Mission: James Stewart & World War II

Maltin at the Bat

I grew up with Leonard Maltin. I don’t mean we flipped baseball cards and caught tadpoles; I mean one of my go-to books when I became interested in classic Hollywood as a teenager was the first book he wrote, Movie Comedy Teams detailing the Three Stooges, L&H, the Ritz Brothers, and my faves, the Marxes. I haven’t opened that book in years, but I still remember the narrative and every photo and caption because I read that book over and over and over.

Maltin was a child prodigy in film and began writing for Film Fan Monthly at the age of 13, then took over that periodical (at age 16) and ran it for 9 years. From there he began releasing his movie guides and became an on-air critic for Entertainment Tonight. Is there anyone among my readers who hasn’t owned at least one edition of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and consulted it before watching a picture to see how many stars Leonard gave it and why? In those dark times before the internet, there was nowhere else to find a thumbnail description of even something as obscure as The Secret Mark of D’Artagnan without Maltin and his guide. Today there’s imdb and Wikipedia, but back then, there was Maltin. Period.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen, Foreword by Leonard Maltin

Hollywood author and critic Leonard Maltin, now aboard the Mission team. (Photo by Jessie Maltin)

Leonard Maltin is a pop culture phenomenon, a guy who remains after all these years a big kid when it comes to movies, and I’m happy to report this particular phenom is writing the foreword for my just-completed book, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. It occurred to me that I could really use Maltin’s insights into Stewart, the war, and subsequent effects on his career. Leonard said he might be interested in such an assignment, send along the manuscript; so I did. I guess what he read was OK, because he said yes.

I’ve been giving a final look to the narrative the past few days because soon it will go off for galleys and I want it to be right—you know, t’s crossed and i’s dotted and all that. It’s easy to get so lost in the process that I’ll be sitting there and it’ll occur to me, “Wait, did I write that? I don’t remember writing that.” It is becoming a descent into madness among 117,000 words. There are places that make me laugh, give me chills, and reduce me to tears, all of which I consider to be good signs because the same thing happened with Fireball. It’s a different kind of a book, though, a different story and a different protagonist. Lombard was sexy and vivacious, someone you wish you could have known or at least experienced once. Stewart was an aloof man who was there and not there at the same time, an introvert without much to say who kept his significant intensities on the inside, and a guy who, as he aged, hid behind the persona he had created for the Tonight Show and other public outlets. He became what people expected to see, and behind his blue eyes were 50,000 memories of the war that he kept locked away and never related to anyone. The reason Mission is necessary is specifically because he wouldn’t talk, and what I discovered was that in refusing to let Hollywood exploit his wartime service for publicity purposes, he turned out the spotlight on a terrific cast of characters surrounding him in the Second Combat Wing of the Second Bombardment Division of the Eighth Air Force. You’re about to meet some great guys in Mission, guys Stewart knew and commanded, guys who in talking about their lives in combat allow us to know what Jim Stewart did in the war, who he flew with and against, and who died beside him. He wouldn’t tell us, but others tell us. We have these guys and the combat records, and from a great number of sources, including survivors who flew with him, I was able to recreate the war as Stewart knew it. The result is an adventure more fantastic than anything he ever enacted on-screen. In fact, it’s an adventure that could only be recreated today in a CG universe, at which point you wouldn’t believe it really happened. I assure you, it did.

Into this mix of Hollywood and war is about to step Leonard Maltin to provide his thought-provoking perspective, and the coolest thing of all? I get to be the first to read it.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen, Foreword by Leonard Maltin

Jim sports the Croix de Guerre, a medal awarded to all Eighth Air Force combat veterans at the end of the war. (Photo courtesy of the Jay Rubin Collection)

Everything’s Relative

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

GoodKnight Books first look at the cover design for Mission, release date October 24, 2016.

As you may know, it snowed here in the Northeast. Actually it’s still snowing, so I got up this morning and decided to shovel the driveway. This is always something of an exercise because the driveway is very wide here at the top by the two-car garage and then narrows for the 216-foot descent to the road. Usually I just shovel the wide part near the house and a couple of tracks down the driveway, but this morning was different. Why? Because I’ve reached the stage on my new book where I’m confronting every word by reading it aloud (more on that later). So I went out to shovel the driveway at 7:30 this morning knowing that afterward, I had to come in here and confront. I kept shoveling, and shoveling, and then I decided, in a bizarre sort of work avoidance, to shovel the whole 216 feet because it was less strenuous than sitting here doing all that confronting. In 35 years of living here I had never shoveled the whole thing, you know, the whole width of the driveway from top to bottom; about three-fourths of the way through it, the sweat was in my eyes and the hair was frozen on my head since it was still snowing and it was accumulating up above my brain.

