Mission 31: Gear up!

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Just 4 days left to join The Tail Gunner crew! Order your copy today.

Just 4 days left to join The Tail Gunner crew! Gear up and jump on board.

March 29, 2014 — With just four days left in the Tail Gunner campaign, we’re 76% of the way to our goal—that means we have just over $800 to raise before April 1st. As a fixed funding campaign, it’s an all-or-nothing deal, just as the men of the 445th squadron faced every time they were sent on a mission.

There were times, however, that the men had to stand down due to weather, illness, or other circumstances beyond their control. On this day in 1945, Dad wrote,

March 29: Standown today again. I went down to the 310th I saw Marcus, Joe Pizarro, and his Engineer – All the Boys are doing alright. Saw Rankin, (from cadets) he’s doing O.K. Says Armorers are making Tech Sgt down there. Went to a show tonight – Bring on the Girls. Patton is soon going into Russia, and how. No mail. 

From those days on stand down came the great days when targets were hit at 100%. We’re aiming for that, and with your help, we can make it. So if you haven’t yet joined the crew and made a contribution to the production of the book and the preservation of the Tail Gunner collection, there is still time to gear up and get on board.

—Stephanie Lile

Join THE TAIL GUNNER crew! There’s a few days left to help fund production of the novel and save the WWII collection that inspired it.

 

 

Mission 31: News From Home

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Just 6 days left to join The Tail Gunner crew! Order your copy today.

Just 6 days left to join The Tail Gunner crew! Order your copy today.

March 27, 2014 — In digging through Dad’s stash of WWII images and ephemera, I came across this little newspaper clipping, no doubt sent to him in one of his letters from home. While there is no date on the clipping, based on the info it reports, it has to date to around March 1945. The clipping states that Dad (Keith) was on Corsica, and by April, Dad and his squadron had pulled up stakes and moved from Corsica to the base at Ancona, Italy.

1945 News clipping

A news clipping from home gives a sense of all the ways men served the war effort, both on the front and at home.                        c. March 1945.          KBL Family Collection

On this day in 1945, Dad writes in his diary:

March 27: Standown on mission again today. Lowry & I are flying with Doe. Missions were Plan A and Plan B – we were on both of them.

I got sick tonight – plenty sick – brother – and how. I think I will lay off taking these adaprin tablets. I heard from Mrs. Houbler – Betty – Morgan and the little book from the church. Too sick to answer anything.

Air Corps Camp, Solenzara

This image is believed to be the 445th Squadron camp at Solenzara, Corsica, where the real tail gunner lived for many months. c. March 1945. The actual print is about a third the size of this image. KBL Family Collection

Although I’ve never found any of the letters Dad wrote to others during the war, I did realize why his diary entries were so sparse; he wrote all of his big news in his letters home. In THE TAIL GUNNER novel, I was able to use some of the letters he received in part, but the letters from him to others had to be pieced together from the clues he left behind. What has appeared in this blog series is but a smattering of the complete collection.

—Stephanie Lile

Join THE TAIL GUNNER crew! Just 5 days left to help fund production of the novel and save the WWII collection that inspired it.

 

 

Mission 31: Flying Through Time in a B-25

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Barbie III

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.

Crew Chief, 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).

Waist gun of B-25

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.

The Crew

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.

B-25 tail guns.

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.

—Stephanie Lile

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.

 

 

Mission 31: Time Traveling in Pompeii

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Back stories from THE TAIL GUNNER, a soon-to-be released novel from Bering Street Books.

Pamphlet and tickets, Italy

The little green ticket to Pompeii was my starting clue.     KBL Family Collection

March 20, 2014 — In my dad’s box of WWII stuff, I found a little greenish ticket. “Tour C.I.T. Agency, Special Tours, Organized for the A.E.F. POMPEII, All fees included-Do not pay more.” It said. The ticket was No. 5853, torn from a book, probably at the rest leave office, and issued to curious soldiers. Knowing that dad had been a Latin major in high school (very surprising for a guy who spent his life as salesman), I wasn’t surprised to see that this, along with a ticket to the Vatican museum, was something that he’d saved.

