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On the Anniversary of D-Day: Making World War II Personal

lead-5This Friday, June 6, marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied landings at Normandy, involving the largest invasion force ever amassed. The overall contours of the Normandy invasion are pretty well-known at this point: the 150,000-plus Allied forces involved, the thousands killed or injured in an enormous assault that led to the eventual liberation of Western Europe and the collapse of the Third Reich. This was the epic military event of the century.

What’s harder for most of us to keep sight of is this: Every single one of those numbers—each of the Allied forces, each of the German soldiers, and each of the French civilians who were killed or liberated in the subsequent days—represents an individual person’s story of war experience—and, by extension, the experience of family members.

Thomas M. Tierney

I got to thinking about this recently when, clearing things from my attic, I came across a box of items belonging to my late father, Thomas M. Tierney, who, in his twenties, was a fighter pilot in World War II. He served in the European theater, in a fighter squadron that was active in the lead-up to D-Day, during the invasion itself, and in the months following.

Among the items in the dust-covered box of his effects were his leather flight helmet and goggles and his “Pilot Flight Record,” a small 4.5″x7.5” log book containing his flying notes from his earliest days in flight training in 1942 through the end of his service in 1945. (More on this below.)

I hauled the box down to the dining room and disgorged its contents onto the table there. While I was vaguely familiar with some of the material in it, I had never studied it closely. When I did so, it was a revelation—and provided, for me, a much more personal, even intimate, portrait of the war and those who lived it.

Dad’s “Flight Record And Log Book” tells stories he never divulged to us. It contains the day-by-day record of his combat missions and sorties. The details in the book—and the additional research they’ve prompted from me—have fleshed out his war experience and cast new light on the intersection of that experience with his marriage and thus, on our family history. I find some of it quite moving.

My dad was 22 and finishing law school at the University of Denver when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the U.S entered the war. He immediately applied for air-cadet training and, by February of 1942, he was at an Army Air Corps flight school in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Then on to Enid, Oklahoma and San Antonio, Texas. By September, he had completed his cadet training and was commissioned as an officer stationed at Key Field in Meridian, Mississippi, where he started instructing other pilots on, by my count, at least five different kinds of planes. He was there until the end of 1943, when his fighter squadron prepared to head to England for combat duty.

My parents were married in late April, 1943, when my dad managed to get a brief leave to return to Denver, where my mother, Betty Fairall, was living, and where they both had grown up. From their wedding until the end of that year, my mother lived with my dad in officers’ barracks at Key Field.

She then returned to her family’s home in Denver, because in early 1944, my dad’s squadron—the 492nd Fighter Squadron (part of the 48th Fighter-Bomber Group)—ended its two years of intensive flight training, left Key Field, and went to the East Coast. The group spent three months in South Carolina, conducting coastal patrol missions, and training in the fearsome P-47 Thunderbolt, the plane that they would use in combat.

When my dad learned that his fighter squadron would be sent to England for combat duty in March of 1944, my mother traveled from Denver to the East Coast to bid him farewell.

Herbert C. Fairall

My three older brothers and I have long known the basics of what happened next, but I, at least, was unaware of the timing, the juxtaposition of dates, and what it all must have been like for my parents.

On her return trip to Denver, my mother took a train to Omaha, Nebraska. Her father, Herbert C. Fairall (in photo, at left), a prominent newspaper publisher and businessman in Denver, drove to Omaha to pick her up and take her the rest of the way home, thinking the drive would give them quality time to spend together.

In Ogallala, Nebraska, driving in the midst of a snowstorm, my mother and her dad had a horrific automobile accident on state route 30 (now I-80), colliding with a bus. He was killed instantly. My mother (photo below, right) suffered severe leg injuries (multiple compound fractures of her right leg) and was hospitalized for more than a week in Nebraska before she could return home to Denver for more care.

Betty R. Tierney

What I had not known, until I pieced together all the details I gleaned from the materials in the dusty box, was that this trip of my mother’s was to see my father before he embarked to Europe. (I had thought it was just a visit to see him at his training base in Mississippi.) The automobile accident was on March 21, 1944. By that date, my dad’s squadron was halfway to England aboard the RMS Queen Mary, having left New York on March 13, not to arrive until the 28th in Gourock, Scotland.

