The Job That Never Ends

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Dear Readers,

Please allow a brief explanation of my lengthy absence. As you may know if you follow the blog regularly, in November I was hospitalized with a bowel obstruction for around 6 days or so. In January, I was set to start my new gig as a temporary full time history professor. I did the new hire orientation and in-service week with no problems, but then the Sunday night before the semester started, my obstruction returned with a vengeance. I had an emergency surgery and spent 19 days in the hospital. I got out and had to get caught up on a missed 2 1/2 weeks of class all while still recovering from my surgery. I have a nice six inch incision in my abdomen (which I will spare you pictures of). I had just started to feel myself again when on March 2nd, my anniversary no less, the obstruction came back again! That day just happened to be my tenth anniversary. My wife and I spent it in the E.R. I need another, much bigger operation now, but the doctor says I can try and wait to have it when the semester ends. Here’s hoping my small intestine cooperates.

Now on to today’s subject. As you know, I finished my novel So Others May Live in November. I set it aside for several months. Now is the time to sally forth to do battle with the written word. I’m going through the revisions process, after which it will go to some beta readers. After I incorporate their feedback, it will be time for a professional editor to take a crack at it. I wouldn’t say it’s a great book, but I do think it is, or at least has the potential to be, a good one. It’s sort of like I say that I am not a historian, I’m just a halfway decent storyteller.

In a previous post, I discussed sources I found particularly useful while doing the research. As part of my revisions, I’m chasing down some information that I need to nail down, things I didn’t stop to look up while I was involved in writing. These are all questions that came up once I began to write. What you see in the above photo is around 1/4 of the print sources I consulted during the research process. It does not include official documents, maps, navigational charts, notes from two dozen interviews, photographs consulted, documentaries watched, and, for fun, period movies and music. I go full on immerse when writing historical fiction. When writing about World War 2, I only watch wartime era movies and listen to wartime era music while working in my bedroom which is decorated something like a squadron ready room (complete with the famous Betty Grable pinup photo).

How much research is too much? I don’t quite know how to answer that. You have to do enough to get it right. I owe it to those who lived through the events I describe to get things as close to accurate as I possibly can, for all its beauty and horror. At my writing station, I have the following excerpt from the Randall Jarrell poem Losses taped to my desk as a reminder of the importance of doing right by those who died.

In our bombers named for girls, we burned the cities we had learned about in school

Till our lives we out and our bodies lay among those we had killed but never seen

When we lasted long enough, they gave us medals. When we died, they said “Our casualties were low.”

After much consideration, I have decided to dedicate my book in the following way:

This book is dedicated to all those who seek humanity in the midst of inhumanity; and to the men and women of the fire services of the world who still give their all So Others May Live.

