Author gives Veterans Day-themed presentation at Detroit Lakes Public Library
A crowd of between 30-40 people filled the meeting room at the Detroit Lakes Public Library this past Wednesday, Nov. 9, for a midmorning presentation by Wadena-area author Paul Sailer. A native of the Frazee-Perham area, Sailer has written two books about World War II, and was also a helicopter pilot himself, having flown numerous combat support missions in Vietnam during the war. He talked about how those experiences informed his writing, even decades later.
DETROIT LAKES — Ever since he was a young boy growing up in the Frazee-Perham area, Paul Sailer has been interested in airplanes and flying.
"I would sit in study hall and doodle little airplanes in my notebook, pretending I was in a dogfight and things like that," Sailer said during a Wednesday presentation at the Detroit Lakes Public Library. He drew a few sympathetic chuckles from the crowd at the childhood reference.
That love of aviation was first instilled in him by his father, who would tell stories of the men he served with as a chemical warfare officer during World War II. One of those men in particular drew Sailer's early interest: Major Don Beerbowe r, a Minnesota-born World War II fighter pilot who was killed in action on August 9, 1944, while strafing a German airdrome north of Rheims, France. Beerbower was one of the war's most decorated pilots, having earned the Air Medal, 25 Bronze Leaf Clusters, the Distinguished Flying Cross, several Oak Leaf Clusters, the Silver Star and the Distinguished Service Cross during his short career in the Army Air Force, which lasted less than two years.
Beerbower was a childhood acquaintance of Sailer's father, having grown up in the same small town of Hill City, Minn. "When I was a boy, my father talked a lot about him," Sailer said. "They had been hometown friends; there was about 3-4 years' difference in their ages.
"He would show me clippings from a newspaper, about Beerbower, and he had some photographs. And I got pretty interested in this fellow. It had a lot to do with my decision to become a military pilot myself."
After growing up on tales of Beerbower and his World War II exploits, Sailer was inspired to study American history, and World War II aviation history in particular, during his academic career at Moorhead State College, where he received a bachelor's degree in social studies in 1969.
But rather than pursuing an academic career, it was not long after graduating college that he found himself signing up for flight school.
Sailer ended up serving as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, flying combat support missions for the 20th Engineer Brigade.
"One of the important things about writing military history, for me, was to experience war," he said, "and if you're going to write about aviation, in particular, it's kind of nice to have that experience as well."
Several decades later, by chance, Sailer met Beerbower's widow, Elaine, and daughter, Bonnie, at a July 4 Independence Day Parade in Hill City in the late 1990s. "Don named his fighter plane — two fighter planes — after his daughter," Sailer said. "Unfortunately, these two very pleasant women are deceased. Elaine was not living when the book was published and Bonnie unfortunately passed away about three years ago."
It was this chance meeting that led Sailer to the decision to tell Beerbower's story, before it was forgotten.
"I didn't have a history of writing books, but I had a lot of material. And I was at a point where I thought, 'This man was a really good fighter pilot. And it just seemed like his career should be pulled together and there should be some value to anyone interested in aviation history," said Sailer.
Indeed: Sailer's book, "The Oranges Are Sweet," earned him the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame's Writer of the Year award, in 2012. Yes, it took more than a decade to make that happen — eight years of research, and another four to write it.
"My day job kept me pretty busy, so it took four years to write the book," he said.
During his years in college, Sailer said, "I learned how to research, how to write objectively, and in fact, you got a quick course in writing, because we had to write a lot of papers. But one of the most valuable things you learn when you study history and write papers about history is the importance of primary source documents."
Primary source documents — journals, letters, archival records, awards and commendations, photographs, etc. — comprised much of the basis for Sailer's later writings. "It makes your research really kind of interesting and unique."
A few years later, Sailer wrote a second book, "I Had a Comrade," which told the stories of 10 different World War II personalities, gleaned from interviews and documents that were also painstakingly researched prior to publication. Both books are available at the library, though Sailer signed copies of them at Wednesday's event.