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: 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? 

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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. 

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

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.

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Mission 31: The Cross-Country Journey

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There was no order to Dad's stash, but I slowly began to recognize the clues to his journey.

There was no order to Dad’s stash, but I slowly began to recognize the clues to his journey. From the KBL Family Collection.

March 3, 2014 —I couldn’t figure out why there were seemingly random bits and pieces of memorabilia in Dad’s stash. There was a postcard from New York, a Senate pass from Washington D.C., a transfer paper stating the date and time he was to report for Basic in Miami Beach, Florida, he’d even kept a tiny address book with addresses across the country from Puyallup, Washington to South Dakota, to Florida. It was a section of a letter from my young Uncle Wendell that helped me figure it out.

May 14, 1943 —Dear Keith…

I bet you are having a swell time. How did you like Chicago and all the big towns? What do you think of New York? You might have seen a good baseball game in New York, but Chicago isn’t so hot. I hope you saw the Brooklyn Dodgers — they are the best. Seattle has won one game this year. 

What did you think of Ellendale and all that’s in it? How many of my friends did you see and what did they say? Did you see Bauer? He’s the tall kid with the ass sticking out. How about the family? And all the little tots? What did you think of Tom-Boy Mary and Curtis the little devil. Did you see Eleanor Gessman their teacher? Not bad Eh?…

Write soon, Love, WB Lile

Make that letter thick.

Written by my uncle from Puyallup, Washington where he’d gone out to stay with Dad and attend high school, this letter made me realize that Dad had left on a cross-country journey prior to basic training that had taken him back to the Dakotas to see his family as well as the sights of Chicago, New York, and Washington D.C. I used and adapted this letter to help tell part of Bish’s story in THE TAIL GUNNER, and even wrote a letter back to Wendell (Hound Dog in the story) to help explain that tran-continental adventure. (See the Sample Chapters on the campaign site.)

There were ultimately 15 Lile kids in Dad’s family, and he was number five. His oldest sister had moved to Florida and married. He’d wanted to see her, too, before inductment which is why he’d managed to get his reporting location changed from Washington State to Florida.

A total of three Lile sons served in active duty during World War II (Bill, Bob, and Keith) as noted in a newspaper clipping saved in the stash. My grandfather, a blacksmith by trade, also pulled up stakes and went to work at the Bremerton Shipyard with my uncle Louis.

Dad’s journey to Basic led to my writing a scene of him reporting for duty that fell to the cutting room floor during revision. It’s that outtake that’s on the docket for tomorrow. See you in Miami.

Mission 31: Boys and Bombers

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Some young guys, like my dad, had the bug to fly from an early age. This recruitment poster made service in the Air Corps look like a cakewalk. "The boys" soon found out it wasn't all glam. Courtesy of Washington State Historical Society Collections.

Some young guys, like my dad, had the bug to fly from an early age. This recruitment poster made service in the Air Corps look like a cakewalk. “The boys” soon found out it wasn’t all glam. Courtesy of Washington State Historical Society Collections.

March 2, 2014 — Recruitment posters like these were hung in schools and stores around town. While an effective tool for calling out patriotic high school grads, these posters also tell us volumes as historical evidence. They show us attire, plane types, and suggest the means by which men were inspired to join the war effort. One gut-wrenching bit of declassified info I found stated that B-25s were being manufactured at a rate that calculated plane life spans of just 11 missions. If that was the rate for planes, imagine the recruitment needs for men.

Dad and his buddies answered the call for airmen, not only because they wanted to fly, but because they had no desire to be on the ground. One of the first letters my sister and I found and read in Dad’s stash was one from a friend in South Dakota named Flora Peckham. She wrote to Dad during the war, and I used a section of her letter verbatim in The Tail Gunner:

“Do you remember when you were about seven and you were at the house one day, and I let you run the Hoover sweeper, and you were thrilled to death because it sounded like an air plane? I wonder if that terrible roaring of motors will always thrill you. I know just how brave you are and how anxious to get going, and all that, but the out-come is so far in the distance as I see it, and so vague. I feel the worst is yet to come.”

It’s from letters and posters like these that we can gain a context for the period. The range of research that’s required to construct even the simplest historical scene can be daunting for those historical sticklers among us. For example, I needed to know how young guys were recruited for the Air Corps, and what motivated them to sign up. Guys could either wait to be drafted or be pro-active and test for the branch of the service they preferred. Even boys too young to enter the service, like my uncle Wendell, were eager to join.

This led me to search for Dad’s Army enlistment record, which turned out to be available online through the National Archives. (http://aad.archives.gov/aad/series-description.jsp?s=3360&cat=all&bc=sl) This database allows many kinds of searches, the easiest being by name. I was able to find the enlistment record for my Dad and two uncles. These records are the first step to getting access to other military records as they not only show the individual’s serial number, they show the place of enlistment, division of the military, and the terms of the enlistment. Dad’s was,  “…for the duration of the War or other emergency, plus six months, subject to the discretion of the President or otherwise according to law.”

His record also contained a mystery; why was his place of enlistment noted as Miami Beach, Florida when he was living in Washington State?

For that part of the cross-country adventure, you’ll have to check back tomorrow…

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.

Mission 31: Thirty-one Days of THE TAIL GUNNER

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KBL Family Collection

From a jumble of WWII images and ephemera came THE TAIL GUNNER, a story lifetimes in the making.

On March 1st, 2014, not only will I be launching a crowd-funded campaign for the publication of my debut novel THE TAIL GUNNER, I will begin posting “Mission 31” a set of 31 blog entries that make up the backstory of THE TAIL GUNNER. This “supernatural-historic-mystery” is loosely based on the WWII experiences of my father, Keith B. Lile. He was a tail gunner in the European Theater who flew 59 missions and lived to talk about it. Actually, he never really talked about the war and never seemed to want to. But three years after he died, my sister and I found a box stuffed with his wartime treasures while cleaning out the hayloft of our horse barn. I’ve spent years researching the collection and piecing together where Dad was when. As a result of those adventures, THE TAIL GUNNER became a work of fiction that asks, “What if we could tap the memories of spirits close to us?”

This idea and years of intensive research gave birth to the story that is now the inaugural publication of Bering Street Studio. I urge you to follow the blog to see more of the KBL Family Collection and get the back stories on the many images that influenced and informed various characters and scenes in the book. If you liked the recent movie Monument Men and the classic novel Catch 22, then you’ll love THE TAIL GUNNER. Join us, and bring your friends, on “Mission 31” a behind-the-scenes look at a story lifetimes in the making.