Thursday, January 26, 2012

My New Guinea Diary - Ernest C. Ford

A book is a package prepared by a team of people. Even something self-published is rarely prepared by just the author. Friends and family can act as proof-readers, typist or even fact-checkers. Make it an ‘officially’ published book and you start including designers, copy editors and other such clever people. The wise editor will let a great story have its head and not interfere with the story-telling process. However, this same editor will also tighten up the writing and keep it on track while ensuring the small things like spelling and grammar are consistent and accurate. With Ernest Ford’s My New Guinea Diary we have the incredible story of an American Sergeant Pilot flying C-47 transports over New Guinea’s treacherous terrain when the Japanese still held the upper hand and the Allies were scrambling to reverse their fortunes. While most certainly an attractive tale that needed to be told it is let down by, at times, a complete lack of editing.

The book opens - after the requisite foreword, acknowledgements and a useful timeline of events – on October 13, 1942 with the 20-year old author flying to New Guinea from Australia in formation with 12 other C-47s of the 6th Troop Carrier Squadron (the first USAAF transport unit to be deployed as such). This flight was the culmination of a two-week odyssey involving some epic legs across the Pacific from California and was so secret that only the squadron commander knew where they were going. The aircraft were little more than a month old and the pilots were all ‘green’ combat-wise of course. On the flying side of things Ford had just over 450 hours of flight-time prior to leaving the States - a firm grounding for the challenges that lay ahead.

Landing at Jackson Field in the Port Moresby area the crews quickly find out how tenuous their situation is. The Japanese had pushed their way across the Owen Stanley ranges to within sight of New Guinea’s biggest settlement. No quarter was asked and none was given in what was a particularly brutal campaign fought in the most unforgiving of environments. The crews are briefed shortly after arrival by an Australian Army captain who familiarises them with the tactical situation, basic survival and a comprehensive lesson on how to survive if shot down or having to escape New Guinea on foot. While an extraordinarily detailed briefing and a real eye-opener into just how little chance the men had if left to their own devices in the jungle, the briefing is delivered in the book as though the captain is talking (complete with quotation marks). It, like many ‘instructions’ given throughout the book, is treated as a direct quote which, 60-70 years after the fact, is quite implausible as are his apparent comments about aircraft handling - an Army captain telling aircrew not to hand-turn ‘hot’ propellers! Nevertheless the captain’s descriptions, as written, maintain the exceptional level of detail that is experienced throughout the book.

This level of detail is of most value when Ford describes the living conditions at Jackson and his subsequent combat flying. Beginning first with air drops over kunai grass plains, the author flies with an additional four ‘pushers’ – Australian infantry assigned to push the aircraft’s load out over the drop-zone as fast as possible on each run. Fighter escort for the early trips was a single Royal Australian Air Force Wirraway so, in effect, there was no fighter escort at a time when the Japanese held air superiority. Ford goes to great lengths to explain the challenges of flying under such conditions and several encounters with Japanese aircraft make it clear the man supplements his luck with particular flying skill (others are not so fortunate). Missions were flown in formation or singly and, as it does now, the weather in that part of the world certainly made its presence felt.

Ford was always keen to fly and even volunteered to crew on a Flying Fortress when he was rostered off normal flying duties. This passion to do his job is matched by the skill mentioned above. Not long after arriving in New Guinea, his crew (now including an Australian co-pilot) is sent to perform a solo supply drop near Kokoda airstrip. High up in the ranges, after performing the drops and with the weather closing in, the cargo door comes away from the fuselage and wraps itself around the port stabiliser. What follows is a particularly gripping account of the author’s struggle to return the floundering aircraft and crew to base (parachutes removed to supply the fighter pilots) while having to ‘adjust’ his flying – already hampered by limited control - to counter the cloud and rain showers. None of the aircraft in the squadron had a full instrument panel (no artificial horizon!) at this time and Ford’s regular aircraft, the now damaged Irene, had a cockpit that leaked when it rained. That he gets the aircraft back home safely is certainly not unique among the plethora of wartime stories but it is a clear indication that this man can fly.

