Leora’s Letters

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ATC can be unmercifully dull when no one’s flying. It’s a little like non-combat guard duty in the Army; I pulled a lot of that. The public conjures images of steely eyed sentries at Fort Dix, squinting into the New Jersey mist, M-16s at the ready. Or at least that’s the image I had when reporting for duty there at age 18. In reality, guard duty will suck the esprit from anyone’s corps.

During my inglorious military career, I spent many mind-numbing hours guarding empty buildings from invasion by no one. Similarly, my ATC fantasy poses me as a square-jawed controller intently gazing at a radar sweep, tracking minimally separated airliners. Except, when there’s no air traffic it searches in vain, and while that gets boring, it affords quality time for controllers to catch up on tower gossip.

Thirty-some years ago I was an FAA controller in the Des Moines tower, working an uneventful swing shift with a guy named … Guy, Guy Kidney. His wife’s name is Joy. That’s germane, because on that snowy evening with everything grounded, Guy told me how Joy—this is starting to sound like a shift-before-Christmas story, but it’s not. Instead, Joy was researching her family’s Word War II history, especially accounts of her five uncles. Two had been sailors and three served in the Air Force (Air Corps, then Army Air Force). The brothers scattered to Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, Australia and New Guinea, plus training assignments across the U.S. Joy’s goal was to write a book about their experiences, largely gleaned from boxes of wartime letters to and from her grandmother, Leora Wilson.

Joy’s uncles—Del, Don, Dale, Dan and Claiborne, known as Junior—grew up on a small Iowa farm without indoor plumbing or running water, unless you ran from the well to the kitchen with the pail. Heat was supplied by the wood you cut, split, and stacked, plus the sweat you worked up doing so. By Depression era standards, they weren’t poor; it’s just how rural life was—hard, but they ate well, did their chores, graduated high school and went off to war like millions of other young men and women. All five volunteered. The two older brothers, Del and Don, joined the Navy before the war. Del repeatedly crossed the North Atlantic on oil tankers, which were juicy targets for U-boats. Don was onboard the carrier Yorktown when it was sunk in the Battle of Midway in 1942. Sobering images both. The three younger brothers joined the Air Force as age allowed.

After leaving ATC in 1997, I lost track of Guy and had never met Joy. I forgot her research project, until early in 2020 when she contacted me, saying that her book, Leora’s Letters, was published and asked if I would voice the audiobook version. She knew I did studio voice work and sent me the paperback. Gotta admit, I hesitate to accept unsolicited works. Often, they’re poorly written, but Leora’s Letters had me sitting up in awe of these five brothers, serving in situations most of us can’t fathom.

Anyone with a History Channel exposure to World War II knows how skinny the odds were that all five uncles would survive the war unscathed. I won’t disclose their fates, but their stories make it clear how dangerous flying military hardware—that we civilians admire at airshows—can be, especially in combat. Flying warbirds in peacetime air shows also holds risk far beyond my skill level.

Dale Wilson flew B-25s, Dan P-38s, and Junior P-40s. They trained in Stearman biplanes and the monoplane Vultee Valiant (aka Vibrator) before receiving advanced single-engine training in the North American AT-6, or the twin-engine AT-17 Cessna Bobcat. But that merely lists what they flew. Their letters home to their mother, Leora, tell each young man’s personal story in their own unvarnished, hand-written words.

Who writes letters anymore? We text, tweet, and make snarky comments on Facebook, knowing we’re protected from return fire by cyber fugazis, that are cheap substitutes for courage and duty. In World War II, these brothers wrote home from desert training bases and jungle combat zones, as they struggled to transition from farm boys to pilots ordered to fly to any spot on the planet and do battle with other young men, who probably wrote to their mothers.

I wrote this piece on Dec. 7, 2020, 79 years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that sent five Wilson brothers off to war. Because there was no internet, they wrote home, and because moms save letters from sons in danger—plus dreaded War Department telegrams—“The secretary of war desires me to express his regret that your son…”—Joy Kidney was able to piece together five moving stories. Can tweets and texts be preserved with the same impact or solemnity? I doubt it.

I learned to fly while stationed in Hawaii and flew my first solo at Wheeler AFB (now AAF) on Dec. 7, 1974, 33 years after the Japanese attacked Oahu. I felt my three landings did more damage to the runway than the Japanese had. Once solo’d, I’d routinely fly to Ford Island at Pearl Harbor for touch-and-go’s. Laps around the pattern took me over the Arizona Memorial, but initially I was too busy being a frazzled student to look down at it with any appreciation.

Then, as I gained confidence and realized I could simultaneously breathe and fly, I looked and saw the ghostly shape of the sunken battleship, tomb to the 1102 sailors and Marines killed that December morning. Whatever hardships I claimed in my young life paled in comparison to those entombed below me and to the sacrifices Leora Wilson’s family made to this country … hell, to the world.

As I recorded the audiobook and reached passages of inevitable grief delivered in War Department telegrams, my voice tensed up, and it took several takes to get through. Leaving the recording booth, I faced the engineer, Steve Mathews—whose father had been a B-25 pilot—and I knew he was choked up, too. It’s powerful stuff.

“Leora’s Letters,” by Joy Neal Kidney, is meticulously researched, humbling in delivery, and never dull. Precious is the storyteller who can pull that off. You can find both the print and audio version on Amazon.

