Torpedoed

The full title of Deborah Heiligman’s latest work of narrative nonfiction–Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of the “Children’s Ship”–has all the elements to attract readers. It promises adventure, a survival story, in a World War II setting with children as the protagonists–and it’s all true! The event was so traumatic, written documentation abounded, even if news reports were censored. For Heiligman, the subject would have been a meatball over the heart of the plate, just begging to be smashed out of the park.

But Deborah Heiligman has too much respect for her work to consider any project “easy.” Besides, the challenges were as manifest as the advantages. How to tell a story with a dozen and more protagonists? How to maintain the tension in a slow-moving disaster, one whose precipitating event is known the from the outset? Most troubling of all, how to handle the fact of death, the loss of so many innocent lives in a book for readers hardly equipped to comprehend the enormity of the tragedy?

While introducing the reader to her many characters, Heiligman attends to the details that bring alive the lost world of wartime Britain. Nine-year-old Jack Keeley had

seen the newsreels before the cartoons at the tuppenny rush, the children’s matinee movie on Saturdays. And he’d noticed the signs of war everywhere: lorries (trucks) with soldiers in the back, their guns pointed skyward, ready to fire on German planes; neighborhood playgrounds dug up and made into air raid shelters. There were also sandbag fortifications here and there, windows crisscrossed with tape to prevent flying glass during the bombing, and sixty-foot-long barrage balloons, raised to force enemy planes to fly around them.

Even later in the narrative, as the seven boys in Lifeboat 12 begin their grinding eight-day ordeal in the North Atlantic, Heiligman uses flashback to lend context and underscore her characters’ youth:

And back at home, before they’d left, they’d had the run of their neighborhoods, as all British kids did back then, playing freely in their yards or even the streets. On days without school, children would be out all day, with an apple and some cookies in their pockets, running about, riding bicycles if they had them, even on major roads. They’d bring their cricket bat and ball and play wherever they could against stumps or stoops, using their coats as wickets. They’d play running and chasing games, like  tag, touch, poison, crusts and crumbs, blind man’s buff, and leapfrog. They’d play with marbles and climb trees.

Heiligman continues for three more paragraph on how the children’s play changed with the Blitz. Bombed out buildings became places to explore. Dogfights overhead became more exciting than newsreels. While helping twenty-first century American children understand the world of wartime British children, Heiligman heightens the stakes of her characters yearning to return home.

Throughout the narrative, Heiligman works to give her a kid’s-eye view of events. She makes thorough use of the source material, much of it held at the Imperial War Museum, as well as of interviews she conducted with survivors or their descendants. She quotes abundantly from the source material and includes remembered words gained from interviews, written without quotation marks. As the children board their liner to Canada, Jack Keeley (again!) “was immediately bowled over by how large the ship was”–Heiligman’s words for his memory–“Years later, he’d realize it wasn’t as large as it looked to a nine-year-old boy. But at this moment, it seemed titanic.” The final descriptor will be a tantalizing touch for almost every one of her readers.

With the children on the ship, Heiligman shows them as kids, running about the deck, exploring the ship, playing games of their own and those devised by their minders. And, seated for meals in the sumptuous dining room, gaping in awe at the luxury around them. For these children, used to strapped family budgets and wartime rationing, the bounty they were served aboard the City of Benares‘s was truly awesome. Especially the ice cream. They scarfed it down with abandon. Then Heiligman brings us up short with a reminder of what awaited: “Those who survived would remember, even decades later, that the loss of all that ice cream felt like a terrible tragedy.”

Sentences such as this one are part of a concerted effort to foreshadow the coming catastrophe. Heiligman will not allow her reader lull herself into thinking this is a suspense story. No, she hammers home, the tragedy is known and understood. You must not be surprised. This is a story about the confluence of attitudes and actions and accidents that lead to good and bad outcomes, often with little rhyme or reason: “Later, after disaster struck, this pocket money would become a huge concern for the boys.” Or: “Before too long, this guilt would come to haunt her–and maybe even save her  life.” And again: “For some it would mean rescue. For others it would mean confusion that led to abandonment.”

Heiligman’s relies on her most skilled writing to convey the feel of experience. She wasn’t there, yet she works to get inside the documentary evidence and the firsthand accounts. Like a poet, she uses rhythm, repetition, and juxtaposition to help convey the reality behind mere sensory description.

