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Books tell stories of World War II bombardiers

Posted May 18, 2012, at 4:16 p.m.

Books tell stories of WWII bombardiers

When I read the obituary for Gordon Manuel this spring in the Bangor Daily News, it really wasn’t his years as a television newsman here that came to my mind first. Rather it was the 1946 book, “70,000 to 1,” which I read in the 1960s.

Written by Quentin Reynolds, the book was the story of Manuel’s dad, Lt. Gordon R. Manuel, a bombardier whose airplane was shot down over the Pacific in World War II. He survived with the help of “friendly locals” in the area, and eventually met up with two other airmen who had been shot down before the three were rescued in 1944. Some 6,000 acres in Linneus in Aroostook County are named the Lt. Gordon Manuel Wildlife Management Area.

With Memorial Day just a week away, I went looking for information on Lt. Gordon Manuel on the Internet, and was interested to find that his son, Gordon, had submitted information, photos and some diary entries a few years ago to a site called Pacific Wrecks at http://www.PacificWrecks.org.

Lt. Gordon R. Manuel, a captain by the time he left the service, died on Aug. 16, 1950, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

There were no friendly locals for Lt. Louis Zamperini, also a bombardier, whose bit of prominence as a U.S. runner at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin brought him exceptionally atrocious treatment at the hands of the Japanese after his plane was shot down in World War II.

Zamperini’s story was the subject of “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption,” written by Laura Hillenbrand in 2010.

I read the book because it was recommended by a veteran, and I’m glad I did. Reading it was a gut-wrenching experience, but I think it is essential to know what our veterans of various wars experienced. Especially powerful was the part of the story that occurred after Zamperini came home from the war.

The drinking, the anger, the delusional behavior, the obsession with one of his Japanese tormentors. As Hillenbrand put it, “No one could reach Louie, because he had never really come home,”

Here’s where you want to write, “But God wasn’t finished with Louis Zamperini.” Indeed, He wasn’t. Zamperini’s wife went to a Billy Graham revival in 1949, and somehow convinced her husband to go with her another night. What he heard only made Louis even angrier, but he went back with her the next night, got mad and nearly ran out of the revival tent again.

But this time Zamperini had a flashback to being on a raft in the Pacific after being shot down, thirsty beyond words, and telling God, “If you will save me, I will serve you forever.” That memory was the turning point in his life. Years later, he went back to Japan and even made peace with some of those who had abused him.

Among those Hillenbrand interviewed for “Unbroken” was Stanley Pillsbury, a turret gunner from Maine who was not on the doomed flight with Zamperini because he had been severely wounded in a previous air battle during the war, one in which he had saved several lives and limited damage to the plane he and Zamperini were in.

But not everyone makes it home from war, and so many are affected always by their experience. There are those who might say that the sailors aboard the LCI 565 all came home unscathed after World War II, but we know now about post traumatic stress disorder and other ailments that had less fancy names 60 years ago.

I have had the privilege of interviewing many veterans over the years, men and women whose service went back as far as World War I. For years my family and I attended the Memorial Day Parade in Abbot to see my dad, a veteran of World War II, march in Navy uniform.

I haven’t attended a parade on Memorial Day since my dad died 10 years ago. This year I hope to go to the Memorial Day Parade in Bangor on May 28, not only to honor servicemen and women who are no longer with us, but to thank those participating in this year’s event by my presence.

For information on researching family history in Maine, see Genealogy Resources under Family Ties at bangordailynews.com/browse/family-ties. Send genealogy queries to Family Ties, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402, or email familyti@bangordailynews.com.

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