Research takes us to many amazing places. This was one of them. The Barbie III based in Mesa, Arizona. Stephanie Lile photo.
March 26, 2014 — Research for any story comes in many forms. For The Tail Gunner, I knew I’d have to fly in a B-25. How could I write credible scenes otherwise? I needed to transport myself back to the 1940s, into the midst of World War II, and into the heart and mind of a bombing crew. So, I decided to transport myself physically through time and space by going for a ride in a B-25.
The Barbie III’s crew chief Bill. If you look just beyond him, you can see down into the tail to the stool where the tail gunner sat. Stephanie Lile photo.
After searching online and emailing back forth with a few folks around the country, I finally landed on the web page of the good folks at Warbirds Unlimited in Mesa, Arizona. Their motto is “live history,” and let me tell you, in all my nearly 20 years in the museum field, I haven’t discovered anything quite like it. Historians use their imaginations a lot, but this is as close as you’ll get to traveling to another time. Consider the factors:
The environment (it’s a “working” but authentic restoration of the original right down to the seat belts), the noise (it’s a total mind-buzz requiring the use of serious ear muffs), the altitude (about 3,000-5,000 feet—although the real bomber boys flew as high as 10,000-12,000 feet), the motion (enough skittering side-to-side and up-and-down to lose your breakfast), the smell (a little diesel, a little metal, a lot of human sweat, a little puke), and finally the vastness of the view (about 300 degrees in the tail gunner position).
Inside the back of the Barbie III, Dylan contemplates the waist gun. At about 19, he was the same age as Dad was when he started flying. Stephanie Lile photo.
These planes are pretty amazing, and the men who fly them even more so. Only a couple steps up from a tuna can, the plane’s metal skin and long cables that run from front to back to work the tail made me wonder how anyone survived at all. At one point in my research I found a declassified document that stated that the production rate of B25s in about 1943 was based on an average estimated plane life of 11 missions. No wonder there was a whole lotta hoopla when a plane made 100 missions.
In flight, we took turns crawling out to the tail gunner position. My niece Haley and nephews Krister and Dylan had come along on the adventure so that they could get a piece of their grandpa’s adventure. When I took my turn in the tail gunner spot as we roared over the hills of Arizona, I breathed deeply and tried to tap into what my dad would have thought being out there in the tail for 59 missions over the mountains and valleys of Italy. Despite the great view, the tail blister was a hugely vulnerable position. I realized then that if every great story is built of character emotion, then this story would be a whirlpool of pride, determination, resignation, and being scared shitless a huge percentage of the time.
My motley crew, 2009: Left to Right, Dylan Hall, Haley Lile, Krister Lile. Stephanie Lile photo.
Our flight was “only” 30 minutes, but all of us agreed that it was truly the longest 30 minutes of our lives. By the end, both Dylan and I were carrying bags of barf (no more scrambled eggs for me or a while), and all of us were exhausted. Just that little taste gave us a feel for what those bomber crews must have felt like (times about 1000) as they set out on every mission not knowing if they would live or die.
No matter what my writer friends say, I wouldn’t pass up this experience as a means to tap into the emotions of my characters for anything. In fact, when I think of a B-25, I’m still a little queasy. But in truth, I’d totally go again.
The tail guns. Nothing much besides a skin of metal, some canvas, and a pair of guns between you and an enemy attack. Stephanie Lile photo.
I want to extend a special thanks to the great guys at Warbirds Unlimited—Ray, Leon, Bill, and pilot Jack Fedor for making this experience both smooth sailing and extremely enlightening (all four of us nominate Crew Chief Bill for Sainthood). And to my brave niece and nephews, many thanks for helping me “tap the gramps.” The book is all the richer for it.
Join THE TAIL GUNNER crew! There’s just a few days left to help fund the production of the novel and save the WWII collection that inspired it.