Memorial Day 5-29-23

Can we ever say thanks enough for those brave souls who gave their lives for our country? Even in wars we may not believe were necessary, they showed patriotism in their defense of our ideals.

Dad is 3rd from rt, back row

My father was a veteran of WWII. He joined the Army Air Corps as it was then known in 1942 after Pearl Harbor and served as a tail gunner and waist gunner on B-24 bombers until after D-Day. Dad, a farm boy from Kansas, was part of the 446th Bombardment Group that was activated in Tucson in April 1943. The group transferred to Lowry AAF Base in Colorado for training and in October 1943 was equipped with B-24H Liberator planes and sent to Flixton Air Base in Bungay, England. He flew a total of thirty missions on several planes, among them was Plastered Bastard, Bomberang, Lady Luck, and the Red Ass.

Twenty-eight of his missions were with the same crew piloted by Lt. C.W. Ryan of Nacogdoches, Tx from December 1943 to July 1944 mostly over Germany but some over German installations in Holland and France. His last recorded mission was July 18, 1944.

He made notes in a small 3 x 5 notepad. An example of his journal notes is “Cognac Air Field Dec. 31 ‘43. Plenty flak and accurate as hell, but no one shot down by it. Fighters galore attacking all stragglers – several planes observed going down. We saw one blow up and one shot down by five fighters using the new merry-go-round tactics fashioned from our own 47 type. ROUGH. An hour hanging around target – escort forced home – no gas. Two planes lost. S/Sgt Louis Phillips W.G. and Lt. Allen, K.I.A.

Another entry was “Berlin – April 29 ’44. Straight in and out – and flak all the way and brother what flak over target it was walkable and we got thru and past before I got hit by burst in tail (he was a tail gunner on this flight) and another one was ruined. Those guys are mad at me. Fighters beat the hell out of 448th and got a couple of our planes.”

As a tail gunner (the most important defensive position), Dad crouched in a cramped bubble under the tail of the plane with his machine gun to defend the rear. As a waist gunner (the most vulnerable position), he stood at an unshielded opening on the side of the plane to shoot enemy fighters that strafed their B-24 bomber. He was injured on several flights by bullets or shrapnel. He witnessed the deaths and injuries of crew mates.

His crew and plane, the Red Ass, led the entire Eighth Air Force on invasion day over the Normandy coast of France, June 6, 1944. He was the tail gunner. His journal states “Ah boy, this was the one. Twenty miles east of Le Havre. Lt. J.T. Goss C.F. volunteered for an extra mission to be in on it. Zero hour for the troops to land was 6:30 and we bombed at 6:00 – 400 yds ahead of ‘em. It was overcast but through the clouds we could see jillions of ships in the water just offshore waiting to attack. Could see ships firing into coastal defenses and returning fire. We led the Group, the Group led the Wing, the Wing led the Division, and the Division led the Eighth. Quite an Honor!” They carried twelve five-hundred-pound bombs and their target was coastal installations on the beach southeast of LeHavre. Colonel Brogger “the big boy” was on board as was Lt. McKenna along with their usual crew.

S/Sgt J.D. Davis

Dad never talked about his experiences in the war. Never, ever. My mother told me he had shock treatments after he came home due to depression and trauma suffered during the war but she never talked about his experiences either. I didn’t find out about his part in the D-Day invasion until many years after his death. He died at the age of 52. Mom claimed he never really recovered from the war. Damage done in war cannot be assessed only by battlefield injury. It is the violence to the soul that lingers. My brother talked with two of his crew mates decades after his and their service and they were surprised he had been hospitalized for depression. They said he was the guy who kept everyone’s spirits up during grim times with his humor and positive talk. Dad’s eyes would glisten tearily when he heard the Air Force Anthem or the song Oh Danny Boy. Those two songs refreshed memories of his war experiences. The only times I believe he was thinking of the friends he lost.

The dark side of Dad was evidenced by alcoholism. He was a functioning alcoholic. I never saw him drunk, but I rarely remember him without a drink in his hand. He drank Old Stagg from the time he got home from work until he fell asleep and, on weekends, it was morning til night. He never missed work and took pride in his job at Boeing as they ushered in new flight and space technology. He loved having people over for barbeque and always entertained them. I don’t think any of our friends suspected how much he drank. My mom, to her dying day, refused to acknowledge he was an alcoholic because she said he was never drunk. He was also a two-pack-a-day smoker, a Camel cigarette in hand at all times. All that contributed to his early death.

