IF MY HEART HAD WINGS – Book Excerpt #1 – Prologue

Their wedding picture was so typical of the World War II years. Mom was dressed to the nines in a chic pearl grey suit with padded shoulders and a pencil-slim skirt, everything set off by pale pink accessories including a little hat that was perched toward the front of her head and surrounded with puffs of pink tulle. Dad was every bit the perfect groom in a black double-breasted suit with a jaunty white carnation on his lapel.

My sister Dawn and I often lingered over this picture of our parents as we flipped through their wedding album, if you could call it an album. It was more like a black leather spiral-bound notebook that held about a dozen 8 x 10 pictures in plastic sheet protectors. They didn’t need anything fancy, Mom said, so they settled on the cheapest package available. Still, Dawn and I agreed that the photographer should have at least gotten one shot of Mom walking down the aisle with her eyes open. In the only picture that survives, she approaches her new life with her eyelids firmly closed.

“There goes Mom,” we liked to say, “sleepwalking down the aisle!”

Nineteen forty-six was a big year for weddings in the U.S., when soldiers came home from World War II in droves, eager to reunite with their sweethearts, get married, start families, and get on with the business of living. My parents were no different, although they really didn’t know each other very well when they tied the knot in March of that year. They had met briefly during the war and started a correspondence that lasted two years. Then, when Dad got back to the States, they spent two months getting to know each other and trying to decide if they had something that could last. When the answer turned out to be yes, Mom booked a church and headed downtown in search of an attractive yet practical suit. There was no point in spending your hard-earned dollars on some silly dress you could only wear once, she told us, when you could buy a high-quality suit for the same price (or less) and wear it over and over again. Which is exactly what she did. That pearl grey suit became one of her wardrobe staples. In fact, she was able to wear it to work until she was seven months pregnant with my sister.

So you can imagine my surprise when, at the age of thirteen, I was out in the garage riffling through a drawer full of black and white photos and came upon a picture of my mother in a white wedding gown, complete with a shoulder-length veil! It was the summer of 1966; my sister was seventeen, my parents had been married for 20 years, and as far as I knew, there had never been any mention of a white wedding dress.

I hightailed it down the driveway and burst through the kitchen door, waving the picture. Mom was standing at the stove stirring something while Dawn was busy chopping tomatoes at the kitchen counter.

“Mom!” I shouted, thrusting the picture at her. “I thought you wore a suit to get married!”

She looked at the picture and smiled sheepishly. Then, after a long pause, she sighed and said, “Well, I guess I always knew I was going to have to tell you girls someday… I was married before.”

My sister and I looked at each other with jaws dropped. There had never been the slightest mention of any romantic relationship in Mom’s past, much less a husband! Dumbfounded, we looked at our mother with eyes that demanded an explanation.

“It was during the war, before I knew your father,” she said lightly, as that meant it was of little consequence.

“Well, who was he?” I demanded.

“He was my college boyfriend.”

“Did you have any kids?” I asked, panicked, as visions of some strange family member materializing on our front porch swam into my brain.

“No,” she smiled, trying to calm me down. “There were no kids. And anyway,” she said dismissively, “it all happened a long time ago. It doesn’t make any difference now.”

With that, she turned back to her stirring; discussion ended.

I was so shocked by her news that I couldn’t think of anything else to say. So I scurried back to the garage to see if I could find any other interesting (and possibly stunning) pictures. I couldn’t.

There was a time, when I was very young, when I couldn’t imagine that my mother had had a life before I existed. Once I got a little older, I realized that she’d married my father and given birth to my sister before I was born, so I began to think of her life as starting once she met Dad. But I also knew that she had been a child once, just like me; I’d seen the pictures. So I revised my idea once again and thought of her life as a two-part affair: her childhood and Dad/us.

But once I found the white wedding picture, it became glaringly apparent that at least one other part of her life had existed, the part involving another man and another marriage. It was such a bizarre notion that I simply blocked it at first. But the older I got, the more curious I became about this secret life of hers. It seemed so mysterious and romantic — two adjectives I wouldn’t normally have applied to my pragmatic, matter-of-fact mother. And the more I looked into the matter, the more obsessed I became.

This is the story of what my mother was like before she had me. It’s also the story of secrets, lies, a love that never died and a woman’s long journey to self-discovery and fulfillment. It would take me decades to uncover these secrets, using letters, an Army personnel file, interviews with family members, and, of course, the many stories, vignettes, and insights that Mom relayed to me over the years. And in the process, not only did I learn the true story of my mother, I also discovered the story of myself.