In Lifeboat 12, to pass the time and keep up the children’s spirits, they played all the travel games in the repertoire. Including “I Spy”:

What did they spy?
Each other.
The other people on the boat.
Parts of the boat: sail, mast, tiller, handles, a jug of drinking water, tins of bully beef…. At sea there was–the sea. Waves, clouds, spray. A very few sea birds.
The bathroom bucket.
But there was not much to spy that nobody else could. It was too easy to guess.
There was a surplus of what they could not spy:
      • Other life boats from the Benares
      • Lifeboats from any other ship
      • fishing boats
      • cruise ships
      • oilers
      • destroyers
      • sailboats
      • yachts
      • rescuers
      • land
      • Mum
      • Dad
      • little brothers
      • all the people who weren’t in Lifeboat 12
There was so little to see and so much to long for. “I Spy,” it turned out, was no fun, no fun at all.

And how does Heiligman face the solemn duty of “killing off her characters”? A lifeboat is flipped as it is being lowered by the davits, dumping its passengers, grown and not, into storm-tossed waters. How to do justice to the enormity of the loss? Here’s how Heiligman does it:

Violet Grimmond, ten, and Connie, nine, plunged to their deaths. [No euphemism, the hard, stark word.]
And little Joyce Keeley, who had never stopped crying for her mother. [Imagine the excruciating terror of an already inconsolable child; feel the cruelty of it.]
Screams louder than the storm pierced the air. [The piercing shriek of death rising over the howls of an uncaring Nature.]
Ruby Grierson would never finish her film.
Margaret Zeal, the CORB doctor, gone, too. [Adults, their dreams and their talents, were lost, too.]
And Gussie Grimmond. Strong, quirky, strong-willed Gussie. Gone. [The abstraction is made concrete: the inherent value of each child, along with her potentiality…gone.]
Everyone in that lifeboat, gone. Just like that. [No longer part of the story.]

Heiligman is acutely conscious of this as she tells her story of the heroes and those who toughed it out and those who got lucky: the survivors. Yes, she introduces characters who die–so many did–but they are part of the narrative. In most cases, she was able to tell of their final moments (somehow a consolation to the living, certainly a satisfaction to the reader). But, aware that the great bulk of the dead remain nameless in her narrative, she ends her tale with one who stands in for all those anonymous others.

Beryl Myatt was one of seventy-seven CORB children who died. Like so many of the others, we don’t know much about her. We don’t know about her days on the ship, or how she died. We cannot tell her whole story. But we know she was beloved.

Heiligman proceeds to give the few details we do know in the book’s final four-and-a-half paragraphs, giving the final word to the CORB (Children’s Overseas Reception Board) representative in her letter to Beryl’s grieving parents: “You will have to think of the whole seas as little Beryl’s grave. She belongs to a very gallant company of people whose grave is the sea.”

Source: Heiligman, Deborah. Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of the Children’s Ship. New York: Henry Holt, 2019.

Guerrilla Wife

posted in: WWII, WWII: Pacific Theater | 0

Guerra = “war” in Spanish.

Guerrilla = “little war.”

In English, guerilla more often means a fighter in one of those little wars. Louise Spencer’s husband, an engineer for an American mining company in the Philippines, became guerilla fighter. That’s how Louise became a “guerilla wife.” Like the farmer and the farmer’s wife, I thought. Why does she have to be defined by him? Isn’t she a farmer, too? Isn’t she on the same team, involved in the same business?

Oh, it’s a knotty issue. Or perhaps not at all.

Spencer’s book is not really about guerilla resistance to Japanese occupation of the Philippines from 1942 to 1945. It is more about civilian resistance–the refusal of a group of American expatriates to turn themselves in to the occupiers. It is a classic survival story with the added element of a wartime setting. The title, Guerrilla Wife, with its hints of military resistance to the hated Japanese, could only have helped to sell books.

Americans had been a colonial power in the Philippines for over fifty years when the Pacific War began. That was The USA’s first offense against the Japanese Empire. A rising economic and military power, Japan thought Asia should be left for Asians. Japan wanted–needed if she was to keep growing as an industrial power–colonies of her own. But the United States, French, Dutch, and English had already taken all the resource-rich countries of Southeast Asia. This, as much as anything, was the reason for the start of the Pacific War in December 1941. On the same day that the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked Pearl Harbor (though on the other side of the International Date Line it is fixed as December 8 rather than 7), its forces struck in the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Malaya.

The Philippines is a nation of a dozen large islands, 2,000 inhabited islands, and 7,000 islands in all. It is hard to defend. But it is also hard to occupy and control, maybe impossible.

