Researching WWII

Ken Burns famously remarked that his principal motivation for making The War was reading somewhere that a thousand veterans of WWII a day were dying. I believe this was around 2001 or so–the rate has fallen off sharply because there just aren’t that many of them left. If you were 18 on June 6th, 1944, that would make you 88 now. Many vets were older than that, and any chance of a face to face conversation is fading fast.

It is fortunate, then, that in their few remaining years, many veterans have recounted their experiences. A lot of these are difficult to hear because the facts of war are so grim. Suffering. Terror. Loss. Pain. Boredom. In a way, it is good that it is the memories of old men, seasoned by a lifetime of peace after the war, that is left to us. These recollections are stripped of romance or sentimentality, and are quite stark in the retelling. Many of these men continue to see their war years as the finest time in their lives, though most say they would never want to repeat them.

For my research in Hawes Escapes, I initially looked to the histories and logbooks of the units themselves. Above all, I strove for accuracy, using the actual missions and timelines from the books as a reference. The way I see it, the heroism of the men flying these missions needs no varnish, and even the bald accounts from the logs can give you a chill. Because I wanted to depict the experience as realistically as possible, I read many firsthand accounts from different participants–gunners, pilots. engineers and (especially) bombardiers. These accounts are rich with little-known details that bring the experience of flying combat missions over Germany to life. I freely absconded with many of these, working to put them in context. While not exactly out-and-out plagiarism, it certainly is not from my own experience that I write. Historical fiction is tough, because it can too easily turn into a  lecture /slideshow and lose its power as a story. I hope that I have been able to achieve a balance.

Don't just stand there.