Unbroken

For some of us it is hard to believe that World War II ended seventy years ago. I am not quite old enough to have lived through that conflict, but it was an oft referenced yet seldom detailed event in a family with significantly older siblings, not too mention first cousins born in the 1920s along with uncles and aunts who had been born in the 1800s.

That “good war,” like all wars, displayed the random nature of fate. My father who had survived childhood tuberculosis in the 1910s did not have to serve in the military because one of his legs was an inch shorter than the other. The U.S. Army didn't bother to research the fact that despite the bout with tuberculosis, Dad competed in several sports in high school, including track, where he won races and established school records.

One of my father's closest friends, though he was past thirty years of age, was drafted and sent overseas. He survived heavy combat in North Africa and Italy before being sent home when his mother was dying. Her death may have prevented another. While he was back on the Mendocino Coast attending to his mother's funeral arrangements my dad's friend's unit landed on Omaha Beach. No sooner was his mother buried than he was sent back into action, trudging across much of France and Germany as an infantryman. He lived through more combat than most soldiers, then returned to the Mendocino Coast, working first in the woods then in Grader's fish cannery on the Noyo wharf. When I was a boy, he and his wife and her daughters camped alongside the Albion on our family's ranch most every summer. Like most veteran's of WWII, he never spoke a word that I heard about his wartime experiences until twenty years or so later when I drove him to medical appointments in San Francisco. The journey from Little Lake Road in Mendocino to the hills of San Francisco, with a cancer diagnosis looming, tends to make even the most hardened veteran open up, even so far as to recall/confess the “fragging” of a gung ho, wet behind the ears officer who had sent squad after squad of men into machine gun crossfire on open ground.

One of my paternal first cousins also served in the “good war.” He went in as a skinny nineteen-year-old barely big enough to pass the minimum size requirements. He had been raised in a non-drinking, non-smoking family here on the coast. Within a year of exchanging his band instruments at Mendocino High for a gun in the military he killed a German boy in the last months of the war. The German was probably younger than my cousin by a couple years.

By the time I knew my cousin, he was a heavy drinker and smoker. The latter habit lead to his death in the early 1990s. It wasn't until shortly before his death that my cousin revealed to me how that face to face encounter in the German woods had haunted him nearly every day since. He had actually confessed it to my mother years before, so I knew about it in a general way, but not in the way that two people share something while sitting on the front steps at dusk on a summer evening. Despite his drinking I had never seen my cousin cry before that day. He didn't sob or choke up while he described the chance meeting in Germany. He a motorcycle messenger and the German boy with a rifle walking out of the woods alone, bewildered before and after pointing the rifle and being fatally shot by the quicker American. There was no emotional breakdown during the telling, just a steady, continuous stream of tears making their way through my cousin's three day, graying stubble. No audible sobs, perhaps because he had to concentrate so much on each syllable, his voice decimated by cancer in his throat and cutting into his words, slurring them in a way that Old Grandad or Wild Turkey never achieved.

One of my mother's closest childhood chums, a fellow student at the Keene Summitt School (about halfway between Comptche and the Navarro River, alongside the Flynn Creek Road) was the eldest son of the school's teacher. The boy's name was Henry Smith and at several times in the late 1920s and early 1930s the Keene Summit School had five and a half students for grades 1-8. The half pupil, who attended seasonally while one or both parents moved with changing employment, was crucial since, at the time, five and a half was the minimum number of students to keep open a one room school in California.

My parents were married in the autumn of 1941, about a month and a half prior to the December 7th attack on Pearl Harbor. Not long after, Henry Smith volunteered for the Army Air Corps. He was killed in a flight training accident, which leads me to one of the littlest known facts about World War II. During that great conflict more American airmen were killed in non-combat accidents than while engaging the enemy in battle. This was especially true in regard to the introduction of the B-24 aircraft. The earliest batches of B-24s in 1942 and 1943 were incredibly hard to handle, on the runway and in the air. Even in the calmest of weather conditions B-24s often simply flipped over sideways or nose down at any number of speeds before and during takeoff. In a moderate storm, it usually took the combined strength of the pilot and co-pilot to maneuver the beast. Lest readers think that the situation improved as the war went on, statistics kept by the Fifteenth Air Force between November, 1943 and the end of the war in Europe in the spring of 1945 showed that seventy percent of American airmen killed during that period died in operational accidents rather than in combat.

One of the few authors/historians to recognize this startling data is Laura Hillenbrand. I was drawn to her work, Unbroken, because her subject was Louis Zamperini, a Californian who ran in the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Louis Zamperini training for the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games
Louis Zamperini training for the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games

As an Army Air Corps navigator he was captured in the Pacific by the Japanese. That barely begins to tell his story, but Zamperini's imprisonment in many ways paralleled that of one of my maternal great uncles, who had been a champion rodeo cowboy in the 1930s, then spent nearly four years in various Japanese POW camps from late December, 1941 through the end of the war and beyond.

Hillenbrand previously wrote the definitive biography of the Mendocino County racehorse Seabiscuit. Do not be dissuaded from her book, Unbroken, by the rather mediocre film version of the same name.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.