Lee Hutch

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Houston’s Forgotten Tragedy

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Friends,
Houston and indeed all of the Texas coast and part of Louisiana has seen a great tragedy this week. I do not have the words to adequately describe it. I just can’t. I live in the affected area and though I was spared by the flooding, so many friends and family were not. So I took pen in hand today to talk about another tragedy which struck Houston in the midst of World War Two. A tragedy which has been sadly forgotten by all but a few who live in the area. I was a firefighter and then a fire marshal, the law enforcement arm of the fire service. In that capacity, I enforced fire code regulations and investigated fires. If we ruled a fire arson, we pursued those responsible. (In Texas, arson investigators are fully sworn peace officers with the same authority as any other peace officer, though that may differ in different states.) When I was a young fireman in the late 90s, a grizzled old 35 year veteran of battling the flames mentioned that Houston had experienced one of the deadliest hotel fires in US History. I’d never heard that before and it peaked my curiosity which is how I came to learn about the Gulf Hotel Fire, the subject of today’s sad tale.
Houston during World War Two was a happening place. It was nowhere near as large a city as it is today, with a population of just under 400,000. The city added 100,000 people between 1930 and 1940 and would add another 200,000 by the end of the 40s, partially due to the growth brought about by the War. Americans were lucky in the sense that here in the Continental United States, we did not face bombing raids as did our allies and our enemies. Houston, with its port and oil, played an integral role in the allied war effort. The downtown area was booming with restaurants, movie theaters, and dancing at the Rice Hotel. But there was an underside too. Cheap hotels and boarding houses dotted the landscape filled to the brim with transient workers who traveled to Houston seeking employment. The war gutted the Houston Fire Department with many members enlisting right after Pearl Harbor. The City of Houston created an Auxiliary Fire Department to supplement their missing manpower. This created the perfect storm which broke over the downtown skyline on the night of September 7, 1943.
The Gulf Hotel was located at 615 Preston which was the corner of Preston and Louisiana in the Downtown District. As you can see from the photo, it was probably a nice looking building when not on fire. As was often the case in downtown buildings at the time, the hotel only occupied the second and third floors. The Gulf Hotel would be happy to rent you a bed for forty cents a night. Or if you were down on your luck, you could get a cot for 20 cents! Though the hotel register listed 133 guests that night (all male), in reality there were probably many more than that. The 87 beds were often divided by thin wooden partitions and two men often shared a bed and split the price. Fifty cots were also crammed into the building. Every bed was occupied by at least one person and so were all of the cots. The hotel was located one block from the city’s major bus depot which meant that many of the guests arrived and booked a “room” with little familiarity with the layout of the building or the surrounding area.
While making his rounds in the middle of the night, a clerk noticed a smoldering mattress on the second floor, most likely due to a carelessly discarded cigarette. This was the 1940s and non-smokers were a rarity and you could smoke just about anywhere. The clerk and some guests dumped water on the mattress and thought that the fire was out. Rather than tossing the mattress outside, they stuck it in a closet. Bad idea. A few minutes later, other guests noticed heavy smoke pouring out of the closet and you began to hear shouts of “Fire!” There were only two exits from the building, an interior stairwell which led to the street and another which was a rickety fire escape. The fire quickly moved to cut off most of the guests from the interior stairwell, fueled by the wooden partitions used to separate the rooms. This left the fire escape as the only option, but just days earlier a Fire Department Inspector cited the Gulf Hotel for not installing a red safety light to point the way to the fire escape.
Around 12:50 am, the officers and men at Houston’s Central Fire Station received the alarm. The station was only six blocks away. After the fire, Deputy Chief Grover Cleveland Adams (what a name!) said “As we started out of the station, we could see the reflection of the fire against the sky.” That always signifies a big job. As they pulled up, the sole fire escape was already crowded with men. Some of them were on crutches and making slow progress which backed up the rest of the men trying desperately to get out. Then people started jumping out of the third story windows as that was the only means of escape left. With bodies thudding on the sidewalk, the fire department tried to rescue as many men as possible while the flames continued to light the downtown sky. The body of one victim, unable to escape from the third floor, hung limply out the window for the duration of the fire as a gruesome reminder of a fire’s deadly power.
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Victims were transported to the two nearby hospitals, Saint Joseph and the old Jefferson Davis Hospital, many of them by private auto or police car. Doctors arrived and provided what first aid their could on the scene. Two victims died at the scene and another fifteen died after arrival at the hospital. The city was already dealing with a major tragedy. It took two hours for the fire department to battle their way inside and extinguish the fire. What they found was far worse. Thirty-eight bodies were inside the hotel, overcome by smoke and flames as they tried in vain to reach safety. The fifty-five men who died that night were victims of the deadliest fire in Houston history. Indeed, it is one of the five deadliest hotel fires in 20th Century American History. The 40s saw many deadly hotel fires, unfortunately, and this was just one.
Given that this happened during the midst of World War Two, it did not receive much coverage. Fire disasters like this were not unheard of at the time. Indeed, not even a year earlier, the City of Boston experienced the Coconut Grove Nightclub fire which killed 492 people, the second deadliest fire in American History. The post war brought era brought two other mass fatality fires when the Winecoff (Atlanta) and the La Salle (Chicago) hotels burned. Today, few Houstonians know anything about the Gulf Hotel tragedy. Part of this is because so many of the people who live in Houston today are part of the boom in population that happened after the War. Also, the City of Houston is partially to blame. They gleefully bulldoze any building more than thirty years old. The city has totally lost touch with its past, both good and bad. That is a tragedy of a different sort.
Twenty-three of the victims from this fire were never identified. They were buried in a mass grave at Houston’s South Park Cemetery, where they remain just as forgotten today as they were in 1943. The Houston Chronicle summed it up best at the time when it said the following:
“Who were these men? What strange, pathetic, colorful,
or drab histories led to a fate that sent them unrecognized
to this tragic grave?
Histories that shall be forever unwritten, unknown.
Some of them had good jobs, as shipyard workers,
defense plant workers. Some perhaps were newspaper vendors
peddlers, or clerks in hideaway stores.
Or they were beggars and crippled derelicts wandering
in the city streets with nothing to do, no place to go but
their cots in the crowded hotel.
What kind of homes did they come from? Where?
No one will ever know?”
Perhaps the finest words ever written by the Houston Chronicle. Sadly, we still do not know.
My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian.
Source Notes: In my college years I wrote a paper about this tragedy and had the opportunity to speak with a few people who witnessed the fire. (None of them were inside the hotel at the time.) I also collected newspaper articles, etc, and had a pretty nice file on it. I also consulted a publication available at the Houston Fire Museum called Houston Fire Department: 2000 Traditions & Innovations. There is some debate as to the number of remains buried in the mass grave with some sources saying 23, 31, or even 38. Most of the sources say 23 and so that is what I am going with.