This was a very old-school experience, with a shovel, not a snow blower or a plow. I’m pretty sure the neighbors think I’m a lunatic but I wouldn’t know because I don’t know my neighbors (me being me). So anyway, I pretty much wrote this column in my head as I was shoveling all the way down the driveway to the road, eight inches of snow (and counting), thinking what I was doing was a lot easier than plowing through Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe aloud.

OK, why read Mission aloud, you ask? Well, back when I was writing Fireball, at a certain point I learned it would be an audiobook and I started thinking about how my good friend Tavia Gilbert, a nationally known, award-winning audiobook performer, would read it, which forced me to read Fireball aloud myself to hear what it would sound like as an audiobook. It was a highly worthwhile experience because confronting every word helped to iron out problems and strengthen the narrative. I heard the clinkers, realized what words I’d used too often, got reminded of things I forgot to include, and enjoyed one final opportunity to cut sections that didn’t hold up. This is the time to make a book sing. I highly recommend this step for anyone who writes anything about anything. Fiction, nonfiction, a letter to a client—whatever. Read it aloud to hear how it sounds.

Angelique when she's really into a chapter.

Angelique when she’s really into a chapter.

I’m up to chapter 36 on Mission and am pleased to report that I’ve given myself goosebumps in many places and made myself cry twice. There’s been only one chapter so far where I went, “This doesn’t sparkle.” Oddly, it was a chapter about one of Stewart’s missions over Germany, but it didn’t sparkle and still doesn’t, and I was alerted to this fact when I read it aloud. Actually, Angelique, our little peanut of a cat, was looking at me oddly when I was reading that chapter as she lounged on her perch beside my desk half asleep. She just wasn’t feeling that one, so I knew it needed more work and I flagged it for some final reconstruction at the very end of the process.

It only took about a year and a half to write Fireball, and it’s taken about that long to write Mission. I learned a great deal from Morticia Addams, who said one time on The Addams Family, “All work and no play gets books done.” It was an episode from around 1965 when Morticia decided to be a writer and Gomez found her in the dungeon or somewhere writing away and said what was she doing. That’s when she said, “All work and no play gets books done,” and that sentiment really got to me, to the extent that for years I had it posted in front of me here in the office in 60-pt type. For the past year and a half I’ve been all work and no play to the extent I don’t watch TV, and only hear about the local sports teams on the news the next day. Day job, night job, day job, night job, that’s the routine. Most of the weekend it’s the night job. The words pile up that way (like snow during a storm), with the goal being 1,000 an evening most evenings, and they don’t have to be good words, just bulk words to be sanded and polished later. Sometimes, when I was writing the stories of the actual missions, I’d listen to music. A little Von Suppe’s Light Cavalry here, some Elmer Bernstein movie music there, a little Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance for martial spice. You know how well Richard Wagner worked for Apocalypse Now—symphonic really works for B-24 missions over Europe, and for the German viewpoint fighting the bombers as well.

So this morning I shoveled all the way down the 216 feet of driveway, a seven-foot-wide path, and at the road had to make my way through the big pile left by the borough snow plows going past. I was terribly pleased with myself. Ha! Take that, neighbors. I had avoided work for 90 minutes or whatever it was, and I trudged back up the cleared driveway only to realize, Oh shit! It’s still snowing, and the top is covered in snow, and I HAVE TO START ALL OVER AGAIN. I had avoided my work a little too well.

There’s your little slice of life from Snowmageddon 2016 here in Pennsylvania.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

View from the top after I was “done,” with snow covering everything all over again. Oh well, I avoided it as long as I could–time to get to work.

On a Mission for ‘Mission’

 

Mission: Jimmy Stewart by Robert Matzen

Jimmy Stewart risks his crisp uniform walking the muddy track at Tibenham in front of crew quarters.

It’s been more than 18,000 miles since I last updated this blog. First came a business trip from Pittsburgh to Portland and back, followed almost immediately by a nine-day excursion to Europe as background research for Mission, the Jimmy Stewart book now under construction.

