PRELUDE TO COURAGE: AN AIR WARRIOR’S JOURNEY OF FAITH by David H. Bergquist, Heritage Books Inc., 2011, 141 pages, bibliography and index, $22.00
In his “Prelude to Courage,” Hermon historian David Bergquist focused on one particular Maine aviator who made the ultimate sacrifice during World War II.
“Prelude to Courage” draws its name from a one-act play written by Austin “Ozzie” Rodney Keith, a Bangor boy who piloted B-29 Stratofortresses while based in Saipan with the 497th Bombardment Group in early 1945. Born in 1919 to Edgar and Bertha Keith, Austin lived at different Bangor addresses, attended local schools and graduated from Bangor High School.
Bergquist recreates Austin’s early years by referring to streets and buildings that often still exist; the book’s initial chapters resemble a detailed tour of Bangor, circa 1930-1941. While attending seventh grade, Austin developed a lifelong passion that did not dim as he bombed Japanese targets years later.
Austin “began to show a predilection” toward arts that led him to write short stories for the Bangor High School “Oracle” and to perform in BHS Dramatic Club plays, Bergquist reveals. Austin also participated in the Army Reserve Officers Training Corps at BHS and later at the University of Maine.
Bergquist paints Austin Keith as a pleasant young man, and the book’s multiple photos identify him as a handsome youth — and later, a handsome soldier — who took his theatrical talent to UM. He started there in autumn 1940.
Active in Maine Masque, Austin soon became good friends with Herschel L. Bricker, the faculty member who oversaw the group’s theatrical productions. Austin performed in different UM plays and completed one year at UM before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and Austin reported to the Army in January 1942.
“Prelude to Courage” closely follows his aviation training, from primary flight school in California to multiengine training in the Southwest. Austin took naturally to flying; recognizing his expertise, the Army made him a training instructor after he earned his wings.
Throughout “Prelude to Courage,” Bergquist draws heavily on Austin’s correspondence with Bricker and other friends, mostly college classmates also called to active duty. When not flying or marching, Austin found time to edit aviation school publications and try his hand at writing plays; his “Prelude to Courage” would be performed at several Maine theaters before he headed overseas.
Although his book makes much mention of Austin’s theatrical interests, Bergquist gradually focuses on Austin “seeking some deeper answers to life’s meaning and purpose.” Baptized on Good Friday 1943, Austin wrote much about God in his letters home.
As he joined the crew with which he will ultimately fly against Japan, Austin shared his concerns with his parents, Bricker, and former UM classmates. Then the Army finally sent Austin and his crew to Saipan, and by late February 1945, he had flown three missions against Japan.
Sensing that he might die, Austin penned a “farewell” letter to his family. Then his plane departed Saipan for Tokyo on Feb. 25, 1945.
In one horrifying moment, Austin and his crew were swept away. Bergquist devotes his last chapter to the reaction when the news reached Austin’s parents, then living at 10 Boynton St., Bangor. This chapter painfully reveals the impersonal government system that notified relatives about a loved one’s fate; this system, which included form letters from top military brass, contrasts strikingly with the personal response of Austin’s family and friends, including Bricker.
Despite his occasional over-quoting from the many letters sent to or from Austin Keith, Bergquist weaves a fast-paced story that brings the human cost of World War II into the very streets that longtime Bangor residents know so well. And he reveals the sacrifice made not only by a “Bangor boy,” but also his family: Like so many Maine families who lost loved ones during the war, the Keiths were never the same again.