If you enjoyed this excerpt, you’ll love If My Heart Had Wings: A World War II Love Story — the true story of the life and death of a WWII pilot and the tumultuous life of the young widow he left behind. Click below to buy it today!

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WORLD WAR II MARCHES ON: How It May Have Shortened Veteran’s Lives

World War II ended more than 70 years ago, but according to a 2010 study, it may have hastened the deaths of some of its veterans decades later.

In as study published in Residential Aging, researchers analyzed data on the mortality risks of 300 WWII veterans who had passed on. They wanted to see if their length of life had anything to do with 1) their participation in combat, 2) whether or not they served overseas and, if they did serve overseas, 3) the area where they were stationed. Here are some of their surprising findings:

1) Those who had participated in combat were nearly 30 percent more likely to have died by 2000 than those who hadn’t seen combat.

2) Those who had served overseas were over 50 percent more likely to have died by the year 2000 than those who served on the home front.

3) Those who had served in the Pacific theater were 50 percent more likely to have died by 2000 than those who had served overseas in other theaters.

It’s interesting to note that serving on active duty didn’t increase or decrease the mortality risk of WWII veterans compared to civilians, so it wasn’t just being in the military that shortened their lifespans.

Why did veterans who had seen combat, served overseas, and/or served in the Pacific theater have shorter lifespans than their counterparts?

Most likely it had to do with intense stress they suffered. Combat, of course, is incredibly stressful. As so is being overseas, far from family and familiar situations, with no way to get home even for a short leave. As for serving in the Pacific theater, some of the bloodiest and most brutal fighting of WWII occurred there in extremely rugged  environments. Making matters worse, since the majority of the war effort was directed toward Europe, less support was given to those sweltering in the jungles of the South Pacific.

The study found two other factors that appeared to play a role in the veterans’ length of life: heavy drinking, a factor known to decrease the lifespan, and higher education levels, which apparently increases it.

My own father, Jay Taylor, a WWII Army officer, is an archetypal example of a WWII serviceman with a shortened lifespan. He served overseas in the Pacific theater (New Guinea and the Philippines) and participated in combat multiple times. His education was modest (high school only) and he became a heavy drinker not long after he came home, a habit he never gave up. He died of lung cancer at age 70 in 1988, some twelve years earlier than the benchmark year of 2000 used in this study.

This, of course, begs the question: Did my father’s life end sooner than it should have because of what he did in the war? That’s something we’ll never know for sure.


If you enjoyed this article, you’ll also enjoy my book If My Heart Had Wings: A World War II Love Story — the true story of the life and death of a WWII pilot and the tumultuous life of the young widow he left behind. Available on Amazon!

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THE D-DAY INVASION: Facing the Ultimate Test

Today is the 75th anniversary of one of the most ambitious and significant military campaigns in history – the DDay invasion of Nazi-occupied France. Because of its strategy, scope and enormous impact on the future of the free world, historians today consider it one of the greatest military achievements ever.

The basic plan was this: Soldiers arriving from England by sea would land on the beaches in waves, one after another, beginning early in the morning.

After securing their beaches, the British and Canadians (red) would sweep northeast through France, Belgium and the Netherlands, liberating those countries from German control. Meanwhile, the Americans would plow through the heart of France, liberating it on their way into Germany. And all troops would eventually invade Germany.

To accomplish this, an amazing 156,000 Allied troops were slated to land in Normandy by sea or by air on D-Day.

The night before the invasion, General Eisenhower sent a message to the troops which said, in part: “The eyes of the world are upon you… The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.”

To get an idea of what the soldiers went through, let’s pretend you are part of the first wave. You belong to Able company, 116th Infantry, 29th Division. And you’re about to land on Omaha Beach.

A few hours earlier, you were given the biggest breakfast you’ve had in a long time. And for the past hour, as you weathered the rocky seas, you and your buddies have been vomiting everything you’ve eaten in the last three weeks. 1,000 yards from shore, artillery fire hits one of the six boats accompanying you and six men drown before your eyes.

What you don’t yet realize is that German forces are dug in deep into the bluffs above the beaches in massive, fortified bunkers nicknamed “pill boxes” that serve as artillery and machine gun nests. And their guns are trained on you.

Suddenly, machine gun bullets are whizzing over your head and hitting the sides of your boat. But you sail straight into this hail of bullets until you’re about 100 yards from shore.

