Thursday, November 23, 2017

Under A War Torn Sky by L.M. Elliot

Henry Forester, just nineteen years old is a co-pilot of a Eighth Air Force bomber crew stationed in Britain. Today's mission will be Henry's fifteenth but he's nervous. Because the average number of missions pilots survive is fifteen. In order to complete a tour of duty, every airman must fly twenty-five missions.

Henry's pilot is Dan MacNamara, a twenty-five year old married father from Chicago. Today's mission will be his twenty-first and he needs only four more missions to complete his tour.

At the morning briefing at Group Ops, Henry and Dan along with Billy White another co-pilot and the other fliers learn that they will have a long flight across the English Channel to the Belgian coast, down to France, along the northern edge of Switzerland, to southern Germany where their target is a ball bearing factory. Ball bearings are essential to the German war machine.

Dan and Henry go through their preflight checklist for the B-24 Liberator named Out of the Blue, carrying five hundred pound bombs and almost three thousand gallons of fuel. Their plane forms part of a six plane squadron that is part of a four squadron diamond formation. They meet up with other bomb groups over Great Yarmouth on the coast and then continue to fly towards Europe.  As they approach the continent, they encounter flak from the anti-aircraft batteries that line the European coast and then the planes of the Luftwaffe, Focke-Wulf 190s.

Billy White's plane, Battling Queen is shot out of they sky and soon Dan and Henry find themselves under attack. They are forced to bail after their number three engine is destroyed. Henry saves Dan's life by pulling him out of the plane, only to watch in horror as Dan is killed by a Messerschmitt pilot who strafs him as he parachutes to the ground. Henry quickly finds himself under attack and although his parachute is ripped, he manages to survive the hard landing with an injured ankle.

Henry limps through snow and forest towards Neuf-Brisach when he encounters an older man riding a bicycle. His confusion leads to a comical attempt to speak French but this moves the man to decide to help him. He informs Henry that he is in the Alsace region, a French province which was annexed by Germany four years earlier. The man, a teacher before the war took all his pupils, takes Henry to the abandoned schoolhouse to hide him. He believes Henry's foot is broken and that he will need the care of a doctor in a hospital. Eventually arrangements are made to transport Henry to a hospital. With the help of another man, Henry is hidden in a long flat-bottomed boat, "heavily loaded with red and white cabbages." The plan is to travel down the Grand Canal d'Alsace to Basel, a city on the border with Switzerland. In Basel, the teacher has a cousin who has promised to help.
A B-24 bomber.

However, when they reach Basel, the boat is searched by Swiss soldiers who narrowly miss bayoneting Henry, hidden in a crawl space beneath the crates of cabbages. Unfortunately the teacher's cousin refuses to help them, so Henry, fortified with a swig of brandy and delirious from the pain and infection, is left by a church where he is discoverd by Red Cross nurses and taken to a hospital.

Henry wakes in hospital to find that his ankle has been drained of the infection and the bone set. After surgery, Special Assistant to the U.S. Ambassador, Samuel Watson meets with Henry to tell him that the neutrality of Switzerland's government cannot be ensured. Because Henry just showed up at the door of the hospital, he is not yet classified as a prisoner of war. This means he can wear civilian clothes during his transport to Adelboden, an internment camp for Americans and therefore may have a chance of slipping away. He can then attempt to cross through Switzerland and into France, making his way across the Pyrenees into Spain and then to Portugal where he can take a boat back to England. Henry agrees to this and so begins a remarkable and dangerous journey that will change Henry forever.

Discussion

Under A War Torn Sky is a thrilling, action-packed novel about an American pilot who is shot down over France in World War II and attempts to make his way through war-torn Europe and back to Britain. This novel by Laura Malone Elliot is an exemplary work of historical fiction that accurately presents the circumstances the French Resistance operated under and portrays what many Allied pilots endured after being shot down by the Nazis. Elliot based her novel on the experiences of her father, also a B-24 pilot who was shot down and survived behind German lines in France for several months.