My memory of Dad is of a gentle man. He was extremely witty and could capture a room with his stories and jokes. A man who loved literature and history, he always had one, two, or three books and a dictionary on the table next to his favorite chair. I remember him talking to me about Shakespeare when I was six or seven, in reverential tones. He read everything from the classics to Rex Stout and Dashiell Hammett.

Mom was the hammer and Dad the velvet anvil. When she pronounced a penalty for my transgressions, he found ways to soften the blow. He’d cajole her to a lesser or no penalty. The story goes that once when I was two years old, too young to remember, I ran across the street to play with the little girl who lived there. I had been warned to never cross without Mom or Dad, but I didn’t heed the warning. Dad came marching across the street to retrieve me and at home took me over his knee to deliver a paddling. Mom said he cried much harder than I did and that was the last time he tried to enforce a penance.

Mom said he wrote the most incredible letters to her when he was overseas. He had an Irishman’s way with words. She kept the letters in a box in our basement. They were destroyed when our basement flooded during a storm in the 50s. I never saw those letters, but my aunts, uncle, and grandmother also talked about his eloquence. I don’t think he ever wrote a letter after he returned.

Thank you to all the veterans who served. Most of all, thank you Dad for being my Dad.

Truth and Facts

Today I read a moving blog post about a friendship. The author wrote about her friend with the truth of memory, not necessarily the facts.  Raising the Dead ‹ BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog ‹ Reader —  I read another insightful blog post about current political turmoil in France. Out My Window ‹ Reader — Somehow those two posts melded, although completely different in intent, and made me think about my reality and my memories.

To me facts are incontrovertible, they may be proven false later, but they are the concrete reality that can be proven at this point in time. Facts are objective, the absolute of what we know now through all our senses. Truth is subjective. It is the reality of facts filtered through our experience. We are all human and, as humans, subject to our own prejudices and emotional knowledge. Truth is facts of the heart, our day-to-day understanding of what is going on around us. As memoir writers it is important, on your journey to the truth, not to let facts be stumbling stones. While facts may be important they are not the sum total of the experience or the lessons you learn along the way.

I have a friend, a brilliant sculptor, who exhibits regularly at art shows around the country. I’ve watched her, in an hour or two, turn big lumps of clay into miniature animals – wolves, horses – so realistic that you expect them to move toward you at any moment. A magical experience. Many years ago, I traveled with her to an art exhibition in Montana that included her work. During our time there meeting artists and enjoying the art world, we had an on-and-off weeklong discussion on religion. What is the soul, what is spirit, can God be proven, etc? The discussion continued as we packed up and left Great Falls. I was driving her van. Somewhere along the highway, we passed a gas station where a large dog was sitting close to the edge of the road. We are both dog lovers.

I interrupted our discussion with “What kind of dog was that?” as we zoomed by.

“Dog?” she replied, “What dog?”

“The one we just passed,” I answered.

“We didn’t pass a dog, we just went by a Circle K,” she said.

“Ah, you didn’t see the dog, but it was there.”

“You’re making it up to change the subject.”

At the next turnable place, I maneuvered the van across lanes of the lightly traveled highway in a most illegal U-turn and headed to the gas station possibly five miles back, hoping the dog hadn’t been run over or run away. Sure enough, the dog was still sitting by the road.

“There,” says I, “that dog.”

“Oh, I guess I didn’t see it. It looks like a shepherd mix to me.”

“And that was my point,” I said returning to our discussion about belief. “Your reality is that the dog didn’t exist because you didn’t experience it.  Your truth is different from my truth. My truth could be based on an illusion or on my five senses, but it is my truth. It is what I know to be true and the same goes for you. Had I not turned the van around, we would have totally different memories of the same experience.”

What would my essay be today if the dog left, disappearing around the side of the building or into its owner’s car? It would be of a dog I swear I saw but then disappeared and her story would be of a crazy friend who made a U-turn in the middle of a highway to show her a phantom dog. Both would be true.

I write fiction primarily. Fiction contains elements of a writer’s truth. To my many memoir writing friends I want to say, write YOUR truth. There are no video or audio recordings of your day-to-day activities or relationships and the memories they engender. Your memory IS the recording and it IS filtered through your experience. Write what is in your heart because that is the truth and that is more important and much more interesting than all the facts listed in order as years evolve. Don’t let the fears of others block your truth. They cannot convey your story and should not arbitrate it. They are bit players, you are the star. What you learned is of value to those who are not able to express their story in words. Your truth may inspire or may help someone, even in your family, understand their world better. Write your story as it is for you. Don’t wait to let someone else tell it because it will then only be your story filtered through their experience, their story of you. Be Brave.

Our book Telling Tales and Sharing Secrets includes essays from each author’s truth as well as fiction short stories and poetry.