Monday, 16 December 2013

Goodbye To Some ~ A Novel


When I blogged the images of that stricken Sonia over Miri in October I confess that I was a bit ignorant of the role and record of the PB4Y patrol bombers - navalised B-24  Liberators - of the United States Navy (USN)  during the Pacific War. After the blog I was made aware of the number of PB4Y 'ace' crews with multiple Japanese aircraft claims and also about a novel called 'Goodbye To Some' written in 1961 by Gordon Forbes, a former USN pilot and language teacher (and not to be confused with the South African writer of the same name). Although the book is presented as fiction it is based on actual experiences and is very clearly a 'disguised' memoir. It pulls no punches in the honesty of its depictions and there is one heck of a sting in the tail at the end.

Surprisingly, given the quality of the writing, it was quite hard to get hold of a copy and I had to ignore a few negative reviews  and the usual purple paperback blurb of the time in my determination to read it. Although classed as an 'anti-war' novel it is objectively cynical rather than subjectively embittered and there is none of the sometimes clichéd self-pitying and self-serving disillusionment often expressed in anti-war literature, fictional or factual, about the war in Vietnam. The author, a native of California, who died in 2009 in a Veterans Nursing Home at the age of 91, fronted most of the chapters with a literal translation of words taken from the Japanese 'Roei no uta' - 'Bivouac Song'. The Japanese enemy in the book are not faceless and encounters with Japanese aircraft are constructed with some authenticity. There is also a fascinating back office illumination of the way crew rosters and assignments were worked out. But it is the dangerous tedium of constant routine long-range flying that captures and enlightens the imagination, for example the palpable terror of piloting an overloaded bomber off a pre-dawn dark coral strip and watching the fuel syphon from the over-filled tanks in a stream above the wing as sparks twinkle back from the exhausts below it.

The book speaks for a host of flyers, pilots and crewmen, American and Japanese, very young men who did not ride to glory and into the pages of history as 'aces' but who did their simple duty, as confided by Admiral Nelson, in relative obscurity. Ordinary men who though often terrified, went up for sortie after sortie until the end, either to be killed or to survive and to continue in the obscurity that marked their service. For that reason alone I think the book is worthy of being mentioned. But it is just worth reading regardless and I unhesitatingly recommend it.

I'm departing from SOP here to add a received comment from Mark Smith to the main blog article. I hope he won't mind but I felt it conveyed a lot more about the book than I managed to write above and deserved to be included here:-

"I concur that this is a book of enduring value. It has a haunting quality. No one who reads it will quickly forget the character of Prime, a hell-for-leather pilot of undoubted bravery bordering on insanity, but a kind with whom few want to fly, and one that most deeply dislike. (Whether it was fair or not, I couldn't help but think of McGuire). At some point in a Prime mission, everything in the cockpit will be 'glued to the overhead,' and most everyone inside terrified that the ship will break up. And after this book, 'siphoning' afterward always will have a malevolent secondary meaning. 

Yet it's one of the funniest books I can remember, if that humor is sometimes black, and even Elmore Leonard never wrote better dialogue. I've read it twice and will again; it's a good antidote to the blind romanticism that characterizes much aviation history. Technically it's fiction, yet nothing rings untrue; and some details demand attention as history, forgotten by all others except the ones to whom it was happening, a Minority Report to the official squadron history. 

There is no real affection for the aircraft, rather a mistrust and dread, and a deep desire to survive the machine. Japanese aircraft are occasionally encountered or reported, but not feared in the way that an overloaded Consolidated routinely sent just beyond its maximum range (usually for an officer's glory) is feared. I thought I wanted to build a PB4Y someday, but after reading this book years ago, that oddly and permanently changed! We asked so much of men like these, how could they possibly have come home and told the rest of us what it was like? Forbes needed a few years to process it, but the novel was the perfect form, and the result remains a masterpiece. "

Thank you Mark. You echo my thoughts exactly.


Image credit: Book cover © 1965 Panther Books Ltd and ©  1961 Gordon Forbes

4 comments:

Mark Smith said...

I concur that this is a book of enduring value. It has a haunting quality. No one who reads it will quickly forget the character of Prime, a hell-for-leather pilot of undoubted bravery bordering on insanity, but a kind with whom few want to fly, and one that most deeply dislike. (Whether it was fair or not, I couldn't help but think of McGuire). At some point in a Prime mission, everything in the cockpit will be 'glued to the overhead,' and most everyone inside terrified that the ship will break up. And after this book, 'siphoning' afterward always will have a malevolent secondary meaning.

Yet it's one of the funniest books I can remember, if that humor is sometimes black, and even Elmore Leonard never wrote better dialogue. I've read it twice and will again; it's a good antidote to the blind romanticism that characterizes much aviation history. Technically it's fiction, yet nothing rings untrue; and some details demand attention as history, forgotten by all others except the ones to whom it was happening, a Minority Report to the official squadron history.

There is no real affection for the aircraft, rather a mistrust and dread, and a deep desire to survive the machine. Japanese aircraft are occasionally encountered or reported, but not feared in the way that an overloaded Consolidated routinely sent just beyond its maximum range (usually for an officer's glory) is feared. I thought I wanted to build a PB4Y someday, but after reading this book years ago, that oddly and permanently changed! We asked so much of men like these, how could they possibly have come home and told the rest of us what it was like? Forbes needed a few years to process it, but the novel was the perfect form, and the result remains a masterpiece.

Anonymous said...

My father served as a mechanic/gunner in PB4Y-2 Privateers with VPB-118, the first US Navy patrol squadron equipped with the new type.

By late 1944, most squadrons' PB4Y-1 aircraft had been phased out. Some war worn Navy Liberators still served in transport and liaison duties with squadrons.

Long, uneventful patrols were referred to as "white cap patrols." However it was not unusual to encounter Japanese aircraft on "practice" missions to Rabaul or Truk and as patrols ranged to Korea and nearer to "The Empire."

During the 60's I showed a picture of an FM2 "Pete" from the photo pages of Masatake Okumiya's book "Zero" to my father. I asked if he'd ever seen such a thing as a Japanese biplane while in the Pacific. To my surprise, he said "I sent one of them home smoking."

During the 1980's, members of this squadron began compiling flight logs and recollections which resulted in a rare, but most interesting book, "VPB-118-Patrol Bombing squadron 118."

Steve Diederich

WD said...

Thanks so much for this review Nick. My favorite aviation book of all time is a memoir from WWI. It's my favorite not for its romanticism, but for its honesty. This one is definitely on my list now.

Scuba Scott said...

Concur with the sterling review. First read this overlooked gem years ago when I was a midshipman and have revisited it several times since. Not only is Forbes depiction of aerial combat unmatched, but his capturing of the frustrating banality and colorful personalities of squadron life is timeless - some of the characters reminded me of people I flew with in a USN squadron over 60 years later!

On a related subject, I'd also recommend the works of aviation historian Alan Carey, particularly his patrol "trilogy" - We Flew Alone, Above an Angry Sea, & U.S. Navy PB4Y-1 Squadrons in Britain - covering VP/VPB operations in World War Two. Very detailed and lavishly illustrated, these books chronicle the exploits of the unsung heroes who flew in navy land-based patrol bomber squadrons.