The hero of the novel is Second Lieutenant Henry Wiley Forester, a mere 19 years old at the time he is shot out of the sky by a Messerschmitt. Henry agrees to a plan to make his way through war-torn Europe in an attempt to return to Britain to continue fighting. He agrees to try to escape for two reasons; to impress his harsh father Clayton who has a low opinion of Henry and also because he doesn't want to be considered a coward.  In this way Elliot sets up her main character as the archetypal hero who undertakes a journey that is both dangerous and life-changing.

Henry's physical journey is harsh enough, walking on a barely healed ankle, not knowing where his journey will take him next, enduring hunger and cold, shunted from one place to the next, at risk constantly of being captured and interrogated by the Germans. Along the way he is helped by the most unlikely of people, all doing their part to resist the Nazis. Henry travels from Alscae to Thun, Switzerland, to Montreux, onto Geneva to Annecy and then to Grenoble. He spends time with a family near Vassieux-en-Vercours where he befriends a young boy named Pierre. Henry is taken to a maquis camp in Col de la Bataille (the maquis were French resistance fighters living in the forests and mountains of France during WW II). Eventually Henry falls into the hands of the Nazis when he and a group of pilots are betrayed by a Basque member of the French resistance as they travel through the Pyrenees. Henry finds himself taken to Toulouse where he is tortured for information. While on his way to Lyon for further interrogation, he manages to escape. After spending some time with another maquis group, Henry is eventually recaptured by the retreating German army and but is set free by an elderly German soldier. He is able to make his way to the American troops and after a period of time returns to his beloved home in Virginia.

Throughout Henry's journey he also experiences an internal journey of self-discovery. When he is first downed in France, Henry often recalls the harsh words and actions of his father Clayton who was determined to make Henry into a tough man. Henry joined the Air Corps to prove himself to his father, "to seem worthy of his respect even if he couldn't win his father's love." But his father indicates to Henry that he considers his enlisting a waste. When he is shot down, Henry is determined to survive if only to prove to Clayton that he's strong enough to do so. Henry doesn't understand why his father has been so harsh and unforgiving.

Nevertheless it is often the words of Clayton that Henry has heard throughout his childhood which ultimately change Henry into a man of action. For example, when he's overcome by fear as he approaches the checkpoint in Grenoble, Henry remembers his father's words, "Don't be a coward boy. Only cowards hesitate."  and he races through the checkpoint as he's ordered to do.  Later on when he is attacked by a member of the Resistance to determine if he is English or German, Henry staggers to his feet, prepared to fight, urged on by the voice of his father who often beat him. "Get up, boy, or they'll kick you while you're down." And when he is being taken to Lyon to be tortured further in the hopes that he will betray Madame Gaullioux, it is Clayton's voice that urges him to act to save himself. "Grab the gun, boy!" and "Shoot him boy, shoot him."

By the end of his journey, Henry has now become a man of action. While helping the maquis, Henry saves the lives of several maquisards in a desperate moment. "Henry no longer needed his father's voice to prod him in life-and-death circumstances. He picked up the grenade. It was heavy, cold, scaly. It felt like a thing of death. Henry pulled the pin, stood up, and hurled it."

Through his experiences in war, Henry comes to understand why Clayton has been so harsh. Although his father's strength of will brought Henry's family through the Depression, Henry can see how it might be hard "to shed a tough attitude or a wary distrust of people once the bad times were over." However, Henry is determined that these terrible experiences will not harden him.  He comes to understand that Clayton's harshness towards him was a sign of his love for his son. "What am I going to do with you, boy? Love's got responsibilities. Things you gotta do even if you don't want to.That's the kind of love a real man is capable of."

Henry experiences intense internal conflict because he's been forced to do things that he considers wrong, such as stealing food and clothing and even murder. After murdering his German interrogator and his driver, Henry is filled with horror. Dropping bombs from a plane meant he never saw the people he killed. This is very different. "Henry reached into the stream to wash himself clean of blood. It was everywhere -- his hands, his hair, his clothes, his soul. How would he ever be clean of all that blood? He had killed two men -- not from the anonymity of the sky -- but face to face, with his own hands. Besides that, he'd wanted to kill them, was glad that he killed them so taht he could live. He'd had murder in his heart. He couldn't wash that out. Henry knew that he was changed forever, and not for the better." Henry can reconcile his killing the German soldier but not the chauffeur.