As you know if you know me, I don’t believe an author can write about a physical place significant to a story without having been there. I consider the locations to be characters because of their importance to the narrative, and I didn’t feel qualified to write about, for instance, Mt. Potosi, Nevada, where TWA Flight 3 crashed, until I had climbed it. In the same way, I can’t in good faith describe the 1943-44 U.S. Army air base in Tibenham, England, without visiting the runways where Stewart and so many other fliers took off, many never to return.

Remaining Tibenham air base crew quarters as explored just last week.

Remaining Tibenham air base crew quarters as explored just last week.

Stewart was a four-engine-rated Army pilot when he first landed at Tibenham November 25, 1943. He spent four months there during his heaviest run of combat missions. My November 23 and 24 (last week) were boots on the ground in Tibenham, where I experienced what the Americans did upon touching down: cold, damp, muddy weather, unrelenting, with very low overcast. By 4:20 P.M. on the days I visited, it was dark in Tibenham, which, until the Americans arrived, and after they left, was nothing more than a meandering village located along even more meandering roads wide enough for one ox cart of ye olden days, but not for motor vehicles.

As for my visit, you probably know that cars drive on the left in UK, which seems like it shouldn’t be a big deal, but with the deck stacked by rain and country roads with nothing over there called a “shoulder,” it becomes a big deal, especially with trucks barreling toward me—on the right no less. And there are lots of trucks driving around over there, careening around the hairpin turns. Then there’s that thing the English call a roundabout—every town has one or more. I’m pretty sure the Brits designed roundabouts to thin the herd of visiting Americans trying to navigate from the left while at the same time figuring out when to yield, when to proceed, and when to turn, always at high speed. But enough of my whining.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart by Robert Matzen

Rare is the idiot, er, scholar, who would fly across an ocean, bypass London, and head straight for a rainy field near Norwich where once an air base stood. Here is runway 0-3, the big one at Tibenham. From here the 445th Bomb Group took off almost daily, weather permitting, on several-hours-long bombing missions. Crews felt very lucky to touch back down here later in the day. Hundreds of fliers who lifted off in the morning never did.

Tibenham’s landing strips were returned to the RAF after hostilities ceased, and the base saw some service in the Cold War before a glider club took over; the gliders still operate there. The club historian, a pilot himself, is Eric Ratcliffe, and Eric graciously spent his afternoon showing me around what was once the air base. Precious few buildings remain from the small city that once held 3,000 American airmen, but I saw what was where and got the lay of the land, including the barracks where Stewart stayed (some of those quarters are still standing), and the primary local point of reference, the All Saints Tibenham Church, built in the sixteenth century. Its high tower and the north-south railway nearby served as vital landmarks to American pilots returning at dusk to nearly identical bases in the endless rolling farm country of East Anglia. So many air bases in fact, that mid-air collisions of heavy bombers taking off for morning missions in the overcast were a common occurrence in 1943 and 44, with great loss of life. Local lore includes very specific references to what body parts of American fliers rained down where around the railway station after a particular mid-air collision of B-24s.

I learned a lot during my two days of visits to Tibenham, and I know it will lend command and authenticity to my recounting of the 445th Bomb Group and Stewart’s squadron, the 703, as I describe his role in the war and his missions. But I also flip the story around and describe the experiences of others who crossed paths with Stewart and the daily bomber stream, civilians in Holland and Germany, and those in the Luftwaffe up against these great flying armadas. To many, Jimmy Stewart was a hero; to others he was one of the “terror fliers” of World War II. One of my colleagues in this enterprise dubbed the approach a “360-degree look at the war,” and that’s exactly what I’m going for.

The tower of All Saints Tibenham Church was a welcome sight that let pilots know they were home.

The high tower of All Saints Tibenham Church was visible for miles and served as a welcome sight to pilots struggling toward home.

Stewart’s a complex character and one I can identify with in some ways given that he and I both grew up in sister small western Pennsylvania college towns in coal country. But he’s also an enigma, a closed book of a human who hid a nervous stomach and waves of self-doubt about his looks, his attractiveness, and his talent behind a slow-thinking, slow-talking persona. Then there’s the most perplexing question of all: Why did Stewart so willingly step away from a Hollywood career that included the great triumph of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and then an Academy Award for The Philadelphia Story to sign up for service when there wasn’t even a war to go fight? The obvious answer is that Jimmy Stewart was a flag-waving American patriot. Hooray for Jimmy! But the reality is quite different and something I look forward to sharing with you when Mission goes to press at the end of 2016.