On December 8, 1941, Louise Spencer is an engineer’s wife. Her husband, whom she calls Spence, works at the American mining company on the island of Masbate. She is Canadian. The news of Pearl Harbor and air raids on Manila comes in over the radio. Everything changes and, at the same time, very little changes. Life goes on, and the Americans of Masbate expect the U.S. army, navy, and air forces will beat back the attack.

But, no. American resistance crumbles. The Japanese reach their island. And Louise and Spence flee to the hills. Then they hire a sailboat to the next island, Panay, and live comfortably for a while before, again, fleeing into the hills. In her book, Louise describes the decision they face: “We could flee and live the life of fugitives, or we could stay here and let the Japs put us into a concentration camp.” While many Americans choose capture, the Spencers and others do not.

Until now, Louise has been a somewhat pampered engineer’s wife. (That expression again!). Now she has to learn to do what women of a lower class have been doing all their lives. Such as laundry. “This was hard work,” she says. “I didn’t have the expert knack of a Filipina lavandera, and made even harder work of it than necessary.” Though other women do the cooking in their forest encampment, she does all the other chores in food preparation and calls herself a “scullery maid.” Later in her twenty-three-month ordeal, she has the resourcefulness to make peanut butter by grinding peanuts in a meat grinder. She is quite pleased with herself–but even more pleased with the peanut butter!

She, and the other Americans used to middle class comforts, learn to live with forest critters and other inconveniences that go under the category of “ew-gross!” They don’t worry any more if about consuming bugs with their food: “There were literally billions of ants. We laughed to think of how finicky we had been not long ago, refusing food that had an ant on it and such nonsense as that.” They no longer think of intestinal worms as a problem of the mountain people, the Bukidnons.  “Now we all knew we had them , and there was nothing that could be done about it. Sometimes we even joked about it.” While fleeing through a swampy area, their group of fugitives become riddled with leeches on  their legs and elsewhere. Louise hardly bats an eye, but flicks them off occasionally with the blade of a knife.

Louise and a group of American fugitives set up camp in a forested valley they called Hopevale, population twenty-two. But this number is misleading. Spence and a few other men are often away scouting and doing whatever they do with the guerrilla resistance. And more than a few “boys,” servants, live among them, too. Pilo, sixteen-years-old at the start of their adventure, is the Spencers’ “boy.” Louise thinks him a “treasure.” He does “everything in such a happy, gay spirit.”

The fact is: the American fugitives could not have survived without assistance from Filipinos. Much of the assistance they paid for, but not all. Much was given out of kindness and, perhaps, even a sense of loyalty. As the Americans escape farther into the hills, away from the approaching Japanese, they always find someone willing to put them up for a night or three. When they need huts for themselves, the local mountain people build them for the Americans. The Bukidnons have the know-how, and the Americans do not. These people neither begrudge the inconvenience nor shy away from the very real risk they are taking. If caught helping Americans, the Japanese will make them pay with their lives. Indeed, before the story ends, some do.

The Americans employ “cargadores,” porters, to carry their belongings when they head into the hills and almost every other time they are forced to flee for safer ground. When Louise’s friend, Laverne, gives birth to a baby girl, a strong young cargador carries her baby in a sling across his chest as they hike into the hills.

The Americans have money, and they can pay for the goods and services they need, as long as the Filipinos are willing to trade. Even after their money runs low, Spence collects monthly pay as a captain in the guerillas. It is not government-issued money. It is printed by the guerillas. But it is accepted by all Filipinos who oppose the Japanese invasion. “Of course,” Louise writes, “if we had come to the end of our money the Filipinos would not have let us starve.” Then she adds, “But we were glad we could pay our way. Americans had always paid their way in the islands, and we still had our pride, even if little else.”

Yes, pride.

As humans and colonials, the Americans surely brought with them a sense of American superiority. Yet Louise Spencer rarely gives a glimpse of obvious prejudice. There is just one incident in which her feelings of pride–American pride–erupts. Over and over, she hears the same expression from the locals: “You suffer so, your sacrifice is very great!” It is an expression of sympathy that yet carries a hint of “I-told-you-so” superiority, as in “You Americans are not so mighty, after all.” Over its many repetitions, Louise thinks little of the remark. If anything, she thinks her sacrifice not so very great at all. But one time, at least, a sensitive nerve is set off. Louise explodes, “Well, then, I do not suffer, nor do you! We are getting along and will continue to get along until General MacArthur returns with his army!” America’s honor was being questioned, and she would stand up to defend it.

