Article appearing in “Over the Front,”
official quarterly journal
of the League of World War I Aviation Historians
Volume 13, Number 3, Fall, 1998
“THE BLUE MAX” REVISITED
The novel took shape in the rubble of Munich half a century ago — and it’s still ruffling feathers and gathering fans. A retrospect by the author: Jack D. Hunter
Among the literati, I’m told, it’s generally considered poor form for an author to explain what he has written. The work should speak for itself, the rule says, and no amount of post-facto elaboration by its creator will make it any more artful or fathomable.
Although I’ve toiled some 55 years in the publishing vineyard, I’m still not sure who or what constitutes the literati. The cynical mind suggests that the term is an invention of the book industry’s pharisees, calculated to intimidate authors who would stray from the Church of the Holy Profit. But even if such heresy were true, the principle that the author should write, then shut up and leave well enough alone, is basically sound, and I’ve lived my professional life by both the letter and spirit of it.
So, then, what am I doing here, explaining the why and how of my novel, The Blue Max?
First off, I’ve survived 77 years of a century that has laid on humanity in general — and me in particular — the extremes of triumph and tragedy. I’ve been almost everywhere and have experienced almost everything the world has to offer by way of kindness and cruelty. And now that my long road is nearing an end, I feel no further need to prove myself, or to submit to anybody else’s idea of how I should live what’s left of my life. In my personal twilight, I do what I wish, providing it’s legal and not too high in calories. So here I am, commenting on The Blue Max because it pleases me to do so — and because I don’t give a rat’s empennage what the “literati” might have to say about it.
Far more important, though, is the second reason: the editor’s gracious invitation to discuss The Blue Max requires me to revisit my author’s roots, and for all the poignant memories this might evoke, it should do me some good, like a five-mile jog, say, or a dose of sulphur and molasses. And it will, synergistically, compel me to sort out some inner, private things too long moldering in my mental attic.
* * *
In the beginning was a movie.
For what it’s worth, and with emotions split on the subject (as a professional writer I’m devoted to the First Amendment, and as a grand-daddy I hate to think of my young’ns watching the director’s cut of Basic Instinct), I offer my life as proof-positive for those who argue that movies work a profound influence on the minds of innocents.
At the age of six, I was reasonably innocent.
One winter’s night in the late 1920s, when we were living in Kenmore, then an incorporated pip on Buffalo’s epaulette, Daddy, an engineer at American Radiator, had been asked to work late. Rather than face another lonely evening, Mother pulled on her cloche hat, draped her fake fox stole just-so over her flapper-style overcoat, bundled me into my snowsuit and galoshes, and loaded us both aboard a trolley bound for Niagara Square. Her “absolute favoritest fil-um stars,” Buddy Rogers and Clara Bow, were appearing in a new smash movie calledWings, and since a baby-sitter was not an affordable option, the only way she could “go to the picture-show” was to take me along.
So off we went through the snowy streets, Mother to flee her loneliness, I to encounter the imp that would sit on my shoulder through the harrowing journey to Social Security, night cramps, thin hair, sullen prostate, and profound sympathy for all younger generations.
Wings (for those who have just arrived from another planet) depicted the adventures of American fliers in World War I. In structure and plot it was the typical early silent: elementary, idealistic, and made ludicrous by the heavy-breathing, arm-waving, and eye-rolling pantomime required of actors who could be seen but not heard. Mother and I weren’t sufficiently sophisticated to be put off by the cornball acting, of course, nor were we savvy enough to appreciate the fact that, for all the film’s dramatic naivete, its aviation scenes and other production values were extraordinary in a day when lighting was delivered mainly by the sun and backgrounds tended to flutter in the breeze. But apparent even to me was our entrancement — Mother’s by Rogers and Bow, mine by Spad and Fokker. While she sat motionless and starry-eyed through the relentless and incomprehensible he-she stuff, I would writhe; while I sat motionless and starry-eyed through the dogfights and balloon-busting and plane crashes, she would concentrate on the popcorn.
I have no way of knowing what secret reward the dear woman won from that ancient motion picture, but I came away from the theater totaled by my first love affair, afire with a passion for flying machines and with a weirdly adult understanding that whatever was to come, wherever I was to go, whatever I would do in my life, airplanes would — as my determinedly Victorian Aunt Ida liked to say about things that mattered — rule in my heart.