Reap the Whirlwind (Pt. 8)

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Friends,

The novel is now around 66% complete. Assuming I am able to keep to my chapter a day writing schedule, it will be finished on Friday, June 30th. This is a good thing because I’m teaching a US History Since 1877 course the second half of the summer, so it is imperative that I have this knocked out before the class starts. For the subject of today’s post, I will discuss the challenges of writing historical characters, but particularly historical characters who hail from countries other than your own.

An Englishwoman. An Irishman. And two Germans. Sounds like a joke, right? But it is actually where my characters come from. Let us consider for a moment the English language. It has a wide variety of accents and dialects. Consider this point as well. Before television, regional accents tended to be a bit more pronounced than they are now. I have no problem understanding Irish accents but I can’t understand a Bostonian to save my life. Writing this into a novel is tough. You want to give the flavor of where the characters are from, but at the same time you don’t want to descend into a such heavy dialect in the speech that the reader can’t understand what they are saying. A bit of this is okay, I suppose, but you don’t want to go overboard. Dialogue is difficult enough to write as it is. But what if your characters aren’t from the same country as you AND they speak a different language?

If you were to read my novel, obviously you will know without me having to tell you that the German characters are really speaking German but I am writing in English. One thing I’ve noticed on this point is that when British authors write German characters, their English sounds British and when Americans do it, their English sounds American. Either is okay, I guess. But remember that when you are talking about historical characters, their speech has to be at least a little reminiscent of the era in which they lived. Don’t put characters using modern slang in a historical novel! Period! Just don’t! If you are in doubt, leave it out!

And what of historical attitudes? This, Dear Reader, is a tough one. Some writers create characters that have such modern attitudes and feelings on issues that they would have never existed historically. Since two of my characters reside in Nazi Germany in 1943, you can see the dilemma. I’ve read tons of World War 2 fiction. I’ve noticed that German characters typically fall into two categories. You have the ardent anti-Nazis and then you have the stereotypical arrogant and evil Nazi villain. Of course both groups existed in Nazi Germany, but what of the others? The people who, while passively complicit in Nazism, simply lived their lives as best they could under the circumstances. One thing I always tell my history students is to never tell me what they would have done if they had lived back then. Everyone is a badass until it is time to be a badass. We have the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment and a the whole weight of history to show us that most people go along in order to survive.

