To honor and remember all of our veterans on Veteran’s Day, I turned to fellow author and amazing guy Brian Moreland to talk about his family’s military past. The story is pretty amazing. It also was the spark that lit the flame for his novel, Shadows in the Mist. Our past shapes our future. You’ll find no better example than this. Brian, take it away…
Sometimes life has a mysterious way of imitating fiction. A prime example is my relationship with my grandfather, retired World War II pilot, Captain Dawson Moreland. When I was a boy, I used to visit my grandparents in West Texas at least twice a year. Behind their house, they had an outdoor cellar. It had a metal door that opened up to concrete stairs that led underground. The cellar was full of boxes, antiques, and furniture gathering dust. I loved exploring that cellar as a kid.
One day, I came across an army footlocker that my grandfather kept secured with a padlock. Curious, I took him down into the cellar and asked him what was inside the locker. “Just photos and documents from my war days,” he said. As a kid, I was a huge fan of war movies and my concept of World War II was based on what Hollywood had shown me: courageous men like John Wayne and George C. Scott (playing General Patton) being tough war heroes and feeling proud to be a soldier fighting in the war.
I had been thrilled to know that my grandfather had been one of those war heroes. I asked him to open the locker and let me see his war photos. His eyes clouded over. “Sorry, Brian, but I can never open that locker. There are just too many painful memories.” Like so many veterans of his generation, he never talked about the war. Growing up, all I knew was that he had been an Army pilot and flew airplanes. The rest of his story was left to my imagination. Who was this man who worked hard all his life, lived with high integrity, was the patriarch to my family, and said the blessing at every meal? What secret life had he experienced before I was born?
My burning curiosity to know my grandfather’s secret life inspired me to write my WWII novel, Shadows in the Mist, a supernatural thriller set in Germany. It begins in present day. My main character, retired war hero Jack Chambers, has kept a dark secret from the Army for over sixty years. As nightmares of his platoon’s massacre begin to haunt him, he decides it’s time to reveal the truth. He gives his grandson, Sean, a German map and a war diary. “The map shows where my platoon was buried. The diary explains what really happened. Deliver these to General Mason Briggs at the U.S. Army base in Heidelberg, Germany.” Sean Chambers reads his grandfather’s diary and discovers in October 1944, Lt. Jack Chambers had been a part of a deadly top-secret mission where he and his platoon encountered a supernatural horror created by the Nazis.
Shadows in the Mist is both a war story inspired by my grandfather and a horror novel that explores the Nazis’ historical fascination with the Occult. It is based on true facts about Heinrich Himmler, the leader of the Waffen-SS, and his circle of Occultists who met secretly at the Wewelsburg Castle and practiced mystic rituals.
I was determined to create a platoon of misfits that people cared about. And for that to happen, Lieutenant Jack Chambers had to care about his men. So I made it his mission to do whatever it takes to get his men out of the Hürtgen Forest alive. They call themselves “the Lucky Seven” because as a unit they have survived so many combats together. They believe that they are charmed with some kind of strange luck. Two of them, Private Hoffer and Private Finch, are comic book writers. They believe that the Lucky Seven are invincible soldiers destined to be super heroes. They’ve all become superstitious. Each platoon member carries a good-luck charm and they do a ritual before every battle. Lieutenant Chambers believes his good luck comes from the silver watch his father gave him before he died. My grandfather gave me a silver pocket watch when I was young, and I cherished it.
I finished writing Shadows in the Mist a few years ago and now it’s published. My grandfather read the book and told me it brought back a lot of memories for him. He suddenly began sharing his personal war stories with my family. I learned that while training to be a pilot in England he roomed with Norman Rockwell’s nephew “Rocky” and enjoyed riding bicycles around London with the other pilots. They called Captain Dawson Moreland by his nickname “Hank.” He flew C-47s and dropped paratroopers over Normandy during the D-Day invasion. Thirty years after that day I was a curious kid in the cellar with my grandfather, he finally pulled out his World War II photos and showed them to me.
This is my grandfather’s first plane, nicknamed “Dabo” after my grandmother, whom he always called “Bo.” During the war, my grandfather got sick and spent a few days in a hospital in England. While he was grounded, another pilot flew “Dabo” into battle and got shot down. The Army found my grandfather’s parachute with “Moreland” on it and assumed he was dead, so they sent a letter to my grandmother telling her that Dawson had been killed in combat. When he found out the Army’s mistake, he sent a letter to Alma assuring that he was very much alive.
During the present-day portion of my novel, Jack Chambers’ grandson, Sean, flies to Germany. While riding in an airplane, Sean examines the mysterious war diary his grandfather had written. A photo of a platoon slides out. On the back is written “the Lucky Seven” and the names of each platoon member.
