Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Frustration of Fumbled Oral Military History - A Lesson for Historical Novelists

Product Details

Why an Otherwise Pretty Good Oral History Book Leaves A Bad Impression - And What Historical Novelists Can Do To Prevent That

Ned Barnett

In researching my novel on aerial combat in the first year of the Pacific War, I'm currently reading a 1981 book, Corregidor: The American Alamo of World War II, by Eric Morris. This book is an oral history of sorts, based on interviews with dozens of men (and a few women) who were in the Philippines when Japan attacked.  A few of those interviewed escaped, but most of them had to survive the rigors of Japanese prison camps for nearly three years.

I imagine that this book - as most oral histories are - was inspired by Studs Terkel's ground-breaking "The Good War," a book that "wrote the book" on oral histories of World War II.  To the extent that it was, in fact, inspired by Terkel, that is a Good Thing, as Terkel's book is well worth reading, studying and emulating.

The book is eminently enjoyable, and in many cases truly enlightening, in that it gives the first-person views, experiences and feelings of the battle for the Philippines, from the air attacks on December 8, through the surrender of Corregidor the following May ... and beyond, to include the capture and imprisonment of those men and women who were left behind by MacArthur and America.

But the book is, to an historian like me, frustrating.  For it has all kinds of minor factual errors of the kind that Drive Me Nuts.  For instance - the Seversky P-35A fighter aircraft which equipped one fighter squadron on Luzon.  This aircraft had been built for Sweden, but with war clouds looming, it was commandeered by the US Army Air Corps and sent to the Philippines.  It was a generation out of date as a fighter, and - what's worse - its instruments were in Swedish, and the numbers were in meters and kilometers per hour, rather than feet and miles per hour. It was a very distinctive aircraft, not easily confused with any other.  Except, apparently, by Mr. Morris, who referred to it as a P-36, a very different aircraft (and the one which largely replaced the P-35 in US Air Corps service).

Even worse - anybody could make a numerical error like that, I suppose, but this was a factual error - he referred to its radial engine as a "rotary" engine - a type of radial engine used in World War I, but dropped almost as soon as that war ended when more powerful and modern engines came along.

Later, in talking about the new, state-of-the-art P-40, he referred to its Allison in-line engine as a "radial" engine - which was the very antithesis of the Allison V-12 inline engine.  Radials are round, with cylinders radiating in a circle around a central hub.  An inline V engine is no different than most V-6 or V-8 auto engines (except for having a dozen cylinders).  The difference is between night and day.

Less obvious, he referred to the volunteer American pilots who were in the process of traveling to China in the summer of 1941 - going there to fight the Japanese before World War II - as "Flying Tigers."  Those brave and courageous men eventually became known as the "Flying Tigers, but that was only after they entered combat - not while traveling to China.  At that time, they were merely the "American Volunteer Group," the AVG.

Finally (and I'm not through with the book yet, so there may be more), he referred to one of the aircraft flying over the Philippines in the immediate pre-war era as the B-23, a replacement for (and vast improvement over) the Douglas B-18 Bolo, which was based on the Douglas DC-2 airliner.  In fact, just 38 B-23s were built, and none of them ever left the continental United States, though once war started, a few flew anti-submarine patrols off the US coast.  There were, however, a dozen or two of the B-18s assigned to the PI (most that left the continental US were in Hawaii or the Caribbean, where they also flew anti-submarine patrols until better planes came along).

None of these mistakes makes earth-shattering, and none of them take away from the human interest and essential heroism of the Americans forced to fight the Japanese with no hope of relief or salvation (and forced to fight under a delusional Douglas MacArthur who made some of the most remarkably bad military decisions of his career in the ten months from July, 1941 through May, 1942).

Still, these mistakes could have been easily rectified by having the book read and edited by someone who knew the technology of military history, rather than just the human element.

No comments:

Post a Comment