Fighting the Night: Iwo Jima, World War II, and a Flyer’s Life

From Paul Hendrickson, best-selling author of Hemingway’s Boat, the story of his father’s wartime service as a night fighter pilot, and the price he and his fellow soldiers paid for their acts of selfless, patriotic sacrifice

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Paul Hendrickson’s Fighting the Night tackles a question that obsessed so many of my boomer contemporaries: “What did you do during The War, Daddy?”

But this isn’t a reference to the 1966 movie of the same name. 

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As Washington Post columnist David Von Drehle states on the book jacket, this is “a son’s quest to know—really know—his father.”   

The desire for Paul Hendrickson to understand his father was the driving force behind this narrative—a balanced blend of memoir, biography and history of his father’s unit, the 549th Night Fighter Squadron.

Joe Paul Henderson (center) with his crew from the Rita B–Jack Kerr (l) and Leo E. Vough (r) (Courtesy Paul Henderson)

Combining these elements was no mean feat. 

The author’s father, Joe Paul Hendrickson, didn’t share a great deal about his emotional life and his hard scrabble, Depression-era, Kentucky childhood with others. Likewise, he didn’t talk a lot about his wartime service, piloting the fabled “Black Widow” P-61 aircraft in Iwo Jima during the end of the Second World War.  

Journalists strive to be unflinchingly honest and accurate. It’s in their DNA. However, this becomes infinitely more challenging when the subject is your family, warts and all.  

Paul Henderson is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania (Courtesy Paul Henderson)

Mr. Hendrickson, a former Washington Post reporter and author of the 2011 New York Timesbest seller, “Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost,” does a superb job of incorporating these sometimes-colliding themes by drawing on a lifetime of reporting chops, unremitting research and a Solomonic evenhandedness.   

The core of the book dwells on the wartime experiences of Joe Paul Hendrickson, but don’t expect tales of dogfights and aerial acrobatics. There is genuine heroism and derring-do, but this is no hagiography. Readers get to bear witness to the demanding life of an Army Air Force pilot, crisscrossing the country (often with his wife and two young children) from air bases ranging from Hammer Field in Fresno to Kipapa Airfield on Oahu.

We learn a great deal about the nuances of the twin-engine Black Widow aircraft, designed specifically for night fighting—hence the name of the book. However, flying state-of-the art airplanes is only part of the story. 

DAYTON, Ohio — Northrop P-61C Black Widow at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Once ensconced in Iwo Jima, the author recounts an episode called “the raid.” This was a murderous nighttime attack by Japanese soldiers on the 549th compound, which included rolling hand grenades into the tents of sleeping soldiers. The author’s father was spared, but the attack resulted in the death of six of his comrades. 

This realm of nightmarish memories was the last thing veterans wanted to revisit after their service and Joe Paul was no exception. Paul Hendrickson reminds us of the psychological toll that these kinds of experiences had on his dad, and ultimately his behavior as a father.

In addition to reminiscences about his family, the author reconstructs, as much as possible, the lives of his dad’s colleagues—the men portrayed in the black and white photos, outfitted in leather flight jackets, kneeling in front of airplanes.

One of the more poignant vignettes was the “All American Life and Mysterious Death of Larry Garland.” Garland was Joe Paul’s friend, a fellow Kentuckian, and the best pilot in the 549th Night Fighter Squadron. Larry’s Black Widow disappeared into the Iwo Jima night just a few weeks before the war’s end. We discover there’s a great deal more to Captain Garland than his sterling academic records and yellowed newspaper articles describing his football field heroics would reveal.

Captain Garland and his fellow crew members aboard that ill-fated Black Widow were never able to fulfill their futures, but somehow Joe Paul Hendrickson made it back alive.

If you visit Punchbowl, stroll over to Court Seven at the Courts of the Missing. You’ll find Larry Garland’s name (second from the top) etched in marble. (photo Rob Kay)

If you visit Punchbowl this weekend, I encourage you to go to Court Seven at the Courts of the Missing, at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. There you will see the names of those men, engraved in marble: Larry Garland, John Hendrix and Milt Gillespie.

We’re reminded that so much of circumstances in war and ordinary life, for that matter, are dependent on luck and as the author says, the “awful randomness of chance.”

Thank you, Paul Hendrickson, for a remarkable book

Rob Kay, a Honolulu-based writer and Star Advertiser columnist, is the creator of fijiguide.com. He can be reached at Robertfredkay@ gmail.com.

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