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Death Diaries and Plane Doors August 4, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback

A diary today from the door of an American transport plane: crazy, yes, but bear with Beach. Its contents act like smelling salts.

The door in question was off an C-47 nick-named, for reasons that will soon become apparent, the Flying Dutchman. The FD came down  10 November 1942 in jungle over New Guinea, yet 17 of the 23 American crew initially survived.

The entries on the transport door were a makeshift record (in charcoal) of the fortunes of those who stuck around. They begin in a military tone, but slowly that tone changes as desperation and a peculiar kind of gallows-humour kicks in. Think of it as a non-commissioned officer loosening his tie before the dance. There follows a selection.

10 November: ’17 men alive’

11 November: ’16 men alive’

18 November: ‘Chocolate bar’

19 November: ‘Found one chocolate bar’

24 November: ‘First day – no rain.’

27 November: ‘Bucket full [of] water this morning… still got our chin up’.

29 November: ‘Nice clear day. Boy we’re getting weak. Still have our hope.’

30 November: ‘Still going strong on imaginary meals’.

7 December: ‘Year ago today the war started. Boy, we didn’t think of this then.’

10 December: ‘We can take it but it would be nice if someone came.’

17 December: ‘Running out of imaginary meals. Boys shouldn’t be long in coming now – six more shoping [sic] days’.

24 December: ‘Tonite is Christmas eve. God make them happy at home.’

30 December: ‘Johnnie died today.’

1 January: ‘New Year’s Day’ [last entry]

Actually several of the crew got away by crossing country shortly after the crash: 12 and 16 November. It was the diehards and the  injured who stayed and so perished, despite desperate attempts from their officers at home to get them out. One army chaplain managed to hold out to mid January before passing on in the arms of some natives who discovered him.

Welcome then to a much overlooked historical genre the death diary: accounts written by men and women who  suspect that their time on earth is quickly running out and who try and account for what is happening to them. The most famous example is surely Scott’s diary from the Antarctica expedition in 1912. If you want to weep…

But there must be a whole literature hidden away here: what about some of Beach’s earlier posts including the floating will (can there be anything more noble than making sure your near and dear are provided for?); and Perpetua’s dream diary?

There was also another diary thumping around in Beachcombing’s head that involved some men in the Middle Ages stuck underground being attacked by a relentless enemy. It took about two days for Beach to realize that this was a passage from Lord of the Rings read in a distant arrested adolescence: dwarves and orcs if memory serves correctly. Sigh.

Any other (non-fiction) death diaries? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

It might be noted that there is also another piece to be written here on death compositions: poems, works of art, even mathematical formula scribbled out by individuals facing the chop.  Another day, another post.

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4 August 2011: First up is TF who writes: ‘Captain-Lieutenant Dmitri Kolesnikov wrote a short note during the Kursk disaster[blind in the dark]. There are also probably many letters from miners who have been trapped alive during accidents as in this example’ (see below). TF rounds off by saying ‘I’m afraid the subject is too morbid for me to look for more!’ a sentiment Beach shares. Rayg from Segal Books writes in ‘‘The Flying Dutchman’ diary immediately recalls the diaries of Robert Toner and Harold Ripslinger of the Lady Be Good. ’ Then Invisible has a series of linked death diaries including: lady lost in the Nevada Mountains; an Oregon man snowed into his truck; a Woody Guthrie song based on a trapped miner’s letter; some heart breaking ‘smothered’ coal miners’ letters; and a series of famous last letters including several death diaries’ Thanks to Rayg, Invisible and TF!