Spencer gives almost no window into the work of the guerilla whose wife she is. She hardly seems interested, which is just as well because Spence does not tell her anything, anyway. The one time she mentions it, she says the guerrillas were successful in “psychological warfare.” With few weapons and little ammunition, they nevertheless carry out ambushes that make it “impossible for [the Japanese] to organize their famous co-prosperity sphere on the island.” That’s as much window into the “guerrilla” part of her book as the reader is allowed.

Once in their two years in hiding, Spence and Louise, husband and wife, take a kind of vacation together. They spend a few days on the coast, where they “swam and splashed and played tag like two children.” As they sit on the beach, soaking in sun and sea air, watching the sun set, the couple feels a kind of freedom they have not felt in months. “We had not realized how shut in we had felt in the forest until now, when we could watch the sun going down far and free across the water.” As the reader, I felt happy for them.

A few pages later, though, I was surprised at the strength of a disagreement that arose between them. Louise says she is committed to stick with her friend Laverne, even if her pregnancy prevents her from escaping. Spence pulls husbandly rank: “Well, I have my plans, and you’ll go with me.” I was shocked but pleased that Louise did not roll over. Ignoring Spence’s decrees, Louise makes up her own mind: “I was completely resolved that I would stick with Laverne. We should see.” In the end, Louise sticks by her friend, though it didn’t seem to require defying her husband.

Her friendship with Laverne is a truly special one. In perhaps the most memorable scene in the whole book, she and her friend create birthday cake in primitive conditions and transport it by banca river boat to another friend downstream. The boat capsizes, and Louise struggles to rescue the floating cake. In the end, she must settle with saving herself. Laverne does the same. One of the banqueros, boatmen, retrieves the cake, “now more of a pudding” than a cake. If you think the friends bemoaned the loss of their cake, you would be wrong. On the river bank, soaked to the skin, they howl in laughter. “We stood there on the shore getting the giggles–Laverne and I were always getting the giggles together, it seemed–over our stupid accident.”

Laverne delivers a baby boy in January 1944. It is touch-and-go for a while, but mother and baby pull through. In February, Louise finds out that she is pregnant, too. And in March word arrives that an American submarine will come to carry them away to Australia. As the date approaches for the rendezvous, Louise begins to allow herself to imagine freedom: “We would not regret leaving this kind of life, if we really were to leave it now. We had probably learned a lot, and maybe  the experience had done some of us good, but the thought of being disappointed now, of having to return again to the hills, made our blood run cold.” Seeing the Pilo’s sadness at the news does bring a twinge of regret, perhaps mixed with guilt at abandoning their loyal servant.

In the sub, Louise and Laverne are offered coffee and cream by “an American Negro.” At first, Louise cannot think what the cream could possibly be for and refuses. Then she reconsiders: Why, yes, she would like some, after all. Served a meal of American-style bread, cheese, meat, pickles, potato salad, rolls, and mustard: “We exclaimed over it like children, and ate until not a crumb was left.

Source: Spencer, Louise Reid. Guerrilla Wife. Chicago: People’s Book Club, 1945.

Images:

“Bukidnon–Historical Photos,” Environmental Science for Social Change, (2020) https://essc.org.ph/content/view/704/1/.

“Submarine Warfare Played Major Role in World War II Victory,” U.S. Department of Defense (March 16, 2020) https://www.defense.gov/Explore/Features/Story/Article/2114035/submarine-warfare-played-major-role-in-world-war-ii-victory/

 

Context Matters: Why I Read Broadly

The Many Lives of Eddie Rickenbacker is coming out in two months. Just last month I completed and approved the final changes to the manuscript. Near the end of the process I panicked about this sentence: “[Rickenbacker] visited the island of Guadalcanal where he witnessed the hellish conditions under which Americans soldiers fought.” Did he really get a flight to the island? Not even COMSOPAC Robert Ghormley, whose job it was to oversee the Guadalcanal operation, made the trip (though his replacement, Halsey, and his boss, Nimitz, did). For four months, thousands of Marines had been living on the edge of extermination; harassed by daily air raids, nightly naval bombardments, and artillery fire from the jungle any time of day. These men had been beaten down by tropical disease, insufficient calories, interrupted sleep, and a hopeless sense of abandonment.

I knew all this because I had been reading about the Pacific War throughout the entire editing process. I understood the timeline. Rickenbacker arrived on Guadalcanal in early-mid December, soon after the Japanese threat had been checked. I knew that, but it was easy to allow the mid-November date of his rescue (it took a month to recover from his ordeal) to creep into my mind as I read my own words for the penultimate time. That’s why I decided to check if he really did get to Guadalcanal.