However, Henry uses this experience to save Claudette from a similar situation. Filled with grief, rage and hate over what has happened to her family and her country at the hands of the Nazis, Claudette is determined to murder a young sixteen year old collaborator. Henry intervenes, asking her to consider what she's doing. "Think of Andrea, Claudette. Don't dishonor him with this. He died for France's freedom, not for this. And if you kill her, you're as bad as the Nazis. The one thing I've learned from all this hate and death is that when the war is over, it has to be over. If it's not, we'll just have another bloodbath in a few years. Don't do this Claudette. You're better than the Nazis. I know you are."

Henry's ideas about war also undergo a transformation. When Henry embarks on his journey he has no idea what the war is like on the ground. He never sees the effects of the bombs on the civilian population. But he soon discovers that even bombing a munition plant can have unexpected victims such as little Pierre's father. Henry questions "the strategy of dropping bombs on a country they were trying to liberate" after he tells Pierre that he his a bomber pilot and Pierre is troubled. Henry wonders if his father has been killed by those bombs dropped on the munitions plants the French are forced to work in.

Henry also entered the war with a certain opinion of his role in it. "Henry and his pilot friends had always seen themselves as the saviors of France. He was ashamed of their arrogance." But his experiences with the Resistance make him realize that the people who are part of the French Resistance are the ones who are risking everything.

Under A War Torn Sky really captures the face of the French Resistance from the wealthy widow, to the old school teacher and the teenage guide whose family had sent him to live with strangers and who loves Louis Armstrong. Elliot brilliantly captures the heroics of the French resistance as they fight the Nazis against great odds and often paying a terrible price for their actions. Madame "Gaulloise" a wealthy widow whose son was captured at the Aisne River when Hitler invaded, hides not only Henry but Jews in her rooms. She is eventually captured and taken to Lyon where Klaus Barbie is working to have her executed. Henry is taken in by Pierre's family in Vercors. He realizes that Pierre's mother is not "just a sympathetic mother, taking pity on a lost American boy. She was fighting the war as actively here as he had fought it from the skies. Only her battle seemed scarier, somehow. At least he had a crew with him. She did her part so alone. Secrecy was everything. And if she made a mistake, the price was her son. At least Henry had never had to worry about his actions endangering Ma or Patsy." Pierre's family is denounced and the Nazis murder Pierre's grandfather, arrest his mother who is interrogated and then sent to Ravensbruck. Pierre, alone now is sent to live with the monks. Claudette who helps Henry after he escapes from the Nazis is connected to a maquis group that includes her lover Andre. She sees him murdered when the group is attacked by the Germans.

The sacrifice all these people made on Henry's behalf is not lost on him nor is the terrible reality of war. "...Pierre and his mother, Madame, the teenage guide, the old school teacher -- their faces whirled through his head. He'd never known the potential finality of a good-bye before now. Even when he's held his trembling mother, as he left for England, Henry had been completely convinced that he'd be back, that they'd be eating many a Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner together talking about his adventures. These people - these people who'd risked their lives to save him - he'd never see them again. He felt it in his bones, like an awful ache."

As with the archetypal hero, Henry returns home, his coming unannounced, to the joy of those who wait for him. In Henry Forester, Elliot has crafted an honest, intelligent character whose war experiences do not harden him, but make him more compassionate and understanding. Henry is a realistic character for the time period, drawing strength from his memories of his beloved mother Lilly, hope for a future with the girl he loves - Patsy and his belief in God whom he prays to frequently.

Under A War Torn Sky is a must read for fans of historical fiction. A map of Henry's flight plan and of his journey through Europe would have greatly enhanced this novel. Elliot offers readers a significant and interesting Afterword in which she explains more about the French Resistance and how they were vitally important to the success of D-Day, when the Allied troops finally were able to land on the beaches of Normandy and begin the effort to free Europe.


Book Details:

Under A War Torn Sky by L.M. Elliot
New York: Hyperion Paperbacks for Children       2001
284 pp.

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