Sometime shortly after 1500 hours on March 18, 1944, three heavily damaged American heavy bombers each plowed into the side of the same mountain ridge on the edge of the Black Forest in southwestern Germany. The two B24s and a B17, aflame from flak over the target and running fighter attacks, were on the return leg of separate bombing missions.
A combined total of eleven of the crew members from the three ships safely bailed out and became POWs. Among the 19 dead was Second Lieutenant William C. McGuire, navigator on the Sharpe crew, AC# 42100117, 579th Sq., 392nd BG. Almost 50 years later, with the active help of Jim Marsteller and Cliff Peterson of the 392nd BGMA (Peterson also happened to pilot one of these same three ships), that navigator's son, Bill McGuire Jr., traced the story of the Friedrichshafen mission and the final hours of these three American bombers. He found a survivor from #117, and he visited the 392nd's Wendling base, the German crash sites and his father's burial place at St. Avold, France.
In late 1999, McGuire published a book on his search and everything it had meant to him. The book, "After the Liberators," received a fair amount of media attention, and in May 2000, due in part to the help of a 15th Air Force vet friend of his, McGuire was interviewed on a half-hour cable television program in his home county. The host was Maurice J. Freedman, Director of the Westchester (NY) Library System, and now President of the American Library Association. The program, "Libraries In the Limelight," was repeated a number of times to area cable subscribers over the net two months.
We believe that the transcript of this interview not only tells the story behind the book, "After the Liberators," but also underlines why discovering the facts about WWII history and of the sacrifices of our fighting men continues to be important for all of us. While the opinions expressed in the following are solely those of the participants, we present them here for whatever value they may hold for readers.
Freedman: Hi, and welcome to Libraries In the Limelight. I'm Mitch Freedman, Director of the Westchester Library System and your host for this information talk show. Today's guest William C. McGuire II is author of "After the Liberators." In 1944, his 28 year-old father was shot down during a bombing mission over Germany, when Bill was a few weeks shy of his first birthday. Today Bill is an accomplished public relations writer and a father of four. The Journal News said that Bill's book is both a historical detective story and a haunting personal memoir.
Let's start with the basic question. Bill, what prompted you to write the book?
McGuire: Well, this is something I had always wanted to know about and find out about. I had a compelling need to know. And in the period of 1993-96, the windows of opportunity opened up. The floodgates of information opened up, and I found out the story, basically. Then I collected a lot of historical documents and material. And I realized after that process that I could put it all down on paper. And being a writer, it seemed like the natural thing to do, to want to share this, what happened to me with other people.
F: You said that the windows of opportunity opened in 1993-96. But you had always wanted to do this, though, prior to then? You had always been thinking what was he like? I want to learn more?
M: I never knew specifically how my father had died. And that was what I really wanted to know. I didn't know if he had died in hospital, or died in a collision in the air. I just knew that his plane had been shot down and where he was buried. But I could never really connect. The family had kind of withheld information when I was young. And after that I had a great deal of difficulty . People think that it would be obvious, you know, where to find out information but I didn't. I tried, like messages in bottles, to try to find things out. I had the occasion, in the fall of 1993, to come upon an obituary in the New York Times. It was my first solid clue, and within several weeks I was getting hard information.
F: Was it by accident that you saw the obituary?
M: Totally, by accident. Yes.
F: Why don't you tell us about the obituary and how it started the detective process.
M: Joseph Moller was the subject of the obit and he had been the head of the 390th Bomb Group, and he had also flown and been a combat aviator for the American Army air forces during the First World War. And there was a museum, the obit said, that had been established for the 390th that bore his name and was in his honor. So I simply contacted the director of that museum. And he was kind enough to tell me, no, you are going about this all the wrong way. Here's what you have to do, step one two three four five. I did that and, as I said, within weeks I was getting information, and found a survivor from my dad's plane, and connected with his Bomb Group. A lot the alumni from those years, and the past became palpable and very real for me once again.
F: It's a library talk show, and I'm a librarian, and part of the library enterprise is to do the research, and uncover things and help people find out things that they are looking for. I'd be interested, and probably some of our viewers would be interested in knowing some of the steps you took that helped get you to that point where you had a palpable sense of his life and what happened when he was shot down.
M: Well, the missing air crew report is filed in the National Archive, and I made a formal request for that document. I wrote to several other places. I got the history of my dad's Bomb Group and squadron from that time period from Maxwell Air Force base in Alabama. And that gave me a list of the home addresses of my dad's crew in 1944. And it was a stretch but I began to use the phone directories to try to find where those individuals were today. I came up empty on most of them, but on one I found a survivor. I spoke to his wife and eventually visited with Mike Cugini in Buffalo, NY. That was a very rewarding experience because they had trained together, and he had left the plane on the fatal mission along with two others, who bailed out. Seven died. And he spoke about my dad in very real terms, the way he remembered him, and said that members of the crew all looked up to Bill because he was older. Perhaps that was it or perhaps it was something else. And he said I'm not telling you this to boost you up or anything. It was the way it was. That meant a lot to me.
