Today’s TowleREAD comes from Ensan Case’s Wingmen, an outstanding classic war novel about men in love which now is back in print.
Wingmen is the story of two World War II Navy pilots who become friends and fall in love amid the American struggle against the Japanese and their own struggle with the threat of exposure aboard their aircraft carrier. Case realistically describes the fighter squadron’s intense comradeship and focuses on how two officers, Fred Trusteau and Jack Hardigan, separately realize that what they feel is more than friendship, and cautiously navigate the dangers surrounding them to become lovers.
A former Navy officer and an expert on the Pacific War, Case takes the reader into life aboard ship in wartime, and presents powerful aerial battle episodes that are almost cinematic. The book gives intense psychological insight into the experience of men who love men in a situation where homophobia makes it almost impossible for them to express what they feel. Fred and Jack are compelling characters who Case takes through a range of emotions from comedy to passion to the excitement and terror of battle and its aftermath.
First published by Avon Books in 1979, Wingmen received a very good review in The Advocate but eventually went out of print. The author published a second, mainstream-oriented novel, then “drifted away from fiction writing into working for a living,” he tells us.
He explains more:
“In 2011, I retired from the employment of a small (but busy) resort island, where I had worked in another homosocial environment as a police officer for twenty years. I moved away…to the backwoods of South Georgia.”
In emptying the attic to move, Case rediscovered the notes and correspondence for Wingmen and a copy of the original manuscript, and so, he explains:
“…on a whim, in July, 2011, I googled ‘Wingmen Ensan Case’ and was astounded to discover that it had not disappeared from existence, but had become a sort of cult classic. In an amazing coincidence, author Elliott Mackle had reviewed the book for Amazon.com in June, 2011, one month before I emptied the attic. There were dozens of reviews, and many, many mentions on blogs and forums. Most assumed that I was a veteran of the conflict and, therefore, long dead.”
Case arranged to reissue Wingmen, with Cheyenne Books in 2012 and then with Lethe Publishing in 2014. The novel continues to win the love of readers—on YouTube there’s a score written for a projected film, and a Russian fan has created a stunning video of a trailer for a film of Wingmen. (Let’s hope Hollywood is listening.)
Case explains about the most moving response he received:
“…The most gratifying reader response came from one of a handful of letters forwarded to me from Avon Books soon after the first edition appeared in 1979. …[The] letter came from a very special person. I’ll call him Jack. Jack was an Army Air Force pilot… Flying the twin-engined P-38 Lockheed Lightning, he became one of the Army’s first aces, fighting the Germans in North Africa… Highly decorated and an early military celebrity, he eventually ended up in England… Shortly after D-Day, he was shot down by ground fire, but managed to make his way, with French underground assistance, back through the Normandy battle lines to safety and his squadron, of which he was now the commanding officer. Now flying the P-51 Mustang, he added three more kills to his total before the war ended.”
As Case explains, immediately after the war, Jack wrote a book about his career as an Army pilot, which coincidentally also was published in 1979:
“[Jack’s book] related his experiences as a womanizing, heavy-drinking, hell-for-leather fighter pilot breaking all the rules in search of a good time and a chance to vanquish the hated enemy. It was all true, of course, except for one detail: there were no women in the real story. He had been involved in ardent sexual relationships with two pilots in his squadron. In our correspondence he never revealed what happened to the two pilots, and I never asked. Jack subsequently maneuvered successfully through the minefields of being a prominent citizen of his community and an unmarried man with a close and lifelong male companion….In his first hand-written letter, which I received in 1980, Jack gave me the greatest accolade an author can receive: he told me that Jack and Fred’s story had been his story as well, and he regretted being unable to honestly tell it to the world.”
Wingmen will appeal not just to vets who survived the long era of anti-gay discrimination in the U.S. armed services, which ended with the repeal of the military’s ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ policy in 2011, but to anyone who knows what it’s like to love another of the same sex in an environment where it’s forbidden.
Listen to this excerpt from the Audible edition, describing Fred and Jack flying their Hellcat fighters at dusk and encountering an enemy plane as it tries to attack their aircraft carrier:
In two more short excerpts, the love affair blossoms. The first describes an uneasy encounter between Fred and Jack early in their relationship, and the second reveals them later on, when they’ve overcome their hesitation and mistrust and have secretly become lovers:
As part of its sponsorship of TowleREAD, Audible is offering a free download of Ensan Case’s Wingmen at Audible.com with a 30-Day Trial membership for Towleroad readers.