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Book Review : Sky Above, War Below: A Pilot's Saga

March 26, 1987|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

Those Who Fall by John Muirhead (Random House: $18:95)

We have been shortchanged for too long by books about men at war. Most are grim hymns of blood upon bravery upon dead youngsters; more blind liturgies than seeing literature. Others suppose that the corollary of military valor or seniority is skill as an author of combat memoirs.

That leaves the scant classics--of Erich Maria Remarque, of Norman Mailer, of Burt Stiles, of Joseph Heller, of Michael Herr.

And of a new candidate for the same status: John Muirhead.

In one work, this first-time author has crafted an unforgettable eulogy from crisp essay, frightening personal account and a humor that is deep, rich and so tender.

"Those Who Fall" is the story of Muirhead's few months as a B-17 pilot with the 301st Bomb Group near Foggia, Italy. The man writes himself naked, and our understanding is all the better clothed by it. His surrealism is natural, no daubery here, and his perfect chronicle moves as one flier's mounting struggle to find some glory, some honor to what he did during World War II.

Muirhead does find it. In the end, it has nothing to do with medals and commendations and brass bands. It has everything to do with the extraordinary courage of ordinary, uncourageous, unsung, very young men.

There is glory in their stubborn dignity while among the foulest conditions, while wired and strapped five miles high to a bomber that could be their bier. There is honor in their comradeship and development of qualities they never again will need because only war brings such extremes of futility and loneliness and daily fear of death.

War's real heroes, believes Muirhead, are the men who screamed into their oxygen masks to vent fear yet performed mightily. Who urinated in their flight suits but held the bombing run. Who acted out commands and authority with calmness while terror raged inside. Who went over the edge and came back. Who made it by forgetting why they flew 50-mission tours with such obsessive devotion or how they came from teaching and real estate to be there in the first place.

"We knew only the compelling imperative of the mission; it had become our life, the reason for our existence. We had nothing to do with victory or defeat, nor were we a part of any global strategy. This was our work, ours alone. We did it because it was given to us to do, or perhaps we did it because we could not bear the shame of being less than the man beside us. We fought because he fought; we died because he died; I cannot remember or think of any other reasons."

How broad, or narrow, the current market for a combat autobiography restricted to a few missions in a private corner of the air war remains to be seen.

There could also be a problem with the 40-year separation between his events and their chronicle.

But Muirhead, a retired maritime engineer, explains that he's no different from the lot. Men who have soldiered, he says, from Marathon to Chickamauga, have been unable to leave well enough alone and never lose the compulsion to bore wives, children and other men by setting out their war stories. So now he must ponder and remember and talk about it.

Suspect, however, a deeper purpose to the delay. What Muirhead saw and felt and had stored since 1945 certainly had unusual significance. Yet what was its purpose and how tight the interpretation by a 24-year-old aviator? It is quite likely Muirhead needed four decades, their costs, their comparisons and the noise of subsequent, very different wars to set and ripen his candor and intellect.

Belatedness, however, has cost the reader nothing. Muirhead's recall of combat, the look of flak, the smell of fear, the heft and heavy balance of a B-17 in flight, the thud of death, shine as happenings of just an hour ago.

He knows and tells how we would feel vibrating over Ploesti, living from a tent among weary socks and olive trees, looking at wind and sun caressing the hair of a dead bombardier. We are picked up and slapped down and made angry and tearful by his words. We are battered until, like Willie Balcom, a tail gunner from New Jersey, we also would seek the escape of an Italian farm in the hills, goat cheese and sour wine.

Muirhead was worn by his war. After one bloody mission, he walked away from his crew. Wind brushed him, cool and sweet against face, throat, hair, hands. It whispered beneath his leather jacket, against his body, coiling about him.

A 'Divine Pity'

"It was like a divine pity, caressing me, soothing me. The wind, the holy wind. I stood fixed to the earth, rooted in a perfect, timeless ecstasy.

"It was long ago and he has not returned. The young man still stands in the wind. He will always be there, holding my youth forever to him, secret and quiet, never moving, never yielding to time nor the endless seasons of snow and sun. He is gone from me and I shall never come upon him again."

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