AN OPEN LETTER TO MY CURRENT AND FUTURE FANS
By FREDRIC ARNOLD
As I write this in 2013, I can hardly believe I wrote Doorknob Five Two thirty years ago and that WWII lies 60+ years in the rearview mirror. From someone who is now 90+ years old, believe me when I say “It goes by in a flash!”
The original impetus for writing my book was to get painful images of the war “out of my head” and onto paper. Today we call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In those days, we had other names such as Shell Shock or Battle Fatigue. I’m sure it is different for each soldier returning from war. All I knew was that I carried with me chaotic and sometimes uncontrollable mental images of war for 30 years and I wanted to do something to ease the pain. For me, the exercise of putting into words descriptions of what had been in my mind was a cathartic experience. And, to a large extent, it worked. Writing that first draft didn’t banish my “demons”, but helped me put them in a safe place. As I said in the documentary film, Between Two Worlds, writing the book helped me learn “that was then and this is now”. It gave me comfort.
I printed and gave copies of the lengthy document to my three children and to my wonderful wife, Natalie, and the story of Doorknob Five Two could have ended there. But the story came to the attention of a publisher who said, “This could be a book”. The services of wonderful editor, Victoria Pasternack, were obtained and we embarked on a process to convert my unofficial “memoir” into a literary work that would make for compelling reading. I wrote every word, but Vicki guided my efforts as I struggled to write and rewrite the story from a factual personal narrative to a compelling work of fiction based on my life experiences. The Author’s Note in the first few pages informs the reader of these changes. Ultimately, the book was published as an “autobiographical novel” and the reaction from readers far exceeded any of our expectations.
The book received wonderful reviews from a wide range of political, literary, and military readers. More than 200,000 copies of book are now in circulation in the form of hardback, trade paperback, paperback, audiobook and, soon, a graphic novel. Movies rights are currently under option and I have had the great pleasure to present public talks to tens of thousands of people at book signings and other events. So now, thirty years later, I can say the project was a success by literary standards. But the far more important success for me personally has been the reactions of individual readers who reached out to me after reading the book.
People from literally all over the world have called, written and even visited to thank me for writing my book. My files are bulging with letters and emails of praise. Nearly every reader said it touched him or her deeply. A recurring theme was that the story opened a window that allowed them to feel in a visceral way the life and times of WWII. It humanized an otherwise distant historical event and made them feel empathy for regular people like me who participated in the chaos of those horrible days. Not because we wanted to, but because the times demanded it. As a high school graduate with no formal training in writing, I never imagined that my words could have such a deep and far-reaching effect. I am grateful and humbled by the experience and to you, my wonderful fans, I say a heartfelt “Thank You”.
When I wrote the book in the 80’s, the Internet barely existed. Today, it is everywhere. Had you asked me thirty years ago, when I was entering my 60’s, whether I would be affected by the emergence of a new digital communication technology, I would have said “no way”. But lo and behold, even at my advanced age, the Internet is in my daily life and I often cannot even imagine how I used to do certain tasks prior to this wonderful technology. Unfortunately, there has been a strange and negative effect as well.
Among the many fan letters and email I receive each month, I get messages from concerned well-wishers that a search on the Internet turns up a number of links that lead to comments from people who challenge the veracity of my story. After ignoring this matter for years, I’ve decided I ought to set the record straight to clear the air for fans who worry I may be distressed and have asked me to write a response.
So, at their request, here goes:
ON THE VERACITY OF MY ‘CLAIMS’
In recent years, there have been high profile cases of people falsely claiming to have been war heroes, medal recipients and flying aces. I join those who condemn these proven cases of flagrantly false self-aggrandizement. Legislators tried to criminalize this behavior, but the Supreme Court struck down the law. Perhaps because these cases heightened public awareness, a number of people have taken it upon themselves to police this issue.
I am utterly baffled by the actions of a handful of these self-appointed “veracity police” who took time to treat the stories contained in my autobiographical novel as claims of historical military records. This is akin to criticizing differences between “Gone with the Wind” and meticulously researched historical Civil War artifacts. Not surprisingly, even a superficial review through that lens will turn up discrepancies.