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20 COMMENTS

  1. You’re correct Paul. I don’t write letters any more. And because I don’t and never have had a Facebook account I “can’t make snarky comments knowing I’m protected from return fire from cyber fugazis”. But I can and will navigate to the Amazon for Leora’s Letters by Joy Neal Kidney. Thank you for the December 7 story on this December 17. One of those days lives in infamy, the other in fame.

  2. There was documentary on one of the channels years ago called “A Fighter Pilot’s Story”. One this that stuck with me from that show was a photo of his beginning class and half of the class died before the end of the war from accidents and combat, each death circled. Sobering.

    • I think I saw the same documentary. It was a fascinating look into the pilot’s lives in the face of constant danger in the air. One thing that struck me was a pair of photographs of one of the highlighted pilots. The first was his graduation from flight school photo – a young, steely-eyed and fresh faced boy that exuded confidence and determination. The second was taken near the end of his tour of duty. It was hard to tell they were of the same person. The latter photo showed a man that had aged many years in less than 18 months, with a sad and grizzled appearance. Even the war’s survivors were not unscathed.

  3. Loved this article! Now I really know what “running water” means and I’m going to get that book. There’s an outside chance we talked to each other on the DES tower frequency. I was flying a DC-9 during that time out of MSP.

  4. Very cool, Paul, and didn’t know you were a studio voice worker – will have to check this out. I apprehended a general meaning but failed to find the precise meaning you were trying to put across by using the word, “fugazis”. I would like to know the usage of the word, since it has a very fascinating sound. Help, anyone?

    • Fair question Bill. I’m obviously not Paul Berge, but for myself I wouldn’t even if I could fully translate “fugazis”. When it comes to artistry of Paul’s kind, merely being able to “apprehend a general meaning” rather than to know the meaning concisely strangely makes the meaning much more knowable. 🙂

      • Thanks, gang. I love the sound of “fugazi”, and would love to use it. Dean, I missed the Wikipedia definition you showed, or maybe I did see it, but couldn’t work out exactly how that definition fit Paul’s sentence so I discounted it. I guess we have lots of fugazi news (and thinking) in the media these days. In any case, this article’s author wrote to me under a separate cover with this: “Fugazi–something that doesn’t really exist, but in which we try to believe….”.

        Further, Fugazi is/was a punk/alternative band of the 80’s & 90’s of some note, and this was pre-Wikipedia, so it HAS to be a thing!

  5. Paul, loved the article and just downloaded a copy of the book from Amazon. I am old enough to remember writing letters home and well remember the feeling of loneliness of not receiving any mail at “mail call”. I look forward to reading this book as, like you, my parent’s generation fought WWII for all of us. Many of the local farmers went off to that fracas and most never discussed that experience with anyone, including others that went unless they did so in private which I don’t believe they did. One school classmate’s Dad served on the USS Franklin (CV-13) when she was mauled in the Pacific and rode her back to Pearl. He was very affected by any loud noises.
    Once I too had “seen the elephant”, some of them treated me more as an equal but never discussed their history.
    During my AF career, I flew with two Hanoi Hilton grads. One of those gentlemen was up there for almost 7 years. One rainy day at Clark AB we were sitting at the club watching the heavy rain and chatting. He started talking about his time in the Hilton and went on for a couple of hours. As he talked, he became more detailed and was often crying, unashamedly. He was “venting” for the first time ever and it showed. I said hardly a word during that time and when I asked why he chose to talk about it to me, he responded that based on my experiences in VN that I would “understand”. I felt highly honored to be chosen to help a fellow aviator lighten his extremely heavy mental load.

  6. I too learned to fly in Hawaii, before joining the Army. I soloed at Ford Island, and look back on that as an opportunity of a lifetime. I spent 20 years in the Army as a Warrant Officer flying both fixed and rotary wing. I too wrote letters home from the Philippines, Thailand and Honduras, and worry that there some young people today that have never hand-written a letter. I was moved by your article, as well as many of the comments. I plan to get the book and spend some time with it. Thank you for sharing your experiences as well. May we always remember those who have sacrificed for us!

  7. Interesting article. I am in the process of writing about my late father’s World War II letters to his parents. He was from New Zealand, and was captured by German forces in Athens, Greece in 1941, and spent the remainder of the war (about 4 years) in the salt mines of the German heartland, near Dresden. He could still recall when at the middle of the day, the sky went dark and everything on the ground shook, as a massive flight of US bombers flew overhead- in the following months these bombing runs were so regular that the POW’s never even looked up when the mid-day darkness fell. He recalls seeing aircraft using the POW camp (or something close by) as a turning point for the final bombing run into Dresden, even seeing the bomb bay doors open. I am not a writer so would love to contact the author of this article for any advice. Thanks, Bruce. Brucekn@me.com

  8. Downloaded the book and Friday and read it over the weekend while watching ball games. It’s a great read, tells of the hardships living in Iowa back in the war days as well as the heartbreak of having sons missing in action or killed while training. As a parent of sons, I can’t imagine the angst of daily living while not knowing the status of your boys, yet that was not uncommon during the war years. The sacrifices made by so many families is poignantly described in this tale of grief. The book puts you in the midst of one family from that time, it’s up to you to understand how many families were affected by the war.