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: 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. 

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

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

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: 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.