As a boy, I built all the models, read all the issues of G-8 and His Battle Aces, Daredevil Aces, Battle Birds, andSky Fighters, sat through innumerable screenings of Hell’s Angels, Dawn Patrol, Ace of Aces, The Eagle and the Hawk, and Hell in the Heavens, visited the Smithsonian, and searched out and questioned every surviving World War I aviator within a day’s bike ride from home. In this interval, I ran into a frustration that set me up for the duty that was to be my lot in World War II.
A fifth-grade classmate at Washington School was the son of German immigrants. Knowing of my interest in World War I airplanes, he loaned me his father’s copy of Der Rote Kampfflieger, the purported autobiography of Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen, the ace of German aces and one of my “absolute favoritest pilots.” I spent hours over that book, trying to decipher the mysteries behind its incomprehensible German hieroglyphics. Finally, in total exasperation and vowing that I’d translate that durn thing if it was the last thing I did, I went to the public library and withdrew How to Speak, Read, and Write German.
Needless to say, the effort was less than a whiz-bang success. But it did reveal the fact that I had a gift for languages and moved me into taking four years of German in high school. These were followed by four years of heavy-duty conversationals at Penn State, taught by Professor Wurfl, a native German who threatened good-naturedly to flunk any student who spoke English while within his earshot. The result was that, by the time I was invited to attend World War II, I was somewhat of a rarity: an American-born recruit of American parentage who not only could speak, read, and write acceptable German but also was conversant with German military history.
As a teen I’d had flight training on an OX-5 powered Travelaire biplane, but even that card was trumped by my familiarity with German and the Germans. There would be no flying cadet status for me. No pilot training, no tour as a navigator or bombardier or gunner. No way. It was off to OCS and then eventually to the War Department Intelligence Training Center at Camp Ritchie, in the Maryland hills, where Wehrmacht turncoats taught me how to become an All-American German — or what my Documents Interpretation instructor called, tongue in cheek, “a Dick von Tracy.”
So my boyhood ambition to become an Army Air Corps pilot was not to be realized. Instead, I was to be Army Air Corps cargo — one of those taciturn “civilians” with queer papers who would show up occasionally among the C-ration crates and ammo boxes and helmet liners on the delivery manifest of some tramp C-47 cruising the fringes of Festung Europa.
The war was going badly for the Germans. The Allies were pushing across France and were headed for the Rhine. Hitler had narrowly escaped assassination by some of his own generals. Even so, a clique of top Nazi political advisers and agency administrators recognized that the shooting war was lost and that Hitler would inevitably be hanged as a loony-tune war criminal. They were of no mind to accompany him to the gallows, so, keeping the tightest security, they began to make plans for a clandestine apparatus designed to hide and protect them from both Hitlerian wrath and those enemy forces that would soon occupy the German national territories. Armed resistance to the Allies — the Werewolf concept — would be slow suicide; better, they reasoned, to set up a cover, then collaborate with the occupiers. Once the Allied occupation had ended, the invisible apparatus would meld into a visible and highly sophisticated lobby which, under an innocuous name and phony agenda, would work a Nazi sedition on whatever German national government evolved. The schemers had guns, and they had no qualms about using them. But the emphasis was on amassing the huge bundles of money needed to buy short-term security and long-term political clout. Killing was to be reserved for those who got the way or didn’t go along.
They first slyly manipulated the unraveling budget of the Reichsjugendfuehrung and misappropriated millions. With these funds they bought out a well-established trucking company based in Munich and replaced the management with Nazi party bigwigs operating under carefully prepared false identities. When the shooting stopped in May, 1945, and the occupation had settled in, they were able to convince the hugely hassled Allied military government of the company’s legitimacy and soon began to use the drivers of its far-ranging coal and produce trucks to contact and organize the Nazi faithful hiding out in Oberbayern and the adjacent Austrian Tirol.
