On this Remembrance Memorial Centenary, I have the pleasure of talking to R Grey Hoover, author of Kicker the Forgotten Front. Through a similar process, we have both commemorated the men and women of two wars in our writing for very personal reasons. Grey wrote about the US Forces’ WW2 experiences while my interest lay mainly with the British Forces of WW1.
Grey, I can remember when I was a child, born a couple of years after the end of World War II, being bored to tears by my friend’s father’s war stories. It seemed every man in the street had his own version, his own personal story. Blah, blah, blah – They fell on deaf ears, ‘killed in the war’ was just another way to die, and I was grateful my own father hadn’t fought being not fit due to a tangle between a wooden trolley and a two-ton truck when he was eight. The war seemed to me then so long ago and of so little importance to my life, and I failed totally to grasp how close and ever-present it was to those men and how brutal and overpowering an experience it was for most of them. For me, the war meant sugar was rationed, and there was barbed-wire and concrete on the East-Coast beaches.
I did listen to my grandfather’s stories of his time in Egypt in World War One mainly because he talked about his horse and the desert, and I loved horses, but he told me nothing of the horror.
It was only recently, with the onset of old age I suppose, that I felt the need to research Grandad’s war and wrote The Dandelion Clock, as Grey Hoover, author of Kicker, has researched his father’s.
Grey, was it childhood memories that prompted you to write your book?
I was born 4 days after Pearl Harbor, Rebecca, and my father enlisted in the Army when I was a year and a half old, so I have memories of the war years. When dad returned from the war he didn’t talk much about his experiences, but when he did, my brothers and I were very interested. Dad died suddenly at age 56 and I didn’t think about documenting his wartime service until after I retired. My original intention was to produce a historical document just for my family, but as I researched dad’s service records and interviewed and befriended other veterans from the China-Burma-India (CBI) theatre, I felt that I had to write something to honor all of them and thus began my journey to become an author.
Grey, I know of men who died young because of being gassed, and one of my great uncles was gassed in France.
Do you think your father’s war experiences had anything to do with his early death?
It is hard to say for certain, Rebecca. The veterans of the CBI were at the end of the supply chain and had to subsist on meager Army rations and whatever they could get from the local natives. Dad seemed healthy after the war but over the years he gained a little weight and died suddenly of a heart attack on his way home from work. He had no indication of health problems before his death.
That’s so sad, Grey. 56 is no age at all. I can imagine that a long period of malnutrition would weaken the body’s defences and possibly affect vital organs. The father of a friend of mine was a POW, I think in a Japanese camp, but I can’t be certain of that now. He was a big man, and they say he weighed 6 stones when he came home from the war. Starvation severely affected his health, and he wore a colostomy bag for the rest of his life, though he made a reasonable age. He never spoke of his experiences.
I am strongly of the opinion that ‘the sin of war’ spreads out to engulf us all. It’s something I explore in The Dandelion Clock – the effect it has on families of victims and survivors, on relationships. One reader told me her grandfather was changed by the war to the extent that he became violent towards his children, for which they never forgave him. She said that reading The Dandelion Clock helped her see what physical and mental deprivations he might have suffered, and she understood his ‘rage’ better.
My other ‘war’ novel, Touching the Wire, is about Auschwitz, and again, I’ve had readers, survivors and their families, tell me that reading it has helped them. I feel a responsibility towards my readers and those I write about, and I hope my stories are informative and bear a useful ‘message’.
Do you feel the same responsibility? Do you think there’s a message in Kicker?
I agree that war engulfs us all and we should learn the lessons that war teaches so that we never repeat the mistakes that cause such misery and loss. I feel that no aspect of a war should be ignored or forgotten, and that is why I wrote Kicker and why I included the history of my family on the home front in the book. I think one message in my book is that wars can’t be won and liberties protected without the sacrifices and labours of the folks at home. The other message is that every soldier, no matter where he served, contributed to the successful outcome of WWII. As I was writing Kicker, I wanted to be sure that it was as historically accurate as it could be. I spent 7 years researching for the book and my efforts were hampered by the two things. One was that many military records were destroyed in a fire at the St. Louis Military Records Center and the other was the declining population of WWII veterans. Did you encounter any problems in researching for The Dandelion Clock and Touching the Wire?