With his aircraft out of action and no spares on strength, the author is sent to a ‘sugar resort’ near Mackay, Queensland for a short rest. This and other trips, operational and on leave, allow for interesting observations of 1940s Australia through the eyes of a ‘Yank’. Some are accurate while others are a bit hard to believe (I have yet to meet an Australian woman who lived during that time with wooden teeth – the majority had them according to the author).

One of the recurring ‘problems’ the author has when dealing with administration staff on the ‘home front’ is proving to them he is the pilot in command. Staff Sergeant pilots in the USAAF were unheard of to me until I read this book. The same can be said for the majority of those serving in the Army Air Force at the time as Ford regularly, and vehemently, has to prove his credentials and, consequently, makes some enemies with airfield clerks. Never is this more clear than his Christmas 1942 flight to Garbutt airfield (now Townsville airport). Battling intense weather with no radio contact and a bit of anti-aircraft fire approaching Townsville – not to mention performing an Immelman (in a C-47!) to avoid high ground above 4,000 feet – before landing and stopping on the runway due to lack of fuel, Ford has to contend with ‘acquaintances’ whose job it seems is to make life more difficult for everyone else. During these confrontations, and there are several throughout the book, the author maintains a level head and tends to (verbally) throw his weight around a little knowing he is backed-up by orders or regulations. He admittedly, at times, comes across as a bit of a ‘smart-arse’ but he is always in the right and often gets his ‘opponents’ to eat some humble pie.

With the Japanese being ground back to the northern shores of New Guinea, the 6th TCS is kept busy with many supply flights heading through the mountains to supply the advancing units on the other side. Supplying Dobodura, the author flies two missions before being called on to deliver spares and two mechanics to aid an unserviceable P-38 Lightning. Delivery complete and with the weather rapidly closing in, Ford decides to follow the north coast south-east towards Fall River before refueling and returning to Port Morseby. The weather worsens to such an extent a grassy clearing is selected to land and wait out the storm on. What follows is a stay of at least 36 hours behind enemy lines. This extended ‘adventure’ is only surpassed by the sheer seat-of-the-pants flying required to deliver supplies to Wau – a strip requiring an uphill landing in a short distance with final approach, under fire, over a river and the Japanese controlling three sides of the airfield. Take-off was downhill and often dodging new bomb craters. Ford flew to Wau on numerous occasions and in one two-day period the transport crews delivered more than two thousand soldiers.

The flying and trying life in New Guinea continues unabated with the author completing more than 220 operations before receiving a battlefield commission and the first of his six DFCs. He would go on to fly 364 combat operations before leaving New Guinea in October 1943. When the Korean War began he flew a further 21 operations in a month before enough resources were deployed to allow him to return to regular duties in Japan. An impressive flying career.

It’s certainly an interesting and fascinating story, isn’t it? The writing and editing does not make it easy on the reader though. Indeed, I haven’t had a more frustrating read in a long time. I made a note after reading page 20 – “proof-reading … pretty abysmal, regular spelling mistakes”. Sadly, for the majority of the book, this remains the norm. Place names are misspelt and, on several occasions, words are spelt phonetically suggesting the author dictated part of his story which, in turn, led to the errors due to a lack of follow-up checks.

The book opens, as already described, with the unit’s arrival in New Guinea. This entire event is repeated, unbelievably almost word for word, on page 79. Up to this point only small details had been repeated verbatim but this continues to occur throughout the book. There’s also a few obscure references early on to aspects of the unit’s history or the author’s service which are not explained until well into the read.

