On Memorial Day night, I sat down to watch the 1949 movie, “12 O’clock High,” on the Turner Classic Movies channel. I had seen it before and liked it. A reasonably authentic movie about World War II featuring my favorite actor, Gregory Peck, and lots of B-17s in flight. I like the old movies, filmed with real airplanes instead of today’s often-cartoonish images generated by artists and computers. In 1949 they still had plenty of World War II planes like the B-17 to work with.
Not all that far into the film, I had to turn it off. Truth is, I couldn’t take it. See, while they still had lots of planes to work with, in an admirable decision to make the movie realistic they worked in actual aerial combat scenes of American bombers getting shot down during daytime raids over Germany. I knew this, of course, and should have been expecting it. But it struck me suddenly that those were real bombers filled with real crews of American airmen. Most of them would die.
I know the history of bomber crews in World War II. This was terribly hazardous duty. Every time they flew a mission they knew the odds were good that it would be their last.
I know this because I read a lot of military history. I also write some. My book, Patton’s Oracle: Gen. Oscar Koch, as I Knew Him, is a biographical memoir about one of the most important figures of World War II. Oscar Koch truly was an unsung hero. He deserves great acclaim. Oscar Koch had been in war, and he knew there is no glory in it. My book does not glorify war. Nothing I write ever will. In fact, in my book I quote from Dalton Trumbo’s timeless anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun, to effectively represent that view. This, from Patton’s Oracle:
Trumbo writes about the suffering of a wounded soldier in World War I, describing his injury as a hole that “began at the base of his throat just below where his jaw should be” and extended upward in a widening circle. “He could feel his skin creeping around the rim of the circle. The hole was getting bigger and bigger. It widened out almost to the base of his ears if he had any and then narrowed again. It ended somewhere above what used to be his nose.”
And I conclude this chapter (my words now): Battles still lead to the deaths of those who do battle as well as innocents, and battles still are indiscriminate. Oscar Koch once told me, “War is ugly. The only good war is the one you don’t fight.” Oscar Koch knew war.