Poem of the Month–September

I’m posting this a little late. 

This is one of my favorites.  It’s from the World War II era, a Royal Air Force flying crew’s lament about flying long patrols over the ocean in bad weather in search of German submarines.  I found it in The War in the Air: The Royal Air Force in World War II, a wonderful collection of narratives (and a few poems) edited by Gavin Lyall.  The author is unknown. 

We had been flying all day long at a hundred effing feet,

The weather effing awful, effing rain and effing sleet. 

The compass it was swinging effing South and effing North   

But we made an effing landfall at the Firth of effing Forth. 

Chorus:  Ain’t the Air Force effing awful?

              Ain’t the Air Force effing awful? 

              We made an effing landfall at the Firth of effing Forth. 

We joined the effing Air Force ‘cause we thought it effing right,

But don’t care if we effing fly or if we effing fight. 

But what we do object to are those effing Ops Room twats

Who sit there sewing stripes on at the rate of effing knots. 

The sentiment of this poem will be appreciated by anyone who flew in challenging weather conditions in combat while the men who scheduled the missions sat safe in comfortable conditions receiving promotions for doing less hazardous work.   

August Poem of the Month

The poem of the month for August is “We stood beneath the perfect vault of blue,” by Charles M. Hughes.  This is one of the occasional poems that Hughes includes in his book, My Hands: An Air Corps Diary from World War II.  Hughes was a maintenance man who worked on B-17s flying out of England during the war. His diary entry for March 20, 1944 was a poetic description of B-17s joining into a large formation prior to departing England on a daylight bombing mission to Germany:

 

“We stood beneath the perfect vault of blue”

 

We stood beneath the perfect vault of blue

And watched our air force grouping in the sun,

Before our sun was up.  Each aircraft spun

A vapor trail, its milky residue.

Identifying flares of pastel hue

Hung thread-like down.  Their thunder had begun

And amplified until I’m sure that none

Could doubt the universe was trembling too.

I spoke about the beauty of the sight,

The color, grandeur, form . . . .  Before the thought

Was fully out I knew it was not right.

A thousand planes, ten thousand men!  With nought

To do but kill and spread sterility.

The base of beauty is utility!

Poem of the Month–July

This is the poem of the month for July.  This poem was written by Edgar Guest, a popular Michigan poet.  The title is “The Sixth Detachment.”  Apparently Guest signed up to participate in World War I (American involvement in WWI extended from April 1917 to November 1918), but the unit to which he was attached never made it to France, and possibly never out of training camp.  Written in mild imitation of some of the more patriotic poems about the men who did make it to France, I like it for its poetic form and especially for its message, which is approximately appropriate for today’s situation.

The Sixth Detachment

Edgar A. Guest

 

We weren’t in the papers so much,

We didn’t reap much of the fame,

When they’re writing the story of all of the glory,

Perhaps they won’t mention our name.

But there wasn’t a job we neglected,

And taking the past in review,

I reckon today, we can stand up and say

We did what they gave us to do.

 

We didn’t sniff powder in battle,

We didn’t get into the gas,

We weren’t at the front, in the heat and the brunt,

Just daring the Boches to pass.

But now that the fighting is over,

And the planning and working are through,

We can make this our boast, that we stuck to the post,

And did what they gave us to do.

 

We didn’t get fed on excitement,

We never got sight of a ship,

Though we hungered for France, they denied us the chance

And none of us packed up a grip.

But we stuck to our duty like soldiers,

And never a one was untrue,

We missed all the fun of the war with the Hun

But we did what they gave us to do.

Catch-22: Joseph Heller’s Squadron and Yossarian’s Squadron

Joseph Heller was, like Yossarian, a bombardier in a B-25 unit in Italy during World War II.  He was a member of the 488th Bomb Squadron, one of four B-25 squadrons in the 340th Bomb Group, which was one of the groups in the 57th Bomb Wing.  The 57th Bomb Wing was a unit in the 12th Air Force, whose units flew in the Mediterranean Theater.  At the time that Heller was in the squadron (from May to December, 1944), all units in the 340th Bomb Group were located on the east side of the island of Corsica, near the west central coast of Italy.  Although an island named Pianosa (the island where the events of Catch-22 are set) exists, it is a small, rocky island located between Corsica and the mainland of Italy.  It was much too small to accommodate an airfield and was probably used for bomb-dropping practice by the units of the 340th.  Most of the targets that the Corsica-based units attacked were located in central and northern Italy, but some targets in southern France were attacked as well, especially in the vicinity of Avignon as the date for the southern invasion of France drew near (August 15).