So, where does that leave us? Ursula, my redheaded heroine (patterned on my German wife, I might add) is a member of a resistance cell in Berlin tasked with a dangerous assignment, made more dangerous by an air raid. The Gestapo is trailing her trying to find out more information on who she is working for. She represents Germans who fought back against the Nazis. Karl, the firefighter, is a bit more complicated and I think does a better job representing the average person in Germany at the time. His father was killed in the First World War. Karl joined the Fire Brigade in Berlin at the age of 19 (in 1929). He joined the Party after it was made clear that his failure to do so would bring about his dismissal. As a reservist, he was called to active duty in August of 1939 and spent the next few years fighting in Poland, France, and Russia where he was seriously wounded. After a protracted recovery, he was discharged and resumed his duties with the Fire Brigade.

In Russia, he took part in anti-partisan operations among other things and speaks of executing Russian civilians with a certain measure of regret. He disagrees with the excesses of Nazism but at the same time he states they are the only think standing between Western Europe and the Communists. He is ambivalent about Hitler and the Party hierarchy. Like many residents of Berlin at the time, Karl has quite a bit of cheek and pokes fun (in private) at several Nazi officials. As Karl spent time in the East, he knows better than most what the Nazis are up to. He doesn’t like it, but he considers it a matter entirely outside of his control. There is much to admire in his character; his kindness to children and animals, his devotion to the men he works with, and his dedication to the citizens of Berlin. But at the same time, he has his dark side too. Such a character is, in my opinion, a somewhat accurate depiction of the German Everyman during World War 2. They weren’t all resisters. They weren’t all ardent Nazis. Most fell in the middle.

The problem from the standpoint of a writer is will people be able to care about what happens to such a character? He is neither good nor evil. Just a man trying to survive, though for what he does not know. The book makes no judgement on “good guys” and “bad guys”. In fact, the antagonist that everyone, both in England and Germany, are fighting against is the war itself. Some characters may be more sympathetic than others, but I’ll leave that up to the readers one day. All I can say is that this is a tough book to write, given the subject matter and the amount of research involved. It’s tough, but I’m doing it. Little by little. I’m getting it done.

Hutch

 

Reaping the Whirlwind (Pt. 6)

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Date: Monday, November 22, 1943

Time: 2230

Picture yourself in the dark interior of a brick lined basement. The stench of unwashed bodies and fear overcomes the odor of mildew. A thin sheet used as a curtain in a corner hides a large bucket, the only toilet available for the two dozen people packed into the small room. Everyone sits on wooden benches. Their ages range from elderly to infants. There are no able bodies men present, as they are all at the front. A few buckets of sand line the floor and everyone wears a helmet, even the children. A radio in the corner keeps up a running commentary on what is taking place above ground. Enemy bomber formations have passed east of Braunschweig. Anticipated target is Berlin. Outside, the sirens howl. Then, antiaircraft batteries open fire, sending sheets of flame shooting into the night sky. And then you hear it, the shriek of falling bombs. Each one explodes with a loud CRUMP which causes your building to shake. Dust drifts down from the ceiling. The bombs march closer and closer. Some of the children start to cry. A few of the adults begin to pray. Will the next bomb have your name on it? Or will it hit the next block?

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Now picture yourself in the sky overhead. Searchlights stab at the sky around you. To be caught in one means death, unless you can escape the cone. This is your 30th mission. If you make it back, you’ll be the first in your squadron to complete a tour in several months. Before takeoff, you learn that some of the other crews have placed bets on your odds of survival. The odds aren’t good. In the past five months, you’ve seen crews come and go. New crews get shot down so fast you don’t have time to learn their names. Two of your own crew died a few nights ago over the same city where you find yourself now. A burning Lancaster drifts across your line of sight. It rolls onto its side and plummets towards the ground, the seven men inside trapped in a fiery coffin. Your bomb aimer, in the nose of your plane, calls out corrections as you reach the target indicators. Left, left. Steady. Right. Right. Steady. Steady. Almost there. A sudden noise makes you jump as your rear gunner opens up on a night fighter. Shrapnel from the flak batteries ping against the side of your plane, like a child throwing pebbles against it. And then the searchlights catch you.

