A Gathering of Men by Rona Simmons. (Koehler Books, February 2022, 235p)
At the outskirts of town, best friends Lake, Roger, and Jim take turns hurling their wingless crate down a hill. Eyes closed, they imagine their future alongside Lindy. Pearl Harbor changes everything. The boys will have their chance to fly-not over North Carolina farm fields, but across Germany on bombing runs, facing a determined Luftwaffe. The odds of completing their tours of duty are slim. A Gathering of Men is the account of the boys who board their aircraft for the first time and the men they become in the blink of an eye. The terrors they witness and the pressure to go up again and again and again brings them to the breaking point. It is a moving tale, based on a true story, about shattered dreams and enduring friendship, duty, and honor.
I cried while reading Rona Simmons’ newest military historical novel, A Gathering of Men (also author of The Other Veterans of WWII: Stories from Behind the Front Lines), Postcards from Wonderland. She creates characters in this powerfully empathetic novel from composites in her own family and interviews with veterans who brought victory in WWII and then came back to live in peace. The book is a marvelous piece of fiction that transports the reader to a desperately factual time and place. Reminiscent of the film Twelve O’Clock High (1949), her book captures both the imagination and the heart. I really don’t think there is a better way to study history than to experience this kind of story.
From the first adventure with young lads falling in love with early flight, bi-wing circus fliers, and Charles Lindberg’s exploits, the reader has whisked away with them. Based on real people and countless interviews with survivor combatants, Simmons makes clear it was the romance of flying that enthralled the young men. They were patriots, but not eager for war. A skilled novelist, she created a time bubble so that readers feel every joy, disappointment, sleepless night, freezing day, and what it must be like to land a plane by a force of will and not much more.
“Afraid? We’re all afraid. Of everything. Don’t let anyone tell you different. Mostly we’re too busy to realize it. Right then I didn’t have time to be afraid I didn’t have time to even think about being afraid….” – Lt. Crowley, co-pilot, p 163.
Her book chronicles the exploits and trauma along with the remarkable success of the 8th AF 100th Bomb Group pilots, mechanics, and aircrew’s heroic, invaluable demonstrations of strategic airpower. The author tells us intimate details of what can only be personal family history, and indeed from her own father-in-law’s memory. It is a gripping, immersive narrative that I finished quickly. I didn’t want to put it down.
Even more poignant was the emotional. I identified with the world she created as I was a US Air Force officer assigned to Germany during the Cold War. Modern jet fighters launched and landed in endless wartime drills. The spirit of fighting men and women has not changed nearly as much as their machines. Mostly, our fighter jets came back after every mission, but there were still endlessly long shifts, bitter cold, fatal mistakes, injuries, close calls, and shared camaraderie never repeated in civilian life. Her factual account at the end of the novel of those removed from flight status was heartbreaking, but understandable. I was also a wife and mother, so I could easily identify with Simmons’ chapter on the women left behind, perpetually waiting, managing homes, and even losing mates. The prayers, hopes, expectations, and sadness of the women she portrays have changed little in all the wars that have been.
The author uses military history texts, the social history of the time, and archival websites which are available for research. The references and resources are documented very well at the end of her novel and will prove beneficial for any military leader or historian. This total blend of fact and fiction is splendid Americana and stands as a modern example of the best historical novel, one you want to savor, display, share with friends, co-workers, or junior military leaders. You will want to read it again. I know I will.