aviation history

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.

Scratch

Almost every day since the book’s release in January, somebody somewhere has commented on the extensive research in Fireball, and I’ve been gratified to learn that my dumpster dive into federal records accomplished its goal, as did long hours spent sifting through existing histories and biographies, newspapers, unpublished manuscripts and interviews, birth and death records, military archives, and conversations with participants and relatives of participants in the story. Oh, and a day spent eating dirt, getting stuck on cactus, and bouncing off boulders on Potosi Mountain. And other days spent walking in the footsteps of people in the narrative. When it was over I understood Carole Lombard and Clark Gable at the molecular level and also had learned about others critical to the story, from the stewardess on Flight 3 to the miner and ex-football star who led the charge up the mountain.

But that was then. It’s a good thing when you are the author of a book that gets positive reviews and that people really like. There’s gratification; there’s also pressure every time somebody says, read Fireball, loved it, big fan, what’s next? Well, thanks! And, uhhh, I dunno.

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

Oh, great, another mountain to climb. In case you are wondering, the Flight 3 crash site is along the ridge line, dead center from left to right, a few hundred feet below the crest.

It’s all organic, man. It comes from luck, or inspiration, or usually from a particular friend saying, “You know what would make a great idea for a book?” And that friend did it again two months ago, planting this seed in my brain. At first I think, no, that’s no good. It’s been done, or I can’t get at that story, or something similar, but then the damn seed starts to sprout and before long I’m believing that, yes, he’s right again. This is a story. I’m going to tell this story.

Friends, readers, I’m starting my next book. It’s a new day and a new ballgame. It’s not even the top of the first inning and the umpire isn’t about to shout, “Play ball!” [Reference to American baseball, global readers.] It’s not even time for spring training, really, because first comes determination of the theme of the book, what I’m writing to, what tone to set, how the narrative will sound, and even more basic to that, who are my characters? I’m in that nebulous period where I’m learning about the world I’m going to be inhabiting for a year or two. I’m reading existing works and visiting web sites. Just now I was reading a biography on the couch and Francois, my ten-week-old black kitten, jumped up on me and asked, “Whatcha readin’, Dad?” and before you know it, we were both asleep on the couch. So I can report that this phase is rather pleasant so far.

I’m not ready to announce what the book is going to be about, except to say it’s another World War II story with an aviation theme and part of it is set in Hollywood. (Tom, you’re a bright fellow. If you guess what the story is, please don’t blurt it out.) It’s nonfiction because to me the best stories are true stories where I say to myself as I unearth the facts, “You couldn’t make this stuff up.” Research is going to put me back in D.C. and back in Hollywood, but it’ll also require a trip to England and possibly to France and Germany and this time I’m going to have to be sifting through German records and lots of them. Sprechen sie Deutsch? My high school German teacher, Miss Diamond (who I had a crush on, but, don’t tell), would be the first to report, no, Robert does not speak German. That’s going to be a handicap to my enterprise because one thing I’m certain of is, this story is going to include a civilian’s-eye view of life on the ground in Germany during the latter phases of World War II. It’s one story line in what will no doubt be many story lines.

It’s daunting to be at this point in a book. Way down the road, I know I’m going to be holding three pounds of bouncing baby … hardcover, but in the meantime everything is squishy and Unknown. I have no idea where I’m heading. I don’t know how I’ll get there. I don’t know what I’ll discover along the way. Worst of all, I don’t know what makes my main character tick. I hate not knowing, and there’s so much mythology grown around this character that I already have a healthy dislike. Just like I had with Gable. I tell myself that it’s OK, the Gable thing worked out, and now he and I are friends and I pay my respects at his grave and everything.

Today’s confession is that I hate new people. My lifelong friend and former co-worker, Helene, would tell you that. Oh, Robert hates new people. Anytime somebody new came on staff at the company where we both worked, there was a period where I didn’t like them until I got a handle on them and then it was usually OK, except of course when it wasn’t. So now I’m at the stage where, based on everything I know so far, I don’t like this new person I’m going to write a book about. But when you’re in close quarters with someone for a long period, the ice gets broken somehow, and I’m counting on the fact that it’ll happen here. We even have some things in common, so what the hell am I worried about?