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Now transport yourself 600 miles away. Several months ago, you met a young pilot while he was on leave. Six weeks ago, he proposed and you said yes. When he completes his tour tonight, he’ll be off operations for a while and receive a much safer assignment as an instructor pilot. You know he is flying tonight, and you’ll be married in three days time. As the searchlights catch his aircraft, you are traveling to the small village near his airbase so you can greet him when he gets back. There’s something you need to tell him before the wedding. You meant to do it when you saw him a couple of days ago, but you couldn’t bring yourself to do it. Will he care? Will he cancel the wedding? He seemed withdrawn last time you saw him. And with good reason, he’d just come back from a mission in which two of his crew were killed and one seriously injured. That’s why he got a weekend pass to begin with. His last words when you parted at the train station were “I’m glad I met you.” Hardly the words of a man planning on having a future.

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Let us now return to the city under the bombs. You wait out the raid in a reinforced room on the ground floor of your fire station. In the midst of war, your job is still to save lives. You are a veteran fireman with over ten years on the job. The war interrupted your career and you spent several years on the front lines in Poland, France, and Russia before an injury led to your discharge, aided by the fact that cities needed experienced fire service personnel. You saw the firestorm in Hamburg and its images flash through you mind every time you close your eyes. And now? Now your city is being pounded. As soon as the heaviest bombing passes, you and your crew, one other experienced man and four young women who belong to the Luftschutz leave the station and drive towards the fires burning in the distance. A few bombs are still falling, and as you pull up in front of a blazing apartment building, a bomb explodes just up the block. Shrapnel leaves pockmarks on your truck, but it cuts down four firemen in the street ahead. You can hear the screams over the roar of the flame as you exit the fire engine and go to work. A quick glance up. You see a bomber caught in the searchlights. Black objects tumble from the center of the plane and start their way towards the ground. Towards you.

This gives you a bit of insight into the four main characters in the novel. They all have their own backstories and personal conflicts not necessarily detailed above. I hope that when I am finished, they will become as real to you as they are to me.

Hutch

 

Reap the Whirlwind (Pt. 5)

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Friends,

This post continues a series on my novel in progress. If you are new to the blog, you can catch up on the previous posts here: OneTwoThree, and Four. The novel is now almost halfway complete, though to be honest I have dealt with writer’s block and accompanying challenges over the past couple of months which brought things to a full stop. The second half of any semester is the most difficult for me, teaching wise, since I am snowed under with grading and then end of the semester paperwork. The pain from my injuries is a daily thing which ranges from moderate to murderous. The past six weeks or so, it has been murderous. When you can’t sit for more than 15 or 20 minutes, stand for more than an hour or two, or lie down for more than an hour, it is difficult to focus on anything else. Athletes play with pain. Writers write with pain. I guess I’ll have to just suck it up and soldier on. Something else has been gnawing at me too. Something which I don’t quite know how to handle.

I am a perfectionist in some things. Teaching is one of them. Writing is another. I agonize over every word I say in the classroom. I feel such a solemn obligation to the past that I worry that I’m not doing justice to the experiences of those who lived through the events I teach about. At the end of every class, I engage in self destructive criticism of the day’s lecture where I think of all the better ways I could have said something. Needless to say, I do the same with my writing. Given the current work is an historical one, and of a subject that does not get much attention in the way of fiction, I feel the same sacred obligation. I will type, delete, type, delete, and then type and delete the same line five or six times until I think it sounds right, only to do it all over again when I read over the completed chapter. Once upon a time, I could dash out 6 or 7K words a day in a matter or three or four hours. Now it takes closer to 7 or 8 hours to write 3K words, which is my daily goal. On one hand, being a perfectionist is a good thing when it comes to writing, but on the other and much larger hand, it definitely slows me down.