Then the ramp on your landing craft suddenly drops, and your commanding officer is screaming at you to get out and start wading toward shore as fast as you can. Several guys in front of you are hit before they’ve even left boat, and you have to scramble over them to get out before you’re killed.

You jump overboard and find yourself in water that’s over your head. Shrugging off your heavy pack and dropping your gun, you finally manage to surface, but several of those around you are either drowning or already dead from machine gun fire.

You finally manage to swim inland enough to find solid ground and start running for the shore. Soldiers around you are dropping left and right and the sea is beginning to run red. No wonder this beach would later be known as “Bloody Omaha.”

And reaching the beach is far from reaching safety. It’s huge – maybe 200 yards deep, the equivalent of about two football fields. Even worse, there’s nowhere to hide…

So you get up and run straight through a relentless volley of bullets, grabbing a rifle from a dead soldier on the beach along the way. Within that first hour, 96% of your regiment is either killed or wounded and only one officer is still alive.

But somehow luck is with you. You manage to get to the beach’s retaining wall and scramble up the slopes. You and a band of soldiers you’ve never met before make it over the bluff, meet the German troops and fight fiercely, sometimes in hand-to-hand combat. And eventually, you and the other Allies manage to take the Germans from behind and win the plateau.

Meanwhile, back on the beach, wave after wave of Allied soldiers follows you, landing throughout the day and swarming inland. By the end of the day…

… Bloody Omaha looks like this and 34,000 troops have landed on this one beach.

As D- Day comes to a close, on the five Normandy beaches a total of 156,000 troops have landed, as well as 6,000 vehicles, 600 guns, and about 4,000 tons of supplies, definitely securing an Allied foothold. Within 100 days, those figures will swell to 2.5 million men, ½ million vehicles and 4 million tons of supplies.

And although the results are less successful than anticipated, thanks to poor visibility, miscalculated landings, ineffective bombing raids, and heavy fighting, all five beaches have secured. By the end of the month, Normandy as a whole is completely secured, and two months later, the Allies liberate Paris and are well on their way to winning the war.

Of course, all of this came at a price. Casualties on D-Day alone have been estimated at 8,442 Allied soldiers, 5,000 German soldiers and untold thousands of French civilians.

D-Day is almost universally considered a major landmark moment in World War II.

For many Americans, images of the troops landing on the beaches of Normandy have become iconic, symbolizing a superior cause and the ability to do the impossible. 

Today we celebrate those who, 75 years ago, stared death in the face (and sometimes lost) while participating in the enormous, complex and high-risk operation known as D-Day, a major victory for liberty-loving people everywhere.

 


If you enjoyed this article, you’ll also enjoy my book If My Heart Had Wings: A World War II Love Story — the true story of the life and death of a WWII pilot and the tumultuous life of the young widow he left behind. Available on Amazon!

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WHO CAN FORGET THE ARMISTICE DAY BLIZZARD OF 1940?

There will always be days when everyone remembers exactly what they were doing at a certain time because something momentous happened. 9-11 is one of those days. The day that John F. Kennedy was shot is another. And for those who were living in the Midwest in the fall of 1940, November 11, Armistice Day (now known as Veteran’s Day), was one they never forgot. Because that was when they were blindsided by the disastrous Armistice Day Blizzard.

My mother, Nina Ostrom, was one of them. Nina, then a 19-year-old college student living in St. Paul, Minnesota, would recall years later that the sun was bright that morning and temperatures had actually eked their way into the high 50s – amazing for that time of the year. She decided to use the holiday to squeeze in some extra studying at the college library, so she pulled on a skirt and blouse, bobby socks, saddle shoes and a calf-length wool coat – certainly a warm enough outfit for that kind of a day. The weather forecast, which the morning paper said was “cloudy, [with] occasional snow, and colder, much colder,” gave no hint of big trouble ahead.

Once Nina got to the library and settled in, she became so engrossed in her trigonometry problems that she barely noticed several hours had slipped by and rain had set in. By the time she looked up from her books, the rain had turned to heavy snow, ice was being hurled to and fro by howling, gale force winds, and the temperature had plummeted to well below freezing. When she cautiously opened the library door and peered outside, she was stunned by a blast of freezing wind and a mass of white, swirling snow that obscured virtually everything. A blizzard! Nina slammed the door and wondered what to do. There were no phones available, and even if she could contact her parents or her boyfriend Lyndon, it wouldn’t do her any good. Nobody had a car. Completely out of options, she decided to button up her coat, pull her books close to her chest, and brave the half-hour walk home straight through the blizzard.

