Here’s to Veterans Everywhere

Dad carried a postcard set that contained "The Gunner's Vow" all through the war. As the survivor of 59 missions as a WWII tail gunner, he always made a habit of sitting with his back to a wall, facing the door.

Dad carried a postcard set that contained “The Gunner’s Vow” all through the war. As the survivor of 59 missions as a WWII tail gunner, he always made a habit of sitting with his back to a wall, facing the door.

One of the most amazing things about this project has been getting to know and understand more about active service. Writing THE TAIL GUNNER has led me into a world that Dad barely talked about for many reasons. It was a painful time and he was a “forward thinking” man, always more interested in embracing the future than reminiscing about the past.

For those reasons, as well as the fact that I was born in the 1960s when war was way out of fashion, I never wanted to study much about wars or the men who fought in them. Dad didn’t mind a bit.

But what has been intriguing is the mystery of all that he left behind, and the people it has led me to. At one point, I had the good fortune to do a phone interview with Norm Doe (since passed), one of the pilots Dad thought highly of. Norm filled me in on so many mysteries like why it took so long to get across the Atlantic when they shipped out (U-Boat dodging), and how Dad and Doe hadn’t flown together outside of training but once.

In another instance, I found a list of names at the back of Dad’s diary that I figured must have been good friends. As I found out later, they were men in his squadron that had been killed in action. Although I couldn’t use their real names in the novel, their story was memorialized by the characters StuBoy and Valentine. Getting shot down in enemy territory was every bomber-boy’s nightmare.

Despite the difficulties the characters face in THE TAIL GUNNER, it is also a story of hope, and a story about how the dead have the opportunity to choose how to end their stories. As StuBoy explains to Sylvie in the novel, these men get a choice: Take a swig of Lethe Lightning and forget all the horrors and highlights of life and war, or attempt a final mission to set right whatever life-bound wrongs may haunt them. Bish chose a final mission, and his mission makes the book.

We all have our missions in life. We may not know them, but they are there, waiting for us to step foot on the waiting path. If someone had told me when I was in my 20s that I’d one day write a novel about World War II, I would have told them there was no way. But for the last seven years that has been my path. So to all veterans living and passed, I say “Thanks” for your courage, your dedication, and for your stories, both silent and loud. How we stand up for what we believe in makes us who we are.

Mission 31: Postcards From Florida

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March 4, 2014 — Certain pieces in Dad’s collection inspired multiple scenes, although not all made it to the final cut. The scene that follows was one of those out takes. The key piece from the collection is a post card set from Fort Myers Gunnery School. I wondered why Dad had kept the set of postcards all the way through the war when he hadn’t even gone to gunnery school in Florida. Then I found “The Gunner’s Vow” poem on the last postcard and knew—or at least I thought I did until I had a conversation with Harriet Corret who had been on the testing staff at Miami Beach. The scene that emerged from that conversation made the final draft of THE TAIL GUNNER but changed the poem’s context drastically.

"The Gunner's Vow" stayed with Dad all through the war.

“The Gunner’s Vow” stayed with Dad all through the war.

V. July 1943: Taking the Gunner’s Vow

Keith stood in a line of inductees. The air inside the Miami Beach recruitment center was thick with July humidity. Sweat trickled down his back, and he fiddled nervously with the change in his pocket.  A letter from Warner rested in the breast pocket of his light suit, and its opening words ran like a ticker tape through his mind. “I bet you’re having a swell time.”

“Next!” A uniformed recruitment officer locked eyes with him.

Keith stepped forward and thrust out his hand. “How ya doin’? Keith Bishop here.”

“Dandy,” said the expressionless officer. “Have a seat, young man. Let’s have a go at these forms.”

One by one, the officer rattled off questions. One by one, Keith saw his years of hard work and independence reduced to short answers.

Name: Bishop, Keith L.

Race and Citizenship: White, U.S. citizen

Year of Birth: 1923

Residence/State: South Dakota

Residence/County: Douglas

“What were you doing all the way out in Seattle?” asked the officer.

“Going to school, working.”

“Says here you have 4 years of high school.”

“That’s right, and a year of college.”

“Can you prove it, private?”

Keith produced a transcript from Pacific Lutheran College. The grades weren’t perfect, but they weren’t bad for a working guy either.

“Doesn’t look like you completed a full year’s worth of credits.”

“Well, sir, I was working, too. Tuition doesn’t grow on trees.”