So, as Mom lay in a hospital bed in Ogallala, she was dealing with her father’s tragic death and the knowledge that her husband would soon see combat. And as Dad arrived in Europe to prepare for combat, he was finding out that his bride of 11 months was in a rural Nebraska hospital, suffering from severe injuries, and that his father-in-law had been killed as part of the effort to bring the two of them together before my dad’s departure for Europe.

My father didn’t have time to indulge his anguish. Immediately upon arrival in Scotland, his squadron and fighter-bomber group boarded a train that for two days would carry them south to their first overseas base, RAF Ibsley in southern England, where they were assigned to the Ninth Air Force. The Wikipedia page about the 492nd Fighter Squadron describes their activity when they arrived there:

Almost immediately after their arrival, the squadron began a rigorous training program, flying dive-bombing, glide bombing, night flying, low-level navigation, smoke laying, reconnaissance, and patrol convoy sorties. Over the next two months, the number of sorties steadily increased and the squadron flew its first combat mission on 20 April 1944—an uneventful fighter sweep of the occupied French coast.

Assisted the Normandy invasion by dropping bombs on bridges and gun positions, attacking rail lines and trains, and providing visual reconnaissance reports. Moved to France in mid-June 1944, supporting ground operations of Allied forces moving east across northern France throughout the war: primarily providing support for the United States First Army. Eventually was stationed in Occupied Germany on V-E Day.

That summary syncs with my dad’s own flight record. Here are a few pages from it, with his notes about heavy flak, dive-bombing, strafing trains, etc. The time notations to the right of the dates refer not to time of day but to the duration of each flight.




The marginalia at the top of several pages are hard to read. They note the deaths or mishaps of his comrades. Here’s a transcript:

5-20-44    Litch bailed out PW [prisoner of war?]
5-25-44    Ball killed
6-15-44    Johnson lost
7-02-44    Jarratt & Lamb knocked down—both OK
7-09-44    Johnson knocked down—landed OK
7-11-44    Allen knocked down
7-16-44    Forbes knocked off my wing—landed OK
Harrison killed
Beisner killed

As someone unfamiliar with combat, I find it difficult to imagine what it must be like to end a day by cataloging the horrors that have befallen one’s mates. But having seen this detailed record of his experiences in combat flight, it’s now easier for me to understand why our dad didn’t want to discuss the war. Some veterans talk a lot about their war experiences; some don’t. Dad didn’t. At most, he told stories about flying over Key Field in Mississippi and, like the other pilots, tipping the wings of his plane in salute to his new wife on the ground below.

About combat itself, he spoke hardly at all. But occasionally, with a self-deprecating laugh, he would refer to a time he clipped the wing of his plane on a tree and had to fly back to England, wondering if he would make it. In the box of his belongings, I found a yellowed news clipping from the Denver newspapers, referring to that incident. Apparently, my dad was one of the American pilots who discovered the Nazis were using railroad box cars to camouflage big guns. The story he told when he got back to England from a May 21 mission to attack German trains showed how low-t0-the-ground some American fighter pilots got during strafing expeditions. From the news article:

“I made my run at a train , avoiding flak from disguised boxcars,” Captain Tierney said after the raid. “The engine disintegrated in smoke and steam as I came in at about 10 feet above the ground.

“I was so intent on that engine that a big tree loomed up right in front of me. I pulled up fast, but went through the top of it and tore off my wing tips, smashed one wing and part of the cowling and bent my propeller.”

The entry in his flight book for that day read merely: “Strafing trains in France. Blew up one engine.”

Another news article reported on a mission he flew on July 8:

About 100 fighter-bombers poured shells and bombs into Nazi trenches just a few hundred yards ahead of the advancing Yanks. Officials said it was the greatest close air support mission ever aimed at a single target.

Capt. Tierney led the first squadron of planes in a dive from 6,500 feet to skim over the Nazi troops and drop lethal charges into their midst, opening the way for the ground fighters to advance. Ultraprecise bombing was necessary to prevent casualties to the Americans, separated from the Nazis by only a narrow no-man’s-land.