I found the “hellholes of the Pacific” quote on the bottom of page 445 of Lewis’s biography. There it said he had visited Espiritu Santo, the Navy’s operational base, and spoke with soldiers coming out from the island. I had been wrong! I reread the passages several times to be sure. Alas, if I had only turned the page, I would have seen that he did indeed fly to Guadalcanal the next day, December 10. Both the date and the island’s name are highlighted at the top of the page. The two lengthy paragraphs that follow have no highlighting, but are full of details of Rickenbacker’s impressions of Guadalcanal, all of interest to me now. Rickenbacker met commander General Sandy Patch who was, as it happened, in just his first full day in charge. His Second Marine Corps Regiment had relieved the First Marines just the day before.

So I was right in the first instance and wrong in the second. Thankfully, the revised sentence that will be in the published book is not wrong factually, but is incomplete and would have been better left in the original. This little lead was going to be about the importance of knowing context, about how I hadn’t known much about Guadalcanal or the geography of the Southwest Pacific and almost made a mistake as a result. Instead, it is more about a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. And the unreliability of human brains, mine in particular.

But let’s let the original premise stand: broader contextual understanding is necessary for the understanding of more narrow events or narratives. It is necessary to prevent inaccuracies from creeping into your text (though perhaps not sufficient if your cognitive style is one of panicky jumpiness). As I have read about events in the Pacific War in recent months, I automatically made connections with the Rickenbacker story to help me better understand it. The connections and understandings traveled in both directions, of course. What follows is a reflection on what I discovered.

 

My first “Aha!” moment came as I was reading Ian Toll’s The Conquering Tide. The section started blandly enough with a description of Nimitz’s “gentleman-of-the-old-school” composure, despite the desperate situation in the late summer of 1942. Would the Navy hold Guadalcanal, or would it turn into a second Bataan? Nimitz decided to travel four thousand miles to meet with his commanders in New Caledonia. (His plane refueled uneventfully at Canton, I noted.) It is not until the end of Toll’s five-page account of the conference that the significance struck home. Here was the genesis of Rickenbacker’s mission to MacArthur in October 1942!

MacArthur didn’t deign to attend the meeting in Nouméa. (His presence in Brisbane was in dispensable, he explained in his refusal. His biographer, Walter Borneman, believed that MacArthur repeatedly shunned such conferences throughout the war, sending his aide-de-camp Richard Sutherland in his stead, in order to maintain his stature. Among all those 4-star generals and admirals he would be just one among equals. [Borneman 325] Army Air Force chief Hap Arnold was there, the same Arnold who enlisted Rickenbacker to boost pilot morale earlier in the year. As one of the most outspoken chiefs for the Europe-First policy first adopted in 1941, even before Pearl Harbor, Arnold ruffled a lot of feathers in Nouméa. Among commanders in the Pacific, engaged in an existential battle with a determined foe, Arnold must have come across as tone-deaf. He then traveled on to Australia to meet with his supreme commander. There he clashed directly with MacArthur, who felt no compunctions about speaking  his mind. Arnold said he was “incredulous” at MacArthur’s insubordination. He explained that the general, like all commanders, should be “indoctrinated with the idea that there is a United States plan–An Allied plan–for winning the war, and all must conform to it.” [Toll 2015, 128-129]

I realized at that moment that Arnold would have brought his incredulity–simmering during the long plane ride across the Pacific–back to the States in early October. He would have given Secretary of War Stimson an earful of complaints, and Stimson, who would become exasperated with MacArthur only later in the war, would have mollified Arnold with an assurance of direct action. Together they might have hit upon Rickenbacker as their man. The ace and Eastern Air Lines president had served Arnold in the spring and was just then returning to the States after serving Stimson on a tour of inspection in the U.K. Stimson would send Rickenbacker east to put MacArthur in his place. Borneman speculated with some confidence that the secret message Rickenbacker learned by heart “was a sharp reprimand, demanding that MacArthur cease his personal publicity campaign, stop complaining about the Joint Chiefs and the resources allocated to his theater, and stop waging war against the United States Navy.” [Borneman 257]

Thus did the overworked, still-pained Rickenbacker get sent on a mission that would lead to a twenty-three-day ordeal in a raft in the Pacific.