But the plotters had an asp in their bosom. One of their number, a high-ranking SS officer and executive in theReichsjugendfuehrung, decided the scheme was doomed to fail and laid plans to save his own butt. He tipped off American intelligence, offering to serve as a stoolie in return for immunity from war crimes charges. The case was codenamed “Operation Nursery” and I was assigned as agent in charge. Exploiting “Karl” (cover name for the stoolie), my team and I penetrated the Nazi group and set up a mechanism that would, a year and a half later, enable us to haul in the core seditionists and break up the apparatus, whose membership at final count numbered some 2,000 Gestapo, Abwehr, SS, Waffen SS, Jugendfuehrung, and Wehrmacht diehards.
(World War II buffs who would like a summary of “Operation Nursery” are referred to United States Forces European Theater Release No. 1406, 0001 hours, 31 March 1946; to Commendation of Commanding General to Chief, Counter Intelligence Corps, USFET, 12 April 1946; and to A-Line stories, Associated Press and United Press, dateline Frankfurt, Germany, Sunday, March 31, 1946, appearing in Stars and Stripes European Edition, or any major domestic U.S. daily newspaper of that date.)
Out of the cold and awaiting return to the States, I had a lot of time for reflection. Whatever romantic views of the German military I might have had as a youngster building Albatros, Fokker, and Pfalz models in Kenmore, N.Y., no longer existed. I’d seen every conceivable form of depravity and slaughter; I had seen the rubbled streets of England, the trashed towns and countryside of France and Belgium and the Netherlands; and in Germany’s ruins I had smelled the rotting, unrecoverable shreds and fluids of the Vatis and Muttis and Hansels and Gretels andOnkels and Tantes who’d paid the ultimate price for Hitler’s geopolitical ambitions.
Pictures of war don’t do it. Literature can’t touch it. Only by having seen it and smelled it can one comprehend the unspeakable horror of it. For me, the likes of Bölcke and Voss and Bishop and McCudden and Ball and Guynemer and Luke had lost the idealistic, operetta-like glitter my boyhood had given them and had become in my mind what I’d seen around me as an adult: miserable, lonely, homesick men who killed to keep from being killed — most of them wanting nothing more than to get the hell out and go home to Maudie or Gretchen. Even Von Richthofen, the icy matador, had become pensive and withdrawn after being bloodied by a British bull that wasn’t about to give its ear to his trophy case.
But, then, there were those few others. . .
Those who saw war as a way to get the attention they couldn’t get in peace.
Those who sought to even scores or soothe resentments in ways that would, in normal times, send them to the gallows.
Those sickos who just plain got off on war.
In “Operation Nursery,” the top-level cadre was composed of well-educated, urbane men and women with generally solid middle-class backgrounds. Most were also arrogant, greedy and brutal. Among them were a known murderer, two addicts, a pedophile and pornographer, and a blackmailing nymphomaniac. The remainder tended to be the kind a friend of mine calls “pointy-headed dweebs.” All were uncomfortable to be around and easy to dislike. But one, an SS Obersturmbannfuehrer, personified the dichotomy that permits both civility and savagery to exist simultaneously in a human being. He was handsome, erudite, suave, amiable, and witty — the kind who would be welcome at any social event, from a pick-up soccer scrimmage to a black-tie dinner party. But he was also a thoroughgoing rat, a ruthless psychopath who’d kill at the drop of an umlaut, and you never knew when which side of him would turn up.
“Where does a guy like this come from?” I heard myself asking the question.
His Gestapo dossier and SS Ausweis carried all the vital statistics — place of birth, parentage, schooling, political career, military service, promotions, personal habits — all of it. But there were no clues to the answer I was really looking for: What happened in his early life that enabled this seemingly pleasant, balanced man to get so much fun out of war and its concomitant evils? And just why did he feel compelled to outshine, to dominate, no matter the cost in lives, morality, and treasure?
I heard myself making the promise: “There’s a novel in that. And someday I’m going to write it.”
Someday was a long time coming.
Returning Stateside, like most ex-soldiers I plunged into the busy reconstruction that would blot out those dreadful, lost years. I became a full-time husband, helped create four new Baby Boomers, returned to my interrupted journalism career, got a GI mortgage, bought a stick-and-cardboard tract house, and began to chase the American dream. Above all — having grown up in a major economic depression and going from there into five years in a major war — I hungered for security, stability, predictability, and peace of mind.