At first, the whole exercise seemed silly to me, but I didn’t appreciate the reach and staying power of the Internet. It seems allegations of false military claims live a life of their own on blogs and stay forever. Bloggers carelessly repeat these unsupportable attacks that defame my character and challenge the truth of my war record. They may do this. It’s called free speech, one’s opinion and with no malice intended, they’re free to attack public figures, authors included.
If I were a younger man, I’d take the time to hunt down and refute these scurrilous attacks. But I am over 90 now and don’t want to spend what precious time I have left pursuing the pointless task of telling thoughtless people they are barking up the wrong tree… Doorknob Five Two is and always has been described as an autobiographical novel and was recorded at the Library of Congress as such on its initial date of publication. Look up the definition and you’ll find:
“An autobiographical novel is a novel based on the life of the author. The literary technique is distinguished from an autobiography or memoir by the stipulation of being fiction. Because an autobiographical novel is partially fiction, the author does not ask the reader to expect the text to fulfill the "autobiographical pact." Names and locations are often changed and events are recreated to make them more dramatic but the story still bears a close resemblance to that of the author's life. While the events of the author's life are recounted, there is no pretense of exact truth. Events may be exaggerated or altered for artistic or thematic purposes.”
- Princeton University website
Given this broad latitude, why would anyone attack the author of such a book on the basis of its truth? Feel free to criticize the style, the characters, the dialogue, etc. But truth? It makes no sense.
CLAIMS I AM ACCUSED OF MAKING THAT I NEVER DID
When I grew up, one was very careful before accusing a man of being a liar. Times have changed. Now, these self-appointed ‘veracity police’ feel free to spew accusations and arrive at judgments without a shred of evidence. From my point of view, this is a sad waste of time and effort. But enough of generalities, here are specifics:
“Ace”… I have never used this term to describe my military record. Not in writing. Not in hundreds of public presentations. When overly enthusiastic fans apply this honorific to me, I immediately correct them. Period.
“Number of ‘kills’”… I have never make any claim regarding a specific number of air-combat “kills”. Anyone who read my book and concluded that I would even want to brag about killing people, whether in air-to-air combat or by shooting people on the ground, missed a central point of the book.
“Dialogue”… I have never claimed that dialogue I wrote and attributed to characters in my book were word-for-word remembrances of words spoken 30+ years before. That is ridiculous.
“Anti-Semitism was widespread in the squadron”… I never made any such statement about the squadron as a whole. My book described a single anti-Semite who, in fact, made my life miserable. Years later I learned he was a racist. Not only did he hate Jews in general, he hated Blacks, Mexicans, Asians and anyone who wasn’t lily white.
VERIFIABLE DOCUMENTED CLAIMS
OK, so I think it is idiotic to call a “novelist” a “liar”. But that is not to say that the whole book was made up or that I did not have intimate knowledge of the subject from personal experience. When it comes to WWII P-38 air combat, I am the real thing. Here is a partial list of verifiable, documented truths about my time in WWII combat:
Enlisted Army Air Corps February 28, 1942
Primary training; PT-17 Stearman, Oxnard, California
Basic training; BT-14 Vultee, Taft, California
Advanced training; AT-6, North American, Luke Field, Phoenix, Arizona
Commissioned Pilot and 2nd Lt. October 30, 1942,
Class of 42J
I was among a group of fourteen who transitioned to P-38 at the same time. Their actual names were:
Alden E. Freng
Arthur J. Franke
Benjamin R Liss
Hobart L. Lamar
James D. Hamm
John E. Garcia
Marion Van Arsdell
Paul J. Lehockey
Robert L. Delp
Transition to P-38; Muroc Dry Lake November 1942
Aerial Submarine Patrol Duty; North Island NAS
San Diego, California
Combat P-38 Fighter Pilot:
March - July 1943
1st Fighter Group, 12th Air Force, North Africa
71st Fighter Squadron, Code Name: Doorknob
Call Sign: Doorknob Five-Two
50 P-38 Combat Missions:
Dive bombing, bomber escort, strafing,
destruction of enemy shipping and aircraft
Escapee/Evadee German Pow Camp,
Sicily, July 1943
Promoted to 1st Lieutenant, July 1943
Chief, Safety Education Division, Office of Flying Safety:
Developed Bailout Technique for P-38
Tested XP-80, America's first operational jet
Wrote and Illustrated:
Official Pilot Training Manuals for the
P-38, P-47, P-51, and P-80
Promoted to Captain, April 1944
Produced and Directed Army Air Corps Training Films:
How to Bailout of the P-38
Spin Recovery of the P-38
Promoted to Major, August 1945, at the age of 23
Separated from Service, February 28, 1946
Of the fourteen men of the P-38 Class of 42J who began their flight training together a short eight months earlier, only Jim Hagenback and I survived. We maintained a friendship throughout the years until he died some years ago.