For now, may I just say I’m home after four days of domestic and nine days of European travel and ready to get back to work and finish my book. It’s a story with a great main star and terrific supporting cast, and it’s so crazy in so many ways that it simply has to be true.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart by Robert Matzen

World War II expert Eric Ratcliffe (left), my guide, poses with me at the 445th Bomb Group Memorial in the fading light of a raw November day. I like to believe the spirits of all those airmen of the 445th are posed around us and wishing me happy landings for telling their stories. Many thanks to Eric for his time, patience, and expertise that day.

Mall Rats

From the very beginning, Hollywood has corrupted the history of World War II. Did you know that? There’s a not-so-subtle fiction in the war pictures that started coming out of the studios from 1942 on, and as late as Saving Private Ryan the warping continued.

I’m talking about the ages of the actors playing soldiers in that war. I grew up thinking that WWII was fought by middle-aged men. My favorite war movie of all is Battleground, the 1949 MGM blockbuster about the Battle of the Bulge starring 33-year-old Van Johnson, 35-year-old John Hodiak, and a couple handfuls of other MGM contract players. Granted you saw a few younger guys like Marshall Thompson (age 24), Ricardo Montalban (age 29), and Richard Jaeckel (age 23). But co-starring was 47-year-old George Murphy playing a character named “Pop” and aged-well-beyond-his-years Douglas Fowley as a G.I. with dentures. None of these guys represent the real fighting men of the Ardennes Forest.

I stumbled upon another MGM war picture the other week, The Men of the Fighting Lady, about a Korean-era aircraft carrier and landing there were the supposed hotshot pilots, Van Johnson (again, now 38), Keenan Wynn (38), and Frank Lovejoy (42).

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Eighth Air Force by Robert Matzen

Battleground, starring Van Johnson and John Hodiak. Great cast, great picture. But the guys in it are too old.

I’m smack-dab in the middle of the real WWII these days writing about the Eighth Air Force, and I am astonished about how young these pilots under Jim Stewart were. He was an “old man” of 35 when he commanded a bomber squadron operating out of England, and all his pilots, and I mean all his pilots, were 22 or 23 or at the oldest 24 years of age, guys right out of college. The technical sergeants serving as radio men and gunners were 19 and 20. If you go to the mall and look at the kids hanging out there giggling and trying to look adult, or visit your local high school or college campus, that’s who fought World War II. That’s representative of the 400,000 Americans who died and whose names are carved in honor rolls in every town in the United States. Among the front-line personnel, the privates were 18 or 19, the sergeants were 20, lieutenants 22, and captains and majors 24. Stewart had a hell of a time getting off the ground when he earned his wings at an advanced age of +30. They were reluctant to let a man that old and slow behind the controls of a four-engine bomber—he didn’t have a prayer of operating a fighter plane, which all the pilots wanted to do.

There are stories of guys who landed at Normandy Beach and didn’t take their boots off for the next six weeks; at the end of it they didn’t have to peel off their socks because they had liquefied. These guys didn’t eat or sleep for days and they were digging foxholes everywhere they went. Facing life-or-death situations at every turn. It was survival of the fittest and the fittest were 18, not 40.

When Tom Hanks played Capt. Miller in Saving Private Ryan, he was 42 years old. In the real war, someone the age of his son would have been Capt. Miller.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Eighth Air Force by Robert Matzen

Alan Hale, a hard-lived 51 at the time of Destination Tokyo.

The actors go where there’s work, like they always have. During the war, studios churned out war pictures because that’s what people wanted to see, and who could play in their product but the men they had under contract, those not off to war themselves, and this talent pool was what it was. It only became burlesque occasionally, like when Alan Hale played a flier in Desperate Journey at age 50 or a submariner in Destination Tokyo at 51. For Hale it was a living and he was a fine character actor, and it’s always nice to see him. Just keep in mind you are looking at Bizarro World War II when it’s being fought by Alan Hale. We’d be speaking German right now if the war had been fought by Alan Hale. Or Harry Carey (a whopping 65 at the time he made Air Force) or George Tobias (43 in Air Force).