And then I ended up, eventually going over to Europe and visiting the old base in England, where he was stationed. And then going on to France and seeing his burial place, on Father's Day 1995...
F: First, let me interrupt you, if that's OK.
F: What was the piece that got you to the base in England? The piece of information. What was unearthed, or was it something this fellow flier had told you?
M: Yeah, the contact at the 390th library gave me the name of an information coordinator, informally, for my dad's bomb group, the 392nd. And I contacted Cliff Peterson and he really gave me a lot of information. And it turned out, oddly enough, that he had been shot down on the same mission. More oddly than that, he bailed out of his plane... There were 14 B24s that were lost that day from my father's group. But his plane ended up on the same little mountain in southwestern Germany that my dad's ended up, about 300 yards away. He didn't know that at the time. We both learned that about the same time. So that was a kind of weird experience.
F: It must have been an incredible odyssey. All those people. You talk about some of the stuff written about your book. It has been described as a detective story and what you are really describing now is some of those pieces of detection. Each little piece coming together and the coincidences. I mean that's an extraordinary story from Mr. Peterson.
M. One thing led to another. And some of the events seemed eerily dramatic. About 11 days after I visited Mike Cugini in Buffalo, he died of a heart attack. So I had a sense that I had to go and see him. I had two weddings going on in the family at the same time. But my wife said, go. I understand. And it turned out that it was the best thing to do. And I was very glad that I had done that. I tried to have the reader at my side. And it is true that one thing led to another, quite strongly and amazingly enough. So it is out there. The information is out there. I saw Ken Burns Civil War documentary about 1991-92.
M: That had a very strong effect on me because listening to the letters from so many years before and hearing how these individuals came alive and spoke to us, it said to me it's out there. You just have to try to reach it and connect. I think that we are all sharing this today. There has been more literature about WWII and a lot of the letters -- Tom Brokaw's books -- are resurfacing and really talking about the way it was.
F: There was that letter that you refer to in the book that came across of your father's.
M: Yes, well, when I got back from Europe -- I actually went to Germany too, and saw the crash site. My father's younger brother produced, it took several months, but produced some seven or eight letters that his side of the family had had and turned them over to me. The letters spoke of his motivation and his awareness of what he was fighting for. That meant a lot to me and was quite powerful. He knew what he was doing and he knew what was at stake. And like most of them, so many of them, he was totally committed to try to stop what was going on. And they went about it the only way they could which was to beat the enemy.
M. Freedman: Well, it's sought of a philosophical point and today is, we just had the 25th anniversary of leaving Vietnam, or the end of the war in Vietnam. And today, as it turns out is the day that the four students at Kent State were shot. I'm going to get to a good point here, I think. There's a movie I saw called "Three Days Of the Condor." A very popular, terrific movie...
McGuire: I remember it well.
F: And John Houseman was asked about -- he was the head of what was probably the CIA or some intelligence group. And the way he talked about WWII. He was asked the differences between WWII and the Cold War, which was when the movie was made. And he said that there was a greater clarity, in only the way that John Houseman could say it. But people talk about WWII as the good war, and Robert, Bob Herbert, in today's New York Times said that "Vietnam was a fool's errand and the young and the ignorant went to their doom by the tens of thousands."
That's one point of view. But here you said that your father was really clear about what he was fighting for as so many were. And people refer to it as the good war, because everybody was clear about that as being the right thing, we should be doing it.
M: Well, Bob MacNamara, about the time that he put out his most recent book last year -- and he should know about body counts -- said that something like 160 million people died as the result of war, revolution and state murder in the 20th century. No war is good. You don't lose a father to war to think kindly about war. But there were definite differences. It was a total global conflict, the Second World War. It was for all the marbles and the people involved in it realized what was at stake. The young men who died in Vietnam were answering the call of their country and, by and large, they felt they were fighting for a just cause, and doing their duty. And we all respect that.
M: And I talk about it in my book. And I think the country is only now beginning to heal from divisiveness, the terrible divisiveness of the war and the Kent State days.
F: There wasn't that divisiveness in World War II?
M: Pretty much everybody was involved on the homefront and in uniform. There were some people who never really realized it because the war wasn't coming home, except for the families. It wasn't really touching their lives. So not everyone was as motivated and dedicated as most people were. But it was a very unifying time for the nation -- thank God.
F: Yeah, well. Thank God indeed. I wouldn't even want to contemplate had Hitler won the war.