As I write this in 2013, I am the sole survivor of the P-38 Class of 42J.
Distinguished Flying Cross
Air Medal with Nine Oak Leaf Clusters
Mediterranean Campaign with Four Battle Stars
ASSERTIONS THAT I ATTEST TO BE TRUE
Every author draws on his or her experiences to write. To go through my book and tease apart each scene is beyond the scope of this letter and would not be a useful exercise for a work that is openly labeled fiction.
Nevertheless, I assure you, my fans, the overall story was based on my actual experiences. In essence, the overall story is true. I was one of the few P-38 pilots to survive fifty missions and return by July 1943. I was shot down and escaped from the Germans during the mayhem that was the Invasion of Sicily. Was that my 49th mission as portrayed in the book? No. In reality, it happened on my 48th and I actually flew two more missions to finish my 50, but the editor and I felt there was more drama by placing the experience only one mission from the end. This is an example of many changes made to improve the readability of the story.
Every chapter of my book is based in part or in whole on my recollection of events. But it was not intended to be a scholarly work of historically verifiable fact. “Based on truth” is not the same as verifiable truth. And to focus on the minutia of the book page-by-page is to miss the larger message.
Over and over, readers tell me they felt a powerful range of emotions and feelings as they vicariously lived through Fredric Kohn’s traumatic wartime experience. Conveying those emotions and feelings to people who could never experience WWII firsthand was the primary goal of the book. I used my memories as the raw material to fuel the story writing process to achieve that result. To the extent readers of my book and listeners of my talks appreciate even a small part of that larger truth, delivered through the medium of autobiographical novel, I am proud and grateful.
FICTITOUS ELEMENTS OF THE BOOK
As described above, liberties were taken with various aspects of the book. The greatest example of that was the depiction of the thirteen men described in my book. I served with thirteen real men. Twelve of them died during the war. However, the thirteen characters described in the book were not descriptions of the actual thirteen men pilots I knew. Instead, the characters were based on a composite of actual men I knew combined with creative elements that helped contribute to the storyline.
To this day, I can picture the real thirteen. I knew them, respected them for putting their lives on the line, and mourn their loss as individuals. After the war and during my time traveling with the Office of Flying Safety, I visited all their families and learned more about them. But I didn’t know them well enough to write the character portrayals found in the book. The fact is, we each went through that horror as individuals. Unlike the Hollywood version of WWII, neither my fellow fighter pilots nor I wore our hearts on our sleeves. It was simply a job that needed to be done and we were merely a few among hundreds of thousands who answered the call.
I have learned that anything written on the Internet, no matter how ridiculous, stays there forever. In addition, when a person gains any degree of notoriety, they become the subject of a fringe group of people who go out of their way to pass on spicy gossip, no matter how baseless. People in that group will even continue to pass along the nonsensical claim that a “novelist” has been uncovered as a “liar”.
To the thousands of fans that enjoyed and found value in my book, I wish you well. I am well and at peace with this silly issue.