the letter had brought with it. The whole world may be holding its breath, but he’d never let on that he was holding his.

While this scene got cut, it was the spark of an idea for the chameleon character Smitty. Instead of disappearing into the story, Smitty took on a much more significant role in the final version of THE TAIL GUNNER. What role would you give a chameleon? 

Get more of THE TAIL GUNNER. Pre-order your copy today.

Get more of THE TAIL GUNNER. Pre-order your copy today.

Mission 31: Engagement Photos

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Keith B. Lile and the mysterious "Betty" kissing on the capitol steps in Denver, CO.

Keith B. Lile and the mysterious “Betty” kissing on the capitol steps in Denver, CO.

March 5, 2014 — In the fire scene at the opening of THE TAIL GUNNER, Sylvie finds a picture of her Grandmother kissing an unknown guy. On the back is written “Our Engagement in Denver, Love you, Bish.”

The real photos that inspired that scene appear here, although with the wonders of fiction and draft revision, the tables were switched. In real life, I found a picture of my Dad kissing someone who definitely wasn’t my mom. When I asked Mom about it, she said, “Oh that was Betty, a girl your father was engaged to during the war.”

Keith B. Lile and "Betty" on the capitol steps in Denver. Who exactly this woman was is still unknown.

Keith B. Lile and “Betty” on the capitol steps in Denver. Who exactly this woman was is still unknown.

I couldn’t find any information about said “Betty.” There were no letters to or from her in Dad’s stash, but there were plenty of “mail from Betty” or “no mail from Betty p–poor” notes in Dad’s diary. There was even a Betty Jensen in his high school yearbook who had graduated his same year with a matching major in business and Latin. But there was no way to know for sure if the woman in the picture was his fellow student or not. Later, when reading Dad’s diary for the 100th time, I found that I could trace their break-up through the pages of 1945.

“She wanted him to be an officer,” Mom had said. But with Dad being stuck in Italy at the end of the war when all the war heroes were returning home, she’d apparently written to him saying that she wanted some time to be on her own. He suspected that she had met some “4-F” so he cut her loose and went to Capri.

The nuts and bolts of story construction often require “flipping” the scene to see where it takes you. In this case, flipping the engagement photo scene at Draft 6 created an entirely new book, and a much better one despite the pain of revision.

Although the scenes from Denver and Fort Lowry gunnery training school got cut, they still served as an emotional guideline for the rest of the story. As you saw in our last post, Bish didn’t want to be a gunner. And according to Harriet Corrett who had been on the testing staff in Miami Beach, the saying was “Go up a gunner, come down a goner.” That phrase alone helped me build an entire scene and no doubt shaped Dad’s wartime experience. “It didn’t matter if a fellow had passed all the tests for bombardier or navigator,” explained Corrett. “If they said ‘we need gunners’ we sent them gunners.” Especially small wiry boys like Dad who could fit in the back end of a plane.

Keith B. Lile did his gunnery training at Lowry Field in Colorado. It was his first stop after Basic Training, but wouldn't be his last.

Keith B. Lile did his gunnery training at Lowry Field in Colorado. It was his first stop after Basic Training, but wouldn’t be his last.

So Dad was sent to gunnery school at Fort Lowry near Denver as evidenced by the envelope with the “private” picture enclosed. It was there that the “Betty pictures” were taken. Based on a note written on the back of another Betty photo, they got engaged, but not married, in Kansas City, shortly before he was due to ship out. As I found out later, boys who wanted to fly had to be single, and that tidbit became a key element of the story.

Follow “Mission 31” on the Stephisphere for more behind-the scenes episodes of THE TAIL GUNNER. 

Get more of THE TAIL GUNNER. Pre-order your copy today.

Get more of THE TAIL GUNNER. Pre-order your copy today.