Monday, September 6, 2010

Flights of Passage: Recollections of a World War II Aviator by Samuel Hynes

Why I read it: Finished the set.

Summary: Hynes recounts his World War II days, training to fly and fight for the Marines, eventually joining combat in a dive bomber in the Pacific during the last months of the war.

My Thoughts: The melancholy tone from Hynes' first book, The Growing Seasons, returned with this follow-up tome. World War II, he will have us know, was not what the newsreels showed us, not what the generic press releass to local newspapers claimed it to be.

His World War II was one of the temporary friendships forged by war. Friends separated to join the various services. New friends parted during training, as some washed out, and assignments scattered men to all corners of the country for further refininement. Death took more. Camaraderie came with a good bottle of whiskey, in a bawdy song sung at a seedy bar. Morale was at its highest when units formed and solidified, and entered combat together.

Hynes' war was one of tests, with a capital "T." Tests of manhood included the conquering of women, the first shot fired in anger. He constantly wondered whether or not he would pass life's tests. In reality, he was his own harsh grader.

His gently flowing prose leads one from his midwestern home to the Plains to the southeast to California and out to the weather beaten rocks of the Pacific. He pulls the veil off the blankly smiling facade that is pre-Vietnam America. Men chased women, sometimes got them, and talked rudely about their experiences. There were dirty jokes in the 1940s. Young men awash in a sea of alcohol with nothing to do but wait to die will do what we all know young men do: get drunk, fight, womanize.

As a flight officer, though, the nineteen-year-old Hynes learned responsibility. He even got married just before shipping out, accepting the terms of that test, knowing he didn't know if he would come back to support the woman he believed he loved, though he admitted he really didn't even know her that well.

By the end of the war, when he had lost friends, including some very close to him, he experienced the soulless callousness combat bears. Men crashed and died before his eyes, and movies paused only long enough for the darkness to re-envelop the burning crash sites.

Only the survivors could grab that ultimate title of lifelong friend. The men who died during the war had their lives cut short in the many stupid ways men die during times of political upheaval, and never got the chance to let their friendships mature.

The Growing Seasons and Flights of Passage should be read back-to-back and are, in my opinion, destined to be all-time classic works of American history. They are among the best books I have ever read on any subject.

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