There, I’ve said it: I’m starting a new book. Monkey off my back. That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, this autumn I’m back in the saddle pitching Fireball and so coming and going, it will be an interesting time. Keep your eye peeled for dispatches from the front, which will all be delivered here at this address a couple times a week.

The Girl Who Lived

I have done a lot of public speaking in support of Fireball, most recently this past Sunday at Way Public Library in Perrysburg, Ohio, just south of Toledo. I looked out on a large and enthusiastic crowd, especially for a snowy Sunday afternoon in the middle of the worst winter anyone can remember.

In case you don’t know, Fireball is the irresistible story of Carole Lombard’s hurly-burly life and the circumstances that led to her last fatal trip aboard TWA Flight 3 along with 21 other souls, which ended in catastrophe just west of Las Vegas on January 16, 1942. Reviewers are calling Fireball a thriller, a page turner, a heartbreaker, and a book that’ll make you cry. It really is. I didn’t realize it myself until I reviewed the audiobook and heard the story performed by national voice talent Tavia Gilbert.

But there are some smiles in Fireball too. On Sunday in Perrysburg I told the crowd that I had found a survivor of Flight 3, a woman who had flown cross-country with Carole Lombard on January 16 and lived to tell the tale. You should have seen their faces. Mouths hung open. There were even some gasps. I always liken this survivor to hundred-year-old Rose Dawson whose memories form the basis for the plot of Titanic. Mary Johnson is my Rose Dawson, and at age 94 the unknown survivor of a catastrophe.

Mary was, of all things, a young aviation researcher working for the feds and NACA (the precursor to NASA) at Moffett Airfield, California. She had been on assignment in Washington, DC, and was heading for home that fateful day. To show you what a small world we live in, I worked in the same wind tunnel (the 7×11 wind tunnel) at Moffett Field in 2007 and 2008 during my NASA years that Mary had worked in during World War II.

Mary Anna Johnson Savoie 4
Mary was in her seat on Flight 3 when Carole Lombard, Elizabeth Peters (Carole’s mom), and Otto Winkler (Clark Gable’s publicist) boarded in Indianapolis. Mary then flew all the way to Albuquerque sitting two rows behind Carole, enduring stops in St. Louis, Kansas City, Wichita, and Amarillo. These weren’t fun stops either. There were weather and cargo delays for the plane and Miss Carole Lombard was anything but happy.

In Albuquerque a big clot of Army Air Corps personnel needed to fly west and all seven civilians on Flight 3 were ordered off the plane to make room for these priority passengers. Mary Johnson and three others gave up their seats; Carole Lombard refused to surrender her three tickets, so she stayed on the plane, and Mary Johnson’s dream of seeing Clark Gable up ahead in Burbank ended in what was the worst moment of her young life. Then the unthinkable happened and, said Mary Johnson, “Suddenly Clark Gable didn’t seem that important.”

I caught up with Mary Johnson Savoie near the end of the Fireball project. She’s right up there with the most interesting people I’ve ever met—smart, funny, and possessing vivid memories of that winter’s day. Just a couple of weeks prior to seeing Carole, Mary had been at the White House where she laid eyes on FDR and Winston Churchill, and after living through the crash of Flight 3 she went on to a rich full live with a husband and kids and became a world traveler. Hers is one of the central storylines in Fireball and yet another of a hundred layers of irony in its pages.

For me it was the biggest kick in the world to hand deliver a copy of the book to Mary this past December, and it was clear to me by the wonderful people surrounding her that Mary is a wonderful person herself and glows with an attitude that embraces life. She has been known to say, “I’ve always been lucky,” but isn’t luck really about the decisions a person makes that sets the stage for magic to happen?RM-MJS

Right now, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Mary is having some health challenges, and I hope you will take a moment to send some positive energy her way. The world needs Mary Johnson Savoie to be up and around and setting an example for all of us to follow, keeping it positive, showing us how to set the stage for good things to happen, and in general making the most of every single day because we just don’t know how many there’ll be.