Biographer W. David Lewis thought Rickenbacker “the ideal emissary for Stimson.” His “civilian status, self-assurance, unwillingness to take anyone’s guff insured that MacArthur’s exalted rank and imperious manner would not overawe him.” [Lewis 415] In fact, both were outspoken anti-communists and anti-New Dealers. Both spoke out forcefully for the need for American defensive preparations. Yet, while Rickenbacker was an aviation booster, MacArthur remained an aviation skeptic. During the court-martial of Brigadier General Billy Mitchell in 1925, MacArthur had sat in judgment of the internal critic, and Rickenbacker had spoken as witness for the defense.

Three weeks after his rescue, having put on twenty of the fifty-four pounds he had lost during the ordeal, Rickenbacker insisted on completing his mission. MacArthur greeted him warmly in Port Moresby, something he did not do for everyone who visited. But none of those had undergone a grueling ordeal at sea to get there. And, besides, MacArthur had become an enthusiastic convert to air power. “You know, Eddie,” he admitted, “I probably did the American Air Forces more harm than any man living when I was chief of staff by refusing to believe in the airplane as a war weapon, and I am doing everything I can to make amends for that great mistake.” [Lewis 444] This was as self-deprecating a statement as has been documented coming from the famously vain general. MacArthur welcomed Rickenbacker and heard his message, but, Borneman says, “there is little, if any, evidence that MacArthur moderated his ways.” [Borneman 257]

The still somewhat emaciated Rickenbacker continued on to Espiritu Santo and Guadalcanal. The “hollow-eyed, exhausted and emaciated young men…had grown frightfully old in four months’ time,” Rickenbacker wrote. [Lewis 446] He witnessed first-hand what would soon be called the thousand-yard stare. Rusting hulls of Japanese landing craft littered the island’s coast; mangled aircraft lined the runways of Henderson Field.  Rain, mud, and mosquitoes made sleep impossible. The privations of Villeneuve and Rembercourt would have seemed trivial in comparison. By way of conclusion, I wrote in my book, “This experience, coming on the heels of his three-week ordeal, changed Rickenbacker and his approach to the war. No more would he defend a military system that was anything less than meticulous, exacting, in its preparations. No more would he temper his words or worry if he ‘stepped on tender toes.'”

I have since read widely enough in the Pacific War to appreciate the significance of Guadalcanal in the nation’s history, the war’s history, and Rickenbacker’s life story. James Hornfischer, in Neptune’s Inferno, quotes Hap Arnold summing up his trip of September 1942: “It looked to me as if everybody on the South Pacific front had a bad case of the jitters”–from the COMSOPAC on down. Vice-Admiral Ghormley whined, “The Government is not backing us up down here with what we need, why, I don’t know,” and “This is a shoestring operation, we haven’t got enough of anything. We’re just hanging on by our teeth.” [Hornfischer 129, 202] (Nimitz picked up on the complaint and used humor to blunt its sting, referring to the invasion as Operation SHOESTRING, in jest.)

The rank-and-file Marine on the island echoed Ghormley’s desperation. Lieutenant Commander John Lawrence described the sense of abandonment his fellow Marines felt: “It was the hopelessness, the feeling that nobody gave a curse whether we lived or died.” [Hornfischer 195] By the time Rickenbacker reached Guadalcanal in December 1942 the desperation had abated. Indeed, a fresh division had just arrived to garrison the island. Yet, I imagine he picked up more than a little resentfulness from those on their way out. Born again from his Pacific ordeal, Rickenbacker’s mindset would have been fertile ground for their message of abandonment by their government. Rickenbacker the prophet was ready to evangelize.

He said he was not afraid to “step on tender toes.” I wrote next, “He criticized the nation’s war effort publicly and did step on toes— even those of President Franklin Roosevelt.” With this in my manuscript, my ears pricked up distinctly when, a few weeks ago while listening to a podcast on the Depression, I heard Roosevelt speak those very words: “In the working out of a great national program that seeks the primary good of the greater number, it is true that the toes of some people are being stepped on and are going to be stepped on. But these toes belong to the comparative few who seek to retain or to gain position or riches or both by some shortcut that is harmful to the greater good.” [“Lives of the Great Depression,” Throughline, July 23, 2020.] Was Rickenbacker using Roosevelt’s words back at him?  The thought is intriguing, even if unlikely.