Using the trees that lined the street to keep her on the straight and narrow, Nina slowly began to plow her way through the disorienting, blinding whiteness. Fighting against the driving wind quickly left her exhausted and she had trouble catching her breath, but there was nothing to do but forge ahead. It was certainly no half-hour walk home that day, and with her light clothes and no stockings, Nina was literally freezing. Finally, after what seemed like eternity, she thought she spotted her house up ahead, with the streetlight in the front yard barely glowing through the whiteness. Yes, there was her father, standing out on the front porch despite the high winds and subzero temperatures, anxiously looking up the street for his daughter. When he caught sight of Nina, he sprinted down the front steps and ran through the whirling snow, grabbing her and hustling her into the house. Later he would say, aghast, “There she was, walking through a blizzard with no stockings on!” But the relief he felt once his daughter was safely out of the storm was so extreme that he had to lie down for the rest of the evening.

At the time, no one realized how lucky Nina had been. The Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940 ranks number two of the top five weather events in Minnesota during the 20th century. Cutting a 1,000 mile wide path across the Midwest, the blizzard killed 154 people. In Minnesota alone, 49 people died, many of them motorists who froze to death when huge snowdrifts left them stranded in their cars. In some areas, over two feet of snow fell in just 24 hours. It’s nothing short of a miracle that Nina didn’t get lost in the storm and that her bare legs weren’t frostbitten. Someone was definitely watching out for her that day.


If you enjoyed this article, you’ll also enjoy my book If My Heart Had Wings: A World War II Love Story — the true story of the life and death of a WWII pilot and the tumultuous life of the young widow he left behind. Available on Amazon!

Buy the Book on Amazon.com

FLYING THE HUMP – A Deadly WWII Assignment

In early 1943, USAAF transport pilot Lyndon Raff, the hero of If My Heart Had Wings, finished his training and found himself whisked off to northern India. His assignment: flying the Hump, that is, piloting a slow clunky C-47 transport plane loaded to the max with gasoline, food supplies, ammunition and sometimes even bombs, straight over the Himalayas (the Hump) to China.

What was the point of this crazy, dangerous assignment? The year before, in 1942, Japan had successfully cut off every single supply route to China and was systematically starving the Chinese out. Once China fell, Japan was ready to scoop up Chinese wealth, natural resources and troops, which would make it almost impossible to beat in the war in the Pacific. Thus, a major Allied priority had become keeping China strong. Since the only remaining way to get supplies to the Chinese was by air, that task fell to the USAAF.

To this day, flying the Hump flying is considered the most dangerous assignment ever given to air transport personnel, and with good reason. Winds roared up and down the sides of the Himalayas at speeds of 100 – 200 mph, causing fierce turbulence that could shoot a plane straight upward one minute and down the next, or even flip it over.

Because radio and navigation tools didn’t work in mountainous areas, Hump pilots had to “eyeball” their way around the peaks, relying solely on landmarks. But when massive cloud formations settled in, which was often, the pilots were flying blind. Taking the plane above the clouds wasn’t an option because ice would form on the plane’s exterior that could cause sudden drops of 1,000 feet or more, or even worse, send the plane into a nose dive.

Another big problem was the sudden appearance of Japanese Zero fighter planes. The Zeros were twice as fast and much more agile than the clunky transports, so the Hump fliers’ only choice would be to duck into nearby cloud cover, if there was any, and hope they didn’t run into the side of a mountain.

For 42 straight months until the end of the war in August, 1945, USAAF transport crews braved the dangers of flying the Hump and almost single handedly saved China from falling to Japan. But victory came at a price. Some 700 Allied planes were lost and nearly 1,200 Allied airmen were killed while carrying out this perilous mission. The glittering remains of planes that didn’t make it lay atop the mountains all along the Hump route – a grim sight that the air crews nicknamed “The Aluminum Trail.”

As for Lyndon Raff, in spite of all of these challenges, he managed to fly his C-47 over the Hump and back again at least eighteen times. Eventually, he was transferred to another supposedly safer assignment. Unfortunately, it would seal his doom.


If you enjoyed this article, you’ll also enjoy my book If My Heart Had Wings: A World War II Love Story — the true story of the life and death of a WWII pilot and the tumultuous life of the young widow he left behind. Available on Amazon!

Buy the Book on Amazon.com