The officer sat back and studied him. “And what type of work were you doing?”

“Insurance sales, Northwestern Mutual Life. By the way, do you have a life insurance policy, sir?” Keith couldn’t stop his inner salesman. “What would your family do if something were to happen to you?”

“Private, you’re working for the U.S. government now.” The officer frowned. “Can the cute stuff. Besides, this job IS my life insurance policy. If you make it through training, I’ll be sending YOU into combat instead of me—and I don’t even have to pay for it.” The officer scanned his paperwork. “Now, where were we?”

Education: 4 years of high school

Civilian Occupation: Salesman

“Still single?” asked the officer.

“Yes sir. But I have a Barracuda—I mean a sweetheart—back home.”

“Any children?”

Keith laughed. “When you grow up in a family of fifteen and have to fight your way out from under the heap, you take precautions, Sir. If you know what I mean.”

“That I do. So, no dependents?”

“Not a one—unless you count my younger brother. But I left him in charge of the ski shop to make his room and board.”

The officer lifted his eyebrows. “You’re a scrapper, I’ll give you that.”

Marital Status: Single, without dependents

Date of Enlistment: 19/7/43

Branch/Code: Air Corps

“Alright, Private Bishop, welcome to the United States Army Air Corps,” said the officer. “Your enlistment is for the duration of the War or other emergency, plus six months, subject to the discretion of the President of the United States.” The officer handed Keith his orders. “Best write your folks back home. You leave for Basic Training tomorrow and won’t be seeing them for a good long time.”

“Yes, sir,” said Keith, glancing toward the recruitment center door.

“Private?” The officer cleared his throat. “Be back here at 0-800 hours tomorrow. Don’t be late.”

“No sir, I won’t,” said Keith. “It’s—it’s just so quick, after all this time of waiting.” Keith glanced at the door again. It WAS Carol’s car idling outside.

The officer noticed Keith’s distraction. “What is it, Private?”

“Oh sorry, sir. I think I see my sister outside. She’s supposed to be in Fort Myers for the week. Strange.”

The officer smiled for the first time. It was as if this newbie were suddenly speaking his language. “Women are a mystery. A mighty intriguing one, too. Best get going. It’s bad luck to make a gal wait.”

Carol waved as Keith exited the building. She wore a tight-waisted cotton print dress and her dark blonde hair was pulled back neatly at the temples. “Get in, get in. I have some big news.” She pulled the glove off of her left hand and modeled a shiny diamond ring. “Paul and I got engaged when we were in Fort Myers! Isn’t it grand?”

“Yeah, gee Carol, that’s swell.”

“You don’t sound very excited.”

“Oh, it’s swell. It really is. When’s the big event?”

“A little less than year from now, May.”

It felt quick. They’d only known each other a few weeks.

“That’s kinda soon, don’t you think?” Keith may have been her younger brother, but he still felt he had to look out for her.

“Oh no, it’s perfect. Paul will be done with his tour by then, and I can keep working at the bank until he comes home.” Carol beamed. She was the oldest of the Bishop kids and determined to make it in the professional world. Keith’s had been the last diapers she’d changed back on that South Dakota farm. “Oh here, we brought you this.” She handed him a brightly colored set of postcards. Emblazoned across the front, amidst a Florida sunset speckled with bomber silhouettes, were the words “Greetings from Flexible Gunnery School, Ft. Myers, Florida.”

“Thanks, gal. This is great,” said Keith, flipping through the pictures. There were scenes of Thomas Edison’s house, the beach, and gunner after gunner aiming, shooting, and training. He slowly began to refold the postcard set, but stopped at the scene of an airman reading a silly little poem.

A Gunner’s Vow

I wished to be a pilot,

And you along with me.

But if we were all pilots

Where would the Air Force be?

It takes GUTS to be a Gunner

To sit out in the tail

When the Messerschmitts are coming

And the slugs begin to wail.

The pilot’s just a chauffeur,

It’s his job to fly the plane;

But it’s we who do the fighting,

Though we may not get the fame.

If we all must be Gunners

Then let us make this bet:

We’ll be the best damn Gunners

That have left this station yet.

—Author Unknown

Despite the breeze blowing through the car window, sweat trickled down Keith’s temples. He slapped the postcard set shut to hide his shaking hands. If he was going to do this thing, he was going to do it right. Aim high. Pilot, navigator, bombadier. He was officer material. Gunners, were, well, just gunners.