If Rickenbacker had been a gadfly in the twenties and thirties, buzzing on about the need for America to keep pace in the field of aviation, he became a Jeremiah after the Pacific Ordeal, as 1942 turned to 1943. He goaded and browbeat his countrymen to do more for the war effort and to do it gladly. “You…should be grateful for the privilege of offering everything you know how…. For none of us are doing so much that we cannot do more.” [New York Times, January 23, 1943] He earned a reputation for labor baiting, chastising workers for slowdowns and stoppages. He could not understand workers putting their personal needs and those of their families above those of their country. I did discover in my reading that Rickenbacker’s concerns were real. There was not as much domestic unity of purpose as the popular understanding of the Good War leads us to believe.

George Roeder’s The Censored War supplies numerous examples of propaganda promoting the very message Rickenbacker was delivering in more strident tones. One poster of a dead GI was titled, “This Happens Every Three Minutes.” The take-away written below: “Stay on the job and get it over.” Later in the war the Treasury Department produced a film, Two and One-Half Minutes, for viewing in industrial plants engaged in war production (the death rate had picked up speed). It was released to the general public in the final months of the war. Thinking back on his years directing the Office of War Information (OWI), Elmer Davis averred: “There was much more domestic political bitterness in the country than there was in 1917.” [Roeder 33, 36, 122] In this light, my words at the end of chapter 9 take on a slightly different resonance: “Rickenbacker had played his part [in the war], but he was not the unifying hero he had been after the last war. He was a polarizing figure now—loved by some, despised by others.”

Rickenbacker’s tune had changed significantly from the early years of the war, 1939-1940. The last thing he wanted was for his country to get sucked into another total war in Europe. He had seen the destruction of men and property in 1918. He foresaw no virtue in having American boys and girls “regimented into uniforms” and taught to shoulder guns when they should be free to play with marbles, and baseball, and model airplanes. [Broadcasts I, September 26, 1939.] He was recruited to represent America First Committee, but he was never actively involved. He steadfastly preserved his independence: “I represent no person or persons–group or groups….” [Farr 254] And as conditions changed, he changed his mind. On his way out of a four-month stay in the hospital post-Atlanta crash and six months before Pearl Harbor, he told a reporter, leaving no shade of doubt where he stood, “We are in [the war] and we have been in it for a year. …The sooner everyone knows we are in the better it will be. …The sooner we crush Hitler the better.” [New York Times, June 26, 1941.]

Rickenbacker was no pacifist. He advocated a strong military as a deterrent. As an airline executive he proposed a plan for building 50,000 commercial planes for transport so that if the country were drawn into war it could quickly retool them for military purposes. (Using the same reasoning, he emphasized the importance of training of pilots.) Officials in power did not pay enough attention to this sensible idea, despite Rickenbacker’s persistence. I thought of Rickenbacker when I came across a Walter Lippmann column in Life magazine. “This war cannot be won unless we realize why we failed to prevent it,” wrote the great liberal journalist. “We are now paying for and are now repairing the greatest failure of popular government in America.” He sounded a lot like Rickenbacker to me, or perhaps vice versa. The policies of the interwar years, Lippmann said, had moved the country from “a state of perfect security to a state of deadly danger.” [Lippmann, “America’s Great Mistake,” Life, July 21, 1941, 74.]

Rickenbacker lost some of his independence and also his gadfly role when Army Air Forces chief Hap Arnold asked him to give his pilots pep talks. “Put some fire in them,” he said. [Rickenbacker 1967, 272] Morale was low, preparedness had not kept pace, as Rickenbacker had forewarned. Now his job was to be a booster, and he took to the task with energy (as much as he could muster considering the physical ailments that still plagued him post-Atlanta crash). Rickenbacker’s public pronouncements of 1942 clearly show a determination to put a positive spin on AAF preparedness, personnel, and planes.

All the descriptions of American fighters and bombers I have since read accord with Rickenbacker’s assessments. But where Rickenbacker maintained the political tact required of his role, others in the field could speak more candidly. This gem came from a pilot as recorded by journalist Clark Lee: “It’s high damn’ time our plane manufacturers stopped wasting advertising space trying to prove to our people that we have the world’s best planes and started producing them instead.” [Lee 154] But my favorite was uttered earlier in Bataan, the paragon for American unpreparedness. The irony is so artfully spare, it could  have been published in a 1940s version of The Onion: Dear Mr. Roosevelt; our P-40 is full of holes. Please send us a new one.” [Lascher 271]

In his 1967 autobiography, Rickenbacker contended that he promoted Black American pilots in defiance of the policies that kept most Negro cadets grounded. “They are a grand bunch of kids and great pilots,” Rickenbacker has himself arguing. “But something should be done immediately to commission them, they are deserving of it.” [Rickenbacker 1967, 315] This might well have been revisionist history and public relations for a new era. Chicago Defender newspaperman Enoch Waters remembered Rickenbacker–and Charles Lindbergh, too–for actively discouraging Black American from entering aviation. He said they questioned Negroes’ the ability, despite counter-evidence from the likes of Bessie Coleman and Hubert Julian, the Black Eagle. [Waters 202-203] Waters was in a position to know about such things. He helped bring the National Airmen’s Association of America to Chicago’s Harlem Airport. He, along with Willa Brown, Cornelius Coffey, and financial support from Waters’s Defender boss, Robert Abbott, founded the Association and the Coffey School of Aeronautics.