The superheated postwar economy helped me achieve all but the peace of mind. The jobs kept getting better, the houses bigger, the cars better. But it was a long time before the sweaty nightmares subsided, before I’d not jump at the slam of a door, before I stopped being inexplicably lonely and could rid my mind of The Stink. There were moments when I thought I might unravel, but those were the days of John Wayne macho, when it wasn’t seemly for a man to show distress, and so I worked (with a success that continually surprised me) to maintain the facade of an amiable, unflappable Ozzie Nelson, on the rise.
My therapies were modeling and sketching and painting antique aircraft. After a full day in the office, I’d have dinner with the family, then go to the hobby room and lose myself in those wonderful old flying machines, researching, building and painting — all the while assuring myself that someday I would write that novel.
Someday waited until I was 41 years old.
I was sitting at the picnic bench under a huge maple at our Vermont farm when the truth finally hit me, like Saul on the road to Damascas. Today was someday. Today was the only day I had. If the novel was to be written, I had to begin today. Not tomorrow. Today.
I began to write that day, at that table, with a stub of pencil on a pad of lined schoolboy paper.
It was then I discovered that everything in the past is preface — a preparation for what we must do ahead. All the years of noodling the novel had made me ready to pour it out. The words came fast, the images were clear. I could see Bruno Stachel, hear his voice, because I’d seen and heard that Obersturmbannfuehrer in Munich all those years ago. I could smell the sweaty wool, the peat smoke, the gun oil, the mess hall’s cooking fat, because every wartime military installation is like the rest, no matter what era or which army. I could hear the pounding of machine-guns, the whine of aircraft engines, the thumping of bombs, the whimpering of frightened men because I’d heard them in my life. I could join Otto Heidemann in the racketing cockpit of his Albatros D-V because of the teenage hours I’d spent in the racketing cockpit of a Travelaire 2000. I finished the first chapter that afternoon, then went on hold until the end of summer and our return to our home in Delaware.
It took seven months to complete the job. As before, I’d have dinner with the family and make like a husband and daddy. But then, instead of modeling or painting, I would nap until 10 o’clock, when I’d go to work on the manuscript until 2 a.m. Paper and pencil still. The typewriter would have kept the family awake.
The proposition was simple to state but difficult to execute: Bruno Stachel and Hermann Göring, the World War I ace who would go on to become the archetypal Nazi war criminal, were two of a kind. Could not some of Stachel’s characteristics have been shared by the hateful and hated Göring?
One critic later said, “The idea was audacious. It required the author to show a soured and unsympathetic American audience the human face behind the Nazi scowl. In these days, with the dust still settling over a hemisphere trashed by Germany’s yearning to expand, the task was formidable.”
The task was more formidable than the critic thought, thanks to an underlying irony. I was not a historian, nor one who doted on technical esoterica, yet I had to become some of both if I were to write convincing character studies that would (1) reflect gritty truths obscured by the tons of jingoistic hype and dime-novel romantics with which droves of spinmeisters — on both sides — had colored the first air war, and (2) appeal to those legions of contemporary readers who hadn’t yet forgiven the Germans their trespasses.
Every usable fact had to be dug out of a silt of neglect and horse-hockey built up since 1914. As an amateur, I knew of no handy, central archives, no encyclopedia, no single source containing the minutiae that would make the fiction believable. Those tasks true historians would probably consider a piece of cake were for me a slab of hardtack. Where did the front lines lie between January and November, 1918? What was the German army order of battle in that period? How did the trigger work on a Spandau machine-gun? What did German pilots wear aloft? What did they do when they had to go to the bathroom in the middle of a patrol? What was the service ceiling, the tankage, the endurance of an Albatros, of a Pfalz D-3, of a Fokker D-7? How did the blip button of a rotary engine work? What did German pilots eat, drink? Where did they sleep? What songs did they like? Where and how did they get their laundry done? Did they get daily weather forecasts? If so, from whom? Every question seemed to beget another, and the answers seemed always elusive and scattered across two continents and the British Isles.