M: Spielberg has called it, at the time he was introducing "Saving Private Ryan," our involvement and entrance into the Second World War and the way that we pursued it, the defining moment of the 20th Century. And I really believe that.
F:Mm-m. Well I'll pick up a thread where we were before. And it is one of the unfortunate legacies of war, the cemeteries. You found your way to the cemetery in Germany where your father was buried. Do you want to talk about that experience?
M: Yes, he was originally buried out of the little local Catholic church in this village in southwestern Germany. And the parish priest and the mayor went up to the site of the wrecks on this little mountain in Ettenheimmunster, Germany. When the fires cooled down and the Luftwaffe arrived and they began to salvage what was left of the planes and take care of the bodies at the site, some religious artifacts, medals, and rosaries were found among the dead. The Pastor ran up to the Luftwaffe people and argued that these American dead deserved a Christian burial. This was against Nazi ordinances. But the Mayor joined him and argued that these men were soldiers and deserved respect. So, the Luftwaffe caved to the local officials and they were given a bell, book and candle burial on the 22nd of March, 1944. And that meant a lot to me and was comforting. I had read the depositions of local Germans who were interviewed by the U.S. Army's Quartermaster General's investigative team in June 1946. At that time they were disinterred from the burial place in Germany and reburied, or sent home. My dad was buried at St. Avold in France, and as I said earlier I visited that site as well. But I wish that my father's mother and my own mother had had the comfort of knowing that they were given a respectful burial. But it wasn't to be.
F: Its nice to hear a story of humanity in the midst of the war. I mean the Mayor and the people of the community taking a stand against the military to do something that was right and decent.
M: It was a small rural village and they didn't see a lot of direct action early on from the war. I don't know what the politics of the priest were, or other things that might have gone wrong. But in this instance, it was, as you say, a very humane act.
M. Freedman: I'm impressed as I listen to you talk about this document and that document, and this person, that there really is a first-rate detective story here and I urge people very strongly to make sure that they buy a copy of the book, or make sure that they read it in the Westchester Library System. Some of the libraries have it now and we hope and trust all of them will have it within a short time. We're talking with Bill McGuire and the name of the book is "After the Liberators." And it's his search for his father's identity.
What kind of reflections do you have now after having gone through all this Bill?
McGuire: Growing up, I think that the biggest break in the experience between what I was told and what the reality was... I mean I was told my dad was a hero but it was tough to get a lot of information about him. What I try to do is bridge the rhetoric, which is kind of an easy way and a lazy way that we show respect for the dead, and say to people that the experience of this book, and my experience, and the experience of more than 180,000 sons and daughters of WWII dead, and the dead from all our wars, what we went through and what our fathers went through is part of the American heritage as well. And that's why I wanted to share it. Not just because it is a good detective story, and a good story, and I think it is. Because it's not just about me, it's about you folks.
F: I share your concern about rhetoric. It is sometimes very difficult for me to listen to TV newscasters in their 20s or early 30s, trying to put a sad face on and talk about how we have to remember our dead, it's Memorial Day coming, and what's up for the next show. You know.
F: And getting the human dimension and the reality of it, some real feeling, seems to be what we need. Because it is worth remembering. And we're not going to be as good as we would be if we don't remember it.
M: It is part of who we are.
F: That's right. ...There's so much we could talk about. Was there an aspect of the research that you found especially troubling? Or, especially gratifying?
M: I think a lot of people run into dead ends and find it difficult to, because of the emotion involved, to deal with these dead ends. I think that a lot of veterans who may have served with family members are not always forthcoming, in what they want to say. They're reticent, for the same reasons our families are reticent about discussing it and because of the difficulty of revisiting a past that was traumatic, and always remains traumatic for them. But I think if you are patient and persistent, and you keep going to the sources -- and in the case of the human element, you keep relationships open with people, eventually they come around to helping you and answering some of the questions. They are the primary sources. The guys who were there, and know what really happened.
The whole thing about piecing together history is that it is a little hit and miss business, ever since Herodotus and Thucydides. There's a certain amount of filling in that goes into recounting a story. But, when you go to the primary sources -- as when I went to Germany and was presented with photographs of my father's funeral that somebody had taken and forgotten about. And when I visited they said, oh, my sister has photographs of that funeral. And I was presented with photo of my dad's actual burial behind enemy lines, with all the respect that you could imagine. It's there. It's there for people to experience and reach out to if they're patient about it and persistent about it.
F: With all the inhumanity that occurred in WWII and the wanton slaughter, it's good to see that there's these instances of humanity showing through that's so totally independent of political strife.