There are often extended sections of the book which have no transition or flow between the paragraphs. The author jumps around – “chops and changes” as I wrote in my notes – and tells a story but leaves it hanging before moving on to another anecdote that is usually more or less unrelated. This is particularly frustrating when particular people are talked about. Dates regularly come out of nowhere and, while the book is basically a collection of memories organised chronologically, there is no way to tell when the events occurred unless a date is mentioned. Obviously the majority will have happened in late 1942 through to October 1943 but the author had a distinguished post-war service career and, consequently, met a number of notable people so the occasional story from these meetings will pop up in between flights in New Guinea.

Strangely enough, the spelling, the below-par grammar, the detail and statistical repetition completely and utterly disappear when the author writes about flying. The writing changes from being clunky and disorganised to concise and accurate. The flights to Garbutt, Wau and Dobodura mentioned above – and the overnight stay in the grassy field behind enemy lines – are just some of the well-written passages detailing Ford’s flying that are dotted throughout MNGD. These harrowing accounts are the complete polar opposite, in terms of writing and structure, to the majority of the rest of the book. It’s like a switch has been thrown and is probably one of the more bizarre things I have seen in this genre. The author’s accounts of his actual flying are a joy to read and any enthusiast will marvel at his abilities.

These accounts are certainly the high points of MNGD as the rest is, while a good record of Ford’s time in New Guinea, quite disappointing. The supporting material – the photos and maps – are well-produced on the same paper as the text. The photos in particular are the survivors of Ford’s collection after many were confiscated by the censor in Hawaii as he returned home. This makes what appears in the book all the more valuable as many are of the native people in their traditional dress – a small window into a culture that had war thrust upon it. With regard to the photos, the poor editing that hamstrings the text also makes its presence felt. The first photo to appear in the main body of the book can be found on page 84 while the next photo is on page 85 and refers to a humourous incident … that is not mentioned until page 162! Several captions are also completely wrong. In particular, an aircraft named “Hell’s Angels” is referred to as “Hell’s Bells” and the caption for the photo of the author looking out the side cockpit window of a C-47 says the aircraft is a B-17 when the stencil painted on the aircraft clearly says “C-47”.

There’s a myriad of problems with this book that detract from the quality of the read. Fortunately, they don’t affect the quality of the story. Ford is a spirited and talented flyer with an appreciation for history and a realisation he played his part. This is, more than likely, the first book written by an American transport pilot who flew in New Guinea. At the very least it must be the first written by one of the ‘pioneers’ of the 6th TCS. A rare book if ever there was one and a rare book in this genre as memoirs about combat flying in transports aren’t exactly thick on the ground. Errors and indifferent editing perhaps make MNGD forgettable but Ernest C. Ford is most certainly not!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Fighting High flying high

In this age of e-books and online resources you’d think anyone who started up a new, specialist publishing company to produce real, tangible, high quality books would need their head read. With some authors preferring to make their work available in electronic form, and the media screaming the end of paper books is nigh to whoever will listen, it would certainly seem a risky venture. Established and respected author Steve Darlow, however, had other ideas and, with a good network of fellow authors and interested parties, saw the opportunity to try a few things that were a little bit different.

A perfect example of this is the recent announcement that the official book of the Bomber Command Memorial, currently being constructed in London’s Hyde Park, will be designed and published by Fighting High Publishing. We Will Remember Them – The National Memorial to Bomber Command is quite a coup for the Darlow-led publishing house as it was only back in about June 2009 – not long after the release of his challenging Flightpath To Murder by Haynes - that the decision to self-publish Steve’s Fighting High book series was made.

Since then the business has made a name for itself by producing books with high production values. Like all publishers considerable effort is put into the look of each title and the results speak for themselves. Following the publication of the two Fighting High volumes the first ‘stand-alone’ title was released. Richard Pinkham’s On Wings Of Fortune, a remarkable story of flying in three different theatres during the war, was proudly presented as a small, 200-page hardback. The way it was put together – from the glossy dust cover to the well-reproduced photos from Burma (always a fun thing to print given the humid conditions in which the photos were taken) – still impresses me. It just looks right.

