Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Flights of Passage: reflections of a World War II aviator by Samuel Hynes

This book, first published 26 years ago, successfully evokes the picture of what it was like for a young man aged 19 to enter the service, learn how to fly, and be shipped to the Pacific, to participate in the final days of World War II. Hynes spent 2 years and 8 months away from his home, going in as a scared teenager and exiting as a flier, a married man and one who had experienced combat. 

Hynes became an academic and is now retired from Princeton, where he was the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature. (We have four of his books on literary criticism, in addition to this memoir.)  Hynes wrote “Flights of Passage” forty years after the war, but pretty well succeeds with his aim to write it from the sensibility of the 19 year old, not from the professor’s viewpoint.  It might be because of this, but it is not a “deep” story.  We can identify and root for the young man who wants to succeed, not fail, and who also wants to fit in. When we hear of deaths and tragedies, however, they are duly noted and passed over…sometimes Hynes remarks on how the Japanese kamikaze attacks struck he and the others as being alien to themselves – and how strange it was to inhabit islands where the original inhabitants has all been transported elsewhere, so the Americans could dig in and fight. 

What stays with you is the instincts of the young, particularly the young men, and how they settle into whatever huts or barracks are offered, take on the routine that is set out for them, and still manage to keep their individuality, their pranks, their anger and their simple high spirits.  You realize that the age old tradition of the comic song was alive and well in those days, and belting out irreverent and (sometimes) obscene lyrics was a common pastime.  Details like describing the songs, and how they were sung, help to recreate that age, before TV, when simple kids really were simple, and even the smart alecks not that much more sophisticated.

Another nice touch throughout the book is Hyne’s description of flying.  Beautiful imagery captures the lyricism of flight as well as the danger - from wind and clouds, from fog and dark night.  Hynes explains the technical aspects of flying enough to give the reader an approximate understanding of maneuvers, without overwhelming us.  You can see, from his description of the training, why everyone can’t be a flier.  Not everyone can learn to fly in darkness, over land and sea, and roll a plane upside down and come out of it, which Hynes said at first felt like sheer suicide. 

This is a good memoir, not just for finding out what life was like for fliers in the Pacific, but to glimpse the war from their viewpoint - more as a necessary evil, something that got them in the air and gave them something to fly for.  

Click here to see the book in our catalog.

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