1940s, books, culture, historical fiction, history, Research, World War II, writing

(7) Creating Historical Fiction: DC-3, Short-snorter, Nisei and Racism

Some of my blogging friends have expressed interest in the inner-workings of creating historical fiction. Or, they love history in general, especially WW2, and wanted to read about the research. These topics might interest you.

In chapter 4, the character Zorka Kiss moves by train and plane to get to the Philippines. With her is Ken Suzuki, a Nisei language student. He’s been assigned to Manzanar to recruit other Nisei to join the Army and become a spy for the U.S. Racism surrounds him from all sides.

To get some idea of what obstacles faced Nisei on the homefront, I read the 1957 memoir by John Okada. After the release of Japanese Americans from internment camps, it was expected they move forward with their lives as though nothing happened. Those men who resisted were known as “no-no boys,” for twice having answered no on a compulsory government survey asking whether they were willing to serve in the U.S. armed forces and to swear allegiance to the United States. 

No-No Boy tells the story of draft resister, Ichiro Yamada, whose refusal to comply with the U.S. government earns him two years in prison and the disapproval of his family and community in Seattle. I highly recommend it. 

Photo by Amber Brierly on Pexels.com

DC-3

At one point, Zorka prepares to fly from Oahu to Australia to Manila. To describe what that was like, I enjoyed the 2010 Flying article, “DC-3, A Real Man’s Airplane” by female pilot, Martha Lunken who describes, “The truth is that a “real” working DC-3 is a man’s airplane — incredibly grungy inside and out; dripping black stuff; reeking of Mil-5606 hydraulic fluid, engine oil and 100LL; with leaking relief tubes, dead animals and body odors of the unwashed freight dogs who fly it. You’re likely to find tins half-full of tobacco juice, decades-old candy bar wrappers and rusty soda pop cans, sometimes full of cigarette butts, on the cockpit floor.” You can read the article in its entirety here: https://www.flyingmag.com/pilots-places/pilots-adventures-more/dc-3-real-mans-airplane/

Another article in JSTOR gave insight to the planes and conditions after the Japanese Imperial Army took over Manila and the surrounding islands. I had never heard of the “Bamboo Fleet,” but it added to my understanding the chaos of the takeover, the dangers, the heroism of the pilots. Here is a brief excerpt written by John Farrell:

“As with the fighter aircraft, the initial missions of the Bamboo Fleet were comprised mostly of transporting passengers. Between 100 and 120 personnel were evacuated through the Bamboo Fleet. (42) Bradford alone evacuated twenty-two key personnel from Bataan. (43) Some of the more interesting Bamboo Fleet evacuees included a Chinese emissary from Chiang Kai-shek caught on Luzon when the Japanese invasion commenced. (44) Also evacuated on the same flight were two Nisei American spies who had been undercover among the Japanese community in the Philippines gathering intelligence. (45) Had they been taken prisoner, their ethnicity and status as spies would have made them subject to treason in the eyes of the Japanese. Had the Bamboo Fleet not gotten them out, they would have most probably been executed. Most of passengers, however, were fellow pilots. Although fighter pilots served in infantry units while on Bataan, their skills and experience would be needed in cockpits for the future air operations. Some were ferried to airfields in Mindanao to fly up some of the three fighter aircraft shipped in from Australia, but most were being evacuated to Australia to serve in other flying units.

While the fleet flew out passengers, the return trip would usually bring extra food and ammunition to Bataan. As the siege wore on, medical supplies became the more vital cargo, particularly quinine to ward off and treat malaria. By the end of January, most of the troops were infected with malaria parasites. By March 23, 1942, 750 cases of malaria were reported daily. The Bamboo Fleet’s flying in 758,000 quinine tablets helped alleviate the situation, but three million tablets per month were required to prevent the spread of malaria. (46) Despite their efforts, whatever supplies the Bamboo Fleet could fly in was never enough.”

Farrell, John F. “THE BAMBOO FLEET: HOW A RAGTAG AIRLIFT OPERATION SUPPORTED BESIEGED U.S. FORCES IN THE PHILIPPINES IN WORLD WAR II.” Air Power History, vol. 59, no. 2, 2012, pp. 14–23. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26276176. Accessed 30 Jan. 2021.

Notice Nisei spies were airlifted. A perfect opening for my fictional character Ken Suzuki to be a part of the plot. And, Kay Weese, from book 2 becomes associated with the Bamboo Fleet.

Photo by Signal Corps – US Army, Eleanor Roosevelt signing short-snorters

The Short-snorter

Learning about the short-snorter from the National Museum of the United States Air Force was perfect trivia to include in the scenes where pilot Kay Weese incorporates authenticity to the flying experience. The ultimate goal in writing historical fiction is to place the reader back in time and have them feel with all their senses what it was like to be in the Philippines in 1942. I’m always looking for the little bits that give the fiction a sense of reality.

https://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/Visit/Museum-Exhibits/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/196124/a-useful-souvenir-the-short-snorter/

The souvenir was a way for soldiers sharing an aircraft to obtain as many signatures on a currency bill. When a soldier made it to the base bar, “show me your short-snorter” was the challenge. If you precured one, you did not have to buy a round. Those with the fewest signatures had to buy a drink, too. Even if one wasn’t into drinking games, it was a souvenir along the likes of a passport stamp showcasing all the places a soldier traveled in the world.