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Like all writers, I struggle with self doubt. Writing is such a solitary endeavor that forces you to spend hours inside your own head where your personal demons sally forth to assail your confidence. Is anyone going to pay money to read this? It isn’t good enough! The side of a cereal box is more interesting than this garbage! You aren’t going to finish it anyway! I put tremendous pressure on myself. Without getting into too much detail, I teach history part time at a community college. For over ten years, I’ve slaved away at the lowest rung of the academic ladder. Despite two Master’s Degrees, a career outside academia, and a decade of direct experience, it has become blatantly obvious that I will never get a full time faculty position. Given the extent of my injuries, I can’t really do much else and to be fair, I’m not sure I could even handle one of those positions anyway. I’ve been a finalist many times, but these days I can’t even get a first interview. As much as I love being in the classroom, the writing is on the wall. If education, experience, excellent evaluations, and stellar student reviews are not enough to land you a position, then I need to get over my stubborn streak and accept defeat. What does that have to do with my writing? Well, to be blunt, the time has come for my writing to pay. In order for it to pay, I have to beat the writer’s block. And what I write has to be, you know, good. Writing is a struggle. I doubt it comes easy for even the best among us, I do not number among that group.

When you write a period piece, you really have to get inside the period as best you can. My novel is set in 1943 and takes place in two primary locations. Berlin and the inside of a Lancaster bomber. I’ve been out of the right mindset for a long time, so this week I’ve been doing nothing but listening to music from 1939-43 (both British and German) and watching movies and newsreels from the same years. It takes a few days for me to get my mind right to write (see what I did there). I’ve been going through my research files as well as reading the first 11 chapters over again. There is stuff I need to change, but I’m not allowing myself to do that until I’m done with the entire thing. Poring over photos of bomb ruins and bombing victims, reading interview notes, and examining documents and reports is a difficult task, but one you have to do if you want to get it right. Or as right as you possibly can without having been there yourself.

So excuse me now as I gallop off into the sunset on my trusty steed with a redheaded saloon girl behind me in the saddle. (Hmmm…….maybe I should write a western next.)

Alas, I have no horse but I am married to redhead.

Hutch

Pass the Pint, London Can Take It

Friends, Romans, Countrymen,

Yesterday I was interviewed by my esteemed colleague Dr. AJP. You can read my interview here if you’d like. It consists of how I came to teach history and what projects I’m working on. One of the questions asked specifically about my blog and I had to admit it has been some time since I’d put words on the internets. Far too long. My problem is that I have the attention span of a 6 month old baby. I’ll write religiously for a month or two and then I’m like “Oh…..look…..shiny things!” and next thing you know a few months have gone by without a post. I don’t have a good excuse, so I won’t waste your time giving you a bad one. In the interview, I do mention my novel project which as you may recall was the subject of a four part series I wrote. You can find the first article here and sort of take it from there.

Properly chastened, I sallied forth this morning to try and find a worthy subject of which to write. Truth be told, the subjects are worthy of a better writer than I, but I digress. Normally I make a pointed effort to not discuss current events on my blog. It isn’t that I don’t have opinions on things, of course I do, but I don’t really think you’d be interested them. However, today I will break my rule a tiny little bit, only because it is what inspired what I decided to write about.

You’d have to be living under a rock to not know about the terrible tragedies to strike Manchester and London. Nothing I can say would bring comfort to those mourning the loss of a loved one. However, a certain picture making the rounds on social media caught my eye and sparked today’s topic. I chuckled when I saw the photo of the gentleman racing away from the scene of the London attack with his pint. Given drink prices in London, I don’t blame him. But it also speaks to something else. Something deeper.

