My Dad bombed Kurt Vonnegut…
This was 20 year old Staff Sergeant Frank McManus, Crew Chief of one of the ordinance crews in the 601st Squadron of the 398th Bomb Group assigned to airbase “Station 131” in Nuthampstead, England from April, 1943 through June, 1945. Frank was my Dad. I was born in 1960, the youngest of four kids and never knew anything about his war experiences. It wasn’t until decades later that I pieced together the story of what my Dad did for the Army Air Corps — the forerunner of the 8th Air Force.
My Dad made bombs.
He configured them, set the fuse and altimeter triggers and basically readied them for the flight to the target. 500lb and 1,000lb bombs were loaded onto cradle racks by hand. He supervised and worked with a team of four other young men and they loaded the racks before hauling the payload from the bomb shack out to the tarmac to load the planes with a hydraulic lift. Often in the dark and often in cold, brutal weather. Everyday Frank would load the bombers with bombs he had made ready. He never knew where they were going, other than “somewhere in Europe”.
The handsome young man next to Frank is Kurt Vonnegut. Kurt enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943 and served in the 1st Battalion, 423rd Infantry Regiment, 106th Infantry Division as a Private in the Chemical Corps until 1945. Kurt found himself in a ground offensive against the German Wehrmacht forces who were some of the best trained combat troops of their day. Almost immediately after deployment, Kurt and his unit were taken prisoner and ended up being held in the city of Dresden, Germany in a slaughterhouse for pigs.
On Tuesday, February 13th, Wednesday the 14th and Thursday the 15th of 1945, The U.S. Army Air Corps bombed the civilian target of the city of Dresden in daylight raids that included incendiary bombs, while the Royal Air Force bombed the city during the nighttime to the same effect. Both the British and the Americans used hundreds and hundreds of bombers and the bombs fell around the clock for three days and nights. Large sections of the city were reduced to rubble and inhabitants were either incinerated or suffocated due to a lack of available oxygen resulting from the firestorm.
The raid was ordered by Winston Churchill as a “terror bombing campaign” to demoralize the Germans and cause a massive refugee migration that would bring the rail system to a standstill. Just prior to the bombing of Dresden the city had been the recipient of a large influx of war refugees. This was probably what prompted Churchill to strike when he did. Some estimates put the death toll in Dresden as high as 250,000.
Vonnegut and the other G.I.’s were safe in the slaughterhouse during the bombing raid. They took shelter in a subterranean meat locker. When the seemingly endless barrage of thunder finally stopped, they and their captors stepped outside.
Kurt regretted it. He wished he had never come out through that door. He said it was like the surface of the Moon. As they began to move around they found horrors waiting for them that, as young men having recently said farewell to their teen years, could never have imagined.
At first, Kurt and another prisoner, a Maori soldier that had been captured by Rommel’s forces at the battle of Tobruk, Libya, covered in tattoos and tough as nails, were finding cavities under the ground where buildings had stood and finding groups of bodies where people had attempted to hide. Pulling them out started simply enough, but then the liquefied and putrefied and easily separated anatomies became problematic. The hanging stench of rot went straight to the central nervous system. The Maori soldier ended up dying from the dry heaves. It didn’t stop. He ended up spitting out more and more of his stomach lining until he just died. The fiercest warrior a man could meet — ripped apart by revulsion.
Kurt’s mind snapped.
Billy Pilgrim was born there. Time travel, where one could leave if they wanted and travel to places like the Moon was possible. Pilgrim would later appear in his writing. Kurt Vonnegut had gone inside himself while dealing with a reality that no one should ever see. Twenty years later he would publish what was arguably his seminal work. A story, the seeds of which had been planted in the fertile soil of a psychologically injured mind, where it germinated. The stalks and leaves of that story kept reaching for the light of the Sun as it sought a break in the gray and smoky overcast of war and horrific evil. The fact that Slaughterhouse Five was written is a statement of hope and an act of courage.
The Germans too, had had enough of the repulsive stench and the lack of resources to adequately deal with the burial detail. The Germans brought in military units that had flame throwers. Whenever Kurt and the other G.I.’s would find more pockets of rotting bodies, the Germans would incinerate them where they were. Time was of the essence. Cholera was not a development anyone wanted. So, there was 20 year old Kurt: Crawling around in the slush and the mud and the snow and ice looking for underground openings into collapsed buildings. Then he was made to crawl into those rooms with those ripped apart bodies and collect valuables and bring them out so that the German soldiers could use the flamethrowers on the bodies. “OK, Amerikaner, nächstes Gebäude, beeil dich!“ (Next building, hurry up!)
Back in England there were horrors as well. Bombers came back that defied the laws of aerodynamics. There was no way they should have been able to fly. Period. Shot to hell and gone. The flight crews were maimed and in shock. Some were dead. Some were missing. Just not on the plane. There were cases where pilots would land their crippled plane and get it to stop in the weeds and wouldn’t follow the crew out. Just sat there, let go of the yolk and died. Held on long enough to save the crew. Then, like Vonnegut, there were the air crews that got shot down and were taken prisoner and spent the rest of the war as POW’s.
Many of the veterans of the war were psychologically affected by the experiences they went through. Some would never recover and would instead just stuff it down inside and fake being like everyone else and try to hold down a job and a marriage. Some did OK at this — many didn’t. In World War I and again in World War II, versions of the insignia for Hell’s Little Angel came into use. My Dad’s squadron, the 601st Squadron of the 398th Bomb Group based in Nuthampstead, England was the original home for Hell’s Angel. Ring a bell? After the war, one of the men started an organization of motorcycle enthusiasts that go by the same name. They didn’t have much desire to fit in with mainstream society. They preferred to stay out there on the edge.
Looking back on it from this end of the road, the ghosts were thick with Dad. It explains a lot. He was never really present. Not fully. He was always preoccupied with something on his mind, even deeper — on him. Toward the end of his deployment he began to drink — and he drank for the rest of his life. I could never have figured it out then, but now I know he was dealing with the stress of knowing what his role was in the war. My Dad was around until I was 29, and although he was always around I never knew him. We never had a talk. Or a hug. Or told stories. He was just my Dad. My unavailable Dad. He was against war when I knew him. He hated large, over-the-top displays of patriotism. He didn’t see them the same way as others did. I think the losses he suffered weighed too heavy on him. Everyone was running around treating the patriotic events like it was a party. To him it wasn’t a fucking party. He lost his fucking friends to the Nazis, goddammit! Men he knew and had seen that morning. Men who had belongings that he collected and turned in for Command to send home to their families. Fuck your flags and your music and your dancing. Let’s just finish this shitty, lonely job of killing these bastards and go home!
I remember when I was a teenager, in a rare moment of connection, asking him what he wanted most when he was in England. He said, “I wanted to go home.”
He did. The lucky ones did. Carrying heavy burdens.
In the company of ghosts…