Heller describes the same organizational arrangement in Catch-22.  Yossarian is a bombardier in an unidentified B-25 squadron in an unidentified bomb group which is part of an unidentified Air Force.  The squadron has a squadron commander, Major Major, a reclusive nonrated officer who is appointed to the position by the group commander, Colonel Cathcart, because his last name is Major. There is at least one other unidentified B-25 squadron in the group.   Other officers in Catch-22 are loosely based on officers Heller knew on Corsica.

In his memoir, Now and Then, Heller identifies several individuals who were the models on which their fictional counterparts were based: a bombardier named Yohannon, who lived in an adjoining tent, was the basis for the central character, Yossarian.  Yohannon was in fact a reliable crew member in the organization.  He arrived and departed about the same time as Heller but flew more missions.  Heller says that Yohannon’s tentmate, a pilot named Joe Chrenko, was the model for Hungry Joe.  Joe Chrenko was also a dedicated crewmember, who flew many missions.  One of Heller’s tentmates on Corsica was Captain Ritter, who Heller says was the model for Orr.  Like Orr, Ritter had successfully ditched his aircraft in the Adriatic; like Orr, Ritter constructed a safe and reliable stove in the tent which kept them warm in winter.  Heller says that there was an officer in the unit with the last name of Major who was a Major; this person become Major Major Major Major.  The squadron’s executive officer, Major Jerre Cover, became Major ____ de Coverly.  Major Cover did in fact travel to Rome to set up rest and relaxation (R&R) facilities for the squadron personnel.  However, unlike Major ____ de Coverly, he did not disappear on a trip to Florence.

Veterans of the squadron in which Heller flew became aware of the fame of the book after it was published, but they were unhappy that Heller had painted such an unfavorable portrait of the men and activities of the unit.  This reaction probably intensified after the Mike Nichols movie was released, which exaggerated the worst characteristics of the figures with whom Yossarian interacted.  Although Heller never identified the units with which he flew in Catch-22, military historians eventually identified them.  Recently several books have been published whose primary aim has been to correct the public image of the units with whom Heller flew in the war.  The authors believe that Heller’s version (and probably the Mike Nichols film) of the men in the units did not present a true picture of the actions and motivations of the men who flew in those units.  A secondary purpose of these books was to shed light on the men who might have been models for the characters Heller presented in Catch-22.

Patricia Chapman Meder, in her account of the relationship between Catch-22 and the men of Heller’s flying unit, The True Story of Catch-22, says that her father, Colonel William Chapman, is the model for Colonel Cathcart, and that her father, when he learned of Heller’s characterization of him in Catch-22, was not particularly pleased with that distinction.  She also states that the 57th Bomb Wing Commander, General Robert Knapp, was the model for General Dreedle.  She suggests the following additional correspondences of officers in the unit to characters in the novel: unit Chaplain James H. Cooper was the basis for Chaplain Tappman; 488th Bomb Squadron Flight Surgeon, Captain Benjamin Marino for Doc Daneeka; 488th Bomb Squadron Adjutant, Major Joseph Ruebel for Major Danby; 340th Bomb Group Bombing Officer, Captain Vincent (“Chief”) Myers for Chief White Halfoat; 340th Bomb Group Assistant Operations Officer, Captain George Wells for Captain Wren; and 340th Bomb Group Assistant Operations Officer Captain Fred Dyer for Captain Pilchard.

Heller insisted that he was not trying to make fun of the men with whom he flew but that they were the basis of comic types.

