It's 1942, and Harry Flynn journeys into a world of tigers, elephants, and Himalayan Mountains. He is sent to the China-Burma-India Theater to build a supply road from India to China. With the help of Merrill's Marauders and the Mars Task Force, they must stop the Axis Powers from controlling all the land between the European Front and the Pacific Ocean. In an exotic world with Naga headhunters, opium-smoking Kachin tribesmen, and marauders who scorn both life and death, Harry forges unlikely friendships. It's a time when boys are forced to come of age on the battlefield and Harry has to find what makes life worth living or die. The lessons learned in World War II apply to all wars, where young soldiers walk away carrying unspeakable memories about the lives that could have been. Behind the Forgotten Front shows us that history is about facts driven by passions and sometimes mistakes made by real people.
While writing Behind the Forgotten Front, I read about Joe Doyer in a number of historical accounts of the war. But it wasn’t until my sister sent my father’s diary to me, and Doyer’s name popped out from those pages did Joe become a real person in my mind. He was someone my dad knew—someone my dad respected—someone who was a surrogate father to our boys fighting far from home. With so much travel to faraway lands, I know I should be writing a diary. I’ve lived through civil war in Guatemala, escaped a political uprising in Thailand, and watched American bombers fly overhead in Turkey en route to Syria. Always one step ahead of disaster, I returned safely to the comfort of home. Sometimes I think I leave so I can relive that sense of homecoming: more knowledgeable about the world and relieved to be back. Although Doyer never returned home, I know he lived on in the hearts of the soldiers who did make it back, like my dad.
Yes, I'm one of those. Have you ever missed a connection because your flight was late? I do my international travel with a carry-on and day pack. This means I have to be very judicious about what I pack, especially since, as a writer I travel with a laptop—but no sleeping bags. Consequently, being a ‘one to three-star’ traveler, I have ended up with pneumonia. Like the time in Myanmar when the first-class boat I was on, which was basically a metal 8x8 foot box shared with three other people, got grounded on a sand bar, and we were stranded there all night. Then on the connecting train, the other passengers couldn’t shut the cabin’s windows. It wasn’t until they were gone with the weather below freezing that I woke to find myself alone and frost outside. Where were the antibiotics when I needed them? In my book Behind the Forgotten Front, General Joseph ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell, was like any good military politician. He wanted to get the press to the front so they could sell his story. But in Myitkyina, he had the writers and photographers flown in before the battle was over. No one was prepared—or happy.
I just finished writing my young adult SciFi book: that is the first draft. But it’s not time to break out the champagne, even though I’m ready to celebrate. It means I have a good plot. Now I have to go back and scrub it to make sure I’ve planted the right clues, and the cadence is in sync. It’s like winning a crucial battle but not the war. There were many turning points in my book Behind the Forgotten front. One critical battle was infiltrating the airfield at Myitkyina, where the Axis airplanes departed from to shoot down our boys flying the Hump: the Himalayas. I loved writing the scene. It brought into play so many code names, like In the Ring, Merchant of Venice, and End Run. Unfortunately, the war didn’t stop there, but it was a decisive moment for the China-Burma-India Theater. In 2014, I traveled to Myitkyina to see the airfield. It’s under Myanmar military control, now. They’re fighting a different battle there today—one where the government wants to take over the land squatted upon in the Kachin and Shan states. This is the terrain where Merrill’s Marauders, Mars Task Force, the African-American battalion building the ‘road to nowhere’ and Chinese X Force passed through in WWII. Today they’re fighting over jade, rubies, and opium.
I’ve written historical fiction, SciFi, travelogues, and somehow, social justice can’t keep its nose out of my plots. I don’t like to be preachy, but I seem to gravitate towards characters who haven’t been given a fair break in life. Maybe it’s because I grew up on the other side of the railroad tracks, but there’s always an element of hope at the end. I started writing Behind the Forgotten Front, a story about World War II in the China-Burma-India theater, after my father died. He left a diary of his time in the war, but could never write the book himself. War in itself is a social justice statement, but once I got into the characters, I saw what it did to the men who lived. Back then, if you said someone had post traumatic stress disorder, they'd ask, “Say what?” PTSD is an illness that never goes away. But it can get better. Unfortunately, the men from WWII promised not to speak about what happened in the war for fifty years, except with each other. I remember Pfeifer coming to visit my dad at Christmas. It was a healing time for both of them. I guess writing BTFF was a salve for me too. It showed me a lot about my dad and made me more forgiving.
