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: Object of the Day ~ The Port of Missing Men


March 18, 2014 — We’re shaking it up with a card from the Port of Missing Men found in the KBL Family Collection.

Port of Missing Men card

Card from the Port of Missing Men, 1943. KBL Family Collection

Not to be confused with the Port of Lost Men — which was, in fact, the name of a book (by Meredith Nicholson), an estate (of Millicent Rogers), and a movie (based on the book)—The Port of Missing Men was a restaurant and bar in Yonkers, New York.

It was a colorful and lively establishment, as is reflected in the card collected by Dad en route to Basic Training. An ad in the December 24, 1941 edition of the Herald Statesman thanks the Port’s patrons and pledges “to serve the public the best food obtainable, cooked by the best chef in the city, at reasonable prices.” The fact that two years later, when Dad passed through in ’43, they were serving up “Port Victory Special Cocktails” gives a whole new twist to that commitment.

Don’t miss the chance to Party Like It’s 1945!  Help fund the production of THE TAIL GUNNER novel through March 31. 

—Stephanie Lile

Mission 31: On the Other Side of the World


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: Postcards From Florida

Join the campaign. Pre-order your copy today.

Join the campaign. Pre-order your copy today.

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.


Mission 31: The Cross-Country Journey

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: Who Was The Real Tail Gunner?

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.