Racism

Two memoirs helped me understand the fight to survive after the Japanese takeover. One, from a navigator’s perspective (Edgar Whitcomb) and two, from the Navy officer trying to save his crew (John Morrill). Their job specific vocabulary, the flight patterns, the activities of mine sweepers, subs, various ships as they escaped from Corregidor was helpful when I created fictional scenes that felt like 1942.

I have a historical dilemna perhaps you can help me with. Whatever memoir I’m reading, whatever memory I recall growing up of people referring to the Japanese, they were referred with the racial slur, “Jap” or “Nip”. If I were to use the term today, I would be considered a racist. I would never use the term. But if I lived in 1942…

If I am creating a historical fiction, wouldn’t it make sense that my characters would refer to Japanese Imperial Army soldiers as Japs and Nips? I bring this up because in the first novel, my African American character is called the N word and the editor at the time warned me it would offend readers.

If I don’t refer to the Japanese Imperial Army with the ubiquitious slang at the time, I would not be creating the historical climate. After all, it’s history that informs the present society how the past society acted. Historical fiction allows the reader to compare the past with the present. Time is a gauge that helps change the future. To implant present morays to the past, alters the past. That feels very Orwellian to me. What do you think?

Thanks for reading! On to Chapter 5…

21 thoughts on “(7) Creating Historical Fiction: DC-3, Short-snorter, Nisei and Racism”

  1. So interesting to read how you do the research. As to your dilemma I think if the characters in that time frame used derogatory slurs then they should be in your narrative. You could put a little bit in the authors foreword blurb to point that out if it prevents offence.

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  2. Hi Cindy, a really fascinating post about your research. You’ve certainly been busy and you put my half-hearted background reading for my own research to shame!

    My similar attempts at recreating history somewhat accurately have also lead me along similar paths of questioning. I read a lot of Nancy Mitford recently and her writing showed how commonplace it was to use racist slurs.

    I think perhaps it may depend on the character who is saying it? Maybe that’s how we rationalise these things. Bad characters in movies use racial slurs, but do the good characters? I’m not sure they do, or this is perhaps part of their character arc and they learn that it’s not right. I’m sure other people will be much more insightful about his.

    Just out of interest, what was the outcome of your editor’s comment about your first novel?

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  3. It is indeed all, about proper research, and yours is excellent, Cindy.
    I honestly think you have to call them ‘Japs’, at the very least, whether the word is being spoken by a good guy or bad guy. It is what it was, and there are worse racial slurs to use. Just my opinion of course.
    Best wishes as always, Pete. x

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    1. The memoirs I’ve read reveal a keen hatred. It’s hard today to understand or feel that hatred. World War 2 at its worst was a global event showcasing hatred by every country and many of its civilians. With rampant destruction, it was the fuel that fed and justified the hatred. I prefer to contemplate WW2 as the event that created noble acts of heroism.

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  4. Excellent, Cindy. We certainly can’t fight the racism of today by hiding the racism of yesterday; And we can’t gloss over facts that we consider ‘bad’ in history and historical fiction.
    So happy to see your post and ‘On to Chapter 5’…

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  5. Despite the race these days to erase history or change it to suit everyone (literally impossible), I think you need to say it like it was, Cindy. A warning or disclaimer can be put in the forward or first page. That way anyone who continues to read further, does so at their own risk.
    As I’ve said before – can’t wait for the finished product here!!

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  6. Fascinating, Cindy. I think we are sorely lacking an interest in history today, and this generation not only doesn’t care, but they don’t realize the consequences that our past actions still have today…thanks for sharing this!

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  7. I think if people in whatever era were racist or behaved in a certain way, then you have to portray it accurately.
    And anybody who wants to change the past should save their energy for the present.

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  8. Cindy whenever I watch documentaries which just present the facts about real racism without a political agenda it pains me to see how badly we treat each other as humans. We can’t shrug it off as it happened and is happening today. I don’t condone it, neither do I feel responsible for what my ancestors may have done over eons of time because racism transcends time and rears its head in every country of the world within ethnicity and colour.. What is important to me is to see I treat people I meet no matter their ethnicity or colour just how I’d like to be treated myself and given respect. Decency and fairness can’t be legislated unfortunately as it’s something inbuilt and felt universally. It’s wrong! The idea of a better world after we’ve messed up on this planet appeals to me very much.

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    1. Hi Ian. The school system tries hard to instill or bring an awareness of positive ethical traits like decency and respect. It should be done in the home and church, but too many have neither. This third book attempts to illustrate the extent of racism. Hate is learned. WWII did that.

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