On a hot, humid day in June 2006, I found a package waiting for me on the porch of my home in Oakton. It was a cardboard box weighing one pound, fourteen ounces and bearing $10.60 priority-mail postage.
Inside was a man's life.
It was the story of one of the "Hell Hawks."
William L. "Bill" Ward, a retired lieutenant colonel living in Wichita Falls, Texas, had mailed me his snapshot photo album depicting his service during World War II with an outfit called the "Hell Hawks," the 365th Fighter Group of the Ninth Air Force.
Ward's group flew barrel-shaped P-47 Thunderbolt fighters on the European continent. At the time, together with then-Oakton resident Thomas D. Jones, I was writing a history of Ward's outfit.
Co-author Jones is a former astronaut who flew four missions in the space shuttle and who became interested in the "Hell Hawks'" history after learning about the group while a cadet at the Air Force Academy, class of 1977. Jones had an Academy roommate who was the son of another pilot in the "Hell Hawks" group.
"You can send it back when you finish with it," Ward had told me in a phone conversation, referring to the precious album. "Or, come to think of it, maybe you don't need to send it back. At this point, maybe it doesn't matter."
Actually, it does matter — a lot.
We've lost Ward since that conversation. We have already lost most of the people who can speak about World War II from personal experience. If we're to understand our history, it matters what happens to those documents, albums and snapshots in the attic or basement of that veteran you know.
For many years, my next-door neighbor in Oakton told me he had his grandfather's color slides of Navy aircraft carrier operations in the Pacific during World War II. He couldn't remember where they were. It was always the wrong time to ask him to dig them out. It was clear he wasn't interested, even though color slides from the Pacific theater are very rare. That neighbor has since moved, taking with him pictorial treasures that very possibly no one else will ever see.
Ward's photo album might have disappeared into the same black hole — but didn't. Like most albums of the period, it contained snapshots that had been affixed by corners to black pages where captions appeared in cursive handwriting in white ink. ("Do young adults today know what 'corners' are?" I asked one of my grown sons. I got a blank stare.)
On one page of the album, a photo of P-47 pilot Major Arlo C. Henry, Jr. was missing. He was one of the airmen Jones and I wanted to include in the history we were writing. On another page was a sharp photo of 2nd Lt. Andrew W. Smoak climbing into a P-47 named Sea Biscuit, named for a famous racehorse of the 1930s. Smoak had family members in Northern Virginia and ended up having a cameo part in our book.
From such tidbits is history reconstructed. But sometimes even having a historical record in the form of a photo isn't enough. But all of us need to work harder. Ward's pictures ended up in our book and at least one other but many veterans' historical treasures never see the light of day.
I can't get that neighbor's color slides out of my mind. We have already lost most of the photos, negatives and color slides taken during World War II. Kodachrome film appeared in U.S. drugstores in 1937. Thousands of GIs slogged through the war carrying 35-mm. cameras and color film. Nearly all of it is gone now without ever being published, preserved or scanned.
Ward made a major contribution to history before he died in surgery only months after sharing his snapshots with me. Jones now lives in Reston.
Our book "Hell Hawks: The Untold Story of the American Flyers Who Savaged Hitler's Wehrmacht" was published in March 2008 by Zenith Press. It had some success including a couple of movie offers that didn't materialize and will soon be out of print. We were supremely gratified when a reviewer called it "'Band of Brothers' with Planes." A lot of people didn't know that American fighter pilots were on the ground on the European continent, fighting under conditions not too different from those of the infantry.
Ward was the first pilot to join the 365th Fighter Group when the "Hell Hawks" came together in Sandston, Virginia in 1943. He flew the group's last combat mission over what remained of the Third Reich in April 1945. The opportunity to interview him and use his photos — one is on the cover of our book — was a privilege of a lifetime.
If you have a family member who has memorabilia from military service, do everything you can to preserve those precious belongings. We cannot be certain that we can preserve as much history as we'd like, but we ought to do our best.
A footnote: For many years, I had historical photos including Ward's copied at Oakton Photo in the Oakton Shopping Center where the proprietor, Mustafa, worked miracles. Although there's still a sign there, that retail outlet shuttered its doors last March 31 and the premises are now empty — mostly because technology changed and people don't need film developed any longer.