Seven years? Wow. That’s commitment, Grey. I too strive for historical accuracy in my fiction, but seven years? I haven’t read Kicker yet but intend to remedy that. I know nothing of that theatre of war.
I was incredibly lucky when researching for The Dandelion Clock, because I knew very little about WW1 either before I began my research. Although a lot of records were destroyed for security reasons at the end of the war, I managed to find my grandfather’s military service records, demob account, medal record, and photographs of him with the Royal Buckingham Hussars and in uniform on his horse. I also managed to source excellent histories of the two brigades he served with: Fighting for the Bucks is a history of the Royal Buckinghamshire Hussars and The Diary of a Yeomanry Medical Officer was an invaluable first-person account of the war as encountered by the Queen’s Own Worcestershire Yeomanry, which Grandad served with from 1916-1919. I doubt my novel could have been written without these.
Touching the Wire was a whole different ball game. There’s a wealth of information out there, and I also read several first-hand accounts – If This is a Man by Primo Levy; Five Chimneys by Olga Lengyel among others. My problem was the horror and heartbreak I encountered at every turn. Did this really happen? How could a man do this to another, or to a woman, or worse still, to a child? How did this mass ‘hysteria’, for want of a better word, against the Jews and Roma come about and how was it sustained and taken to such terrible extremes? I would discover some new evil, a fresh horror, and have to step away, take the dog for a long walk, take deep breaths to stop feeling nauseous, and reconnect with the present day. It literally had me in tears. But the women of Auschwitz couldn’t walk away. They lived every hour of every day not knowing if they’d be alive that evening and knowing their families had been gassed – everyone they loved: mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, husbands, and children. Clever, intelligent, gifted people – gone at the whim of a madman. How do you live like that? What incredible courage must it take? The more I researched, the more I knew their story had to be retold to a new generation. “Lest we forget” took on a whole new meaning.
I think what struck me most was the matter-of-fact way in which the first-hand accounts were written; there was no anger, no bitterness, no recrimination, just the burning desire for the world to know what had happened and to be believed. Primo Levy, for one, survived the camp only to commit suicide after the war because he couldn’t live with his past and that people didn’t believe it. I believe it. I see this kind of fear rising again and begin to see how easily public opinion can be swayed against a people, but it mustn’t happen again.
I’ve written two historical novels inspired by family history, For Their Country’s Good series is based on my grandmother’s family and their enforced emigration to Van Diemen’s Land in 1841 in the convict ship Tortoise, and I’m presently researching a third, Kindred and Affinity, so called because of the UK 1907 Marriage Act that legalised a man marrying his dead wife’s sister, previously banned because of the forbidden relationships listed in the Book of Common Prayer. (I have a lot of black sheep in my family who are a wealth of inspiration.)
What inspired the title of Kicker? Do you have plans to write another book, and if so, would it be fact or fiction and what would be your inspiration?
