Denny Okerstrom, a 40-year resident of Independence, is an English professor at Park University in Parkville, Mo. For his fourth book, he chose to write about the young men who flew the B-24J Liberator, Bottoms Up, on its final mission during World War II. The result is “The Final Mission of Bottoms Up: A World War II Pilot’s Story,” which was published last fall.
“I believe that readers will learn much about combat flying in World War II, not so much from a tactics or strategy perspective, but from the perspective of young men who simply wanted to get on with their dreams, goals and lives, but first had to fight a war,” Okerstrom said. “They did it with quiet courage and came home to become everyone’s neighbor, postman, teacher, plumber and car salesman. I think that readers will also learn that for those who must fight, the war is never truly over, that combat veterans pay a high price for their valor the rest of their lives.”
The book can be purchased from many online sources, including Barnes and Noble and Amazon as well as from the publisher, the University of Missouri Press in Columbia. Many area libraries also carry it, including Mid-Continent Public Library.
|1 How did you come across the idea for the book? How long did your research take?||
The idea for the book first took flight at a meeting of the Commemorative Air Force in Olathe, Kan. I have been a pilot and flight instructor for more than 30 years and own and fly a restored World War II scout plane. At one of our monthly meetings a few years ago, Lee Lamar stood to say that he had received an email from someone who claimed to be a Croatian archaeologist, and who might have found the remains of his B-24J Liberator nicknamed “Bottoms Up” while excavating a 1st century A.D. Roman villa.
|2 What was it like traveling to Croatia to see where the bomber crashed?||
The trip to Croatia was absolutely the trip of a lifetime, no question. Not only was it a unique learning experience for my students, it was a way for Lamar to find some answers to questions that had nagged at him for more than 65 years. What happened to his parachute, which he had quickly buried after bailing out? How were six of his men aided in their escape? And, of course, it was a last goodbye to a bomber than had served him well for many of his 21 missions.
|3 What interested you so much about this topic?||
I have always been fascinated by the air war of World War II. My dad was an 8th Air Force veteran, stationed in England during the war, where he met and married my mom, an English girl. I grew up with their stories. Dad’s brother was a B-17 navigator, so he added to the collection of tales. My father-in-law was a gunner on a B-29 in the Pacific, and he added even more. I became a pilot, learning to fly single- and multi-engine planes, seaplanes and gliders, and when it came time to buy one, it had to be a “warbird.”
|4 Why is history, or this part of history, something you enjoy?||
I teach a course in literary criticism. One of the schools or types of criticism is New Historicism, which holds that all texts, novels, poems, plays, histories, essays, whatever, are artifacts that arise out of a particular milieu. My Ph.D. is in English and history, so naturally I tend to locate writing within a particular time and place, tied to events which brought it forth. It is impossible, for me at least, to teach “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” without a thorough consideration of the institution of slavery in the U.S. or to ignore the alienation engendered by the slaughter of World War I when teaching “A Farewell to Arms.” To me, history and literature are inseparable. I bring history into every literature course I teach.
|5 Do you plan on writing other books in the future? What topics would you like to explore?||
I am currently researching another book on World War II about the formation of the Air Commandos and the campaign in Burma behind Japanese lines, a joint operation with British troops known as “Chindits.” Among the pilots was a former Hollywood child actor named Jackie Coogan. It was a free-wheeling organization, with many colorful characters, and it strongly influenced how military special operations are conducted today. Last year, I worked on an Air Force grant-funded study of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – drones), and at some point I will be writing about the development and future of aerial warfare as remotely piloted aircraft become more ubiquitous.