Looking Through the Long Lens of History

Glimpses of understanding are all many of us will ever have for what the men who stormed the beaches at Normandy experienced on June 6, 1944. I have looked at it from several different sources, and still, my knowledge is mere shadow when compared to the memories of the men and women who served during World War II.

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As heart wrenching as Band of Brothers was to watch, I didn’t have a true understanding of the ordeals faced by the American and Allied soldiers and medical staff until I began researching my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles. Per my husband’s suggestion, I attended the Conneaut D-day Reenactment. I assumed I’d find some hobbyists with a useful amount of knowledge. I am not ashamed to admit that the whole event was incredibly humbling, and what I discovered far surpassed my expectations.

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My journey began when three nurse reenactors graciously granted me an interview and patiently answered all my questions. They directed me to And If I Perish and Heroes From the Attic as additional resources where I would find the specific details needed to create believable scenes in my novel. Both books provided the information I desired, but more importantly, they supplied a sense of approachable familiarity that my research had been lacking. Long before I finished reading, I felt as if I knew the people about whom the books had been written. They became friends with whom I experienced fear, anxiety, sympathy, joy, loss, relief, and a whole host of other emotions. I developed an even deeper respect for them, and I wish I’d had the pleasure of meeting and knowing them.

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Another valuable perspective of World War II was the autobiography of Omar N. Bradley, A Soldier’s Story. General Bradley’s account supplied information from the other end of the spectrum, bridging the gap between those in charge and those under orders. As inscribed in the front of the book, General Bradley hoped to help soldiers “understand why they were going where they did.” I believe his memoir answers anyone’s questions if only they are willing to look. While many would criticize those in charge without offering alternatives and/or solutions, I know that I would never want to shoulder the burden that Omar Bradley and others like him did during World War II. To simply say they did the best they could would be insulting. From the lowest private to the highest ranking general, and everyone in between, they all served bravely and selflessly.

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This post would be incomplete without attempting to describe the D-day battle portrayed at Conneaut. My emotions get the better of me every time I think about it. It all seems to happen at once.

Landing craft full of American and Allied soldiers about to crash onto the beaches.

The thrill of the B-17 Flying Fortress flying over so close I swear you could reach up and touch it.

The B-25 Mitchell banking in the brilliant blue sky.

P-51 Mustangs crisscrossing the air like darting swallows.

Excitement and tension mounting, trying to remember it’s a reenactment.

The ground vibrating with the boom of the German 88, the shock traveling up through your body.

Black clouds billowing upward from the flame thrower.

Soldiers storming the beach and falling, the dull ache in your chest every time that soldier is American or Allied.

Inch by grueling inch they gain ground.

The Germans relentless, the Americans resilient.

Again the planes, again the 88, the sound of bullets ripping the air.

And then, a small cheer is heard in the distance, rippling through the crowd, swelling.

Clapping and people jumping to their feet.

Tears in your eyes.

The American and Allied soldiers have gained their objective.

Breathing a sigh of relief.

It’s over. For us, right now, D-day is over.

Locking eyes with those around you as your remember that in 1944, it was just a beginning.

I cannot thank the reenactors enough for keeping alive the memory of what brave American and Allied men and women did. Their selfless sacrifice must never be forgotten or rewritten. The sad fact remains that much of this history is not being taught to upcoming generations. Worse, there are those who wish to revise it as something undesirable or reprehensible. As much as this grieves me, it is not enough for me to want this for future generations. They must desire the knowledge of history for themselves.

