The Incarnation of a Wish

Catch-22 tells the story of Yossarian, a bombardier with the US Army Air Corps during WWII. Yossarian becomes convinced that the military will never let him go home as they keep raising the required number of missions – so he seeks another way out. In 2011, we finally found my grandfather’s war diary; this was the diary my father always said I should compare to Catch-22. What followed was years of research and a realization that Papa Julie’s World War II story was known by millions, but somehow eluded those of us closest to him.

Working through my grandfather’s diary I began to notice the names of some of the people Joseph Heller identified as inspirational for Catch-22 characters. Papa Julie’s wrote how he spent June 15th, 1944 taking 35mm pictures with Mauno Lindholm, who Heller wrote inspired Milo Minderbinder, and how his friend Joe Chrenko, who Heller noted as inspiring Hungry Joe, left on a trip to Naples on December 17th, 1944.

I began to wonder…if my grandfather’s circle of friends inspired some of the characters, could my grandfather have also inspired a character? Catch-22 has a broad supporting cast…who could he have been?

Of all of the characters Heller ties to real people, Yossarian, the novel’s protagonist, is the only one for which Heller only attributes an inspiration for the character’s name, none of his traits, characteristics, or experiences.

“As I have mentioned to you, there was in my squadron a bombardier named Yohannan who was called by the nickname “Yo-Yo.”  In no other respects was he like Yossarian, whose actions are based more on my own attitudes and experiences than on anybody else’s.”
(Joseph Heller’s February 27, 1961 letter to Simon & Schuster)

Similarly, in his memoir, “Now and Then”, Heller offers only, “In a nearby tent just across a railroad ditch in disuse was the tent of a friend, Francis Yohannan, and it was from him that I nine years later derived the unconventional name for the heretical Yossarian. The rest of Yossarian is the incarnation of a wish.”

Francis Yohannan, a native of Philadelphia, PA, served as a bombardier, and flew 66 missions in B-25’s while stationed on Corsica with Fish and Heller. Yohannan’s decorations included the Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star, and Air Medal.

Yohannan continued to serve in the military after World War II, making the military his career. As noted in his obituary, “Yohannan racked up more than 9,000 air hours in B-25s, B-36s during the 1950s, B-52 bombers carrying hydrogen bombs during the 1950s and ’60s, including the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, and Phantom fighters during the Vietnam War.”

Francis Yohannan was clearly a US war hero, but his continued military service after WWII places him at odds with Yossarian’s feelings towards the military. His biography does not sound like the inspiration for a character most known for trying to get out of active combat and adopted as an icon of the anti-war movement.

Maybe this is why, as noted in his obituary, Yohannan “turned aside calls from reporters who asked if he was the real-life Yossarian”.

While no one in our family seems to recall Papa Julie ever talking about a friend named Francis, they sure did seem to be friends during the war, as evidenced by multiple pictures together…riding in a Jeep, traveling, posing with weapons drawn, posing in flak jackets. In the following photo, Francis Yohannan is in the center holding his pet Friggie (Huple’s Cat in Catch-22…more on Friggie in my prior post –  and my grandfather, Lt. Fish is the shorter of the two other men on Yohannan’s side.

So, if Yossarian wasn’t based on Francis Yohannan, who else could it have been? Maybe Joseph Heller himself? What wish is Heller referring to when describing Yossarian as “the incarnation of a wish”?

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