It sounds like you had quite a bit of reference material available to you, but then the British were always good at keeping records. The CBI theatre wasn’t quite so organized which is probably why the soldiers there said CBI meant Confusion Beyond Imagination. The title of Kicker came from my father’s job during the war. Here is an excerpt from the preface of the book that explains it:
‘My father was part of the effort to supply allied troops on the ground in China, Burma and India. His official military title was “Flight Traffic Clerk”, but he and others like him were better known as “Kickers”. They were aircrew members whose job was to properly load bundles of supplies onto aircraft and then unload those supplies by dropping them from the planes to soldiers on the ground. Sometimes the supplies were specially bundled with parachutes, and at other times, they were not. The job was neither easy nor safe and usually required unloading 6 to 7 thousand pounds of supplies while their plane flew over frontline positions at very low altitudes and speeds. It would typically take 7 to 15 passes over their target to completely unload the supplies. During these passes, they were often subjected to deadly fire from enemy aircraft and ground forces. The term “kicker” came from one of the methods the crew often used to unload the supplies. As they approached their target area, supply bundles would be stacked in the open doorway of the plane’s cargo bay. One of the crewmen would then lie on his back behind the stacked bundles, with his knees flexed and his feet firmly planted in the center of the bundles. At a signal from the pilot, the “kicker” would literally kick the supplies out of the door to the waiting troops on the ground below. The process would be repeated until all supplies had been dropped.’
I do not have plans to write another book, but have you ever considered writing about the WWII battles at Imphal and Kohima India where the British stopped the Japanese invasion of India? They were bloody and gruelling battles that are a testament to the courage and fighting ability of the British troops in the CBI theatre. My father’s unit dropped supplies to British troops during those battles and I have a chapter in my book dedicated to those battles.
I love “Confused Beyond Imagination”, Grey – that sums me up most of the time! I think it sums up much of what I know of WW1 as well. It certainly seems as if the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing most of the time.
I’d wondered about the title, Kicker. The book sounds fascinating. I’ve just downloaded it, by the way, and I’m really looking forward to reading it. There are striking similarities between the inspiration behind Kicker and The Dandelion Clock, and it will be interesting to see another author’s treatment of a similar basic scenario; the hard choices to be made between duty to country and duty to family and the effects these choices have. It must have been incredibly difficult for these young men and the families they left behind.
I hadn’t thought of writing another war story and wouldn’t have written The Dandelion Clock but for my family-history research, but I love writing historical fiction and the way historical fact moulds and constrains the plot. Oddly, my favourite genre to read is science fiction/fantasy, but I’ve read some great Indie authors of all genres over the last few years.
What do you most enjoy reading, Grey? Do you have any book recommendations? Any favourite authors?
I enjoy reading science fiction and alternate history books. My favourite science fiction authors are Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. My favourite alternate history author is Harry Turtledove. Turtledove wrote a series of alternate history books around the American civil war and they are really fascinating. He also wrote alternate history about WWI and WWII that will make you think of what might have been. I have also downloaded your book The Dandelion Clock and am anxious to read it. My grandfather served in the trenches in France during WWI and his service there probably saved his life since his father and two brothers died within a week of each other during the U.S. flu epidemic of 1918. Who would think that being at war had a plus side.
It must be one of very few plus sides, Grey. A lot of the dead of World War One were victims of disease and the terrible conditions in which they lived. On a lighter note, I’ve enjoyed Asimov and Clarke. I haven’t read any Turtledove – what a lovely name – I shall have to see what I can find of his; they sound fascinating. I still remember reading a novel called Pavanne, can’t remember the author now, that was an alternative history of England had the Spanish Armada overpowered the British. It was thought provoking. I’ve begun Kicker, I’ve learnt something already about the US involvement, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it. I hope you enjoy The Dandelion Clock.
It’s been lovely talking to you, Grey, and I wish Kicker every success.
R Grey Hoover is an Air Force veteran with a family tradition of military service that dates back to the American revolution. He wrote his book, Kicker the Forgotten Front, to honour his father and the other veterans of World War II who fought in the China-Burma-India (CBI) theatre. During the war, the European and Pacific theatres got most of the supplies and media attention leaving the CBI theatre with the leftovers. Even in today’s media coverage of World War II, the CBI theatre is never mentioned. The author’s book is an attempt to correct this gross oversight.
World War II is raging. A young father must choose between his family and duty to his country – a decision that could cost him everything.
My review of Kicker.
