Writing weekly columns of non-fiction is a demanding discipline in that it involves writing seriously in a format which allows limited space while requiring considerable attention to detail and accuracy. Breaking the process roughly into three distinct working venues, I divide my effort between (1) reading and research, (2) thinking, and (3) writing. Since I am often working on two or three different subjects-in-process it can get a bit complicated. Because of the need to say more in less space and fewer words it becomes a balancing act with the serious author feeling guilty for mastering so much more in new scholarship than he or she (and certainly I) can ever share with the target audience.
During the past several weeks this has been especially true. Not only because military aviation history by its very nature is technologically challenging, but because those we allude to as the greatest generation reveal themselves to be the most articulate, motivated and literate recorders of an entire era of time one can imagine. They have made an “enterprise” out of their compulsion to pass on their very personal sense of history to those of us who follow after them. They are educated, principled, solid in their convictions and sure of the importance of the history they have lived. In short they are a rare generation in not only what they accomplished, but in the elegance with which they speak of it to those who are listening.
This is particularly true of the WW II airmen about whom I have been writing. Every one of those 8th Air Force “Groups” I have researched and written about continue to meet and work together today – even though in starkly-reduced numbers – 70 years after their war. They have been sharing memories, personal experiences, flying records, names and fine details of virtually every mission or sortie they flew, together with bombing results, buddies lost and lessons learned. Their love and respect for friends living and lost is as alive and well in their 90s as it was in their 20s. As I access precious and meticulously-kept “Group and Squadron Archives”, I feel like a voyeur looking over their shoulders through the decades which for them are crowded with memories they keep alive and shining.
As a visitor descends the front entrance to the “Mighty Eighth” museum today, the very first granite memorial seen says; In memory of the men and women of the resistance who risked their lives to come to the aid of Allied Airmen 1942-45. We will never forget. In every Group archive I visited would be an entire proud section giving detail and sentiment to this message, often with such names as Dedee DeJongh and Arnold Deppe, Monique deBissy and organizations like the shadowy Compte Line.
Because of the flight paths of the bomber streams, the skies over Belgium and The Netherlands were often the scenes of parachutes floating to earth as air crews departed their falling and crippled planes; Holland alone saw more than 800 crashed Allied planes between 1942 and 1945. Most airmen were quickly rounded up by Nazi troops or sympathizers and were quickly headed for Stalags or POW camps. But these countries were also the most patriotic to the Allied cause, and quick to give aid and comfort where they could. Escape and Evasion organizations brought together civilian patriots, safe houses, resources and everyday “workers” and “keepers”, engaged in an extremely dangerous enterprise, the end goal being to work the Allied airmen across the Pyrenees by foot, or south by rail to safety in Spain. Because families with young children were especially vulnerable to betrayal, these secret soldiers were often single women – both young and elderly – willing to risk all to save men whose language they didn’t even understand.
In the end, it was determined that for every airman or soldier saved, two patriots lost their lives. Since escapees seldom went back into battle (a stand-out exception was young Chuck Yaeger who insisted to the contrary, and famously fought again,) it was not a great trade-off. When asked why they persisted against such odds the civilian partisans said “because it was the right thing to do for the spirit of our nation.” Of those who were betrayed and imprisoned only 18% ever came home.
Note: Readers wishing to know more about America’s bomber crews and the operation of Escape and Evasion patriots should read SHOT DOWN by Steve Snyder who tells his father’s real life story against the backdrop of the proud 306th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force in WWII.