The Problems With Diaries, Photos, And Memory

The Problems With Diaries, Photos, And Memory

If you’ve been following this project for any time you’re already aware that I put little emphasis on postwar reminiscences. The entire premise of my research has been to use as much original documentation as possible.

Cascading problems of accurate documentation confront every historian. This is a problem in TIDAL WAVE research primarily because so little 376th Bomb Group documentation survived.

Even original diaries written within a day or two of the event can cause problems when trying to determine historical facts. Even original photos have their own problems.


The basic problem with a diary, of course, is that each man writes what he knows and feels at the time he writes it. I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the last week poring over original diaries from TIDAL WAVE men. One of the big things that jump out is how much scuttlebutt (rumor) is recorded as fact. Think about this: when a man in the combat zone hears something from his friends or superiors he’s more likely to regard it as fact than rumor.

If the historian accepts everything in a diary as objective fact (rather than fact as the writer understood it at the time) he’s in for a rough ride. It’s amazing, but understandable, to read how often a man’s diary records on 2 August 1943–the day after the mission–the loss of certain friends during the mission, only to read another entry several days later that the friend was interned in Turkey, landed on Cyprus, etc. In this example the wrong information was corrected within a few days, but it cautions us to wonder how many erroneous entries were never corrected.

Another good example of the German/Italian paratroopers who purportedly landed at various times and places near Benghazi. The participants’ diaries are filled with reports of paratroops landed, captured, killed, etc. Objective reports from official sources show some of these entries are accurate but many simply record the current scuttlebutt.

Yet another example of understandable misreporting in diaries concerns the two airplane sentries killed during the night of 19-20 June 1943. This was big news to the airmen. Every diary records they were killed by German or Italian paratroopers, and that the diarist slept with a gun next to his bed for the next several nights.

However, the official IX Bomber Command investigation report states that because of a rebuffed sexual advance one USAAF guard was murdered by the other, who then committed suicide. No Germans. No Italians.

It’s no surprise the men knew nothing of this, but it remains a good example of recorded “fact” that would be completely misleading without digging deeper into what really happened.

On the other hand, diaries are excellent sources for what the writer personally saw and felt at the time. This is obvious and I won’t expand further here.


Photos are usually a huge help when documenting a historical event, but you must always remember that a photo is merely the record of a particular instant in time. It is not a record of everything that happened, nor even a complete record of what happened at that particular time and place.

Studying the various series of strike photos taken during TIDAL WAVE has strongly reminded me of this limitation. I have 500+ strike photos in my collection. The most useful are those taken as part of a sequence of photos.

Many TIDAL WAVE B-24s had fixed cameras mounted inside the lower right rear fuselage. An external mirror fitting recorded the image directly behind and slightly below the aircraft. For example, I can follow the 44th Bomb Group’s WHITE V (Columbia Aquila) target force from just before their turn at Floresti all the way past the target. As you can imagine, this is a fascinating trip.

Also useful, but often problematic are the photos taken out waist windows with hand-held K-20 cameras. The images recorded by these cameras were at the mercy of the cameraman: when he took each photo and where he was pointing the camera when he took the photo.

A good example of this problem is a series of hand-held camera shots taken out the left waist window of the 98th Bomb Group’s 795-I, flown by LeBrecht. This particular series shows the crash of (probably) 197-A Tagalong. It also clearly shows 98th B-24s dropping their bombs in open fields just past the target area.

More to the point, because the camera was pointed in slightly different directions and the images snapped at unknown but irregular times, it’s very difficult to track with complete certainty the action shown in these several photos.

Another great example are the several photos taken with hand-held cameras in 376th Bomb Group planes of a dummy oil refinery set up east of Ploesti. Since these are individual photos and not part of sequences it’s impossible to know which of the two dummy refineries east of the city the 376th passed by.

A whole spectrum of problems serious scale modelers will appreciate is related to the many “nose art” photos taken of various Liberators that participated in TIDAL WAVE. It is a huge problem to track the accurate name (or names) carried on TW aircraft during the mission. A mountain of incorrect information has been published in books and on the internet.

In particular, the two 9th Air Force bomb groups (98th & 376th) were notorious for renaming aircraft, and even changing the Field Numbers (large two-digit numbers painted on the nose and/or fin). Very often when a new crew took over an old plane the previous nickname and artwork was changed on one or both sides of the nose.

At least one model airplane decal company has depicted wrong “Hail Columbia” for John Kane’s ship on the mission. They didn’t realize that although Kane previously flew a ship he’d named “Hail Columbia,” he picked a different aircraft for the TIDAL WAVE mission and named it “Hail Columbia.” These were two different B-24s and had completely different artwork.

The three 8th Air Force bomb groups sent to the desert for TIDAL WAVE (44th, 93rd, and 389th) had the same issue, but to a lesser degree and generally not during the time they were deployed to North Africa.


To continue my rant against wholesale reliance on reminiscences, let us all be reminded of the problems police have when interviewing eyewitnesses to a traumatic event. Typically each sees something different: he was tall, he was short; he was white, he was purple; it was a man, it was a woman, etc. You can’t watch a reality TV cop show without getting a sense of this problem. Eyewitnesses are simply not reliable.

I learned how severe this problem is back in the late ’70s when I interviews hundreds of veterans. Very frequently a vet would tell me a story, but his fellow crewmen would jump in to point out he had the wrong mission, plane, or people in mind. I soon learned it was better to interview the whole crew at once than each man individually.

It also turns out the seminal Ploesti: The Great Ground-Air Battle of 1 August 1943 written by Cal Stewart and Jim Dugan has created a huge problem for trying to decipher participants’ reminiscences. The book is a true tour de force and if you don’t have it, get it now. Cal Stewart did Herculean work finding and recording every snippet of official and anecdotal information that was available at the time it was written in the 1960-61 period.

The problem–which I’ve encountered repeatedly in veteran interviews–is that over time some of the vets have confused what they actually saw or knew at the time with what they read in the famous book. Time after time the person I was interviewing would stop in the middle of a sentence, pause, and say “I’m not sure whether I saw that or read about it in the book.” That’s a scary thing for a historian to hear.

Another huge problem is intentional editing by the speaker to make himself look better or seem more dramatic after the fact. This problem is certainly not limited to TIDAL WAVE reminiscences; it’s so pervasive that any personal account must be read with a sense of skepticism. At least one senior participant has written extensive self-aggrandizing accounts of what happened.

I am NOT saying everybody lies, or that everybody misremembers. I am absolutely saying that every reminiscence must be taken with a grain of salt. Skepticism is the historian’s greatest strength when dealing with memory.

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