Howard Goodner, Westover Field, 1944
Wings of Morning: the Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down Over Germany in World War II by Thomas Childers is a good book and I was impressed the first time I read it a few years ago. The second time around, however, I wasn’t as impressed but it’s still a fine book. The author, who is one of the top German history scholars in the US, is an academic and, unfortunately, writes like one. Occasionally I had to hitch up the mules and plow through a chapter.
The author’s uncle, Howard Goodner, was a radio operator aboard the Black Cat, a B-24 heavy bomber of the US 8th Airforce. His plane was shot down over Germany. Nothing unusual there. The US 8th Airforce took horrendous losses in planes and crew. But this particular bomber happened to be the last American bomber shot down over Germany. Two men were able to bail out, the others were not.
Of the remaining crew, all died – but two of the men who died, including the author’s uncle, did not die when the plane crashed. They were thrown out of the plane somehow and fell to their deaths from an undetermined height. Crewmen could not wear their parachutes at their duty stations because their duty stations were so small there wasn’t room. Sadly, these men did not have their parachutes on when they were thrown out of the plane. Howard Goodner’s body hit the ground with such force that it made an eight inch indentation in the ground in the shape of a human body.
This book is not a history but a reconstruction of Uncle Howard’s life in the service as well as an account of the author’s long search to discover what exactly happened to the uncle he never knew. He recreated his late uncle’s time in the US Army Air Force from letters, official records, and interviews with B-24 veterans, members from families of the other men killed, and older Germans who were children at the time and remembered the plane crashing. Woven into the narrative is how the author’s family and the families of the other men who perished when the bomber went down had dealt with their losses.
Dealing with the loss of a loved one is brutal and in my own life experience it’s not something you ever “get over”. You come to acceptance but not “closure” – which is an annoying and stupid word to apply to such a situation. For the author’s family and the families of the other men who perished, the emotional burden of loss was made all the greater because of the youth of each of the men. Howard, the author’s uncle, was only 20.
Was it more painful for some families than others? Yes. But there is only one reason which could make the loss of one’s son painful beyond endurance: that he have been the only child. In the families of two crewmen, that was the case. The parents never got over the loss.
That two men survived the crash, made the death of the others all the more bitter.
Narrative non-fiction is theoretically non-fiction written using the techniques of suspense fiction to keep the plot moving as well as keep the readers attention. I wish I could say the author did this successfully. Unfortunately I cannot. He went beyond using the techniques of fiction to actually fictionalizing parts of the narrative.
The most egregious example is this: he describes the last minutes of the final flight and states specifically where his uncle was sitting and what he was doing. Yet the author had no way of learning this information since of the two men who survived, one was the tail gunner and the other was the navigator. Because of the layout of the aircraft, these two men were at the extreme opposite ends of the plane. They could not have seen Howard Goodner. Flak hit the port wing which broke off and the plane went into a tailspin. That fact was in a crew debriefing from a ship which saw the Black Cat get hit and and go down. But little else is known and the two men who survived remembered almost nothing. So I have to say that making up what people are thinking and doing when you don’t actually know what they were doing or thinking, isn’t kosher. There are a lot of instances like that so the book is neither fish nor fowl. It’s an OK read so I give it three stars but don’t run through traffic to buy a copy.