What’s another benchmark of World War II pictures? The Longest Day, I guess. You might as well call it The Longest of Tooth Day, with John Wayne the 55-year-old paratrooper leading Red Buttons the 43-year-old paratrooper. I guess this is one of the reasons my friend Clem, who fought in World War II and bailed out of two crippled planes in two months (a technical sergeant not yet 20) and lived out the war in a German prison camp, doesn’t care for war pictures. He sat through Unbroken increasingly disgusted, muttering as he is wont to do, “That’s not history, that’s Hollywood.” The reality of it was that when 19-year-old Clem hit the earth after his first bail-out he broke a leg; in the second he was looking out for his still-broken leg and broke some ribs. So you think Red Buttons at 43 could have been a real paratrooper?

Next time you see a veteran of World War II, think how young he was when he saw what he saw and did what he did. Think how fast he grew up. Think how many years he has lived with the memories of his friends dying around him during training or on the ground, in the air, or at sea. It’s an incredible story of the most brutal war in history fought by kids who these days might not be entrusted to do their own laundry or take out the trash.

The Longest Day: Stuart Whitman, 34 but looking older, is saying to John Wayne, "Colonel, recon says St. Lo has a Denny's up there to the right. The senior special is still being served, but we have to wheel you over right now."

The Longest Day: Stuart Whitman, 34 but looking older, is saying to John Wayne, “Colonel, recon says St. Lo has a Denny’s up there to the right. The senior special is still being served, but we have to wheel you over right now.”

Dreams and Nightmares

World War II was big. It’s not something you can, say, take this arm and wrap around this way, and that arm and wrap around that way, so that your fingers entwine and suddenly you’ve wrapped your arms around World War II. This was way bigger than that. This was The Great War. As awful and staggering as World War I was in terms of human suffering and human stupidity, well, World War II raised the stakes and won the pot.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Eighth Air Force by Robert Matzen

Jim Stewart rises to the rank of 1st lt. in the Army Air Corps, July 1942.

I haven’t been around much lately and I apologize, but I’ve been learning a whole lot about WWII and the men who fought it. I know that women fought it as well, but I’ve interviewed only men, 90-plus in chronology. In particular, I’ve been working with three guys who a) were in Jimmy Stewart’s squadron of the 445th Bomb Group and with him from Boise, Idaho on; b) were shipped to UK with him; c) flew missions with him; d) were shot down over Germany; e) survived German prison camps as POWs; and f) likewise survived the Führer’s order to execute all POWs as Germany was about to lose the war. These guys live on today after enduring all that, with Jimmy Stewart (who wasn’t shot down and never parachuted out of a burning plane only to be roughed up by Germans on the ground) gone 18 years.

I think my next book could be called, How to Survive to a Ripe Old Age, and I could base it on these three fit and active, terrific guys who are full of wisdom after getting out of World War II in one piece and thriving for 70 years beyond.

I was just thinking today about the exercise of writing Fireball versus what it’s like to write the new one, which is called Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Eighth Air Force. To me it feels like Fireball was a suit of clothes that I could wear in comfort—most of the time, except for the gut-wrenching parts. But the new one is confining and I can’t breathe because there’s so much to learn. There are the Nazi aggressions; there’s the Battle of Britain; there’s Pearl Harbor; there’s the war in the Pacific; there’s the air war over France and Germany; there’s the ground war in Africa, Italy, and Europe; there’s the Holocaust; there’s the ground war in the Pacific; there’s the battle for Berlin; and there’s the battle for Japan. How do you boil that down into one book, even when most of it’s background?

For the past week or so I’ve been writing the manuscript furiously and also looking around for topics for my blog. I toyed with the idea of republishing something from my old Errol & Olivia blog, but I couldn’t find anything suitable. I looked around for something from TCM to catch my eye and comment on. Again, nothing.

I’m stuck in 1944, people! You’ve gotta get me out of here! Actually, I have to get myself out of this one. I’m in the middle of rubble, starvation, heroism, and sacrifice on a global scale, and it brings me to tears sometimes. I don’t know how as a species we got where we got in 1944, but evidence says that, yes, humanity reached a low point, and a high point, right about then.

