I Will Tell No War Stories: What Our Fathers Left Unsaid About World War II
Lyons Press (April 2024)
From the Introduction: Target for Tonight
I discovered my father’s war twice. The first time at a eighteenth century pub in Wales and the second, back home, in a dresser drawer, a year before he died. Neither time was I looking for his war, or anything to do with World War II. Nor was I was burning to know about his earlier life. Growing up I had heard about his boyhood and knew and liked his boyhood buddies. They were still his friends. But his story came and found me, in bits and pieces, in the few things he had said, and in the many things left unsaid. His war years were both absent and present, so incomplete that it would take me years to even find the outline.
My first hint came on a walking trip in Wales in my late twenties. I was walking the long distance path that ran through Wales bordering England, the Welsh Marches, following, in part, King Offa’s eighth century border-defending earthen bank. The countryside was spectacular. The path took me to valleys of sheep in lambing time, fields of bluebells along the River Wye, Tintern Abbey, and small, one-pub villages.
One afternoon I came off the path to the Powis Arms, a Georgian era pub and inn, a place listing and askew as if the centuries were a rough sea. It is surprising how much wood can sag and lean in five centuries. There’s wasn’t a straight line in the place. When you put down your pint glass it listed at least 10 degrees.
At the bar in the pub, I was chatting with a fellow who, it turned out, was there because the flying club from the Severn Valley was meeting. We got to talking — as the only American I’m sure I stood out. In the course of talking about flying I told him that my father had flown in the war, in a bomber, a B-24.
Say no more. He bought me a pint and invited me to their meeting, fairly insisted upon it, as much as an Englishman will tell a stranger what to do. They were watching a famous film about the war that night. I really should see it. At their meeting, I was introduced as an honored guest. My father – with an assist from 350,000 others in the Eighth Air Force – had helped to win the war.
The film, Target for Tonight, was like no other World War II movie I’d ever seen….
And there I left the war, but it kept finding me. …
… I received an unexpected inheritance. It was not a fortune; it was a riddle. My father, Pincus Mansfield, like most men of his generation, refused to talk about the war. It was a rule with him and millions of other men. He had said a few things about his time in England, but nothing ever about combat.
In his last years, he was living alone and enjoying it, but worrying the hell out of all of us, even with his daytime helpers. So we convinced him to go to a nursing home, a veteran’s home as it turned out. We began to clean out the old house. He and my mother had moved in when it was new in 1955. It was the only house our family had lived in. Needless to say, there was a lot of stuff, layers of time and memories mixed in among the too-muchness of every little thing.
Cleaning up one day, in a small drawer with his cufflinks and tie clips, I found some small, unlined, pocket-sized notebook pages, folded over and tossed aside, sitting as they had for almost sixty-five years. It was an account of each bomber mission he had flown as he had recorded it when he was nineteen and twenty years old. I had no idea such a record even existed. I quickly read through it, drank it down in a gulp. Some of the missions he flew were harrowing, marked by attacking fighters, anti-aircraft cannon blowing holes in his plane, and wounding crewmen. I began to fill in the details, helped by miles of microfilmed records of the Army Air Forces, and the memories he had recorded in his last years of growing up, and training for the war, memories that always stopped well short of what had happened in the air at war. I began to undo the forgetting as best I could.
From Part I: “Your Wings are Waiting”
At age 18, out of high school already for more than two years, my father volunteered for the Army Air Forces. He had been drafted, but they did not take him. He had only one good hand. Men with lesser physical problems were turned away. (Thirty percent of draftees were classified 4-F.) But he returned, maybe more than once, and convinced the Air Force that they couldn’t fly without him. He was inducted on August 13, 1943. He would be trained to be a waist gunner, one of the men shooting a machine gun out of the open “gun port” window of the B-24 Liberator bomber.
The news that he would be leaving for the Air Force hit his family hard. “My parents thought I was nuts and did until their dying day,” he said. His Uncle Sammy bought him a trumpet at a hock shop. “Here, when they hear you play maybe they won’t send you overseas,” he said. He didn’t think his one-handed nephew was going to win the war….
The Army Air Forces claimed that it only took the fittest men. “They must be a very special kind of young men. They must, in fact, be the best physical and mental specimens the country produces,” John Steinbeck wrote for the Air Force one year before they took my father. “He must be very healthy, and he must have no physical disability of any kind.”
Why would they take a one-handed 18-year old? The short answer is that in 1943, when he joined, they were losing the war. They were losing 75 percent of the men they trained and sent into battle. The Air Force had decided that flying twenty-five missions in a “heavy bomber” like the B-24 or the B-17 Flying Fortress was a full combat tour, but this was wishful thinking. In 1943 only 25 percent of their fliers would complete 25 missions. The rest were shot down, killed in action, missing in action, or prisoners. For 75 percent of the young aviators in 1943 their war ended with an acronym: KIA, MIA, POW. During most of the war — until the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 — Germany held more POWs from the Air Force than from the infantry. Before the Allies landed in Italy in September 1943, the Air Force was the only way they could fight on the Continent.
On each mission, each raid to bomb factories, railroads and airfields, they lost, on average, five percent of their airmen. The math is simple and stark: in twenty-five missions they were going to lose everybody — and 25 percent of the replacements. “It was like a death in the family every time a crew returned and found that friends in another B-17 or B-24 hadn’t made it,” said Andy Rooney, who as a sergeant was a reporter for the Army newspaper, Stars & Stripes. Empty cots sat with photos of the waiting wives, girlfriends, and mothers. Early in 1943, a bomber crewman’s average life expectancy was fifteen missions. On the British side, only 17 percent of Bomber Command’s crews could be expected to fly their required thirty missions. It was, said some, like playing Russian Roulette, but with worse odds.
The Eighth Air Force had more “fatal causalities” — 26,000 — than the entire Marine Corps. By the war’s end, 10,000 bombers had been lost. The Air Force’s war planners, known as the “Bomber Mafia,” had thought they might lose three hundred bombers in the entire war. Only Pacific submarine crews suffered a higher fatality rate.