Blackened Canteen, The
Author: Jerry Yellin
Publisher: 1st World Publishing (2008)
Binding: Paperback, 280 pages
This book is about five Americans: Jack O'Connor, Monroe Cohen, Ken Colli, Newton Towle, crewmen on B-29's and were killed in a mid-air collision on June 20, 1945 and buried by Fukumatsu Itoh alongside the 2,000 Japanese killed in the raid, and Richard Fiske, the bugler on the battleship West Virginia when it was sunk at Pearl Harbor. It is also about three Japanese: Hiroya Sugano, 12 years old when his city was bombed in 1945, Takeshi Maeda, the navigator on the torpedo bomber that sank the West Virginia, and Fukumatsu Itoh, a city councilman and Buddhist priest. Only two survive today, Dr. Sugano, who is 74, and Takeshi Maeda, who is 89.
The Blackened Canteen is written by story teller, Jerry Yellin, with many voices. It shows that he has listened to the cultures of both his land of birth and the adopted land of his son.
Books of war rarely are books of hope. Greek tragedies often begin with a pronouncement of the end, a lament for the tragic event which has brought death to a hero or misery to a god. Aeschylus's dramatic trilogy of plays of the life of Achilles in the Trojan Wars portends for him "What is a seer? A man who with luck tells the truth sometimes, with frequent falsehoods, but when his luck deserts him, collapses then and there." Achilles will collapse and the ancients who attended the plays already knew it. The tragedy was not merely in Achilles' death foretold but also in the moral ambiguity of his rages, first against Troy, then against his continuing the war because of his questionable fury with Agamemnon, then back against Troy because of the death of Achilles' friend at the hands of Hector. The Iliad is not a book of hope - it is a tragedy.
Jerry Yellin also has written a tragedy. His book, The Blackened Canteen, is a non-fiction work that, by his admission, is fictive, written with an authorial completion of the known facts by the addition of the imagined thoughts and conversations of those who appear on his pages. His stage is the fire-bombing of Japan in 1945. Mr. Yellin begins with a pronouncement of the end, of the tragic death of Jack O'Connor and of twenty-four other men who died with him in a mid-air collision between two American B-29 bombers during a bomb run over Shizuoka. Far below, in Japan, in Mr. Yellin's Troy, some two thousand enemy housewives, schoolchildren, elderly, all die in an incendiary that is so intense that the heat and smoke make straight or level flight impossible.
Jack O'Connor is not Mr. Yellin's Achilles; he is, instead, Hector, a hero who endures a miserable death that should have been foretold by his and his aircrew's very first bomb mission months before. On that first mission, on March 10, 1945, O'Connor and his crew were in the trailing segment of a flight in the firebombing of Tokyo. The thermal winds from the fires below were so intense that they blew the plane off course and off altitude. "Bomber directly above with bomb doors open," was shouted over the intercommunications system; the flight commander emergently turned away, jettisoning the bomb load near the center of that particular inferno. As Yellin writes, "The return flight to Guam was uneventful...." Not so on the early morning of June 20, 1945, when a seemingly-identical convergence of O'Connor's B-29 and the airplane above destroyed both aircraft and their crews.
Mr. Yellin's book then departs from both the Greek tradition and from the familiar American story arc. Instead of a writing-school model of non-fiction biography or memoir, an account of victories that have slipped away or of painful revenge upon a difficult enemy, Mr. Yellin traces the startling closeness that in a different time might have joined those who instead became the crews of the B-29 and the Japanese below. The bodies of the American crew are not desecrated; they are, instead, found and buried by a local farmer and city councilman whose uncle, aunt, and cousins were Americans. He eventually became a Buddhist priest and erected a monument to the dead in a holy shrine. Each year he conducts a solemn memorial service for them and, in doing so, uses the only recognizable relic of the bombers, a blackened canteen. Mr. Yellin traces Mr. Itoh's struggles and losses in the war along with those of others in Shizuoka. He also follows Jack O'Connor and his crewmates, young fliers who had given up careers in professional baseball, developing radar, and raising families to dedicate themselves to defeating Japan. Mr. Yellin leads the reader down the separate paths of the crews above and the Japanese below whose lives and deaths become enmeshed in that battle.
Mr. Yellin has written a tragic and troubling account, not of battles and deaths and revenge but, instead, of the cost of war. His warriors and his anxious members of the respective home-fronts are as flawed as Achilles and as fearful as Aeschylus's grieving citizens, engulfed in a war that Mr. Yellin lays at the feet of the demand for oil and steel, surely no more noble a plunder than when Paris abducted Helen. Mr. Yellin's judgment is clear: war contravenes the purpose of life, and the purpose of life is to connect all of nature and all of humanity.
The Blackened Canteen, winner of the Branson Literary Award, is a cautionary tale, a book of foreboding about the destructive power of cultural imperatives. The book might as easily have been written about the wars of religion and terror that permeate the Middle East and, by extension, much of the world, a clash that continues because one side or another or both have so convinced themselves of the rightness of their cause that taking whatever they need from the enemy is not merely acceptable but honorable. Such wars of bombings, of suicide attacks, and of weariness are not new and, apparently, will continue as long as there is no connection between all of nature and all of humanity.
Mr. Yellin was himself a Spartan - he flew fighter escorts during the war over Japan. In doing so he strafed a city where now, more than six decades later, his own son lives with his Japanese wife and family, Mr. Yellin's daughter-in-law and grandchildren. His book, The Blackened Canteen, is of course a book of war. But, unlike Homer's Iliad, unlike Aeschylus's tragedies, Mr. Yellin's book also is a book of hope.
Reviewed by: Jack Woodville London (2010)