‘Hell is So Green’ a long time coming
"Hell, Major," Diebold tells the unit's commanding officer. "I'll jump." He then goes on to wonder what one wears for a parachute jump or a hike through Burma; Diebold had never done either.
Hell is So Green: Search and Rescue over the Hump in World War II recounts Lt. William Diebold's service with a squadron stationed in the China-Burma-India theater, rescuing airmen who crashed while flying one of the most treacherous routes of the war; the so-called eastern Himalayan "Hump." Transport aircraft would launch from India and attempt to bring supplies to United States and Chinese forces in China. Estimates put aircraft losses near 600 planes over the course of the war.
Lt. William Diebold, of Pittsburg, PA, trained initially as a glider pilot, then an intelligence officer, then sent to a Panama jungle-training school, found himself temporarily assigned to the search and rescue squadron in September 1944. He volunteered to jump into the Burmese jungle, parlay with natives, climb mountains and raft rivers in order to find missing airmen, again and again. Then he wrote about it.
Penelope Anna Diebold, of Phillips, remembers her father, who died in 1965, as tall, kind man who pulled her wagon behind a bicycle. When she was older, he bought her a pony so they could ride together. She also remembers going to Seven Springs, a local ski resort, and watching him bang away on a typewriter.
Lt. Diebold's writing style wastes no time; he's learning how to use a parachute (in the airplane, flying toward the drop zone) within a dozen pages, negotiating with the natives (Diebold doesn't speak their language, and they don't speak his) in 20 pages and locating the missing airman in 50. He nonchalantly describes feats which rapidly become legend among pilots flying the Hump: rafting down a roaring river, building an airfield and staring down tigers, vividly and with a wide streak of humor.
His daughter saved her father's writing, which gathered accolades from friends and family members, but made little progress in the publishing world.
"I was moved by this story," Penelope Anna Diebold said, "regardless that it was my father, this man just parachuting into Burma, the things he did."
She cited a particular part of one of the several jumps recounted in Hell is So Green, when her father and another rescuer are rolled up in their parachutes during a rainstorm and something roars in the jungle. Diebold tells the other rescuer not to worry, it's "Just a tiger, a little closer than usual."
"In every way," Penelope Anna Diebold said, "that says so much about who my father was."
Eventually, she moved to Phillips, bringing her father's book with her. By sheer chance another resident of her former town, Richard Matthews, had also moved to the same town. The two met at a town meeting and Matthews, whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Hartford Courant and other publications, and who himself teaches writing, agreed to look at Lt. Diebold's work.
Saying he was "very impressed" by the story, particularly Diebold's devil-may-care voice, Matthews agreed to edit the story. He smoothed over some rough portions and researched the lieutenant's exploits to add clarity and fill in some small gaps, but in general, Matthews said, the manuscript is the same one typed up by Diebold decades ago. In particular, Matthews tried to maintain the "authentic voice" of Diebold.
"I like him now," Matthews, who himself served in Vietnam as an infantryman, said, "and I've never met him. It's a hell of a good story."
Matthews also wrote a forward, setting out some basic facts of the China-Burma-India theater, and an afterward; Diebold's own writings do no not encompass his entire career in the CBI theater, a career which rapidly was approaching legendary status among Hump pilots.
Matthews, who sent out the query letters that eventually brought an agent on board, credited Penelope Anna Diebold with getting Hell is So Green published. The book has been picked up by Lyons Press, an imprint of Global Pequot Press.
"She preserved it," Matthews said. "She's the one who wanted to publish it and she moved it forward."
Penelope Anna Diebold, for her part, said she thought Matthews would be the perfect editor after meeting him, saying she felt he shared aspects her father's personality. Matthews' research, retyping and editing, she said, was the reason the book, more than 50 years in the making, was published.