The one where the aisles were wide enough for you to squeeze by—sideways. Where the smell of moldy paper and a cold draft added to the quest of finding the perfect story hidden somewhere inside. And at the cash register, the owner sat with feet propped on a stool, blanket wrapped around shoulders, book in hand, lost in some imaginary tale. Back then, I wasn’t a customer; I was another character wandering through this imaginary world. Like most writers, my house is filled with books, paperbacks, and hard copies, that snatch me away from the mundane routines of life. I love it when friends come to visit, and I find them dragging a well-read novel over to the couch, forgetting why they really stopped by. Like the skill of selling books and the way we read them, the art of writing letters is changing too. In my story Behind the Forgotten Front, Earl asks Harry to write a letter to Lester’s family. He says “It just doesn’t seem right getting a telegram saying, ‘Sorry your son’s dead. Thanks for raising him, loving him, then sending him to help Uncle Sam. But he’s dead, and we got to move on.’” Many things in life have to move on. Sometimes it’s for the better, and sometimes ….
I stepped on a clear squishy blob, that turned out to be something from another world. This thought made me wonder whether there's any truth to Steven Hawking’s supposition that an advanced alien civilization could invade and destroy humanity. Hawking said we don’t know what aliens are like, but we do know humans have a history of massacring other cultures. Why would a more intelligent organism not do the same to us? In my book, Behind the Forgotten Front, there’s a scene with a young prostitute, where the protagonist, sickened by the thought of this girl with the red third eye living off her beauty, grabs her by both shoulders as if he can shake the little girl back into her. But she says she’s happy with her life. “Work as pretty girl or no work. You think it better I sit in street and beg?” Then she tells him, “Our bad luck make our character.” What if her parents hadn’t been poor and sold her? Whatever I stepped on, it looked alive, with red and blue streaks. And like the girl with the red third eye asked: “Why you not feel guilty ‘bout ripping my country apart?” I wondered whether an alien would think us nothing more than a bacteria colony to be wiped out.
This may sound cruel, but when I saw the ravaged remains from Dorian, I thought, this too shall pass. This is not the first time Mother Nature has ripped a page out of our lives and blown us in a new direction. I grew up where weather was the first order of conversation. It came with the coffee. In the winter, temperatures dropped down to -50 degrees Fahrenheit and in the summer, you could almost peel a layer of humidity off your skin. You learned not only to live with it, but in it. One winter, a group of us bared the biting wind and took a walk on the Mississippi River. Yes, I said walk ON the river. It gets that cold. But not cold enough to completely freeze the nine-foot-deep channel. Of course, one of us fell in. We whisked him out and stripped him down within seconds, each donating a layer for him to wear—not doing so would have been deadly. Weather is like that; it changes your life. So, writing about weather in my book, Behind the Forgotten Front, was as a natural. Not only did I talk about the mud slides, earthquakes, and floods in Burma, but the great dust bowls of the Depression in the USA. Like I said, weather changes your life.
Writing is a labor of love. Sometimes I'm so into it, that my characters seem more real than my dog sitting at my feet. Other times, I take my dog for a walk. For me, there are several stages in writing a novel. First, it's the "vomit" stage, where I let everything out before I lose it. Then in the second, or “clean-up” phase I add all the transitions, sensory details, and emotional revelations. Third stage is making sure I'm carrying my protagonist or plot through the “growth arc.” Last is the “polishing” stage—which I love too much. It's too easy to get caught-up in word-smithing. But I have to admit, when I finished Behind the Forgotten Front, it was as if someone else had written it for me. Just as Mrs. Muir had never been a ship's captain, I had never been to India or Burma nor taken part in a battle. So how could we have written scenes as if we were there? The people and places came to me like a ghost leading my hand over the keyboard, helping me tell THEIR story. Now that my book is finished, I'm still not sure whether someone’s ghost wrote it or if in those moments of throwing myself into it, I was actually there in my mind.
