I was trying to answer the question “What can I do that is right?” Because you see a lot of sacrifice, you see other people value other peoples’ lives more than they value their own. You also see greed, and waste, and lust. There is nothing clean about war.… I was trying to figure out the right thing I was supposed to be doing and what kept coming back to me was that I needed to solve my grandfather’s war story. —Tara Copp, reporter, Stars and Stripes
Returning home from a three-month embed with the airmen of the 17th Security Forces Squadron in Iraq in 2003, reporter Tara Copp felt the deepening sense of dislocation that war often brings to soldiers and journalists. But she soon found solace in the wartime memoir of her late grandfather, Richard C. Harris, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Forces, who flew a B-24 Liberator over Germany. His unpublished memoir, painstakingly typed out by Copp’s grandmother, was a tale of bravado curiously lacking details—it did not include specific missions, dates, or names. It let on that Harris’s postwar life as an U.S. Air Force attaché was consumed with his own demons and drink.
For Copp, tracking down her grandfather’s personal war turned into an obsession. As she slowly pieced together his postwar history, Copp found her own personal life on a downward trajectory that paralleled her grandfather’s. “It was a book that I was living, the story as I was writing it,” she says. “I was spending all of my time in the National Archives trying to track a story while my own life was derailing.”
“The Day We Bombed Switzerland” filled an entire section of Harris’ memoir—it was an accident of war, with imprecise instruments carrying out instructions of death and destruction. Returning to the stacks at the Archives in Washington, D.C., Copp filled in the story missing from her grandfather’s wartime narrative. At 0600 on April 1, 1944, the 448th Bomber Group set out to destroy the chemical factories in Ludwigshaven, Germany. Fog and faulty compasses and radio navigation caused the 50 bombers on the mission to go hundreds of miles off course over Switzerland. The men mistakenly believed they were over the target in Germany. Having wasted precious time and fuel flying off course, the Bomber Group would not have enough fuel to reach England if they did not release their load, and soon. And so at 1100 over Schaffhausen, Switzerland, about 50 Liberators dropped more than 400 bombs on the city. Running out of gas, many bombers ditched over France, with others being brought down by German antiaircraft fire. Three planes made it beyond hostile territory, with only Harris’s plane making it back to base.
And yet Harris never spoke of how this day affected him. The American bombs killed 40 Swiss villagers that day in April, and more than 270 men, women, and children were badly wounded. A mistake, yes, but fatal nonetheless. Thirty years later, in Carlsbad, California, those war memories manifested into what is now recognized as PTSD. Copp describes her grandmother’s own anguish as she watched her husband fall into a drunken stupor, crying out about the war and the memories that haunted him. Copp’s grandmother would cover for Harris, drying him out, making excuses for him at work. Over time as his mind and body deteriorated, he became vicious, throwing Copp’s grandmother out of the house, saying that he wanted a younger woman. But those episodes always ended with flowers and apologies. The medals and the recognition bestowed on Dick Harris after the war did not quell the inner turmoil that war had imprinted on him as a young lieutenant in the Army Air Force. Nor did it ease the malaise descending on his granddaughter as she reconstructed his difficult story.
From briefly quitting journalism to her failing marriage and eventual divorce, Copp struggled to place the context of her grandfather’s war within her own experiences of combat and coming home, expecting to pick up life where one had left it before deploying. Copp describes the emotional dislocation that the Iraq war brought to her; it was as if her purpose had been obliterated. She was no longer comfortable in Washington D.C., yet she couldn’t shake the unease that she was becoming a war junkie, and by marketing her Iraq experience, a profiteer as well. Struggling, she turned to her grandfather. Fifteen when her grandfather died, Copp only knew him through phone calls and photographs. Copp had a romanticized belief of her own personal war hero. Yet she found that as her grandfather’s story became more complete, the framework of her own personal narrative began to take shape.
Copp weaves a poignant story that is, she says, “part personal history, part war history,” spanning 75 years, two conflicts, and three heroes. Copp follows her grandfather and his brother (Easy Company Staff Sergeant Terrence “Salty” Harris), a paratrooper who landed on Normandy on D-Day. She also tells the story of Senior Airman Brian Kolfage, one of the first triple amputees of the Iraq War. Yet there is a common theme: Ordinary men fighting in extraordinary circumstances. While the stories do not follow a linear path, The Warbird portrays the heartbreaking truth of the effects of war and the attempt to regain one’s own new normal.
The Warbird is the first book from Squadron Books, a new publishing company formed by two air force pilots who aim to rectify what they see as lack of topical air force stories.