Lieutenant Jack Chambers
Master Sergeant John Mahoney
Sergeant Buck Parker
Corporal Duece Wilson
Pfc. Gabe Finch
Pfc. Rafe Hoffer
Pfc. Miguel Garcia
While writing and researching my novel, this fictitious platoon became like a “band of brothers” to me. My grandfather shared that in addition to being a pilot, he had done some routine field training. He showed me this photo of his unit. It looked identical to the photo I had imagined in Jack Chambers’ diary. When I counted seven soldiers in the photo, I got goosebumps.
In my book, Jack Chambers’ war diary reveals where a secret Nazi relic is buried in a German graveyard. By strange coincidence, life began to imitate fiction in 2008 as a relic from my grandfather’s past resurfaced. Two months before his 90th birthday, he received a phone call that his long lost airplane “the Snafu Special” had been found in Sarajevo, Bosnia. A French soldier found the Douglas C-47 parked at an airbase. Riddled with bullet holes from the Bosnian war, the plane had been abandoned in a snowfield. Curators from a D-Day museum in Normandy identified “the Snafu Special,” because the C-47’s tail number was still intact.
The WWII relic might have been lost forever had it not been for a team of French enthusiasts who were determined to rescue the plane and return it to the battery museum in Merville, Normandy. Against all odds, the members of Team SNAFU, along with French and American diplomats, convinced the presidents of Bosnia and Herzegovina to donate the plane to France. French engineers then disassembled the Snafu, loaded it up on three trucks, and transported the plane all the way from Bosnia to Normandy. Once it arrived at the museum in Merville, the curators restored the aircraft to its original glory and veiled it for a ceremony on June 7th.
My grandfather, being one of only two surviving pilots to fly “the Snafu Special,” was invited to return to Normandy to be honored with his airplane. My family and I got to go with him.
For a week that I will never forget, we attended several events that featured him as the honored guest. We visited the Merville Battery Museum where his Douglas C-47 is on display. Above, I’m standing (left) with my father, Keith, and grandfather.
The French media treated Captain Dawson Moreland like a celebrity, snapping photo after photo. He did several interviews for the local news and a French documentary about his airplane. Everywhere we went my grandfather was thanked for helping liberate France from the Germans who occupied the beach towns of Normandy back in 1944.
Many of the local French people were brought to tears by his presence and asked for autographs. When I asked him how he felt about the French treating him like a hero, he said, “I was never welcomed anywhere as great as I am over here.”
Together we toured D-Day museums, saw the Normandy beaches, and walked through the fields of white crosses at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. I could see that reflecting back on history was allowing my grandfather a chance to see the war from a new perspective. Surrounded by fields where paratroopers landed over sixty years ago, my grandfather began to open up and share his war stories. As a lead pilot in the 95th Squadron, he touched a part of history that involved missions in Africa, the Normandy invasion on D-Day, Operation Market-Garden, and the Battle of the Bulge. He dropped off paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne, including the Easy Company depicted in Stephen Ambrose’s book and HBO series Band of Brothers. My grandfather’s squadron also dropped off the infamous Dirty Dozen and delivered supplies to General Patton and carried out POW’s.
My grandfather’s Douglas C-47, “the Snafu Special,” is a historical relic that brought together diplomats from France, Bosnia, Herzegovina, the United Kingdom, and the United States, among them the U.S. Ambassador to France. On June 7th, the Merville Battery Museum unveiled “The Snafu Special” as a new exhibit and honored my grandfather in a historical ceremony. My eyes whelped with tears as I watched him climb up into the plane and wave back to the hundreds of people applauding him. Below, you can watch a 7-minute clip from a documentary I made of my grandfather’s ceremony.
After we returned home, I asked him what it was like seeing his plane after all these years, he said, “It was good to sit in the cockpit again.” My grandfather earned seven medals. He would never call himself a hero. To him, he was a pilot just doing his job.
In my novel, Jack Chambers misses his platoon who vanished mysteriously over sixty years ago. His grandson reads the war diary and learns his secret past. Like life imitating fiction, my grandfather finally shared his stories after sixty years of silence, and I finally got to know the secret history of the man and war hero I had always looked up to.
To honor my grandfather, I dedicated Shadows in the Mist to him. One of my most cherished moments is when the novel released and my grandfather joined me for my first book signing and autographed books alongside me. As of Veteran’s Day, November 11, 2012, he is alive and well at age 94.
Author Bio: Brian Moreland writes novels and short stories of horror and supernatural suspense. His first two novels, Dead of Winter and Shadows in the Mist, are now available. His third novel, The Devil’s Woods, will release in 2013. Brian lives in Dallas, Texas where he is diligently writing his next horror novel. You can communicate with him online and join his mailing list at http://www.brianmoreland.com/
Brian’s Horror Fiction blog: http://www.brianmoreland.blogspot.com
Coaching for Writers blog: http://www.coachingforwriters.blogspot.com