The Bataan Death March

Today is Memorial Day and I choose to take a moment to remember those who fought in World War II. Of course, my father immediately comes to mind. He fought on the European front, that part of the war with which we are all familiar. But, have you ever heard of the Bataan Death March? It took place on the the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines in April of 1942 after the Americans surrendered to the Japanese. It is those brave souls who endured that march that I would like to pause and remember today, in particular a young man named Lloyd Greever. The character Tommie in my novel “My Darling Dorothy,” is based on this young man. It was his letters that inspired me to write the novel. His letters were simple, full of grammatical errors and misspelled words, but they spoke of his hopes and dreams for a future with his “Darling Dorothy.” They exemplify the millions of letters sent home during that war and all wars.

I had never heard of the Bataan Death March until I began my research for the novel. I’m a little embarrassed about that. It seems wrong to forget or worse not even to have taken the time to know about the atrocities that war creates. Forgetting or not knowing is what, in my estimation, allows wars to occur over and over again. Perhaps if we all took a moment to learn and remember that war is hell and should be avoided at all costs, the world could evolve into a better place.

The attached photo is a picture of American soldiers as they surrendered to the Japanese at the beginning of the march. Thousands of Filipino soldiers and hundred of American soldiers died on the tortuous march before they reached their destination at Camp O’Donnell prison camp. The sixty mile march took place under the stifling heat of the tropical sun with little to no food or water. The POWs were severely abused to the point that the Allied Military Commission judged it to be a Japanese war crime. For more details go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bataan_Death_March.

I extend my deepest gratitude to all the young men, including my father, Wilmer Smith, and Lloyd Greever, who fought in World War II, and to all the young men and women who have fought in all the wars our country has deemed necessary. I also look forward to a time when gratitude is no longer needed, because war is a thing of the past.

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AAA and the Planimeter

Drawing on one’s experience and mixing it with necessary research becomes fodder for creative writing. It’s part of what makes writing historical novels so appealing. In this series, entitled “Betcha Didn’t Know,” I will be explaining some of the unknown history (at least for me) that came to light during the writing of My Darling Dorothy. I hope you enjoy learning more about this era as much as I did.

Let’s start this exploration with AAA and the planimeter. The character, Dorothy, in My Darling Dorothy is based on my mother who worked for the AAA in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. Growing up I assumed those initials stood for the American Automobile Association, but back then AAA had two meanings. In my mother’s case the initials stood for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. Mom always referred to it as “the triple A.”

AAA was the administrative arm of the Agricultural Adjustment Act which was passed in 1933. It was a part of FDR’s New Deal and provided much needed relief to struggling farmers who were some of the hardest hit people during (and even before) the Great Depression.

The idea was to pay farmers to reduce their production of crops such as corn and wheat, and in some cases, to kill off their livestock. By reducing crop surpluses the value of crops would rise, thus improving the farmer’s condition. In order to pay the farmers correctly aerial photography was utilized to map the landscape. The photos were then used to calculate the area of a farmer’s property using a device called a planimeter. According to Wikipedia, “ A planimeter, also known as a platometer, is a measuring instrument used to determine the area of an arbitrary two-dimensional shape.” Using the planimeter allowed the AAA to more accurately measure a farmer’s fallow land and insure he was being correctly paid.

Dorothy and many of her friends worked for the AAA in Beaver City, Nebraska analyzing photos, calculating payments, typing checks and keeping records. The AAA paid well, at least for the times, and my mother made $2.50 per day. She spoke often about how much she enjoyed the job and how much fun it was to have her own money and to spend it on nice clothes. I was intrigued about the interaction among the young women in the office, especially during the war when it became increasingly difficult for some to remain faithful to their husbands. It only made sense that for some, fidelity was extremely difficult. The character Betty describes that sort of challenge.

I was also intrigued by the interaction that must have taken place between the young women and the farmers who may have come to the office to get their money in person. As many writers do, I drew upon my own experience, as a youngster, dealing with farmers in my father’s gas station. The character named Mr. Lundquist is a compilation of some of those encounters.

Mixing imagination with facts is a challenge for all writers, but when we get it right, it makes for interesting and compelling reading. I for one enjoy being entertained while, at the same time, learning new and interesting information about the past.

The Planimeter

planimeter 3

Thoughts about VE Day

 

Seventy-one years ago yesterday, the war in Europe ended. It seemed a perfect time to begin my blog regarding reflections on writing “My Darling Dorothy,” a novel which is set in the decades surrounding World War II.

My understanding of VE day has always been anchored in the incredible photo of a soldier kissing a nurse in Times Square, confetti flying everywhere, the streets packed with jubilant people; laughing, crying, and waving American flags.It seemed only logical to me that the American soldiers in Europe celebrated in a similar manner until I read a letter from my father to my mother dated May 12, 1945, five days after VE Day. Here is an excerpt from that letter:

“Hello Darling – How’s my honey making out these days? What did you do to celebrate VE day, or did you celebrate? We all thought we would, but really it didn’t seem much different than any other day here. All the difference is that the shooting is over. The day that I’ll be happy enough to do any celebrating will be when I hit the shores of the good old US.”

This changed the way I went about writing the chapter in “My Darling Dorothy” which dealt with this historic event. I had to think like a soldier. Why would I celebrate when I am still living in a tent, still eating rations, still sleeping on a cot or in a sleeping bag in a foreign country, far from home and the people I love? While it’s true that they no longer had to worry about shots being fired, the worry and anxiety didn’t disappear, it simply changed focus to, “How and when am I going home?” I learned an important lesson about writing a novel with an historical base, something I should have remembered from my thirty-seven year nursing career: never assume.

As I continued reading Smitty’s (my father’s) letters, I learned about where a soldier’s focus shifted. Everything revolved around the Advanced Service Rating score. This was a fascinating discovery for me, something I knew nothing about until I read the following excerpt from the same letter quoted above.

“Sweating this point system out is as bad as sweating out an artillery barrage, almost. (Ha) I have 84 points. That isn’t enough to get me home very fast. Of course I’ll make it in time, I guess, but god only knows how long a time that will be.”

Reading between the lines, it’s fairly easy to feel the angst that is masqueraded as humor in his comment about waiting. Imagine making it through the entire war, in Smitty’s case three years, and then having to wait for an undetermined amount of time to go home. As a writer, this creates a challenge; to get the reader to feel the anxiety and worry, just as Smitty did, waiting to find out when it would finally end for him.

I’ll write more about the Advance Service Rating in future blogs. Today, I am going to spend a couple of minutes in silence, recollecting that incredible day, and feeling grateful that Smitty made it home.