Again, his flight book entry that day was succinct: “Dive bombed at St. Eny [Sainteny, France]. UP story.”  (War reporters for the Associated Press and United Press regularly sent dispatches back to cities and towns around America about homeboys’ exploits.)

My dad apparently was a very good fighter pilot and was highly decorated for his service, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with 13 oak-leaf clusters, and the French Croix-de-Guerre. He also was awarded a Purple Heart (I think, for that clipped-wing incident). He held the rank of major when he was discharged from the service in December 1945.

Dad came through the war years relatively unscathed (though we can never know what he regularly relived in his mind). Most people who knew him would surely have described him as a happy man. My mother wasn’t as fortunate. The automobile accident that killed her father was followed in swift order by the combat death of her beloved cousin in Italy and then the near-fatal injury of her only brother during the Battle of Saipan. For the rest of her life, she suffered from serious depression and severe anxiety. No wonder.

Yes, I’m aware that this story is not unusual. Hundreds of thousands experienced horrors during World War II. All wars have significant effects on combatants and their families. And many of those stories are, unfortunately, much more harrowing than the one I’ve told here.

I write this merely to provide some individual faces and texture to the coverage of the D-Day anniversary—and to honor my dad’s contributions in the war and those of all the other brave and heroic people who served, especially those who lost their lives or suffered life-changing injuries. This is what anniversaries are good for. They’re occasions to remember and reflect.


This piece originally appeared at

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You Think YOUR Mother Was Crazy?

Happy Mother's Day.  

Mothers: a fine thing to celebrate.  But no matter how much we love our mothers, most of us at one time or another consider them crazy. The leitmotif of many memoirs and mother-offspring cartoons is the adult child on the therapist's couch, talking about the psychological harms caused by Mother. 

You, too?  Well, quit your whining.  Any time you feel sorry for the harms you suffered at your mother's hands, just fire up the little video below to put things in perspective. It could have been a lot worse.


From Weird Universe


Chicago Gala

Last weekend (March 28th), Sue and I were in Chicago for a gala event, held in the Grand Ballroom of the Chicago Hilton.  Below, you see Sue, me, and the Grand Ballroom. (Click on each thumbnail to pull up the full-size photo.)


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The last time I was in that ballroom was in 1995, when David Yalof and I delivered a paper at the annual American Political Science Association convention.  The hotel was packed, and the APSA was using every available space in the hotel.  Yalof and I spoke in that huge ballroom before a "crowd" of about 14 people. Pretty humilitating.  But it was a damn good paper. 



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Tidal Arms: America’s Best New Heavy Rock Band

There’s some element of parental pride here, but even so, it’s fair to say that the best new heavy rock band in America is Tidal Arms.  They’re currently finishing up a nationwide tour (see their schedule here) as the opening band for the well-known metal group Glassjaw. 

Tidal+Arms They have a fabulous new album, The Sun Exploding (cover image at right), which was recently featured on iTunes.  (You can access it on iTunes by searching for the band name or the album name.)  And here’s a review of that album, from the rock-review website Exploding in Sound.  Note the fabulous things said here about Tom Tierney’s singing and guitar-playing.

In the darkness of Brooklyn, a borough overrun by hipsters in fluorescent tees, bad haircuts, and skinny jeans, a juggernaut has emerged. A massive force ready to shake the lo-fi scenesters’ very foundations of what is truly awesome has been awakened. They go by the name of Tidal Arms, and thankfully, they’re bringing the heavy back into one of the East Coast’s finest musical communities on their self-released debut The Sun Exploding. The trio is comprised of Tom Tierney (vocals/guitar), Patrick Southern (bass), and most notably former From Autumn to Ashes/Warship member Francis Mark (drums), but don’t let his past affiliations fool you, Tidal Arms is 100% a beast of its own nature. The guys have constructed a careful balance of the complex and the serene, interspersing dizzying time changes and mind altering math rock with dense walls of sound and expansive atmospherics nearing post-rock territory. Cloudy vocals float between brutal guitars, thick as bricks rhythms, and the secret ingredient… a healthy dose of psychedelic indie rock. Tidal Arms may be the most badass band to emerge from the thriving Brooklyn scene in sometime, and they succeed without alienating any audiences. Indie kids, metal-heads, math rock freaks, post-punkers, stoners, psych rockers, and yes… even hipsters, can all agree that The Sun Exploding was intelligently constructed by a band who clearly loves the music they’re making, creating a phenomenal debut album in the process.