Rickenbacker had put a positive spin on his past, but in an unguarded moment on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, he gave a disturbingly candid response. After observing that his childhood home was “in a colored section now,” he was asked if that bothered him. Captain Eddie responded, “Of course it does. Why wouldn’t it. Get to the point.” [Columbus Citizen-Journal, November 18, 1970.] His words speak for themselves. Heroes are men and women. Look hard enough and they will disappoint you. But, considered another way, their imperfect humanity endears them to us as much as their exceptionality.

 

I was able to write my book without knowing much about the War in the Pacific. His life had only briefly intersected with it, after all. On the other hand, it had a big impact on the final decades of his life. By continuing my research into the Second World War, I made my understanding of Rickenbacker’s life that much more solid. I learned, first of all, the origin of his Pacific mission of 1942, birthed in a meeting between Hap Arnold and Douglas MacArthur just a few weeks before. I learned, too, the reasons General MacArthur merited the message of rebuke that Rickenbacker delivered. Hearsay was replaced by evidence in my mind.

I have followed the development of the Air Forces and their planes during 1942-1944, as American military aviation gradually superseded its Japanese counterpart. Especially in the Philippines in late 1941 I saw how right Rickenbacker had been in clamoring for preparedness.

I learned that Rickenbacker’s jeremiads against labor during the war, while largely tone deaf, were not unfounded. There were real concerns about production capacity and civilian Americans pulling their weight. However, I still wonder if he didn’t retain more of the pessimistic outlook absorbed during his visit to Guadalcanal than was warranted. A form of availability bias took hold, nourished by a convert’s religious fervor.

Perhaps most of all I have learned enough to appreciate Rickenbacker’s comments on fighter pilot aviation in this second iteration of world war. “Air fighting over the Pacific is just about the hardest kind of fighting there is,” he wrote in his Pacific Ordeal memoir, Seven Came Through: ten-to-twelve hours at a stretch under nerve-wracking strain. “It wasn’t that way on the western front twenty-five years ago. A pilot went out to battle like a knight. He was pampered and rested; his every whim was indulged. I can remember patrol after patrol in which I never saw an enemy plane.” [Rickenbacker 1943, 89] Times had changed and so had combat aviation. Rickenbacker had the perspicacity and the humility to recognize it.

Sources

Borneman, Walter R. MacArthur at War: World War II in the Pacific. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2016.

Farr, Finis.  Rickenbacker’s Luck: An American Life.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1979.

Garrett, Betty. “‘Capt. Eddie’ Admits Time Was Better Flyer.” Columbus Citizen-Journal. November 18, 1970.

Hornfischer, James D. Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal, New York: Random House, 2011.

Lascher, Bill. Eve of a Hundred Midnights. New York: William Morrow, 2016.

Lee Clark. They Call it Pacific. New York, Viking Press, 1943.

Lewis, W. David. Eddie Rickenbacker: an American hero in the twentieth century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Rickenbacker, Captain Edward V. Seven Came Through: Rickenbacker’s Full Story. Garden City: Double Day, Doran and Company, Inc., 1943.

Rickenbacker, Edward V. “Keep Us Out of the War,” September 26, 1939, Broadcasts I.

Rickenbacker, Edward V. Rickenbacker. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967.

“Rickenbacker, 4 Months in Hospital, Back; He Will Resume His Airline Post on Monday,” New York Times, June 26, 1941, 24.

“Rickenbacker Sets Detroit Goals in Blunt Talk to War Workers, New York Times, January 23, 1943, 8.

Roeder, George F. The Censored War: American Visual Experience During World War Two. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Toll, Ian W. The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944. New York, W. W. Norton &Company, 2015.

Tregaskis, Richard. Guadalcanal Diary. New York: Random House,  1943.

Waters, Enoch P. American Diary: A Personal History of the Black Press. Chicago: Path Press, Inc., 1987.