Q&A: Thomas Childers

Thomas Childers, professor of historyPhoto credit: Candace diCarlo

Thomas Childers’ career as a historian started out pretty much how he expected.

He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1976, took a job at Penn that same year and, by 1983, had already published his first book, “The Nazi Voter.” A follow-up tome, “The Formation of the Nazi Constituency,” came four years later.

What Childers couldn’t have anticipated was how a trip home to Chattanooga, Tenn., after the death of his grandmother, would change the trajectory of his career forever.

“I got a call from my parents, asking me to come down and help get her house in order,” says Childers, a Penn professor of history. “It was the middle of the night at the house, and I couldn’t sleep, so I went down and started going through the drawers of her old secretary. What I discovered there was about 300 letters, written by my uncle, from when he went off to college in 1942 until April 21, 1945, when he was killed over Germany.”

Childers’ family had never known exactly what happened to his uncle, a bombardier with the 8th Air Force, who went missing during the tail end of the Allies’ assault on Germany. But with those letters in hand, Childers finally set out to finally solve the mystery.

He ended up doing that, and much more.

Q. Tell me about those letters you found.
A. Besides my uncle’s letters, there were other letters in that secretary, from all over the country—Chicago, New York, St. Louis. The names rang a bell. I began to read those and it became clear these were letters from the other families on the crew. They were all trying to figure out what happened to the plane. The families all got their missing-in-action telegrams on V-E Day, and they began to write another, asking, ‘What do you know?’
I began to arrange these letters, chronologically, sitting there in that living room, and I thought, ‘Well, I’m a historian. I know how records work. I know how to do research.’ I quickly discovered the records for the 8th Air Force were down in Montgomery, Alabama. I drove down there to see them. My life hasn’t been the same since.

Q. How so?
A. I wasn’t doing this to write a book. I was doing it to get some kind of closure for the family. And what I discovered was, first of all, that this was......actually the last American bomber shot down over Germany. And there were all sorts of bitter ironies. The mission should have never been sent. The crew wasn’t supposed to go that day, but the lead crew had the mumps, so my uncle’s crew went instead. The strategic air war over Germany had been declared over just a week before. There were no strategic targets left to hit. There was still some tactical bombing going on, but the mission should have never been ordered. … I eventually became obsessed with it.

Q. So how did you proceed from there?
A. I read through all of the records from my uncle (pictured at right), I found the families of the other crew members, and then I went on to Germany. I found the wreckage of the plane there—actual parts of the plane—and even found eyewitnesses that had seen the plane come down. So I wound up doing a book, “Wings of Morning,” about what life was like for these people who were flying these planes, people who were the same age as my students—they were 18 to 21, some didn’t even have driver’s licenses, but were flying the B-24 bomber. It was the most deadly thing to do during World War II. The chances for survival for surviving a tour of duty with the 8th Air Force were terrible. But just as important to me [as the history] was this—after reading those letters from my grandparents and my mother and the families, which were so heartbreaking, I wanted to capture that. I began writing the book in the same way that I would do a scholarly book—I had footnotes and so forth—but at some point … what I ended up doing was writing the book in a very novelistic fashion. I did the research exactly the way I would do it for a scholarly piece, but I wrote it in a more accessible manner. I wanted the reader to really care about what happened to these people. I wanted to communicate that sense of loss. I didn’t want the book to be an interpretation of the air war over Germany, or strategy, or anything like that. I wanted to convey what it was like to live [at that time], the strains that the men went through, and then the agony of these families back home as they tried to figure out what happened to them.

Q. What was the reaction to the book?
A. The book was quite successful, and I found a whole new audience. I am pretty sure professional historians didn’t know what to make of it, and still don’t know what to make of it, but the book sold well and it set me off on a whole new sort of writing. What I was really doing was using the techniques that I had used in teaching, and while I knew that storytelling was a very effective tool in the classroom, it was also very effective for this kind of narrative. So what I did was embark on what has turned out to be a trilogy about the Second World War, all written in the same novelistic fashion, but with all the research being done exactly the same way I would do it if I were [doing traditional history].