This attention to quality of production continued with the next book – Great War To Great Escape (incidentally, the only FH book I have read to date and soon to be featured in a review here). However, as good as these books are, they were always going to be in competition with the, admittedly and fortunately, well-populated aircrew memoir market. The next two books from Fighting High are, from where I sit, groundbreaking and in a class of their own.

Portraits Of The Few features paintings of more than 60 Battle Of Britain veterans accompanied by accounts of their actions in a large-format hardback. While using paintings to illustrate text is nothing new the portraits make for a very personal and striking look at the contribution these men made to a conflict that continues to stir emotions today. Indeed, the intimacy provided by the paintings could perhaps only be matched by a memoir written by one of the men themselves. The book offers, in many cases, the first opportunity to see these men, during their finest hour, in ‘living colour’ – a stark contrast to the black and white war we are all accustomed to.

Matching Portraits’ quiet emotion and intimacy with stories of loss and sacrifice is Bomber Command: Failed To Return. An ensemble cast of well-known authors has come together to present accounts of just some of the thousands of bomber crews who were killed or became prisoners (those who failed to return). Such ‘short stories’ are usually the realm of historic aviation magazines but putting them all together in, again, a large format hardback means men whose exploits may not have come to light now get the recognition they deserve. Like the Bomber Command Memorial mentioned above this is a powerful tribute that owes its existence to a team of dedicated people.

As you might imagine the memorial has featured heavily in Fighting High’s recent history. Veteran and author signings have been held at book launches and as standalone events with proceeds from the latter going towards the well-known fundraising efforts for the memorial. Fighting High’s passion for honouring the bomber crews is evident and, coupled with the already well-established reputation for quality mentioned above, would have made the task of selecting a publisher for the memorial’s book that much easier.

2012, however, is not just about one new book. The success of Failed To Return has spawned a sequel that will no doubt do well with the added ‘bonus’ of the increased interest in Bomber Command as the new memorial is completed. A return to the Battle of Britain and a foray to Malta will come with the June release of ‘Tich’ Palliser’s They Gave Me A Hurricane – a book written by the man himself but, sadly, unpublished at the time of his death late last year. It is the reprinting of a classic biography, though, that will prove the publisher’s commitment to do things right but mix it up a little.

Pathfinder Cranswick was written by journalist Michael Cumming in the early 1960s. Over 40 years it has appeared in several guises, the most recent paperback being self-published. Wanting to keep the story fresh and keep the name of Alec Cranswick (bomber pilot who flew the most ops) ‘out there’, the author researched new material and created an e-book for sale on Amazon. The book has always been regarded as one of the classic Bomber Command biographies so Fighting High, realising the opportunity to bring the book back in its 50th year, has teamed up with Cumming who, again, has discovered further new material to include in the anniversary edition. This, obviously, is more than just a simple reprint with a fancy new cover or, god forbid, a new title. This will be a classic updated and fresh and at an affordable price which is more than can be said for the old editions on the secondhand market!

You may be wondering why I’ve gone to great lengths to promote one publisher seemingly over the others. There is no favouritism or ‘preferred’ publishers on ABR but credit where it is due. What I have seen over the past few years, from the start of Fighting High to the current success, has been an ability to think a little differently and challenge what is expected of a publisher in this genre. The desire to contribute to the memory of aircrew beyond peddling a product is commendable. High quality, the utmost respect and honouring the memory of aircrew should be paramount with these books and Fighting High does it exceptionally well.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Understanding an addiction


I think the definition of an addict has in it somewhere the performance of actions that, upon reflection, the afflicted person can’t quite remember doing. Hi, my name is Andy and I’m a book addict. I had a package arrive today (actually there was two of them but let’s not go into details) and, for the life of me, had no idea what book (books) was in it (them). It doesn’t help that I regularly buy books from overseas and the cheap postage attached to the price often means I have to wait up to three months for the surface mail. So be it, it works out in the end. I guess that makes me a cheap addict too.