The Forum at Pompeii

The Forum at Pompeii, painted in 1841 by
the Danish artist Christen Schjellerup Købke. Courtesy of J. Paul Getty Museum.

So I went there to find him, to see what he saw. I’d been working at the J. Paul Getty Villa with its plethora of ancient treasures from Greece and Italy, and I knew well a painting of ruins and a wall fresco that the Getty conservators had pieced back together from crumbled bits. Pompeii, buried under the angry ash of Vesuvius in AD 79, was the mystical place I’d heard so much about. Now its mystique grew as I searched for the place my father had visited and photographed some 60 years before.

Before my best friend and I left for Italy, I put together a little book of photos copied from Dad’s collection. In it were the places he’d visited and photographed that we were aiming to find.

Pompeii, 2009

The Forum at Pompeii in 2009. Stephanie Lile photo.

Once at Pompeii, shortly after we met our English-speaking guide, I showed him my little book of photographs and asked if he knew where in Pompeii the picture had been taken. I knew it hadn’t been taken on the market street, where giant pots had once held “fast food” olives, meat, fruit, and cheeses. It wasn’t in the villa section where visitors can peer through iron gates and spot the remains of conpluvium pools and inner peristyle gardens. It wasn’t near the brothel with recently restored wall paintings. The picture I had featured a small statue of Apollo and some pillars rising from the ruins.

Our guide studied the picture and smiled. “Oh yes,” he said. “This is the oldest part of Pompeii, the part built when Pompeii was a Greek colony,” explained our guide. And so he took us there.

I recognized the spot as soon as I saw it, and by this time, the people in our tour group were getting excited about my quest, too. The little statue of Apollo even took on added meaning; it was both ancient god and a symbol of perseverance to a young airman and his daughter who had followed his footsteps through time.

I should have been happy, there in that spot where Dad had snapped pictures at the end of the war. But in a way, it made me miss him more.

—Stephanie Lile

Join THE TAIL GUNNER crew! There’s a few days left to help fund production of the novel and save the WWII collection that inspired it.

Mission 31: There are Ghosts at the Marina Piccolo

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Marina Piccolo, 1945

Keith Lile and the mystery woman “Mary Louise” at Marina Piccolo, on Capri, 1945. KBL Family Collection

Marina Piccolo

The Marina Piccolo on Capri in bright, shining color, 2009. Stephanie Lile photo.

March 21, 2014 — A number of Dad’s photographs showed him on a rocky beach with a girl, near some striped huts. His diary noted that they,

“Went to Capri [May 19, 1945] Shutters pilot—We stopped at Rome to drop a guy off. Stout went too. Beasley & I stayed together at the Morgano Hotel, Rm 131. The food isn’t bad, and things are pretty peaceful & quiet. I met a few girls on the boat going over to Capri. They have a funny little trolley going up to the square.”

Sixty-four years later, I rode that same “funny little trolley” —the funicular—up the steep hillside from Marina Grande to the town of Capri. The La Palma Hotel, were Dad mentions having gone for dinner and dancing, was still there with its golden bull on the front stoop.  Our hotel was down that narrow road a bit, closer to the Garden of Augustus. From that garden, you can look out over the blue waters of the Mediterranean, down the ancient stone path to the Marina Piccolo.

Marina Piccolo, Capri 1945

The beach at Marina Piccolo on Capri, 1945. Note the wooden kayaks on the shore. Those were still there at the marina 64 years later. KBL Family Collection

Another of Dad’s diary entries reads, “Went down to the beach went out in a kiak. It wasn’t bad at all. Met Mary Louise and took some pictures.” That clue helped me figure out the mystery girl in the pictures, no doubt a distraction for a broken engagement. Betty had written earlier to say that, “The men at the office were calling her Cinderella and she thought she would rather stay single and work for a couple of years yet.” He’d agreed with her.

