Bert Stiles

Yesterday I wrote about the bomber bases in England, left crumbling today 66 years after the end of World War II. Mentioned in the blog, was the loss of talent resulting from the deaths of many. Specifically, I said I would write about Bert Stiles.

His is a name unknown to most today. He was, however, a writer way ahead of his time whose life and writing was exceptional. Not only was there an interruption in his writing, it ended in a cold November sky just south of Hanover, Germany. When he died, he was only 24 years-old.

Stiles was a pacifist long before it was fashionable. While in high school, he worked summers as a junior forest ranger in Estes Park, which was the inspiration for much of his early writing. He graduated from high school in 1938 and went to Colorado College where he became a feature writer for the school newspaper. During the summer of 1941, Stiles spent 10 hours a day writing short stories and articles. The Saturday Evening Post and other magazines published some of his writings.

In January 1943, Stiles enlisted in the Army, reporting for aviation training. In November, the Army commissioned him as a second lieutenant and assigned him to B-17s. By March of 1944, he was in England with the Eighth Air Force flying in the 91st Bomb Group stationed at Bassingbourn, England.

By this time in the war, bomber crews were beginning to become scarce. Initially, the Army required bomber crewmen to fly 25 missions before rotating home. By the time Stiles reported for duty, the number of missions had increased to 35. Stiles flew every one of them. His next duty assignment gave him the chance to return stateside as a flight instructor.

Stiles turned it down, instead volunteering to cross-train in fighters and return to the war. During this period in training, he wrote a book, Serenade to the Big Bird, all about his experiences flying the B-17 into combat.

After he completed his transition training, Stiles reported to the 505th Fighter Squadron to fly the P-51D. On his 16th mission flying in a craft named Tar Heel, he engaged the enemy at 26,000 feet. The dogfight that followed degenerated down to low altitude and after completing the kill of his German adversary, a disoriented Stiles flew his airplane into the ground.

His mother was responsible for having Serenade to the Big Bird initially published in England as a tribute to her son. The first publication in the United States followed in 1952 at W.W. Norton & Co. The book, realistically reporting what the air war was like over Germany and in the Flying Fortresses, became an instant hit with many in the aviation field.

Had Stiles lived through the war, one wonders what additional books he would have produced.


©2011 J. Clark

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