We Thought We Heard the Angels Sing

This is Our War - Let's Read about it!
Library promotional poster from World War II

For Veteran’s Day, the ALA Archives wanted to share how books can sometimes take us to strange and wonderful places.  James Whittaker’s We Thought We Heard the Angels Sing (a book about soldiers during WWII who survived a plane crash over the Pacific and were stranded on a life raft for weeks) took Suzanne Kelley and her students on a pursuit of knowledge that connected them with the WWII veterans from the book.  These veterans became a part of the students’ lives for years to come.  This is Ms. Kelley’s letter to the American Library Association from this past September:

Dear People:

I want to share a story with you about my first contact with the American Library Association and what has happened thirty years later.

I always read a book to my sixth graders.  It was James Whittaker’s “We Thought We Heard the Angels Sing.”  My sixth grade teacher had read the book to me and I ultimately read it to over 2,000 students before I retired.

But in the fall of 1984, my students were so fascinated with the story, they begged to find out what had happened to the men after the World War II incident.  Capt. Cherry and his crew had been flying famous Eddie Rickenbacker on a mission for the War Department, when they were forced to ditch the plane into the Pacific, and survived for three weeks on rafts.

After locating the men (before the days of the Internet!), the students reunited the survivors and some of their rescuers here in Iowa in what we called the Rescue Reunion.

The story does not stop there.  Subsequent classes of sixth graders wanted to continue the research.  Each year they selected what reading, writing, and researching they wanted to do to find more “pieces of the puzzle.”  Ultimately, they found the people who made the rafts on which the men survived, the South Pacific island natives who helped rescue one of the rafts, medical corpsmen who had treated the men in base hospitals, men who flew search planes, Kingfisher pilots who rescued some of the men, and even New Zealand coast watchers who played a part.  They tracked down ships’ logs, personal diaries, military documents, photographs, archival war telegrams, and hundreds of photos and letters.

The students continued their connections with the men they first found.  Some of the WWII veterans visited our school, took the students out for pizza, stayed with us in our homes, participated in the original sixth graders’ high school graduation, came to their weddings, and were a part of our lives for 30 years.

We could not have done any of this without the help of librarians, historians, and archivists who shared the students’ curiosity and provided the catalysts for learning.  At the time of the Rescue Reunion, I corresponded with Linda K. Wallace, Director of the Public Information Office of the American Library Association in Chicago.  If you know how to contact her, I would appreciate you letting her know that some of the seeds that I talked about librarians planting, I have seen come to harvest.

I have recently written a book, “Reaching Beyond the Waves,” that is to be published as an e-book in November and as a printed paperback version by mid-December.  It is being edited now, so I don’t know exactly how much rewriting I will need to do.  (I’ve read hundreds of books, but until now have never written one!)  It is the story of my students’ journey to find the men and of the connections that were made with people around the world.

I am contacting as many reference librarians as I can who helped us in 1985 to let them know they made a difference in our lives and in the lives of many other people.  I wanted Linda Wallace to know that she was one of those people who encouraged us, and I am grateful.

Best wishes,

Suzanne Kelly

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