Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"Serenade To The Big Bird"

                                                                       Bert Stiles

When I first deployed to Vietnam President Johnson had just called for a massive increase in U.S. forces in Vietnam.  Such was the urgency that we were given a mere ten days of weapons training in Texas before we deployed.  We were rushed through a brief weapons training program; we threw one grenade, fired a 90mm Recoilless Rifle, One M148 Grenade Launcher, shot off one belt of .50 Cal Machine Gun rounds, and ran through the qualification course for the M-16.  Fortunately, once we arrived to our units in Vietnam we were taken out to some rice paddies outside Saigon and got an additional three weeks of weapons and combat tactics training.

Ironically, seven years later in 1975, before deploying to South Korea, which hadn't seen combat in over two decades, the Air Force decided Combat Security forces needed more training.  Accordingly, they sent us to Camp Bullis, Texas and ran us around hundreds of square miles, taking heavy weapons training and combat tactics, to include map and compass reading and contingency combat training.

And this story is not about me at all.  It is about discovering another young man whom I never knew nor had heard of.  One afternoon while maneuvering through the woods of Camp Bullis, my unit came upon an old cabin.  We combed the area for "enemy" troops deployed to ambush us.  I took the cabin; in securing the cabin, I came upon part of an old book lying on the floor.  Just a single section of the book remained, as most of it had apparently been used to start a fire in the crude fireplace.  I picked that little section up and saw it was entitled "Serenade To The Big Bird".  I rolled the yellowed pages up and stuck them into the deep pocket of my camouflage fatigues and continued on our training mission.

That night, back at camp, I pulled those pages from my fatigue pocket and began to read it.  It was an essay on war by a fellow named Bert Stiles.  I had never heard of the guy...but by the time I finished his wonderful essay my eyes were moist.  This man's word had touched my heart and soul.

The essay, entitled "Blood On My Hands,  began:  "One Man Gone, A Million More To Go"...This Bert Stiles was a World War II Bomber pilot in the old Army Air Force and his words described his deep love for America, his homesickness for a family back home, his feelings about dealing with death on a daily basis, as well as the mundane and frustrating aspects of daily life at an air base in Britain.  What touched me so deeply was his expressions of love for the human family, the glory of man as well as the foibles of man.  He spoke of the beauty he had seen in God's world and spoke eloquently of his thirst for seeing more of it.

I carried those yellowed pages around with me for months.  When finally I got the chance to check out who this Bert Stiles fellow was, I researched him at the local library.  I learned that Bert Stiles, before joining the Army Air Force, was an aspiring writer.  He had published a number of stories for the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines, and hoped to pursue a writing career when he returned home.

I also learned that Captain Bert Stiles had flown 35 combat missions over Germany in 1943, and when his unit was due to return home in late 1943, Stiles stayed on and converted to Fighters.  In early 1944 Stiles was killed on a mission over Germany.  He was 24 years old.

But Stiles' "Serenade To The Big Bird" lives on.  His mother had the book published posthumously to honor her son.  I have been told that the book is widely read and highly regarded by those fliers who lived through the hazards of air combat.  If copyright laws allowed me to print this essay I would love to share that one old essay that touched me so deeply.

But, if you ever wish to know what's in the heart of those who live with the prospect of death on a daily basis, if you ever want to understand the depth of love folks like Bert Stiles felt about the country they served, I highly recommend you buy the book.

That elegant essay lives on in my heart and in my mind some 40 years later, since I found it lying on the floor of a cabin in the woods, spared from the fire, so that I might know what was in the heart of a fellow veteran.   Young Bert Stiles rests in a grave in Belgium but lives in my heart forever.

POST SCRIPT:  Since I did find the essay in the public domain I'm posting it here so that readers can see why this affected me so much, at a time when I was in the business of war:

The chapter below is titled Blood On My Hands : 

I forget which day it was. 
I was there when the ship came in.One flack shell had burst just outside the waist window.The waist-gunner wore a flak suit and a flak helmet,but they didn't help much.One chunk hit low on his forehead and clipped the top of his head off.Part of his brains sprayed around as far foward as the door of the radio room.The rest of them spilled out when the body crumpled up.The flack suit protected his heart and lungs all right,but both legs were blown off,and hung with the body,because the flying suit was tucked into electric shoes. 

