This likeable novel opens on the island of Guam in the Marianas, where twenty-year-old Airman 2nd Class John Montez is stationed with the 19th Bomb Group, Far East Air Force. He’s angry with himself for not joining the Marines like many of his friends and relatives have. A tough fighting unit with esprit de corps, that’s what he wants; instead, he’s servicing B-29 bombers as part of the ground support.
The surprise outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 provides Montez with some of the adventure he’s craving. He gets sent from Guam to Okinawa, with he and his crew responsible for a B-29 bomber – a huge four-engine aircraft carrying a payload of eight tons of bombs. Their particular bomber is the “Pesky Fly.” On missions flying as far as the Yalu River, which marks the border between North Korea and its ally China, the Pesky Fly notches up more missions than any other bomber. This is not just fictional coloring; the author is drawing on first-hand experience. As with Montez, Arthur Oroz was sent to Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa as part of the ground crew for the “Blue Tail Fly,” a notable B-29 of the 19th Bombardment Group, 20th Air Force. It was the first B-29 to fly one hundred missions over Korea. (Incidentally, the name comes from an 1840s minstrel song that was given new popularity a century later by folk singer Burl Ives and the Andrews Sisters.)
Despite the wartime setting, Okinawa Moon is in many ways a book about friendship.
Montez wasn’t part of the group. He wasn’t part of any group. They were onstage, and Montez was part of the audience. Growing up in the San Joaquin Valley as a poor Mexican-American and a loner had been a misery. He was beat up by the “Okies” when they could catch him, and shunned as an oddball by his fellow Mexican-Americans.
Good friends are important when you’re an odd-man out, and among the ground crew is his best friend Edwards: “They were a strange pair, always together, yet from completely different backgrounds: Edwards, a relaxed, soft-spoken Southerner, and Montez a reserved, introspective Mexican-American from Central California.”
When the two friends leave base looking for adventure – typically involving beer and/or women – they head as far away as they can from the more populated southern parts of the island where the majority of GIs work and play.
Montez finds that the local Okinawans are more open with him because of his Mexican ancestry, “and told him things they would not tell other GIs. They felt Montez would understand their plight—a conquered nation full of swaggering soldiers, buying their women and destroying their island.”
Placing young men at arms in an exotic location obvious gives these characters a foreign world to discover and lots of mistakes to make, which is good subject material. However, one of the striking things about this overseas education that comes through in Okinawa Moon is how it helped Americans to meet their fellow countrymen. Montez encounters Americans from different states almost as if they were from different countries. It’s amazing how much regional distinctiveness has decreased over a relatively short time.
Montez and Edwards befriend an American serviceman called Shelby, who is from the moneyed elite and memorably ugly. Shelby falls for a local working girl, Mariko, of sunny disposition but also ugly. “Like Shelby, she found it hard to find “friends” of the opposite sex, which was calamitous in her profession.” Shelby decides to marry Mariko, which is problematic: As Edwards explains, “You know the Air Force won’t let you get married if they get wind of this…they might not even let you off the base or transfer you.”
The two friends try to talk Shelby out of it, but to no avail. A racist Mississippian, an assistant crew chief in Montez’s unit, Staff Sergeant Easley, expresses his disgust at the union and the prospect of “Mongrelizing the white race.” Other men don’t voice their opinions so directly but are thinking similar thoughts.
When something happens to Shelby, Montez is presented with a moral dilemma – whether to extract revenge and if so how. It provides the novel with an exciting climax.
Okinawa Moon is self-published and it sometimes shows; there are mistakes, a lack of time signposting, in one small passage a jarring change of narrator, and so on, but these don’t detract from enjoying the novel, and the overall quality of writing is good; and having paid just a dollar for the ebook edition you can’t complain about the price. The novel is written with sympathy for the Okinawan people, who were during the early 1950s still struggling out from the physical and human devastation wrought by the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.
The book has a lot of heart and verisimilitude, no doubt because it’s basically a fictionalized memoir. Arthur Oroz enlisted in the USAF in February 1949 on turning seventeen. Following mechanical training in Texas, he was sent to Anderson AFB in Guam, and then to Okinawa. Among the novel’s characters are real people from that time, including his best friend Edwards from Tennessee (they’re still good friends and chat often).
Okinawa Moon will be a rewarding read for anyone with experience of or an interest in the U.S. military presence in the Far East. In fact, it was recently a popular book club choice at the Kadena Air Base. The novel is available from Amazon.com.