“I have a confession”

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.

As discussed in my prior post, Francis Yohannan admittedly did not view himself as the true inspiration for Yossarian and the fact that he continued to serve in the military after WWII runs counter to Yossarian’s desire to end his military service. Based on Joseph Heller’s February 27, 1961 letter to Simon & Schuster there remained only one other potential inspiration for Yossarian…Joseph Heller, himself.

“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

In later writings and speeches however, Heller clearly stated exactly which aspects of Yossarian were from his own experiences.

In his autobiography Now and Then, Heller notes on (page 169) “I was merely a wing bombardier and operated only a toggle switch, compressing it in the speediest fraction of the instant after I saw the bombs starting downward out of the open bomb-bay doors in the lead plane.  Once overseas, I never made use of the bombsight on which I had been trained, or even had one with me in the nose of my plane.”

Heller goes on to describe an event from his combat experience that he used to help formulate the scenes in Catch-22 in which Yossarian attends to Snowden, the turret gunner killed on the mission to Avignon.

“Help him, help him,” Dobbs sobbed. “Help him, help him.” “Help who? Help who?” called back Yossarian, once he had plugged his headset back into the intercom system, after it had been jerked out when Dobbs wrestled the controls away from Huple and hurled them all down suddenly into the deafening, paralyzing, horrifying dive which had plastered Yossarian helplessly to the ceiling of the plane…

”Help the bombardier, help the bombardier.” “I’m the bombardier,” Yossarian cried back at him. “I’m the bombardier. I’m all right. I’m all right.” “Then help him, help him,” Dobbs begged. “Help him, help him.”

Catch-22, pp. 51-52

Yossarian does his best to save Snowden, but the damage from the flak is too severe.

The 488th Bomb Squadron flew multiple missions to destroy the Ferrara Highway Bridge in mid-July 1944. Lt. Fish participated on missions to Ferrara on July 12th, 13th and twice on July 15th. For his first mission on July 15th, he noted in his diary that he “had to bomb alternate and got blown to bit. Had to crash land 8E (his plane for this mission).”

Lt. Fish’s diary entry for July 15, 1944 (mission #1)
The crash landing of 8E (from Lt. Fish’s photo collection)

Then later that day, “bombed Ferrara again…got two large holes in right wing. Part of bridge bombed out. Very rough mission again.”

Lt. Fish’s diary entry for July 15, 1944 (mission #2)

However, this mission ends tragically with the loss of a comrade. As noted in the War Diary of the 488th, “…Vandermuelen got it through the side.” The next day, Vandermuelen died from injuries incurred during the mission on July 15th. As noted in the 488th Bomb Squadron War Diary,

“The Ferrara bridges getting to be a jinx for us.”

Heller describes that for the “episodes of Snowden in the novel, I fused the knowledge of that tragedy [Vandermuelen’s death on the Ferrara mission] with the panicked co-pilot and the thigh wound to the top turret gunner in my own plane on our second mission to Avignon.”

“The very first bursts of flak aimed at us were at an accurate height, and that was a deadly sign. We could hear the explosions…then the bottom of the plane just seemed to drop out: we were falling, and I found myself pinned helplessly to the top of the bombardier’s compartment, with my flak helmet squeezed against the ceiling. What I did not know (it was reconstructed for me later) was that one of the two men at the controls, the copilot, gripped by sudden fear that our plane was about to stall, seized the controls to push them forward and plunged us into a sharp descent, a dive, that brought us back down into the level of the flak…”

“I believed with all my heart and quaking soul that my life was ending and that we were going down, like the plane on fire I had witnessed plummeting only a few minutes before…as I regained balance and my ability to move, I heard in the ears of my headphones the most unnatural and sinister of sounds: silence, dead silence. And I was petrified again…”

“Then I recognized, dangling loosely before me, the jack to my headset. It had torn free from the outlet. When I plugged myself back in, a shrill bedlam of voices was clamoring in my ears, with a wail over all the rest repeating on the intercom that the bombardier wasn’t answering. “The bombardier doesn’t answer!” “I’m the bombardier,” I broke in immediately. “And I’m all right.” “Then go back and help him, help the gunner. He’s hurt…”

“Our gunner was right there on the floor in front of me when I moved back through the crawlway from my bombardier’s compartment, and so was the large oval wound in his thigh where a piece of flak…had blasted all the way through….I could tell from my Boy Scout days – I had earned a merit badge in first aid – that no artery was punctured and thus there was no need for a tourniquet. I followed the obvious procedure…”

“I might have seemed a hero and been treated as something of a small hero for a short while, but I didn’t feel like one. They were trying to kill me, and I wanted to go home. That they were trying to kill all of us each time we went up was no consolation. They were trying to kill me.”

Now and Then, pages 178 – 181

Joseph Heller received the Air Medal for his heroic actions attending to the gunner.

Heller seems to have only indicated one other experience which happened to him that in the novel happens to Yossarian. In Heller’s 1975 Playboy interview Sam Merrill asked,

“Getting back to Yossarian, are any other of his experiences like yours?” 

Heller responds, “His [Yossarian’s] encounter with Luciana…corresponds exactly with an experience I had. He sleeps with her, she refuses money and suggests that he keep her address on a slip of paper. When he agrees, she sneers, “Why? So you can tear it up?” He says of course he won’t and tears it up the minute she’s gone—then regrets it bitterly. That’s just what happened to me in Rome.  Luciana was Yossarian’s vision of a perfect relationship.  That is why he saw her only once, and perhaps that’s why I saw her only once.  If he examined perfection too closely, imperfections would show up .”

Clearly certain events that happen to Yossarian come from Joseph Heller’s wartime experience. However, the true essence of Yossarian is in his growing objection to the military continuing to put his life at risk after fulfilling the established required number of missions.

Speaking at the Young Men’s Hebrew Association in New York City during December 1970, Heller stated, “…Yossarian’s emotions, Yossarian’s reaction to the war in the squadron were not those I experienced when I was overseas”.

Further, 28 years later, in an August 31, 1998 speech about his autobiography, Now and Then, Heller responds to an audience member and fellow WWII veteran’s question about the inspirations for Catch-22,

“I have a confession to make…in my war experience I did not experience anything like Catch-22. I was young, it was a noble war, nobody I knew really objected to fighting in it, and I had no complaints about serious officers. The Catch-22 structure and formulations came from my reactions to the world after World War II…I do believe that the enduring relevance of Catch-22 owes its existence to the fact that certain things in civilized societies don’t change.”

Heller did however know one fellow bombardier who flew on missions in planes beside him, who he had met in training back in the states and had connected with over their similar upbringing in Coney Island, who indeed grew to object to continuing to fight in the war…his friend Julius Fish.

Joseph Heller speaking about his autobiography, “Now and Then” on August 31, 1998
(video segment time 32:55 – 34:12)

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