The greatest lump of help from any single source was that freely and jovially given by the late, great Cole Palen, who was just getting his World War I aerodrome show organized and equipped outside Rhinebeck, NY. Cole let me climb all over his D-7 and Spad, fire up their engines, and listen to their sounds and feel their pulses. He gave me a thorough education in the Nieuport 28 and the management of its capricious rotary engine, showed me the progress being made on the Dr-1 and Camel he had in restoration, spoke at length on his plans for the future. I staggered away with a briefcase full of notes and photos, and to this day, I really don’t know what I’d have done without him.
* * *
When the manuscript was finished, my wife (an avid reader of eclectic fare who has never failed over our 54 years of marriage to give me her honest opinion of the things I write) was enthusiastic and urged me to find a publisher for it. Her reaction was hugely important to me, not only because I always want my wife’s approval, but mainly because she knew little or nothing about airplanes, wasn’t remotely interested in World War I, and still resented the Nazis for having kept me apart from her and the kids for some five fearful years. If the story grabbed her, I reasoned, it had a good chance with any intelligent reader.
Still, this was the first fiction I’d written, and all I knew about selling fiction was what I’d read in various articles over the years. So, in abysmal ignorance, I asked one of the hottest agents in New York if he’d be willing to look at the manuscript. And in a one-in-a-million coincidence, he happened to be looking for promising newcomers who might eventually develop into replacement material for his star-studded but attrition-prone roster of clients. He said he would scan my work for a nuisance fee of $15, to be returned if he decided to represent me. Fifteen bucks, in those days, were hard to come by, and — again in my huge ignorance — I suspected a rip-off. But my wife shrugged and delivered the 1961 equivalent of, “What the hey, let’s see what the dude says.”
Two weeks later, the agent returned my uncashed check, folded in a one-sentence note: “I like your story, and I think I can sell it.”
Nine publishers turned it down, the consensus being articulated by one of them: “The American public is in no mood to read about a gaggle of nudnik Germans in a war nobody remembers.” But the editors at E.P. Dutton, a small, highly respected New York house that was still of a mind to invest in promising authors, decided to shoot a buck, figuring that they wouldn’t make a farthing on The Blue Max but might recoup with something better and more contemporary I might write in the future. They had a lot of trouble with the title, though. The Blue Max meant nothing to the average reader, they said, and it would look silly on the racks. (The standing joke around the Dutton shop was, “Don’t be Blue, Max.”) There was a concerted effort to find a better title, but I hung tough, claiming that was the only title that did mean anything. In the end, they shot another buck and let the title stand.
None of us — not one in that publishing daisy chain — had the slightest idea that World War I aviation had such a huge army of fans. I suspected there were a lot, what with the recent appearance of Cross and Cockade and the early snowballing success of Palen’s show at Rhinebeck. But the truth began to register when, on date of publication in March, 1964, the novel was given an extensive review on the op-ed page of the New York Times and the orders began to pour in. Astonishment piled on astonishment. The hardcover had barely got under way when lucrative deals came in from Bantam Books, a leading U.S. paperback publisher, and a score of quality houses in the UK, Western Europe, and South America. Darryl Zanuck, honcho of 20th Century Fox, was impressed with all this and sent for a copy. He bought the movie rights in less than two weeks and made the project one of the studio’s top priorities.
Personally I was overwhelmed by ambivalence. I was simultaneously elated to find that so many had seen what I’d tried to do and approved of it — lingering international hatreds notwithstanding — and alarmed by the fact that my little family and I had been abruptly bounced from suburban tranquility into an alien world full of hype, posturing, greed and palace intrigues. Our first move was a family conference in which we all agreed to play it cool. I would keep my job, because it involved a solid career that carried great benefits. I would not accept the offer to write the screenplay because it would take me away for a year or more. I would continue to write novels at night. We’d keep the same house, my wife would continue her avocational pursuit of antiques, the kids would stay in the same schools and would do no more than give polite answers to questions born of the notoriety that I’d dumped on their dear little unsuspecting heads. All the money coming in from the book and movie would go into savings and college educations.
In the long term it worked, and we managed to weather the storm.
In the short term I indulged in another concern.
