In 1998, the London Times noted the similarities between this novel and Catch-22, published several decades after Falstein’s autobiographical novel. Heller’s great book, while dealing with similar subjects, is much more comic, albeit dark comedy. Both Falstein and Heller flew B-24 missions out of Italy, so their experience was bound to be similar.
The story is narrated by Ben Isaacs, a twenty-seven-year-old (“old man”) Jew who feels obligated to get into the war. He’s assigned to the tail gunner position of a B-24. On their first mission, their plane is badly shot up and Falstein vividly captures the fear and chaotic situation of the crewmen, who become welded together in their fear and resentment for those at home who don’t have to go through hell with them. They land with no brakes, the hydraulic lines having been completely shot away, so much gas leaking out of the punctured gas tanks that they are afraid to use the radio to identify themselves as they arrive back at home base, risking being shot at by their own antiaircraft guns. The two waist gunners save the day, releasing the ripcords on their parachutes after tying them to braces and positioning them to open out the windows, which manages to abruptly slow the plane and avoiding smashing into the cliffs at the end of the runway.
Accidents happen too. Several crew members are maimed in a crash-landing after they ran out of fuel. Ironically, there was enough gas left in the tanks, but the fuel pumps were faulty. Had the pilot tipped the wings to run the fuel down into the main tanks they would have had enough to make it back to base. Death could be a fluke. Cosmo, the ball gunner, is killed on a milk run over Zagreb. A tiny piece of flak the size of a cigarette ricocheted off a gun and sliced through Cosmo’s jugular. He bled to death before anyone noticed. Hatred was essential to motivate the flyers, and that is difficult for them to sustain in the face of the deaths of friends and comrades. Ben visits a displaced persons camp filled with Jews who had survived or escaped Nazi concentration camps. The Jews marvel at American weapons and are jealous that Ben is able to strike back. “A man needs much more than weapons,” Ben wanted to tell them. “Hatred, like love, is a delicate thing. It must be nourished and tended; it must be fanned and kept glowing. . . You envy me my weapons and I envy you your hatred which is pure and fiery. . . .For you the essence of living is resistance — and if I could achieve that state I might indeed consider myself fortunate.”
Morale was terrible among American flyers and a British officer revealed --I assume this is a valid piece of data and not made up for the story-- that ten percent of American flyers gave information to the enemy without even being asked, an indication of the terribly low morale. “Morale? There was no such thing. The men were fighting this thing on sheer guts.”
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