Q. Tell me about the second book.
A. The second book was called, “In the Shadows of War,” and it was about a man from Philadelphia who was shot down over France just after D-Day. He was hidden by the French Resistance, captured in Paris by the Gestapo, and then sent, not to a POW camp, but to Buchenwald concentration camp. Telling his personal story was a very good vehicle. It was a very powerful human story, but also gave the reader an idea of what combat was like, what life in occupied France was like, what it was like to be captured by the Gestapo and then to be sent off to Buchenwald, where, of course, life was worth nothing. And the thing is, he survived it all. I always say, having written one book about a bomber crew that had no luck at all, I had then written about a man who had more luck than any other three or four people. He’s a remarkable man, a remarkable character.

Q. You are currently working on the third book. What direction does this one take?
A.
This one is titled, “The Best Years of Their Lives,” which is a play off a very famous, Academy Award-winning film from 1946 called, “The Best Years of Our Lives.” It’s an ironic title—basically, “We’ve lost the best years of our lives.” For 1946, it was a very dark film, but a wonderful movie, about three vets who come back from the war. One vet has lost both of his arms at the elbow, and has hooks for hands. Another is a bomber who has what we could call today post-traumatic stress syndrome. And the third becomes a nascent alcoholic. It’s not the sort of film you usually get at the end of World War II. But as I began work on this, I remembered how, growing up in this little town outside of Chattanooga, there had been a man wandering around the streets, all through my childhood, who would walk up and down from one telephone pole to the next with a little clipboard in hand. He would read the plaque on each pole, and religiously record the number on it, then go to the next pole. Kids would follow him around not very nicely. But I remember my mother saying, ‘Well, you know, George never was the same after the war.’

Q. And this struck a chord with you why?
A.
This was back in the early ’90s, when all of the 50-year reunions were going on and all of the memorials and the books like Brokaw’s “The Greatest Generation.” And this was my parents generation, of course, and I was in awe—they deserve all the credit and praise they’ve gotten. But there was something about this notion that Brokaw and others put out there, that everyone just came back from the war happy and healthy and well adjusted, and that nobody drank too much, nobody had PTSD. It just didn’t fit with my personal recollection growing up. My best friend’s father lost both legs above the knees in December 1944. He was a wonderful man by day, but at night, when we slept over, we would barricade the door, because he would go into these rages … My father was drafted, went overseas in 1943, came back two years later, and he and mother hadn’t even talked on the phone. They had only been married about year before he left, and they didn’t even know each other. They had to get to know each other all over again, and had a very, very difficult time with that. I started looking at this [post-war stress] and realized there was nothing really written about it.

Q. So this book will finally explore that?
A.
Yes. It’s going to be published next year with Houghton-Mifflin. And the point is not to somehow undermine this notion of the Greatest Generation, but instead to finally suggest that the price they paid was actually much greater, and the toll they took was much greater, than these old stories we had usually heard under the rubric of the Greatest Generation actually suggest. And while I can’t yet prove it, I do believe part of the reason that there was so much trouble with veterans returning from Vietnam was because there was no cultural expectation that they should have trouble. Because their fathers hadn’t had trouble, had they? So the last chapter of this new book is about veterans from other wars. I am taking it right up through the war in Iraq. And I don’t believe that Vietnam veterans had a particularly greater incidence of psychological trouble, or substance abuse, than the World War II generation did—but at this point, I can’t prove that. So we’ll just put a question mark beside that one and say it’s something still to be determined.

Q. Through all of this research, have you dug up any unique surprises?
A.
Yes, about one of the men in my uncle’s air crew. When I was starting the research in the early 90s, the Internet was around but it was still very fragmentary. All of the searches I was doing had to be done through the telephone company and other traditional ways of finding people. But there was one family I couldn’t find at all. It was a guy by the name of John Murphy. That’s not an uncommon name. But I knew he was from here. His address, which I had from 1945, was from out in West Chester, not far from where I live now. Well, about five years ago, a man and his wife out in King of Prussia, who are big World War II buffs, decided they would make it their business to find out what happened to John Murphy. Turns out they found him in an unmarked grave about five minutes from my house. And he had been a Penn student. He was a member of the Castle fraternity over here, and in the Penn archives, there are actually a couple of letters of his. Just 10 minutes from my office in College Hall. It’s kind of amazing.

Originally published Oct. 18, 2007.

Originally published on October 18, 2007