The interesting thing is, Jim Stewart and his colleagues of the Eighth Air Force fought a war to keep the U.S.A. safe and to liberate Europe. They fought the most righteous war ever, but the fact was, when you’re dropping bombs through cloud cover and your industrial target sits in the middle of a city, you’ll miss it often. Did you know that 70 years after the end of WWII, there are still people in Germany who call the Allies “terrorists” for the way they bombed German cities and civilians?

The goal of the British nighttime bombing was to exact revenge for the bombing of England in 1940. The goal of the American daytime bombing was to destroy German manufacturing, and also to break the will of the German people and cause the masses to turn on their government. This simply didn’t happen. In response to a terror campaign, the people in Germany in 1944 did the same thing the people in the United States did in 2001: They dug in their heels and said, You will not break us!

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Eighth Air Force by Robert Matzen

The B-24 Liberator, Jim’s ship in the Air Corps, described to me the other night by a pilot in Stewart’s squadron as “that goddamn airplane” and a “widow maker” because it was so difficult to fly.

I find the story of Jimmy Stewart in the Eighth Air Force so human, because he believed in what he was doing, and what he was doing was right. Hitler had to be stopped. And there were a whole lot of humans under his bombs who had done nothing wrong, and who didn’t believe in Hitler, and were trying to survive, but the bombs fell on them and all memory of their existence was erased when they were blown to dust.

How fragile we humans are, and how cavalier we once were with human life. That’s what I struggle with now on a daily basis—on the one hand, here are these great guys, heroes in every respect, going up to 20,000 feet at 40 below zero against a brutal enemy, facing fighters and flak to hit a target, and on the ground at the target, mixed in with Gestapo men and German infantry and devoted Nazis running factories are people who don’t support Hitler and never did, old men and women and children who dare not speak out against the government on penalty of death, along with forced laborers from conquered nations, and Jews in hiding, many living without running water and scavenging for food.

Bombs away.

It’s no wonder I have dreams and nightmares about this book I’m writing.

On the eve of war

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

I came across this letter on a Facebook (posted by Brian Lee Anderson) Carole Lombard fan page. It’s written in Lombard’s own hand for Movie Mirror magazine in celebration of Thanksgiving 1939, and I find it evocative on a couple of levels. I don’t know how much prepping she did or who might have helped her with this piece. This was her RKO period so it’s not a Russell Birdwell/Selznick PR piece, and maybe it’s just Carole being Carole and winging it. The sentiment is beautiful, democratic, and gives a nod to the fact that, hey, worldly possessions are important. It’s better to have them than not to have them.

The handwriting itself shows an unusual amount of concentration and workmanship from someone who often scribbled like your average M.D. A handwriting analyst might say that the lack of slant in one direction or the other indicates a practical, down-to-earth person, which she certainly was, and the occasional backward slant reveals a rebellious streak that just couldn’t be contained.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Carole Lombard at about the time she wrote her Thanksgiving 1939 open letter in Movie Mirror magazine.

To me the allusion to world events hits closest to home because in working on my new manuscript, Mission: James Stewart and World War II, I am forced to confront human suffering that’s at the least uncomfortable and often devastating. She wrote her Thanksgiving message about a year after Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass symbolizing the beginning of the end for Jews in Nazi-occupied territories. She wrote it two months after the invasion of Poland that sent refugees streaming westward. She wrote it with the German war machine rising to strike against France and England and with Hitler rallying hundreds of thousands in Nuremberg. She wrote it as the conflict between Japan and China raged for its second year. She wrote it in anticipation of a war that would claim more than 400,000 American lives, including her own.

The Allies would prevail in what would become World War II, and their spoils included the writing of the history of it. I continue to struggle to uncover accounts of civilians under the rain of Eighth Air Force bombs because the losers in war don’t get to tell their stories. But if war is hell, then those unlucky enough to watch 200 B-24 Liberators fly over and unload their “cartons of eggs” truly knew what hell was all about. Before you say, “Well, they were the enemy, that’s what they deserved,” consider that the bombs fell on civilians who had learned that challenging Nazi authority meant death; on Jews hiding in Berlin basements for years; and on Dutch, French, and Polish nationals forced to work in German factories. Tens of thousands of these humans were blown back to their molecular components by the Americans of the Mighty Eighth.

And that’s what I see written between the lines of Carole Lombard’s Thanksgiving 1939 message. There’s a palpable sense of foreboding, that history was about to blow through in the form of a worldwide cyclone and no one, absolutely no one, would be spared.