What a treat! An exceptional and fascinating insight into the lives of US airmen helping to fight the Japanese in China, Burma, and India in 1944 and 1945. This was a theatre of war I knew nothing about. R Grey Hoover brings alive the men, the jungle, the dangers, the hardships, and the friendships and camaraderie of the units involved in dropping supplies to ground forces that were suffering intolerable conditions. It made me laugh and made me shed a tear or two. My respect for these servicemen grew with every page. Highly recommended.
An Excerpt from Kicker.
Sam and Bobby Joe were totally exhausted when they crawled into their charpoys. The harrowing events of the day had taken its toll on them physically and mentally. In spite of the heat and noise of the jungle, Sam felt the blessed relief of sleep approaching soon after his head hit the pillow. However, as he drifted off, a feeling of unease came over him. It was a feeling that something was wrong, not here in India, but at home. He didn’t know if he felt uneasy because he still hadn’t received mail from home or because of some unknown reason, but the feeling stayed with him until he finally succumbed to his exhaustion and slipped into a deep sleep.
Thankfully, his slumber was not disturbed by his recurring nightmare, and he slept soundly until the wee hours of the morning when he suddenly awoke not knowing what had disturbed him. A light rain was falling outside, and except for an occasional flash of distant lightning, the basha was in total darkness. He lay very still, listening to the sounds around him. He strained his hearing, but no sound came except for the steady breathing of the sleeping men around him. After several minutes, he relaxed, thinking his imagination was playing tricks on him. He was almost asleep again when he thought he detected a faint unfamiliar sound coming from somewhere in the basha. Once again, he listened intently, not sure he had heard anything; but then he heard the sound again—only this time it seemed closer, and he was sure it came from within the basha. He couldn’t quite place the sound, but it seemed like something soft brushing against an object. He listened closely, but all was silent. None of the other men in the basha stirred, and after an extended period of silence, he relaxed once again in anticipation of sleep.
He was in that dreamy state just before slumber when he felt the presence of something or someone nearby. Once again, his senses came to full alert, and he made a conscious effort not to move. He listened carefully, bringing all his senses to bear. He could see or hear nothing, and yet he was sure something was there. He was startled when someone at the other end of the room moved, but then all was silent once again. He was lying on his back, so he slowly moved his head to the right and scanned the darkness.
At first he saw nothing, but then attention was drawn to a slight movement at the foot of his bed. He couldn’t make out what it was. It appeared to be an undistinguishable shadow against the darker background of the room. As he watched, the shadow moved, and he held his breath as it silently glided along the side of his bed. There was no sound as it moved, and it slowly drew nearer and stopped near the head of his bed. He could tell that it was something large, but due to the extreme darkness, he was unable to see what it was. His instincts told him this was something dangerous and evil, and the hairs on the nape of his neck stood erect. At that moment, a distant flash of lightning faintly illuminated the scene, and in that instant of light, Sam could see the large form of a tiger standing beside him. The animal’s head was enormous. Its eyes, momentarily reflecting light from the faraway lightning, gave the beast an evil, devil-like appearance. This was death incarnate staring directly at him.
Sam was frozen with fear, and his heart seemed to stop. His .45-caliber pistol hung on the wall not three feet away, and he cursed himself for not keeping it inside the mosquito netting with him. He knew the tiger could see that he was awake, and he feared any movement would cause it to attack. The animal stepped closer, and Sam could see its dim outline and smell its damp fur and the fetid odor of its breath. The tiger appeared to know its victim was helpless. The great beast took its time as it sniffed the mosquito netting as if testing its strength. Slowly it raised a huge paw and placed it against the puny impediment. The tiger’s claws caught in the netting, and with a mighty swipe, it ripped the flimsy material away from the bed.’
Read more at Kicker on Amazon
And find out more about Grey at:
THE DANDELION CLOCK
Families torn apart by World War I – promises that should never have been made but must be kept. Download it FREE on 10th, 11th and 12th November at
TOUCHING THE WIRE