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On this, the eve of the D-Day anniversary, we in the United States should remember that before we entered the war, and even before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, the British stood alone against Hitler. The Germans hit London hard. At one point, German bombers flew over the city on 57 consecutive nights. People lost their homes and their lives. Over 1 million British homes were damaged or destroyed and half of all British deaths took place in London. Add to that 1,000 British firefighters who died in the line of duty.  In October of 1940, the British government commissioned a short film called London Can Take It. It was primarily aimed at an American audience to reassure them there was no chance of the British giving up. To quote Churchill, the “full fury and might of the enemy” was indeed turned upon them and the British public emerged from the darkness and carried on into a future which saw IRA bombing campaigns and now attacks by Jihadis.

It also reminded me of an audio file I listened to of a Lancaster crew over Germany in 1943. The same spirit of the man carrying the pint can be heard in their voices. “They’re firing at us now.” “Are they?” “Yep.” The boys in Bomber Command were in their late teens and early twenties. They came from all over the Commonwealth. Australians crewed planes alongside South Africans, Welshmen, Canadians, and Scots. Night after night they flew over blacked out German cities bristling with vipers nests of searchlights and Flak batteries. Night fighters prowled the skies looking for them. Nearly half of all Bomber Command crews were killed in action. The odds of finishing a tour of 30 ops in 1943 or 44 were long indeed, yet they kept calm and carried on (a phrase coined by Churchill during the Blitz). These men had gigantic balls made of steel.

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The same spirit which saw the British through the dark days of the Second World War and the dark days of IRA attacks in British cities from the 70s-90s will no doubt see them through their current situation. You will never defeat a country where people think to save their pint in the midst of unspeakable horror. You will never defeat a country where people, night after night, listen to German bombs raining down upon them with no thought of surrender. You will never beat a country willing to stand up to the Nazis alone. The resolve of the British people is, quite simply, unbreakable.

Hutch

 

Reaping the Whirlwind (Pt. 4)

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Dear Readers,

I’ve reached the 1/3rd point of my work in progress. It’s been a mixture of slow and fast going. I write much slower now than I ever have before. When in college, I could dash off 10 pages in a matter of an hour or two. Now, my 3,000 word a day limit sometimes takes me the better part of 6 hours to finish. Of those words, maybe half of them are actually any good. But books a rewritten more than they are written. That’s what editing is for. The important thing is to get the first draft finished. I’ve identified several issues with the overall plot and layout which will require extensive revision. I may end up cutting the four characters down to two so that I can get more in depth into them and their world. We’ll see. There is much left to write.

As I slave away in front of the computer, I have been pondering great works of World War 2 fiction that I’ve read in my life. If you are a writer, you have your favorites that influence your style and even the type of fiction you write. I’m a HUGE fan of the Dave Robicheaux series by the great James Lee Burke. Indeed, my completed novel is a mystery set in a fictitious Texas town on the Gulf Coast. It’s pretty good, actually. I haven’t take the time to revise and edit it though. I might once I finish with my current project. So please allow me a few moments to discuss my favorite World War 2 novels. For those who tough it out to the end, you’ll get to read the opening of my own novel So Others May Live. 

Bomber by Len Deighton. This is an incredibly written novel which takes place over a 24 hour time span. It details everything that went into planning and carrying out a bombing raid on the fictitious German town of Altgarten. At the same time, it also details the town itself with all its secrets and intrigue. Deighton is a master storyteller. As an added bonus, the BBC did a radio dramatization of the novel in the early 90s too, so you can both read it and then listen to a radio version of it. Both are excellent. I would tell people that if they read any novel about the Second World War, make it this one.