I knew the movie company would be forced to make changes in the story because a lot of the novel was given to the ruminations of the characters, and how do you photograph thoughts? More important, the producer told me that American movies enjoyed huge box office in Western Germany — but not when they touched on “German militarism and its derivative Nazism.” With that whitewash signaled, and with the assignment of George Peppard, the winsome and totally apple-pie-American superstar, to the lead role, I saw that the Bruno Stachel of the novel would never make it into the movie. This was confirmed when I read the script: Stachel had ceased to be the brooding, tortured, incipient Nazi and had become a smart-ass, wenching, Von Peck’s Bad Boy. Worse, he got killed at story’s end to satisfy Hollywood’s lingering Victorianism, which required bad guys to die or otherwise get the shaft.
I decided that I could live with all of this if only the studio would make the definitive World War I aviation film — a movie that clung unwaveringly to historical fact and technical accuracy. So I was much pleased by the many action sequences incorporated in the script. I was delighted by the millions budgeted to build what were heralded as “faultless reproductions” of the Pfalz D-3, the Fokker Dr-1, the SE-5a, and the Fokker D-7. I was cheered by the news that huge areas of Ireland were being leased to re-create airfields and the Somme battlefield and habits and habitats of German fliers. I was impressed when Kurt Delang, erstwhile Vizefeldwebel in Jasta 10, was appointed to serve as a special technical adviser to the director. The thought: A hokey Hollywood script, maybe, but by golly it’s going to be a visual and technical dilly.
Despite my hopes and Delang’s counsel, historical and technical accuracy soon gave way to movieland’s blue smoke. En route to Germany to research another novel, my wife and I were invited to spend a week with the film people on location in Ireland. On the day of our arrival at the Bray Studios, we were shown to canvas director’s chairs with our names on the back and treated to rushes of some key action sequences. And I was literally left speechless when I saw Fokker D-7s with inverted engines and 1916-style insignia, Dr-1s with radial engines and smoke canisters on their landing gear struts, machine-guns that looked like Space Cadet props spouting flame without benefit of ammo tracks, every pilot wearing an Uhlan uniform and Battle of Britain style goggles, Gypsy Moths pretending to be Albatros D-3s, a Stampe presented as an RE-8 — the anachronisms and goofs compounded. When I asked Delang about it later, he merely shrugged, rolled his eyes, and sighed resignedly. When I challenged the art director on something so glaring as a D-7 with curve-sided crosses, he shrugged, too. “That kind of cross photographs better,” he said. Ah, but how about those machine-guns with no ammo feed tracks? Another shrug. “No big deal. People just watch the muzzle flashes.”
So much for the definitive WWI aviation movie.
My next three novels, one of which also sold to the movies, were rooted in my War Two counter-intelligence experiences. Meanwhile, The Blue Max kept chugging along, going through scores of hard and softcover printings in the U.S. and abroad, and popping up regularly as a network TV film. And I kept getting letters from readers and viewers — a large majority approving, but a hard-nosed minority giving me blue hell. These latter were divided into two camps. One camp denounced me as a bleeding-heart apologist for those German swine, while the other camp, obviously composed of naive romantics who had never been tested in a shooting war, was all kinds of upset over the naughty things I’d written about German fliers, those paragons of virtue, benignity, and gallantry.
* * *
In 1978, 14 years after Dutton’s first edition, another New York house gave me a two-book contract — the first to be The Blood Order, taking Bruno Stachel from the end of World War I through the rise of Nazism and the onset of World War II, and the second to be The Tin Cravat, which would take him through his eventual rejection of Nazism and his heroic demise as a renegade Luftwaffe functionary. Curiously, a special collectors’ edition of The Blue Max continues to sell well even to this day, but the other two books in the trilogy — successful in their time — remain mostly unknown to today’s Bruno Stachel fans.
Last year I asked my lifelong friend and aerial combat tech adviser, Col. Jimmy Fasolas, if he had any ideas why that might be. He gave it some thought, then said, “People recognize the young Stachel. He’s a defiant underdog, who hates himself and his inferiority and takes out the resulting anger on everybody else. There’s always a lot of that going around. Nineteen-eighteen. Today. Always.”
Which said in 35 words what I’d taken 100,000 words to say. Where was Jimmy when I needed him?
Copyright © 2008 by Jack D. Hunter. All rights reserved. No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.