Mission 31: On to Austria

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

B-25s over Italy

B-25s soar over a target in Italy, c. 1944-45. KBL Family Collection

March 15, 2014 — On this day in 1945 Dad wrote:

1945 Diary

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

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).”

Keith Lile with B-25 tail guns

This tiny contact print revealed a surprising shot of Keith Lile cleaning the plexi-glas blister and the tail guns of a B-25 just as he had noted in his diary. Probably on Corsica, 1944-45. KBL Family Collection

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.

Miss Fancy Pants nose art

Nose art for the B-25 “Miss Fancy Pants.” She was girl everyone wanted to fly with. KBL Family Collection

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.

le génie du mal

“Le génie du mal” a sculpture in St. Paul’s Cathedral in Belgium. Was this personification of despair what Dad was referring to? Courtesy Marco Di Lucca web.

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.”

Tiber Terrace, Rome

The Tiber Terrace as it looked in World War II—a rest leave club in Rome. KBL Family Collection

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.

—Stephanie Lile

Next Post: Rest Leave in Rome

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: Who Was The Real Tail Gunner?

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Keith B. Lile

The “real” tail gunner, Keith B. Lile, after his 50th Mission completed April 1945.

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.

Check out the Mission 31 campaign site.

Check out the Mission 31 campaign site.