My love of military history has led me to the most fascinating discoveries – of people and their stories. Of those, one, in particular, stands out from the crowd.
Serenade To The Big Bird was written by 1st Lt. Bert Stiles, of the United States Air Force. Before this, Bert flew bomber missions as a co-pilot with the 91st Bomb Group and was based in Bassingbourn, England. After completing his tour of duty, he had the opportunity to return to his homeland but he had always wanted to fly fighters and so he requested to do so. He had 35 bomber missions under his belt. Incidentally, Bassingbourn was also home to one of the more famous B-17’s, The Memphis Belle.
Prior to the war, Bert had enjoyed success with his short stories, selling them to various publications. Throughout his war service, he continued to write. His dream of becoming a fighter pilot was finally realised and he began flying missions late 1944.
Tragically, Bert lost his life at the grand age of twenty-four, when on the 26th November 1944 he became a victim of target fixation whilst chasing an FW-190 in his P-51.
This book was published posthumously by Bert’s mother in 1947 and is a collection of his journal entries from his war service. It details his service from the first time he becomes part of a crew right up until their last mission, thus following some of the air war over Europe. However, the way he wrote is so natural and relaxed and very reminiscent of Hemingway.
Bert details life outside of flying, the social side of the air force. He talks about losses, planes and men. He mentions the fact that he finds it difficult keeping the ship in tight formation. He describes flak so thick you could get out and walk on it. It’s rather a warts and all version but without being too gory.
I particularly love one sentence, where he’s just had a gruesome experience. He’s talking about a waist gunner who was killed on a mission. He didn’t know him but he says, “Maybe the guy was a quiet one who taught Sunday-school class, maybe a dreamer waiting for a princess to dance down a moonbeam out of the sky, maybe a drunk.” Such simple words yet powerful and emotive. Bert was poetic, imaginative and an emerging fantastic literary talent.
Stiles is interred in the Ardennes American Cemetery, Neupre, Liege, Belgium. He was awarded the Air Medal (with five oak leaf clusters), the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart. His book, Serenade To The Big Bird, is considered a classic among aviation enthusiasts.
So, if you’ve ever wondered what it was really like for those boys, go grab a copy because I’m telling you, it’s fascinating. R.I.P. Bert Stiles. I salute you.