Books spotlight aviation heroes

Two recent non-fiction books highlight the bravery and courageousness of the previous generations. These adventure stories bring to the forefront those who seemingly have been erased from history. Thanks to Corey Mead, who wrote “The Lost Pilots,” and Carole Avriett, the author of “Coffin Corner Boys,” people will know about these heroes.

“Coffin Corner Boys” is a compelling read about a B-17 crew that escaped from Nazi-occupied France after their plane was shot down. This book is a reminder of the Greatest Generation’s spirit, valor and patriotism. The Coffin Corner is a particular position in the flying configuration where they flew “low squadron, low group, flying No. 6 in the bomber box formation they were exposed to hostile fire.”

On March 16, 1944, the 10-member crew had to bail out of their plane after it was shot down by the Germans. Each crewmember had to endure the severe cold, wetness, hunger and exhaustion. Irv Baum and Ted Badder had the misfortune of landing by two Frenchmen who turned them into the Nazis for two thousand francs.

Baum, who was Jewish, tried denying that he was “A Hebrew. I was told, ‘You’re lying,’ and at the same moment was backhanded across the face hard enough to break open the corner of my left eye,” he said. “We were sent to a processing camp near Frankfurt, where they questioned us about the names of our crew. I kept saying it was a crew I didn’t usually fly with, so I didn’t know any of them. About midnight, about five of us were taken outside. Then six or seven guards came out with rifles, lined us up and the officer yelled ‘Ready. Aim. Fire.’ But nothing happened. They put us back into our cells and I spent a sleepless night.”

Many people know of the Japanese Bataan Death March of Filipinos and American POWS, but the Germans also had one — the Black Death March. In February 1945 crewmember Dick Morse told how the Germans starved the 6,000 POWs and marched them in the cold winter weather. Those lagging behind would be “gun-butted” by the guards, and sometimes a German would drop back and take one of them into the bushes or woods.

“We would hear a shot, then the guard would return alone,” Morse said.

They were provided very little food and had to drink from streams that gave them dysentery. They suffered pneumonia, diphtheria, typhus, trench foot, tuberculosis, blisters, abscesses and frostbite. The march lasted for three months, traveling 600 miles until rescued on May 2, 1945, with only 20 percent surviving.

Thankfully for some of the other crewmembers, they were never captured. Many of the French civilians risked everything to help them. Capt. Starks told of how he was given “a share of whatever meager food they had. Anyone who helped me did so at terrible risk to themselves. Any French civilian caught helping a downed Allied airman was summarily taken out of his house by the Germans and shot — man, woman, child, it made no difference.”

The other recommended book, “The Lost Pilots,” is a fascinating look back into the early days of aviation, bringing back to prominence Jessie Keith-Miller, a female pioneer pilot.

The story begins in 1927 when World War I pilot Capt. William Lancaster and Jessie Keith-Miller take off from London, aspiring to complete a record-breaking flight to Australia — the first in a light plane.

Although they were basically strangers, they bonded over their desire for adventure, fame and escape from unhappy marriages. There are many scenes that underscore the dangers of flying during those early days. Having crashed numerous times, it became obvious that weather was a character, an enemy with its slashing rain and battering crosswinds, sleet and fog that could easily bring down these light planes.

Their lives were influenced by the era, having lived through World War I, the Roaring ’20s and the Great Depression.

Mead believes the effect of “WWI taught that generation how to cheat death.”

“They became free-spirits, wanting to escape the Victorian upbringing,” Mead said. “I also wanted to show how there was huge bias against female flyers. Jessie was probably a better pilot than Lancaster. But living in the Roaring ’20s also helped her because it was a time where women became more independent and started to enter the male-dominated world.”

In need of money, because the Depression dried up any commercial flying opportunities, Jessie decides to write her autobiography with Haden Clark as her ghostwriter. Having been granted a divorce, she accepts Clark’s marriage proposal. After returning to Miami where Jessie and Clark lived, Lancaster became devastated when told of the couple’s plans. That night, Clark is found dead of a gunshot wound. Was it murder or suicide? A riveting and scandalous trial ensues that ultimately costs Jessie her fame as she stands by Lancaster.

These books are informative and provide readers a fascinating look back into the different eras. They recount how these men and one woman used their grit to overcome great odds.

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About the Author

Elise Cooper

Elise writes book reviews that always include a short author interview.