“The Dust Collecting” quietly starts the album’s gracious ascent, offering shimmering post-rock fuzz that grows with intensity via earth rumbling bass accents. Serving as an intro for title track “The Sun Exploding,” the segue is seamless. The band begins to flex their math rock muscle with swarming rhythms and circular riffs that dance around the dense drums fills. Tierney’s vocal performance is restrained yet spectacular as it creeps through the shadows of the mix, never forcing its way to the front. “Past Prosperity” takes a more aggressive approach, arriving with a dark and ominous intro as though Jaws was about to come rip you in half. The tension is quickly snapped as Tidal Arms burst forward into acrobatic riffs and monstrous low end treading between spastic post-punk and sludgy stoner rock. It’s this kind of juxtaposition that makes the trio unique, as they keep you transfixed on what will come next then delivering with a knockout blow.

Tidal+arms+band “Heavy Brainfall” slowly drips listeners into just about the complete opposite direction, forgoing the manic heaviness for a slower ambient texturing. While the gentle spaced out melody does eventually gain some force, the song continues along in a peaceful drift until the eventual crescendo and gorgeous heavy conclusion. Tierney doesn’t miss an opportunity to make an impression though, as he lights up the song’s hook with shimmering finger tapping while managing to keep things rather calm in the process. Keeping the listener on their toes, “Driftwood” cranks the intensity right back to 11, opting for a guttural attack of polyrhythms and woozy distorted vocals seemingly inspired by the likes of Drive Like Jehu or The Jesus Lizard. The mayhem breaks down to a crawl during the bridge, clearing all the distortion and allowing for a dazzling discordant stroll as Tierney’s voice is given the rare but welcomed spotlight. “Hair and Teeth” arrives with a quiet vocal intro soaked in reverb, slithering forward over the staccato guitar picking before the rhythm rages in, Mark’s cymbals erasing any calming sensibility. Tierney let’s his vocal chords loose during the second verse, howling and shouting in a way that would make David Yow proud. This isn’t clean and nice, the word “pretty” doesn’t really apply here and we’re grateful for that.

“Several Circles” draws the reigns back into murky psychedelic atmosphere, trading sheer walls of sound for delicate textures and dreamy layering. Explosive tempo shifts twist and turn in every direction, with Mark and Southern contorting the rhythm without warning into their own brilliant design.  “Lower Slaughter” oozes with a syrupy drawl from Tierney, dragging the stoned melody over the shifting time signatures and Southern’s thick bass groove. For a debut record, it simply doesn’t get much tighter than this. The vibe remains dark and expansive on “Swarm in Five,” a spiraling instrumental track steeped in post-rock grandiosity tangled with furious post-punk complexity. “Social Landlord” brings the gloom into an uptempo path of destruction, pushing further into the heavy psych realm with hypnotic riffs and a thunderous rhythmic workout. Tierney’s guitar playing jumps to warp speed as the diabolical riff buries itself deep into your memory for days on end. With the band serving as support on the legendary Glassjaw’s first major national tour in quite some time, Tidal Arms are sure to get the exposure they deserve and look to establish themselves as a definite contender for 2011’s “rookie of the year.”

Very proud dad here.

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Betty Tierney: A Life Well Lived

DSC_0052 At the age of 91, my mother, Betty R. Tierney, expired on December 2, 2010.  She died from complications caused by pneumonia.

She brought four of us into this world — my brother Pat, of Vail, CO; my brother Tom, of Seattle, WA; my brother Dennis, of Portland, OR; and me.  She was married to our Dad, Thomas M. Tierney, from 1943 until his death in 2001.