Until then, I will carry on remembering for every person who served long after the last one is gone.

~~~~~

Thank you to HBSmithPhotography for the wonderful pictures from the 2015 Conneaut D-day Reenactment

And If I Perish

And If I PerishAnd If I Perish was recommended to me by the nurse re-enactors of the Conneaut D-day event as a source of information on American medical staff during World War II. I needed to place my protagonist, Dr. John Welles, in the European Theater as a surgeon, but I truly had no idea how to incorporate a civilian doctor among the ranks of military personnel.

Thanks to Evelyn Monahan and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee’s thoroughly researched book, I not only had a way to place Dr. Welles in the war, I had firsthand accounts via actual medical staff of what he would have encountered.

And If I Perish is a treasure trove of information not to be missed. I highly recommend it to students of nursing and history. While the contribution of doctors is also noted, the focus of the book is on the nurses who responded to the call to tend American soldiers fighting in North Africa, Italy, and at the Normandy landings through to the end of the war in Europe.

Often without footwear and uniforms in their sizes, yet an abundance of nylons, lipstick, and face powder supplied by the military, the nurses who participated in World War II made tremendous sacrifices and improvised on the spot to ensure that American and Allied soldiers received the best in medical care. They even gave the best they had to offer when working on German POWS who, with the exception of SS officers, were often grateful for the care they received once they overcame the fear of being captured.

It was no small challenge for the nurses to assist doctors while only a couple of miles from the front lines, often in horrible weather, and sometimes during retreats with the threat of being left behind hanging over their heads. And they did it without the benefit of weaponry to fight back.

The nurses endured bombing, strafing, and even evacuation from a hospital ship that had been attacked by unscrupulous pilots of the Luftwaffe contrary to the Hague Conventions. Occasionally they lost one of their own, a fact that further solidified their sense of family. All this they endured at less pay than their male counterparts.

With the equality that women enjoy today in many fields of work, it is difficult for me to comprehend why, for so many years, the nurses’ stories were overlooked and why they didn’t receive as many promotions and awards as the men serving. Hopefully, Mrs. Monahan and Mrs. Neidel-Greenlee’s book came in time for all of them to know how loved and appreciated they were and are for the sacrifices they made in serving their country.

Baring My Writer’s Soul – Part 14

Writer's Soul 14I’ve been thinking quite a lot about my writing, and I don’t mean in quantity. Rather, I’ve been thinking a lot of different things about what my writing is or isn’t.

It started last year around November when my novel was technically finished. There were a few minor points that needed to be re-researched (is that even a word), and I had a wonderful research librarian who I met at the Conneaut D-day Reenactment assisting me. The whole process was starting to bog me down. I began to hate it, resent it, and wanted to dig a deep hole in my back yard in which I could bury my book without any witnesses.

The holidays were coming, and since much of the preparation for Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas fell to me, I really didn’t have anything left to give my writing. I didn’t want my writing to suffer, but I felt so guilty about setting it aside. After all, what kind of writer would I be if I wasn’t writing every single day? Good question.

While wrestling with this dilemma and wanting to be able to focus on all the fun that comes with the holidays, I ran into our pastor’s wife at the local grocery store. After the usual pleasantries, she asked after my novel. I told her what I’ve already mentioned above and concluded that I wish someone would give me the permission to quit for a little while. If I could just take a break, I knew I would go back to writing in January once I was refreshed.

She looked at me and said, “Heather, I give you permission to quit.”

Even now I laugh at how easy it was for someone else to grant me the grace I needed to give myself but was unable to. And guess what? I did go back to the writing and research in January as I promised myself I would. In fact, I attacked it with renewed vigor and produced better writing than I would have had I pressed myself to go on through November and December. What’s more, I enjoyed it!

So what’s the point of this blog post you may ask? It still scares me somewhat that I took off two months of much needed rest time. There are so many writing books, and I imagine books devoted to other forms of art, that will tell you to create every day without fail. Are these people right in tasking others in this way?

Yes and no. If I said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times. You have to find out what works for you. Thankfully, the day I returned to writing coincided with Chapter 11 of Heather Seller’s book, Page After Page. The writing exercises in this chapter were wonderful for getting me back on my rails. You’ll understand this better when you read the book which I highly recommend you do.

The funny thing was, while Chapter 11 worked for me, I recalled that before the holidays, Chapter 10 flipped me out. This is the beauty of the book. The next time I read it, Chapter 10 may be exactly what my writing needs. All this to say, don’t be afraid to embrace the bad (insert chosen art form here) because you may uncover a gem on the way to the good (insert chosen art form here).

In doing so, your creativity will flow and your art will come naturally. There are going to be different amounts of flow, and that’s to be expected. Don’t despair over these days even if they extend into weeks, months, or years. Begin again in small ways, flex your creative muscles, and build up to your peak performance like an athlete training for the Olympics. You will achieve gold.

Write Happy!

Heroes From the Attic by G. Jesse Flynn

Heroes From the AtticOne of my favorite books, and a feather in the cap of my private library, is Heroes From the Attic by G. Jesse Flynn. I first learned about the book while interviewing participants from the Conneaut D-Day Reenactment this past August. Lisa Merzke, who portrayed a nurse, suggested the book because it explained in detail about the creation of the first MASH unit, the 48th Surgical Hospital, which was later reworked into the 128th Evacuation Hospital.

I obtained an excellent copy of the book and was thrilled to discover the author’s signature in the front cover. Although the inscription isn’t addressed to me, I couldn’t have been more pleased that I owned a signed copy.

Mr. Flynn was prompted to write the history of the 48th/128th upon learning about his parent’s involvement with its formation. Through interviews, letters, diaries, and pictures, Mr. Flynn has constructed a thoroughly detailed accounting that answered my specific questions with such precision that at times I believed the book had been written for me.

As well written as the history is, what truly endeared me to this book were the personal accounts of the members of the 48th/128th. Through the letters of Nurse Lt. Margaret Hornback, the diary of Dr. Leonard Schwade, and individual testimonies of various other members, one gets a true sense of what these brave men and women experienced and how they felt about it.  In an event that, God willing, we never allow to be repeated, members of the 48th/128th often learned on the job but never missed a beat, and they set the high standard of quality by which other units were formed and trained.

I am forever grateful to the doctors, nurses, and enlisted men of the 48th/128thfor their selfless sacrifice. I also thank Mr. Flynn for collecting and recording their amazing history so that it will never be forgotten. Their stories and information helped me to accurately place my protagonist in the European Theater of World War II, and I hope they will graciously indulge my boldness in assigning Dr. John Welles to their most successful and exemplary unit.

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