No body else on the plane was hurt.The waist looked like a jagged screen.The fort got home okay. 
I climbed in with the medic,and getting through the door,I put my hand on a gob of blood and brains that had splattered back that way.I took one look at the body and climbed out again,careful this time where I put my hands. 
I felt no nausea,just a sense of shock,just a kind of deadness inside.I walked out beside runway 25 and sat down on the grass,and watched the high squadron peel off and come in.Then I remembered the blood on my hands and wiped it off on the grass.All the forts got back.Nobody else was hurt.One man ran through his luck,and got it. 
I didn't know the guy.The face,with nothing above the nose was too horrible to remember.The body could have come from anywhere,Seattle or Wichita or the valley of the Three Forks of the wolf. 
Maybe the guy was a quiet one who taught Sunday school class,maybe a dreamer waiting for a princess to dance down a moonbeam out of the sky,maybe a drunk.But now he was dead,mangled and smashed,an ugly pulp no good to anyone. 

I looked away into the quiet blue of that English sky.The wind was soft through the grass,and the grass smelled sweet with spring. 
Some ways maybe he was lucky...out in a single flash of agony,no lingering along for twenty years to rot away inside.He probably didn't scream or grovel on the cold aluminum,and slowly stiffen as the pain closed off nerve endings.He just went away and left a useless body. 
One man gone,a million more to go,maybe even a billion before this is over.Maybe everyone in the world will get it this time.There are shells enough to go around.If some efficiency expert could just figure out a way,there would never have to be another war.We could wipe out the entire human race this time. 

The senselessness of it,and the ugliness of it,drove away all other thought for a time.Then the despair went away,leaving only doubt and a deep sadness. 
In a deadly endless procession,wars have swept the world,eaten away at it's heart,growing from stupid little brawls with clubs and rocks to the mechanical perfection of a city flattened out in the night,so many bombs to the acre,so many planes for the job.Fill up the bomb bays and send them over,send in the ground troops to bayonet the ones who were only stunned. 
It isn't quite that easy,yet,but soon...maybe... 
I watched a Fort taxi past to it's parking area,smooth and clean,slim and deadly and lovely,a million synchronized parts all working just for one thing...death. 
If we could win soon...this month...or next month...maybe there will be a chance...the sooner,the more chance. 

Maybe the Americans and the Russians and the English and all the others who have learned to fight together can crawl out of their Yaks and liberators,and Lancasters and General Shermans and LST's and maybe they can sit down and have a cigarette or smoke a pipe of peace. 
Maybe they can go off and get good and drunk first,and make love for a while,and throw darts,and get good and hung-over.Then maybe they can sit down somewhere, where it's quiet,and take a good long look at the whole world. 

There it is,they might say,a beat-up,lousy,starving world,filled with hate and manure and revenge,but for all that,look at the moonlight on the yellow trees,and listen to the surf on the yellow sand,and the whisper of the wind through the aspen leaves.There is still a little hope there,and a little love and compassion.There are a few little kids without rickets and sunken eyes,and there are hollows deep in the timber where the rabbits get along anyway. 

There are all kinds of people:senators and whores and barristers and bankers and dishwashers.There are Chinamen and Cockneys and Gypsies and Negroes.There are Lesbians and cornhuskers and longshoremen.There are poets and lieutenants and shortstops and prime ministers.There are Yanks and Japs and poor whites and certain numbers of people who enjoy rape.There are Germans and Melanesians and beggars and Holy Rollers...there are people. 
And some day we are going to catch on,that no matter where people are born,or how there eyes slant,or what their blood type,they are just people.They have legs and arms and eyes,if they are lucky,some have breasts and some have testicles. 
They are not masses.They will not go on being slaves.They are just people,partly good,and partly bad,mostly balancing out.And until we call them people,and know they are people,all of them,we are going to have a sick world on our hands. 

Out of the people have come St.francis and Margaret Sullivan,Leonardo and Babe Ruth,Madame Chiang Kai Shek and Paul Robenson,Diego Rivera and Mary the Virgin,Robin Hood and Joan of Arc,WilliamShakespeare,and Jesus who was born of Mary in a manger...And from these people have come the Pentagon Building and the totem pole, the Merrit Parkway and the Burma road, the Taj Mahal and the Panama Canal, the Bell Airacobra and penicillin,the Stradivarius and the prophylactic diaphragm,the birch bark canoe and the toothbrush. 

...And by the people,the Song of Bernadette and the book of psalms,For whom the bell tolls and Silent Night,the Koran and the Lord's prayer,You Can't Take It With You.and Walden,The Declaration of Independence and Magna Carta,Tom Jones and Young Man with a Horn. 
And people must eat.There is wheat bread and corned beef and Haig and Haig.There is rye bread and taro root and the milk of goats.There is slivovitz and caviar and salted almonds.There is Spam and soybeans and bird's nest soup.There is black bread with mold on it,watery soup with eyes of grease on it,and there is starvation. 

