Serenade to the Big Bird by Bert Stiles (4 stars)
I consider this book to be the best memoir of the American air campaign in Europe during World War Two. There are other fine memoirs but this is about the gut feelings of a young B-17 pilot and were I only going to read one memoir, I would read this one.
The reason? The author, First Lieutenant Bert Stiles, flew 35 bombing missions over Germany and German occupied Europe during the Spring and early Summer of 1944. After finishing his tour, he stayed in England and spent a month writing this extraordinary memoir.
Everything Stiles wrote about had just happened to him in the previous six months. His memories of fear, exhaustion, of boredom, German fighters and terror, of the death of friends and the subsequent sadness beyond words, of the drone of the engines on a B-17 and of how good a candy bar tasted after they were out of enemy territory; all of these memories were painfully fresh when he set them down.
And their effects on him were also fresh. He wrote about the time he came back from a mission during which he had seen at least a dozen B-17s from his Wing go down.
This memoir has many virtues one of the most striking being that Stiles was a fine writer, a keen observer of human nature, and an extraordinary man with such a broad view of life that some of his observations seem out of place in not only one so young but in such a time as 1944.
Stiles was actually a pacifist but like many came to the conclusion that the Nazis threatened the entire concept of Western Civilization. This is a haunting memoir: amusing, ineffably sad, and brutally honest about the author’s emotions. At one point he was taking off active operations because he had become “flak happy.” That was the expression used in the day by the US Army Air Force for someone cracking-up from the stress.
From Serenade to the Big Bird:
“There are all kinds of people: senators and whores and barristers and bankers and dishwashers. There are Chinamen and Cockney’s and Gypsies and Negroes. There are Lesbians and cornhuskers and longshoremen. There are poets and lieutenants and shortstops and prime ministers. There are Yanks and Japs and poor whites…there are Germans and Melanesians and beggars and Holy Rollers…there are people.
And some day we are going to catch on, that no matter where people are born, or how their eyes slant, or what their blood type, they are just people…
They are not masses. They will not go on being slaves. They are just people, partly good, partly bad, mostly balancing out. And until we call them people, and know they are people, all of them, we are going to have a sick world on our hands.”
Bert Stiles had written a number of published articles and short stories before he wrote this memoir. He wanted to be a writer when the war was over. But that wasn’t to be. After completing his 35 missions in bombers, he could have gone back to the US as a flight instructor. Instead he volunteered to fly fighters which he did until he was killed in action on 26 November 1944 in a dogfight over Germany.
Stiles never saw his memoir published. He easily would have been one of the finest writers of his generation. Of the millions of small tragedies of World War Two and a lesson in how war kills men, and now women, indiscriminately.
If you want to buy the book you can click on the link in blue at the top of the page.