Anyway, I didn’t recognise the sender of the bigger package and, upon opening it, noted what was a hardback peering out between the gaps between the bubbles of the packaging material (another benefit of being an addict … bubblewrap!). The cover, see below, immediately took me back to early October when I had discovered the existence of yet another Fleet Air Arm memoir I had not heard of. Somehow, again, I have no idea how, I had stumbled upon proof of the existence of Norman Hanson’s Carrier Pilot. As alluded to in the previous ABR post below, I do tend to Google such things so it was not long before I had educated myself and decided this book was a worthy investment if I could find an affordable copy. As much as I love books, I refuse to pay exhorbitant amounts for them (although on very rare occasions I have spent close to A$100 for a thick A4-sized hardback) preferring instead to spread my budget over three, four or even five or six titles (and not all brand new). I guess that makes me a wise addict.

Obviously I managed to find an affordable copy – either that day or striking it lucky with a quick Abebooks ‘Want’ notification I honestly don’t remember – but that is about where it all ends until today. In the hustle and bustle of ‘managing’ the various responsibilities of having a pregnant wife, a birthday, a new niece and the festive season the fact that I had a worthy addition to my collection steaming its way (I suspect with less class and purpose than the author’s HMS Illustrious but with class and purpose all the same) across the high seas completely and utterly flew out of my head. If anything, the thrill of the chase was over and I had moved on. I guess that makes me a fickle addict.

This edition of Carrier Pilot is the 1979 printing by Patrick Stephens Limited (ISBN 0 085059 349 2). Ordinarily I don’t go for books this old – the early ‘80s is usually my cut-off (I know, I’m missing out but one has to draw the line somewhere … so it can be crossed…) – but I am certainly glad I did. With a dust jacket illustrated by Michael Turner and, amazingly, flaps that are almost as eloquently written as the main text, I began to wonder if I had found a ‘forgotten’ classic. I read the first few pages as the front flap suggested and a mild sense of euphoria washed over me. Hanson can write. I guess that makes me a lucky addict.

I have spoken about the use of a dramatic moment from the featured person’s life at the start of the book as an excellent tool to hook the reader. Once the potential reader is attracted by the siren-like call of the cover, only photos and a well-placed ‘kicker’ can suck someone in (I’m generalising). Tim Vigors does it well when he describes the end of his combat flying career at the start of Life’s Too Short To Cry. Equally dramatic is Phil Davenport’s running battle with several Ju-88s in a Sunderland over the Bay of Biscay in Hurrah For The Next Man (reviewed December 2011). And so Hanson does the same although his book appeared on the shelves a good 20+ years before the two examples mentioned above. The chapter is titled "Suddenly there was gunfire…"

Our hero runs to the port side portholes as the carrier’s guns open up on fast and low Betty bombers. Sticking his helmeted head out of the port hole, Hanson has a front row seat before suddenly realizing he was literally sticking his neck out. Trying to pull his head in, he realises his helmet was stuck on the outer rim of the porthole. A nearby explosion forces his entire body back inside – “my head came inside without any trouble, almost pulling in the port-hole with it.” Just as you’re almost chuckling at this scene there’s a shout from a colleague:

Come on, Hans! Stretchers!

Two shells from the cruiser Euryalus had hit the carrier’s island and the shrapnel had rained down on the men man-handling two Grumman Avengers down the deck. Hanson doesn’t say it but his descriptions of what he finds on deck must have happened in slow motion. You can see it and you can feel his shock.

The bos’n, one Charlie Hobbs, notices Hanson’s understandable daze.

Come on, Hans, for God’s sake! Move these lads up against the island!

Hanson reacts:

I caught up the legs of one body and pulled it, slowly and tenderly, to the high, grey wall of the island. I just felt sad – oddly enough, not sick. Just unbelievably sad.