The Catch-22 Notebook #1

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 deservedly owns its place as a classic of modern American literature as both a narrative tour de force and a satiric view of one aspect of the military experience in World War II.  Its central character, Yossarian, is the modern anti-hero in uniform, a suffering, struggling, well-meaning individual who attempts to operate ethically in a world where ethical behavior has been replaced by professional opportunism.  The book is an unusual mixture of realistic description of the actual circumstances in which the author participated during the war as well as a series of improbable scenes and preposterous, often comic, dialogue, more suggestive of Lewis Carroll’s works.  The book stylistically is a mixture of All Quiet on the Western Front and Alice in Wonderland.

It is based on Heller’s experiences as a bombardier in a B-25 unit which flew from a military airfield located on Corsica, an island near the west coast of central Italy, in the last year of the war.  The men, missions, and aircraft described in the book are based on Heller’s experiences, and the dangers that the men faced are realistically described.  However, the central events described in the book are improbable, fantastic, and surrealistic.  The spirit of the book is a post-war spirit, an ironic spirit not normally associated with war novels based on lived experience.

Because of my flying background, I looked forward to reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 when it first appeared in 1961.  But when I tried to read the book, I put it down before I finished the first chapter.  The first chapter was not about one of the flying airmen; it was about the unit’s chaplain, Chaplain Tappman.  Yes, the main character, Yossarian, was present, but the chapter focused on the character of the chaplain, who never, as far as I could tell, went anywhere near an aircraft.  Where was the flying action?  It was not until much later that I set my initial expectations aside and determined to read the novel from beginning to end.  I had to admit, after I finished it, that it deserved its reputation as a classic of modern literature.  It was not a typical war novel; it was more complex in structure and theme, and its disconnected chronology worked against easy understanding even of the plot.

Most war novels written by the men who participated in World War II are based on their experiences in the war, with plots determined by personal progress through the combat action in which the author participated, often with names changed to protect the identities of the individuals involved.  The intent of these novels is to depict, especially to a reader unfamiliar with that aspect (or any aspect) of the war, what it was like to experience combat at that particular time and location, with that particular unit, which had a particular mission.  The plots of these novels generally follow the same chronological pattern: the protagonist trains for combat, enters combat, and survives combat.  What distinguishes each novel are the unique experiences of the protagonists, which show how they were able to survive, as a result of the successful application of their individual combat skills or through the assistance of other men in the unit.

Each military service has its own special setting in which the application of its force is practiced: the army on the land, the navy on the sea, and the air force in the air, and the war novels written by soldiers, sailors, and airmen demonstrate the unique tools, procedures, and capabilities of combatants in each area of operation.  The best examples from the World War II period in each arena are well-known: for the army, James Jones’ From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line; for the navy, Herman Work’s Caine Mutiny; and for the air force, Beirne Lay’s Twelve O’Clock High.  These popular novels describe the activities of the men and activities in the unit with which the author was associated.

Catch-22 is a war novel which describes the unique activities of the men and war-making machines in the author’s unit, in this case the North American B-25 (“Mitchell”) bomber.  The B-25 first earned fame as the aircraft used in the raid Jimmy Doolittle led over Tokyo and other Japanese locations in April of 1942, four months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the event that brought America into the war.  The B-25 was a versatile, rugged, and noisy twin engine aircraft that was used in a variety of missions and locations during the war.  The typical crew numbered from six to eight, depending on the model and the mission: the crew members included the pilot, copilot, navigator, bombardier, top turret gunner, tail gunner, and, when appropriate, two side gunners.

B25

The hazards of combat flying are an essential part of the book, and when such episodes appear, they are vividly described, but in Catch-22 they serve a dual purpose: in addition to describing the combat flying activities of the novel, they also serve as flags to mark the narrative trail of the novel, which is told in a non-linear style, in which the chronology of events is interrupted and confused.  Heller consistently indicates the number of combat missions that Yossarian flies, starting initially as 25 and then proceeding to 80.

In the next several weeks I intend to discuss the context and reputation of the novel, and the historical as well as thematic aspects of the novel.  I will first examine the historical aspects of the novel, including the key individuals in the unit whom Heller includes in the novel (usually disguised in some form), and Heller’s role in the unit.  Then I will discuss the structure and theme of the novel.