They wear fur parkas and black-lace panties,ten gallon hats and rope-soled sandals,flying suits and Harris tweeds,field boots and ski boots and cowboy boots and Levis. 
Now they live in mud huts and thatch-roofed cottages,yurts and igloos and tents and caves,bombed-out cellars and moated castles.Some have bathtubs and some have the river.Some have open fields and the rain...and their kids play in the minefields. 
There are factories and mines and railroads and Liberty ships and C-54's enough for the people to build a whole new world in a little while,and haul it away where they want it.They could build hospitals and sewage systems and schools and theaters and steel mills.They could prefabricate the pieces and carry them away to all the farms and dells and towns and crossroads were they are needed. 
There could be tractors and portable power units all over the map,if only the bombers would lay off,and we could agree on a way to do it. 
If the peacemakers could sit quietly in comfortable chairs and look at the world and realize it has changed since the fish crawled out of the sea,and evolved into men who had to kill because there wasn't enough to go around. 

If the wise men of the United Nations could sleep in soft sacks and wake up late and eat some scrambled eggs and pineapple juice and realize that if they choose,and if they take it easy and if they don't get salty and want too much at the beginning,they could work out a setup where the people of the world can feed and clothe everyone in the world,and have plenty of time left over for play. 
And we could build enough schools so that everyone could go and learn to add and subtract and keep  from multiplying too rapidly. 

If the wise-apples could just decide now that sooner or later people will work it out so that everybody has enough peanut butter and toliet paper,as soon as they find the right system to work under. 
If the wisenheimers could just agree that everyone should have a chance to lie in the sun and look at the mountains once in a while,and that everyone should have a chance to shoot the moon,and reach for a star,if he doesn't raise too much hell going after be be responsible for his dreams to his comrades, but free to walk alone. 

The last of the Forts was home for the night,motors cut,wheels chocked,crews unloaded. 
I sat on the grass until the moon rose, and tried to think out my own way in the world coming after,and wondered whether there would be any after for me. 
I didn't know.I just wanted to live for a while and try to grow to understand some of it,just to live in the world,and maybe help a little to tie it together.Maybe that waist-gunner hadn't wanted anymore than that either. 

I've watched some babies be born.There is always blood at a birth,and the red ugliness of a new child. 
Maybe that is the way the world is born too. 
I looked away at the sky,and asked Lady Luck to fly in close on the rest of my missions,and asked that my eyes be clear,and my mind be cool. 
There was hope then,and there was fear.There is always fear. 
And there was love for the world,because it is a big world and there is good in it,and truth and deep loveliness. 

A flight of typhoons came over low. 
It was time to be getting back.I'd missed chow as it was,and I had to wash my hands. 

After completing his tour of duty flying bombers and earning the right to go home , Stiles took some time off to write his book Serenade to the big bird . Unlike the vast majority of men who completed their missions and then went home to America , Stiles trained to fly fighters which escorted the bombers and signed up for another combat tour . While on an escort mission over Germany , Stiles was killed while chasing a German fighter he had shot down . He was 24 , and this was his only book. 


  1. Now to confuse you, at a "Moment of Truth" I mentioned that I saw the book you mention above at Amazon. I got a very nice review. I will look forward to reading it! Thanks, Ken

  2. Ken, the whole book is titled "Serenade To The Big Bird" and the one part that I was lucky enough to find was just the one poem "Serenade To the Big Bird". It is a long poem that speaks of the ugliness of war, the beauty of this world and the modest yearnings of those who had wished to live to see it. Knowing young Bert Stiles was also taken so very young the poem is even more poignant and will leave you with moist eyes when finished.

    I always envy those who get to see something special for the first time...and I envy the experience you'll have on first reading.

  3. Ken, as I emailed you, I have a correction; the essay/poem was called "Blood On My Hands" and was part of the larger book "Serenade To The Big Bird". "Blood On My Hands" was the only section that survived the old cabin. I found the book later.

  4. Thanks for PS. Gotta go wipe my eyes now.

  5. Glad you enjoyed it Ken. Stiles was some writer; many of his comrades were sure he was the next Hemingway. 24 years old is much too young to die.

    1. I never realized what a horrible waste war was until our most recent two, having never been to war I guess I just didn't appreciate the value of my life, like I do now as an older man. It truly is the saddest thing, to me. seeing young men marching off to war. I dread these next couple years, waiting for my nephew to finish his time in the Marine Corp under the command of the numbskull. Woop, hit a political chord there, sorry.