I Will Tell No War Stories: What Our Fathers Left Unsaid about World War II

Image of I Will Tell No War Stories: What Our Fathers Left Unsaid about World War II
Release Date: 
April 16, 2024
Lyons Press
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The fathers and mothers who came home from World War II suffered from some reentry problems (see the 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives) but for the most part these members of the Greatest Generation plunged right back into American life and embraced the emerging suburban sprawl.

What they didn’t do is talk about the war. An African American serviceman, who always told relatives he did nothing special during the war, then changed the subject, was found to have actually received two Bronze Stars. Mansfield’s book, despite what the title might suggest, is not a generalized look at why these combatants kept quiet, but a memoir about his father.

“My father, Pincus Mansfield, like most men of his generation, refused to talk about the war,” Mansfield writes. “It was a rule with him and millions of other men. He had said a few things about his time in England, but nothing ever about combat.”

But Mansfield senior, despite having only one good hand, was a left waist gunner on bombing missions over Germany. And he left (in a drawer, next to cufflinks and tie clips), a small pocket-sized notebook that amounted to a diary of those harrowing days. A combat tour at an English air base was 25 missions in a B-24 or B-17 Flying Fortress, but it was a goal reached by only 25 percent of flyers—the rest were shot down and known killed, wounded, missing in action, or taken prisoner. In just one week (the so-called “Black Week” from October 8 to 14, 1943) the Eighth Air Force lost 148 bombers. That plane making it back on two of its four engines with a big hole in its fuselage, that was “Rosie’s Riveters.”  

The accounts of flying missions in this book are vivid. The cabins were not pressurized, and the planes flew high, meaning they were freezing cold inside, and the men needed oxygen masks. After sitting cramped in these conditions for hours, as the plane dodged anti-aircraft fire, the gunner had to make split-second decisions: Is that plane friend or foe, and where will it be in the next few seconds?

The fliers went on missions like this daily. There was plenty of fear, but morale was high and shirking of duty very rare. From Mansfield’s notebook, August 4, 1944: “Numbers one and three engines had runaway props, causing ship to nearly collide with [another plane]. This scared me more than all the flak I saw. Extremely cold in waist gunner support.”

And from the book: “Flak hit the big bombers in a raid of steel pellets. It sounded like hail on a tin roof, like BBs rolling around, said the airmen. It could tear into the bomber’s aluminum skin with a ‘shriek’ or a ‘hissing.’ It could splatter the head of your pilot or miss by an inch.” Often, the bombers returned with hundreds of holes from a single run, and wounded, bleeding men on board. A quarter of the Eighth Army bombers were hit by flak, with the high-flying B-17 less vulnerable. The planes were patched and sent back into service.

On his 19th mission, October 7, 1944, Mansfield’s plane was hit and he was wounded in the face, legs and buttocks. Mansfield came home and spent 164 days in Army hospitals. Discharged, he joined the 52/20 Club, which was $20 in unemployment benefits for 52 weeks. That was his only income, until he eventually found his way in engineering firms. Life became normal again, and the war was a memory put away. The 4,236 B-24s built for the Army Air Force were scrapped; by 1947 there were none left.

“The men around us—the ones mowing lawns and coaching Little League—had seen some terrible things,” the author writes. “And they came home while others—their friends and comrades, sometimes just inches from them—had been killed. Veteran was another name for survivor.” The survivors didn’t watch war movies, though they were omnipresent in the postwar period. Mansfield saw 12 O’Clock High, about B-17 crews, and didn’t like it. “That’s not how it was,” he said. “The actors are too old.” Mansfield was 18 when he signed on to fly in bombers.