So Dad partied, celebrating the end of the war, testing his freedom, and floating through those last terms of his inductment, “six months after the end of the war.” His pathway home would be as zig-zagged as the stone-paved path we followed into his world.

Marina Piccolo 2009

The proprietors of Marina Piccolo Capri with the author in 2009.

There, at the Marina Piccolo, the last fingers of pathway take you left to the pay beach, and right to the public beach. We knew from the photos in the book that the place we wanted was the pay beach–it was the little bathing huts that gave it away. They were still there, and much improved, brilliant in their green, blue, and yellow stripes.  We showed our pictures to the English-speaking lifeguard at the entry, who showed them to an older and taller Richard Gere look-alike.  The older fellow clearly ran the place, and he smiled and delighted in the old photos, nodding that this was, indeed the place. He gave us “a deal” on sun lounges and pointed to the fellows in red t-shirts down at the beach.

I showed them the photos as well, and the older of the two got stoked about the boats in one picture, the very boats Dad had mentioned in his diary. The younger lifeguard explained that the boats were “were still there but longer seaworthy.” They motioned me back into the boat shed and sure enough, the kayaks were resting on racks, looking pretty much the same as they had 60+ years before.

Marina Piccolo, Capri

The swimmer’s view of Marina Piccolo (public beach) on the shore of Capri, 2009. Stephanie Lile photo

After doing my usual thing–trying to replicate in present-day photos that had originally been taken many years before–my friend and I went for a swim in the deep blue waters off the pebble-strewn shore. It was the first time I really felt the significance of the adventure I was on–out there floating in the swells of the Adriatic Sea–and the presence of my dad. Perhaps swimming there just brought back memories of his swimming with us kids, maybe the intense sun had finally fried my brain, but it felt like he was there, proud that we had traveled half-way around the world to discover his little secret place.

The experience left me quiet for the rest of the day, but a line of words kept running through my brain, begging to be written down and made into a poetic scene. “There are ghosts at the Marina Piccolo…” Real or imagined, there is no doubt in my heart that I was led here for a reason.

The resulting poem appears in THE TAIL GUNNER, the product of the teen-age protagonist Sylvie Stevens. She, too, snuck her way to Italy to discover the ghosts of Capri.

—Stephanie Lile

Join THE TAIL GUNNER crew! There’s only a few days left to help fund production of the novel and save the WWII collection that inspired it.

Mission 31: Campana dei Caduti

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Bell in Italy

The Campana dei Caduti or “Bell of the Fallen” that stands in the hills of Rovereto, Italy.

March 20, 2014 — There is a scene in THE TAIL GUNNER that takes place in the hills of Rovereto, Italy, where the Maria Dolens, a giant bell made from World War I cannons stands. The massive bell is known as the Campana dei Caduti or “the bell of the fallen.” I post a video of the bell here today in honor of all those who have been lost in wars across the planet.

The area where the bell stands was bombed heavily during WWII, its rail lines targeted by the 12th Army Air Corps. Axis flak guns were hidden among the hills and Dad wrote of “bookoo flak” and “six ’chutes seen” after a particularly difficult mission. At that time, Italy was occupied by German forces, making it a target for British and American armies. Consequently, buildings had been bombed, strafing runs had ripped apart small towns, and yet from the rubble of liberation, this bell of honor and hope emerged.

Campana dei caduti

The bell being transported in 1965. The design that encircles its base shows a panorama of warriors from battles past.

When I first saw this video and saw the procession of battle-torn men that encircle the body of the bell, a vision came to mind. I saw hundreds of spirits passing under the bell and into the dusk. The bell was the great gathering place; the great gateway to peace. This is the place, in the book and in life, where the living and the dead part.

For all those touched by war, I share with you the “Bell of the Fallen.”

—Stephanie Lile

Join THE TAIL GUNNER crew! There’s just a few days left to help fund production of the novel and save the WWII collection that inspired it.

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