A Time to Love and a Time to Die by Erich Maria Remarque. Wait, I hear you saying, isn’t he the guy that wrote All Quiet on the Western Front? Yes, Dear Readers, he is. This novel is, in my opinion, perhaps better even than his best known work. It takes place over a short span of time and involves a German soldier on leave from the Eastern Front. Particularly evocative of the paranoia and claustrophobia of wartime Germany, Remarque does an excellent job showing the behavior of people in wartime. It is worth noting that Remarque’s books were banned in Nazi Germany and he fled to Switzerland. In retaliation, the Nazis arrested his sister who remained behind. At her trial for undermining morale, the judge said “Your brother is unfortunately beyond our reach but you, however, will not escape us.” She was beheaded in 1943. Remarque eventually immigrated to the United States and became and American citizen. He married actress Paulette Goddard who was both incredibly hot and a redhead. But I digress.

The Burning Blue by James Holland. A friendship. A forbidden love affair with a best friend’s twin sister. Spitfires. The Battle of Britain. They blend together in this wonderful novel to create a perfect tale of wartime England. Told through a series of flashbacks whilst the main character lies recovering in a hospital bed in North Africa, the book starts a few years before the war and builds towards an exciting climax. You feel for the main character as he lives on a razor’s edge during the Battle of Britain. You want him to get the girl and you genuinely grieve when he doesn’t. Or does he? The aerial combat scenes are magnificent as are the personal interactions between the characters. Holland is a master of aviation fiction. (See his other work A Pair of Silver Wings as well.) For fans of British period dramas (Foyle’s War, etc) or The Battle of Britain, I highly recommend this novel. If you want to find yourself behind the controls of a Spit, read this book at once.

Berlin by Pierre Frei. This is technically not a World War 2 novel as it is set in Berlin, but it is at least in the immediate post-war period. A serial killer stalks the streets and a Kripo detective is partnered up with the Americans to track him down. What is really neat about this novel is that you have a chapter about each victim that tracks their lives up until the instant they are murdered. Then you’ll have a chapter about the investigation of their death. Getting deep into the lives of the characters makes their deaths all the more tragic. The novel does an incredible job of describing post-war Berlin; the hunger, the black market, the fraternizing between GIs and German girls that wasn’t supposed to be taking place, the secrets people tried to keep about the lives during the Nazi era. The author was born in Berlin in 1930 and grew up there. First published in German in 2003, it was translated to English in 2005. Definitely read this, especially if you like murder mysteries.

Payback by Gert Ledig. “When the first bomb fell, the blast hurled the dead children against the wall.” Holy F–k! What an opening! This book is rare and difficult to get a copy of, though used copies do exist. First published in German in 1956, it was not translated into English until 1999. The author served on the Eastern Front and was sent home after he was wounded near Leningrad. Whilst at home, he experienced Allied air raids which are the subject of this novel. The book isn’t long. The whole thing takes place over the course of an hour or so in a nameless town as it is pummeled by bombs. Each short chapter tells about one person in the town. Before each chapter is short piece where the character introduces themselves to the reader. You see the raid unfold with all its macabre horror. From a 16 year old girl raped in a cellar as bombs fall to the dead unburied by explosions and hurled into the trees, Payback provides a stomach churning glance into life under the bombs. The book is controversial because British and American audiences do not generally like to read about what their bombs did. Still, this book is an anti-war classic and a must read.

Now, Dear Readers, as promised, here is the opening to So Others May Live. Keep in mind this is an unedited first draft and I cannot state with certainty that this will be the opening scene in the finished product and even if it is, it’ll probably be a bit different.

Fire. A tornado of fire. Flames shot upwards, a thousand feet or more, and turned the night sky to daylight. Wind swirled around the base of the inferno. Over the roar of the conflagration, a new sound emerged like the scream of wounded animals. People staggered over the rubble choked streets as the heat seared their bodies. Clothing burst into flame. The human torches ran in circles until they dropped to the street and lay still. The wind grew in intensity until it lifted, first children and then adults, and hurled them into the seat of the fire. They screamed and flailed in the air until the flames devoured them. Hair burned. Clothes burned. Even the streets burned. The odor roasted flesh overpowered that of the phosphorus driven firestorm. Somewhere, a bell rang.  

There you have it, friends.

Hutch