Betty was born in Denver, CO, in 1919, and attended public schools there until high school, when she enrolled in St. Mary's Academy, a Catholic school for girls. She was a bit of a rebel there, and once got suspended for violating the school dress code by wearing "short shorts."  As the photo at right indicates, she had legs to be proud of. TMT-2007-053

She attended Rosary College in River Forest, Illinois, but World War II interrupted her studies and she never completed her degree.

She and my Dad married during the war.  My Dad was a fighter pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps, earning many medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal (with thirteen oakleaf clusters), and the Croix de Guerre.  After visiting him at a stateside airbase before he went to his assignment in Britain, my mother took a train to St. TMT-2007-090 Louis, where her father drove (from Denver) to pick her up by car.  On their way back to Colorado, they had a horrible traffic accident in a blinding snowstorm in Nebraska — a head-on collision with a bus. Her father died instantly, and my mother suffered severe injuries, including multiple compound fractures of her right leg.

In some ways, my mother's life was dominated by a single dichotomy: through much of her life, she was surrounded by family members very much in the public limelight, yet she herself was intensely private and introverted.

Her father, Herbert C. Fairall, was a prominent Denver businessman and newspaper publisher who was elected State Treasurer.  One of her sisters, Eleanor, was married to Colorado Governor Ralph Carr, who is best known for courageously denouncing the herding of Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II.  Eleanor herself later was elected to the Colorado state legislature in the 1950s, one of the few women to hold such an office at the time.  TMT-2007-056 My dad, Thomas M. Tierney, was a Denver attorney and civic leader who became president of Colorado Blue Cross  in the early 1960s. (That's him in the photo to the right.)  In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to be Director of the Medicare program for the United States — a position he held for ten years, longer than any other Medicare director in the program's history.

Even though my mother's family associations (especially her marriage to my father) constantly thrust her into a public role, she was never comfortable with that world, preferring the quiet and solitude of home life.  She loved to read (mostly mysteries) and, in her earlier years, was a skilled artist.

Born and raised in Denver, she always considered it her home, even though she lived away from there almost half her life.

TMT-2007-209 When my father died in 2001, my mother had one week of living on her own before falling and breaking her hip.  (It was, I believe, a week she enjoyed, in a fashion, as she was finally out from under my Dad's large shadow.)  In the wake of her injury, my brothers and I decided that we would move her up to Boston to live near me, since at the time I seemed best positioned to take care of her.   She was 82 at the time, and none of us imagined that she would live too long (old people with hip breaks typically don't).  This seemed especially true when, two months later, she fell and broke her pelvis. 

But Betty Tierney was a stubborn survivor.  She had already by that time survived a horrific automobile accident in her 20s and stomach cancer at the age of 70.  In the years she was here in Boston, she had three heart attacks, several bouts of congestive heart failure, breast cancer, and another run-in with pneumonia.

Sc00aa4ec5 She was, as a friend of mine said, "one tough lady."  But if you'd met her, you'd never have thought of her as tough. She was the sweetest, gentlest person on Earth.  It's true, though, that she clung to life fiercely, tenaciously.  I believe that's partly because the Roman Catholic Church — of which she was a devout, lifelong adherent — literally put "the fear of God" into her, teaching her nonsense about purgatory and divine retribution. She was afraid to die and thus fought the Grim Reaper to the very end.  Why?  What sort of punishment in the afterlife could she have feared?  I once asked her what she thought her worst sin was.  She said, in all seriousness, that she had "unkind thoughts about some people."  Good lord!

She was a very good woman, devoted to her family and her God.  I do not share the faith she held. But if she was correct about all that, then she is seated now at the right hand of her Lord, for she was as good, in every sense, as a person can possibly be.  If she was not correct about it, then she's still okay, for she lives on brightly in the hearts and minds of those of us who loved her in this world.  And she will be with us for as long as we are here.


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New York — and a Film

We were in Brooklyn, NY, this weekend, visiting son Tom.  He and his two roommates have done a great job with the challenging living space they have available to them.  New York sucks, in my opinion.  But when I look at it through the eyes of these young musicians, I see its magic.

Also magical is a movie we took in over the weekend — Bright Star, Jane Campion's superb new film starring Abby Cornish, with Ben Whishaw as John Keats.  A lovely, literate film.  Go see it.