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One attic, two books, and WWII

Staff writer

When I trudged up the stairs to the attic in my mother’s house last December, I found things I expected to find: old clothes, old toys, school memorabilia, and more.

What I didn’t expect to find as I sorted through one of the many boxes was my Dad.

Or, more accurately, a piece of my father’s past I knew almost nothing about.

“Two Years c/o Postmaster,” the title read on the thin, yearbook-style book in my hands. At the bottom, two circular patches, and the tagline “13th Troop Carrier Squadron.”

My father, Edward Colburn, passed away in 1987, and along with him went any chance of teasing out of him stories of his days in World War II.

Like most veterans of WWII I’ve encountered, Dad rarely talked about what he did overseas. I knew he was based and flew airplanes in the South Pacific, that he was a pilot for a general, and that he and his crew supposedly dropped pingpong balls on a startled and confused group of natives on some unnamed island. I had assumed I would never know any more.

But suddenly, unexpectedly, this book turned that assumption upside down.

I excitedly flipped through the pages until I found Dad’s picture — and then I sat there for a long moment, staring in disbelief. I knew the name of his unit. I saw pictures of the planes he flew, the men he served with, the place he lived.

Then the questions started to fly, one after another. Every who, what, where, when, why, and how you could imagine.

And in today’s world, what does one do when there are questions to be answered? Google it!

Finding Seth

With all of the interest about WWII in recent years, I was certain my search would yield immediate and impressive results.

How wrong I was! There were a few obscure references to the 13th Troop Carrier Squadron, but little real information.

However, using the squadron’s nickname, “The Thirsty 13th,” gave me a promising lead. Someone in New York was writing a book about the unit. He was going to make a limited number of copies available to squadron members and their families for review.

I had to get on that list. I e-mailed him immediately with my request, and waited impatiently for his response.

Four hours later, I had it. Attached to it was an aerial picture of the camp at Biak, a small island that today is part of Indonesia, and circled on the picture was the exact tent my dad stayed in.

Seth Washburne, a Wall Street investment broker, is the son of one of the unit’s original navigators, John Washburne. Seth knew even less about his father’s experience in the war, as John died when Seth was only 7 years old.

What started as a simple search for information about his father’s service turned into near obsession to discover and tell the story of the Thirsty 13th, leading to a three-year sabbatical from his job.

In his response, I discovered Seth was within days of sending his 800-page book to the printer, but he said he would be happy to include a picture of my dad if I had one.

I didn’t find a suitable picture, but what I found was even more valuable to me, and to Seth — a scrapbook of letters Dad had sent to his mother during his war years. They covered the entire span of his service from his induction at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, Mo., to his departure from the South Pacific following the end of the war.

Now Dad could tell me his war stories, as they happened, in far more detail than we would have covered in conversation. I hung on every word as I transcribed several of the letters for Seth, who felt portions of them could enrich the section about the Biak camp. When I finished, I stayed up late into the night discovering so many things I never knew about my father.

Unexpected Partnership

Sixteen quotes from Dad’s letters found their way into the manuscript, and Seth sent copies of the pages with his quotes for me to review.

What Seth didn’t realize is that I would not only review his work, but proofread it — a quirk likely peculiar to former journalists. I was surprised and a little alarmed at the number of errors I discovered in just these few pages from a book bound for the printer.

I sent back a long list of corrections, and tactfully offered to proofread the entire manuscript for him. He initially declined, but then reversed himself and decided it might be a good idea to have me look at it. He would send me a copy of the book, and we would review the corrections by phone the following week.

When proofreading, one reads for errors, not understanding, so while I learned much about the Thirsty 13th on my first read-through in January, the most important thing I learned was that the book was nowhere close to being ready for printing. Typographical errors, formatting issues, cover design — so many different things that made the book less than the tribute Seth wanted the book to be.

It took two days for us to go over nearly 1,000 corrections and suggestions I had for him. He was astounded with the number of things he had missed.

We had different views on many things, but discovered we worked well together, direct but respectful in our comments, with a surprising amount of humor and general conversation as we got to know each other better.

Initially resistant to many of my formatting suggestions, Seth started coming around by first revising the cover to look more professional, while including more pictures of the men in the unit, and fewer of the Douglas C-47 airplanes that were the mainstay of the transport squadron until larger C-46s were added toward the end of the war.

An offer to improve a few of the nearly 2,000 photos and tables that appear in the book using my skills with Photoshop led to a steady stream of photo fixes.

Several more read-throughs of manuscripts over the ensuing months turned up more corrections and new suggestions. Seth continued his research with more interviews and trips to the National Archives and military bases, resulting in more additions and revisions that brought even more accuracy and detail to the book.

Seth decided he didn’t like the American flag graphic he had for the conclusion page, so I volunteered my photography skills, and began driving around Marion looking for flags.

I settled on the flag flying in front of the Tampa State Bank. The bank’s former president, Ed Costello, was a law partner with my dad in the 1950s — having that flag flying at the conclusion of the book was a nice way to honor their relationship and acknowledge Costello’s own service in the European theater in WWII.

Seth asked for research assistance in solving several visual puzzles. Who were the actresses in the USO photos? What camp was a particular tent in? What is the nose art on these airplanes supposed to be?

Perhaps the best catch I made was in correcting Seth’s impression of the nose art on the C-47 used to fly Eleanor Roosevelt on her trip to the South Pacific. Seth thought the art on “Our Eleanor” resembled a dog, and couldn’t understand what connection that had with the First Lady.

Upon closer inspection and comparison with some maps, I gleefully announced to Seth it was actually a drawing of the Earth, rotated to highlight the South Pacific islands she was visiting.

Over the months, through countless e-mails and marathon phone conversations, we shaped both a book and a new friendship.

In mid-August, almost eight months after Seth first believed the book was ready to be published, he finally sent the final draft to the printer. Our work together has continued as Seth has looked over proof copies and noted things that could be improved. The first copies should roll off the press at the end of September.

About the book

“The Thirsty 13th: The U.S. Army Air Forces Troop Carrier Squadron, 1940 –1945” likely has no equal in how it details the war experiences of one individual squadron of transport pilots and crew members.

Seths stated intent was to have a level of detail of each camp such that a person could, using his book as a guide, walk in precisely the same places their family member did during the war.

He also described at length the daily life and routines the men experienced in each location.

Seventy-two members of the Thirsty 13th contributed interviews, pictures, and written accounts. Seth spent over 6,000 hours and drove over 15,000 miles researching and writing the book, which at nearly 800 pages still has a few places hed like to fill in more information.

This book was designed for the men who served and their families, as well as serious WWII buffs. At 800 pages and a cost of almost $200, it is not for the typical casual reader.

A much smaller second edition of the book is planned for 2012, targeting those who want to know about the overall experience of the unit without getting into the minute detail found in the first edition.

So far, Seth has said he would like to have me collaborate with him on that edition as well, and I look forward to doing so.

While our contributions to the book are vastly different, our purpose and vision is a shared one to honor and preserve the memory of the service of our fathers, and of the fellow members of the 13th Troop Carrier Squadron.

Our fathers served in the unit at different times, but through them, not only a new partnership, but a new friendship has been formed.

And perhaps thats as great a legacy as is the book. I like to think so.

Last modified Sept. 15, 2011

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