Reflections of a World War II Aviator
By Samuel Hynes; Frederic C. Beil & Naval Institute Press; 270 pages.
“Every generation,” writes Samuel Hynes in the preface to his new book, “is a secret society.” The secret his generation shared was the experience of coming of age in the Second World War. Hynes was eighteen when he entered Navy Flight School, and not yet twenty-one when the war ended. In the meantime, he’d learned to fly in combat effectively enough to earn an Air Medal and a Distinguished Flying Cross in the Pacific. Afterward he went back to the normal business of living, became Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature at Princeton, and wrote books on the Edwardians and on W. H. Auden. But still he carried the secret. It “made us different from those who were older or younger than ourselves, or who were not in the war. I can’t formulate the differences in terms that seem adequate to the experience, but perhaps I can recover something of the experience itself.”
To do so, Hynes has tried, he says, “to tell it with the voice of the young man who lived it, and to see it with his eyes, and not to impose upon it the revisionary wisdom of age.” Though this intention carries with it the alarming possibility of a cloying, disingenuous simplicity, Hynes instantly finds the voice he seeks, and his memoir is written with unfailing grace and clarity.
Every stage of his development as a pilot is described with a richness of observation. Here, picked at random, is a routine flight at the beginning of his career: “It was late as I flew back from some practice solo, and the sun was nearly set, but the air was still warm and bright. … Below me lights began to come on in houses and farms, and everything that was not a light became dark and indistinct, so that the ground was almost like a night sky. But still I flew on in sunlight. The surface of the plane seemed to absorb and hold the light and color of the sunset; brightness surrounded me. It was as though the earth had died, and I alone was left alive.”
Hynes brings the same sense of both mood and specific to every aspect of his years as a flier: the training, the endless chatter with his fellow pilots-to-be about sex, his plunge into marriage, the death of friends, the indispensable drinking and bawdy songs, the planes, the fighting. It is not a book about war, although of course the war informs it throughout, nor about hardware, although Hynes is very good on it (“That month the Navy took away half the squadron’s TBM’s and gave us SB2C’s instead. These were the Navy’s new divebombers, bigger and faster than the SBD’s 1 had trained in but in every other way less satisfactory … some public relations man had decided to call the SB2C the Helldiver, and it was as showy and as phony as the name, like a beach athlete, all muscle and no guts”). Inevitably the “wisdom of age” that the author sought to keep at bay seeps quietly onto every page, and Flights of Passage is a calm, poetic, and sometimes very funny musing on the quality of youth, and the gains and losses that come with the passing of time.