‘Oh! For Christ’s sake, Norman!’ (My Sunday name now!) ‘Get a bloody jerk on, son! Those bastards’ll be back any minute!’ Charlie was grabbing them by the ankles and fairly hurling them across the deck. He looked up and saw my face.

‘Don’t let it worry you, Hans,’ he said, surprisingly gently and softly, despite the rumpus that seemed to fill the deck. ‘They can’t feel anything now, you know. You can’t hurt them any more.’

What a great man you are, Charlie, I thought. Somewhere along the years you will tell them that you were the bos’n of Illustrious and some smooth bastard who knew the sea only from kicking pebbles into it from Southsea beach will say ‘So what?’ No one but your shipmates will ever know what a sterling character you really are.

That evening Charlie was sewing those mangled kids into tarpaulin sheets.

I’ve left out some of the descriptions of the carnage of course as it is not pleasant but it is written in a way that strikes to the core. How can a book start off with quite dark humour – the helmet stuck in the porthole while under fire – and then, less than a page later, actually hurt to read before marveling at the bravery and humanity of a man in a most dire situation? This chapter is a little over three pages long yet my emotions were all over the place. Not since Murray Peden’s A Thousand Shall Fall have I been so stunned by so few words read (and Peden’s opening elicited a snigger and then full-blown laughter in the first two pages so is really at the other end of the emotional spectrum).

I’m sitting here trying to think what to write next to expand on what I’ve discovered and am trying to, somewhat clumsily, convey. I’m a hopeless addict. Really, since he started it all, the last words should be Norman Hanson’s as they echo what is at the very heart of spreading the word about aircrew books:

That evening, as we cruised slowly south-eastwards, 100 miles or so from the coast of Sumatra, we buried them. Our great ship slowed down to six knots. George Fawkes read the Burial Service, standing beside that silent row of Union flags. One after another the boards were tilted and the hammock-like tarpaulins slid swiftly and quietly into the Indian Ocean. The plaintive notes of the bugle rang out over the great waste of water and they were gone. We could do no more than hope to remember them.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Serendipity

There I was innocently beavering away at work when I felt the need to stretch. It would not surprise you, as my arms reached out to either side and my head tilted to the ceiling, that something very book-related popped into my head. "I wonder if there's any reviews for The Amiens Raid yet?", I thought. When I have a new book in my collection, and I know I'm not going to read it for some time, I'm always interested to see what the word is on the 'street' from those who have had already had the chance to get stuck in.

In the case of The Amiens Raid - Secrets Revealed by JP Ducellier, I came up dry but only after visiting artist Mark Postlethwaite's website and discovering he is co-owner of the publisher of TAR (Red Kite Books). Amazon didn't look too promising from the Google search but my curiosity got the better of me. There were no reviews to be found but I scrolled down somewhat absent-mindedly (automatic pilot?) and my heart skipped a beat when I saw the following text:

Mediterranean Air War, 1940-1945: North Africa, June 1940 - January 1942 v. 1

The author? The one and only Christopher Shores. I had heard several years ago that the classic (and pricey!) Shores titles like Fighters Over The Desert were being revised and/or reprinted. Thinking these titles would come out singularly as they were updated etc, it is apparent from the Amazon 'blurb' that this one title (over several volumes) proves my theory completely and utterly wrong. If anything, this series will be a stand-alone collection using the earlier books as its foundation and presenting a 'one-stop shop' through the employment of further research, new resources and a theatre-wide scope. Exciting, yes? Not a bad result for an idle thought about a somewhat unrelated book!

Ooh, the link might be worth a look if I've, er, got you going.

Mediterranean Air War, 1940-1945: North Africa, June 1940 - January 1942 v. 1

By the way, that's volume one of just North Africa. Malta, Sicily, greater Italy, Greece, the Aegean and the Balkans will be forthcoming!