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His father never spoke of WWII. His flight logs told the story for him

Historian and author Howard Mansfield had vowed to never write another word about the Second World War. Yet a decade after his work, “Dwelling in Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter,” another World War II story fell into his lap — quite literally. And it was one that he could not ignore.

His father, Pincus Mansfield, had served with the 453rd Bombardment Group of the Eighth Air Force, but, like many veterans, Pincus had never spoken to his sons about his time serving in the flak-filled skies of occupied Europe.

It wasn’t until 65 years on, as Howard and his brother began clearing out their father’s home, did they happen upon a treasure trove of histories past.

“Cleaning up one day, in a small drawer with his cufflinks and tie clips, I found some small, unlined, pocket-sized notebook pages, folded over and tossed aside, sitting as they had for almost sixty-five years,” Mansfield writes in his prologue to “I Will Tell No War Stories.”

“It was an account of each bomber mission he had flown as he had recorded it when he was nineteen and twenty years old. I had no idea such a record even existed.”

Mansfield seamlessly weaves the tracing of his own father’s story with the broader implications of history and memory.

Combat, as Mansfield’s research reveals, and as his father intimately knew, is an “experience so overwhelming that words diminish it, as if trying to draw a frame around the infinite.”

That didn’t stop Mansfield from trying, as he “began to undo the forgetting as best [he] could.” His latest, “I Will Tell No War Stories” is a testament to that.

Can you tell me about discovering your father’s war ‘twice’?

The first time I was in Wales — they have these great long-distance paths over there, all throughout the countryside. I was on one that runs along the Irish Sea and one night, I’m in this pub — because that’s where you’re going to be in this little village — and I get talking to this guy. I told him my father flew during the war so he said to me, “You’ve got to come upstairs to our meeting and see this film.” He introduces me as this honored guest because my father flew in the Eighth Air Force during the war.

They showed me this film — “Target for Tonight” — that has stayed with me to this day. It was like no war movie I’d ever seen. It was small. It was quiet. There were no special effects. It was only 45 minutes. But you came away with a real understanding of World War II from the British perspective. But what really came across to me was how unrelenting the industrial bombing was. You got up in the morning and if the weather was good, you’d go out. So at that point, I thought, oh my gosh, I bet my dad lived a life much like that of the film.

The second time just happened a few years ago. My dad never talked about the war just like most of the veterans. There were a couple of hints around the house, an old uniform in the basement, that sort of thing. But during the last year of his life we were cleaning up his home to move him to a veteran’s nursing home, and there was this little diary that he had kept during his bombing missions. They were not supposed to do this of course, it was strictly verboten for airmen to keep diaries at all, but a lot of them did.

I was just astounded to see it folded over and left. It had been sitting like that for 65 years.

From that I was able to start putting together the story of how he had served, where he was, and what he had gone through. He received two Purple Hearts, something that he had never mentioned.

Can you walk me through what your research process was like — especially with your father’s records destroyed in the 1973 fire?

At first I was like, “oh, I’ll request his military records.” But yes, I learned that after the 1973 St. Louis fire they lost maybe 85 percent of the U.S. Army Air Forces’ records from World War I through the early ‘60s. It’s just a phenomenal loss. So I had to put it together from other sources.

So a couple of key things: One, is I remembered the name of his pilot. I found his son who had the same name. I wrote him a letter, an old-fashioned letter, which he answered and called me back. Miraculously he had his father’s pilot logbook, so I had the missions my father flew and I knew when he had been hit because I had his Purple Heart papers, which I also found in his house.

He was in the 453 BG [bombardment group] and a couple of histories have been written on that, which I was able to use. From the Air Force Historical Research Agency I got miles and miles of microfilm. Once I decoded that sort of military way of categorizing things, I was able to see all the planning for the missions.

It was primarily the miles and miles and microfiche that gave me a feeling for what it was like — it gave me a real feeling for all the losses of the airplanes. In the book there is a place where I list all the planes and how they were lost. I think it’s just chilling.

As you combed through your own father’s history, ‘undoing the forgetting,’ so to speak, how did your relationship with, or understanding, of him evolve?

By the time I was doing this he had died, but what I came to understand is why he didn’t want to talk about it.

I think there are two things, which was the cause for a lot of his generation. One, is remorse. Remorse about killing.

My father had been dead a year or two and my brother had the last few things in a storage locker. We were going through it and opened up this box that contained these two cassettes. I don’t remember him recording on microfiche and he must’ve just thrown them in a drawer or something. But in it, he talks about, oh my gosh, it was such an incredible thing. He’s home and my brother is 3, 4 years old. They’re watching TV and it’s a dark documentary kind of thing. They’re dropping bombs on cities and my father, who is watching says, “Oh my God.” That always bothered him.

And primarily, Ernie Pyle wrote this so well, and I’ll paraphrase but, “We did this so you don’t have to think about it. Go live in peace. Just go.”

Military history is not always strategy or battle tactics, but the humanity (or lack thereof). Their silence gave us peace. How do you reconcile that as both a son of this generation, but also as a historian?

Well, as a historian, I wish that people would have told us more. And particularly, actually, particularly now, because there’s two things about what happened in World War II that I think people should never lose track of. One was how vast the destruction was in Europe. And the other thing is that this can’t happen again. Just can’t.

I do wish he had told us more at a certain age you know. All the guys on the block where I grew up had been in the Marines, the Navy, the Army. None of them talked about it. Who knows what they had seen or what they had done.

Your words ‘The commemorations and retellings of World War II became part of our forgetting’ reminded me of Milan Kundera’s book, ‘The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.’ How do you think the collective memory of World War II has diminished or obscured realities?

That’s an immense question. I’d say the films we grew up watching, most of them couldn’t be as fierce as what happened. Every now and then that happens — the recent film “Dunkirk,” the first 20 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan” — but most films have been watered down.

It also becomes kind of this thing that always happens in history where you go from the end, and read back in the beginning, “Oh, of course, we were gonna win.” Which wasn’t the case at all. A lot of things could have broken different ways, so I think it’s very hard to connect with.

I flew in a restored B-17 recently and I got a feel for how incredibly small inside it was. How loud it was to fly in that bomber, but even that was so cleaned up and sanitized. There was no blood. Vomit. Fear. Everything was wonderful. And that’s not the way it was.

You’re up at 20-25,000 feet in the air and then wait, you’re open to the weather? The plane isn’t pressurized?

It was all just physically exhausting. There’s long hours when nothing happens, and then those moments with just everything happens and you can be killed. It’s a very strange mix of tedium and possible death.

You vowed to never write about World War II again after finishing ‘Dwelling in Possibility.’ Do you feel the same sentiment now after?

Yes, I’m tired of having things destroyed. Writing about it was really a very upsetting exercise. You really have to open yourself up to that kind of destruction and suffering and try to portray it honestly.

I’m sure the mental toll of sifting through archives revolving around constant death and destruction, but even then, that in itself gets sanitized.

Yeah, exactly. You mentioned rivet counters — and yes, you gotta have those guys that check things, but sometimes they just get too locked in, lost in the hardware of the whole thing. You miss the point that these were boys flying the hardware.

You have to keep your eye on what was going on.

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