M: I think it is going to take us another fifty years to really deal with that subject with some justice. Hannah Arendt wrote about the banality of evil many years ago. I think all these subjects are very very complex. That doesn't mean that I want to offer people excuses for the Germans and their behavior, not in any sense. But I think it is human and universal that if you dig far enough and you look around you are going to see instances of humanity in the most horrendous situations. And that's not much of a redemption but it is the only redemption we have folks.
F: Well, your story is a powerful instance. It provides some examples of that. Part of what I am impressed with, and you make the point, people you spoke to all were so helpful. It's like you were on a good mission and people wanted to help you with it to whatever lengths they were capable.
M: Yeah, I spoke about the reticence of veterans but that generally wasn't my experience. I encountered very little of that. Just the opposite. They treated me like family. And you know you are very self-conscious. You're afraid people are going to see your interest as a morbid interest in some way. Here's a grown adult with family. Why doesn't he just live his life and forget about the past. But no, they always opened their arms to me and understood immediately what I was after. That was generally the case and it made me feel very comfortable. Made me feel like family and that was a terrific thing. Because there's a bond there between people that fought the war and people like myself that's a natural bond. And when you get to know each other you kind of discover it together.
M. Freedman: Another point I'd be interested in hearing you talk about. Your wife, Bernadette is a librarian at the Larchmont Public Library, I'm proud to say as a fellow librarian, and your immediate family, your extended family, how did they feel? What was going on in the minds? You know, obsession is used in a pejorative way, but you brought all this intensity and all this focus on a mission that one could say, well what's he doing with his time? It's nice that he's doing it, but what's he wasting his time for? Is it really necessary? Blah, blah, blah! What kind of support or reaction did you get from your family as you went about doing this?
McGuire: Generally, they were very supportive. My wife was most supportive of anyone. I think my dad's family, they had a little difficulty about what I was up to, what I was poking around in this business for. But gradually, everyone came around to acceptance and understanding. My kids treated it as, well, that's a dad thing. He's a little strange that guy anyway. We understand that...
M: But it is a consuming kind of passion. Without that kind of passion I probably wouldn't have gotten where I got. And I certainly wouldn't have written the book. And I certainly wouldn't have persisted for a year and a half to find a publisher. Or an agent, or a publisher, or an editor. You know, and stay at it. Because writing a memoir unless you are a politician or a Hollywood celebrity is a thankless enterprise. Because people don't automatically take you to The Four Seasons for lunches and say, sure, be glad to do it. It's a struggle of will and flexibility to see that done. I think also the passion helps to ignite some interest, and that's why I kind of persisted and still persist in trying to tell people about "After the Liberators."
F: I think the passion is what got you to do the research, and got you to follow through, and got you... a totally different frustration and challenge was getting a publisher to buy it and to publish it. And without that passion and without that dedication none of it would have happened.
M: Well, I can say to your viewers it's possible.
F: It's possible and someone doing channel surfing is going to stop on this one, and that's going to encourage them and send them off on some excursion or area to find out about a parent, relative, or something they care deeply about.
M: I say to the veterans, tell your stories. You know. If they don't have a tape recorder, write it down. And some will say, "What will I do with it?" I say, give it to somebody. Give it to your family. Give it to a library. And if you can't, give it to me. I'll take it. Because none of that stuff should be lost. It should be shared and become part of the record. Going back to the Ken Burns thing once again. Because eventually, people are going to dust this stuff off and rediscover it. One of my greatest ambitions for the book is that maybe 10, 15 or 20 years from now some researcher will find it in a library and say, ah ha! And learn a bit more about the families of the WWII dead and pursue it. And be glad that it existed.
F: That's one of the losses of our time. It's a real sadness. The Civil War is a perfect example of people expressing themselves and communicating in writing, through letters. And, over especially the last few decades, it's been the telephone. And there's been no written record. E mail now, as bizarre as it is, with the kind of informality and all the rest of it, that's about what there is. And who knows where it's being saved and if it's being saved. We don't have the written records that you can go to. Which is what makes the oral interviews so important. And these people are dying. As Brokaw called it, this Greatest Generation. Well, every generation, it's time comes. And it's a sadness. But you got to people, that story about that flier from Buffalo and eleven days before he died you met with him.
M: Yes, they were the Greatest Generation. With every kind of action in our culture there's a reaction. And some people are starting to pooh-pooh Brokaw's term. But leave no doubt about it folks. They got the job done.
F: All right. Bill McGuire, I thank you for joining us. The time flew by as I knew it would. "After the Liberators: A Father's Last Mission, A Son's Lifelong Journey." It's a wonderful book, and this interview was terrific.
M: Thank you so much Mitch. Thanks for having me.
F: It's my great pleasure and it's an honor. So, read it. Go to your library. Go to your bookstore. It's out there. Thanks everybody for watching. Good night.