When I was in Myanmar (formerly Burma) there was either monstrous flooding with monsoon downpours or the rivers dried up so much that boats (the only form of transportation in some regions) got stuck in the middle of the channel. One night, while traveling down the Chindwin River, we hit a sandbar. ALL the men rolled up their longyi (traditional wrap), then got into the water and tried to push it back into the flow. But they had no luck. So we stayed stuck until morning. I was lucky, I was in a first class cabin, which was an 8x8x4 foot high tin box I shared with three other people. Between the cold water chilling the metal, the wind whistling through the 'impossible to close' sliding door," babies crying and people farting, I couldn't sleep. Putting that inconvenience aside, each year these people face losing their homes to mudslides and crops to the insufferably hot droughts. It's a never ending cycle they have learned to accept. In my book, Behind the Forgotten Front, I tried to show that in addition to fighting the enemy, sometimes the soldiers had to fight Mother Nature. And you can imagine who always won.
I have never fought in a war but having visited six continents and seen how the the rest of the world lives, I treasure my freedom. And I thank those who have protected it for me. In my travels, I've skirted civil wars in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Turkey, and Myanmar. There, I met ordinary men and women who died fighting for their rights. In my book Behind the Forgotten Front, I try to show that a war is not made up of battles every day. Sometimes it's running from a rouge baby elephant or listening to an opera in Darwin from a long range radio in the jungle. It's the simple things in life that we don't notice, but treasure them when we don't have them--like Peace.
My siblings and I grew up in the same house as my nephew, father and grandmother. Four generations listening to the same ghosts haunting the third-floor attic and climbing the same rickety back steps of our civil-war era home. It was one of those melting pot neighborhoods that surrounded a local park with the Irish in one corner, Italians in another, Germans in the third, and all the new immigrants in the last. Lots of different accents in the park and on the playground at school--the same elementary school my father and mother attended. But being brought up Catholic, when we reached high school age, we were segregated into all-boys or all-girls schools. Here's where my story diverges into my novel, Behind the Forgotten Front. In high school, my father cultivated a group of friends. And when I say group, I mean about forty guys, who stayed buddies their entire lives. They would get together every summer and Christmas with their families, and the children would either run relay races or we'd form a line to whisper in Santa's ear the gifts we wanted. I developed the character Bob, in Behind the Forgotten Front, off one of the fellas in my dad's group. Although my novel is fiction, many of the characters really lived.
In Behind the Forgotten Front, there is no character more unforgettable than General Joseph 'Vinegar Joe' Stilwell. On May 1, 1942, General Stilwell marched 114 American, British, Chinese and Burmese men and women 14 miles per day, 105 steps per minute, through the jungles of Burma to the safety of India. With the Japanese on their tails, they crossed the Chindwin River at Homalin on May 12. The Japanese arrived a day later and were never able to catch up to them while they crossed the mountains into India. In 2014, to fact check my book, I took a boat down the Chindwin to Homalin. That region of Burma (now Myanmar) is still so remote, that one of the other passengers asked me if I was a missionary. They said there hadn't been a westerner in those parts for months. In 1942 the British abandoned their teak plantations, never to return. It was a different time, when racism was still strong. Little has changed today. Please take a look at my blog to get a glimpse of the people Stilwell and the 114 others saw along their journey to safety http://barbarahawkins-writer.com/2014/06/Stilwells-1942-retreat-from-Burma
Although Behind the Forgotten Front is fiction, many of the people in the book are not, like Ed Pfeifer. Growing up, I remember Ed visiting my family every Christmas on his way back from his teaching job in Arizona to his home in Michigan. He and my dad would sit in the living room, cigar in my dad's hand and pipe in Pfeifer's, and reminisce about the War. All us kids (there were seven of us) huddled around the corner, giggling and sneaking peeks, trying to catch bits and pieces of their conversation. But my mom would always find us and shoo us away. Many of you may know, but I didn't until I wrote the book, that the government had made the soldiers swear to fifty-years of secrecy. Imagine keeping all those life-wrenching memories bottled up inside for fifty years. I'm glad my dad had Pfeifer and Pfeifer had my dad to work out some of those scars. I only wish I had been able to hear more.
In the Burmese jungles of WWII, Merrill's Marauders penetrated the enemy line, without backup. For months at a time they would scout out an area before giving the green light to the infantry. Food would be dropped to them by parachute and those injured or too weak to continue were left along the side of the road for when the full battalion passed by. They were the misfits back home but given the name Galahad on the front, because they went where others refused to go.
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