THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Sign up to The American magazine's newsletters (below) to receive more regular news, articles and updates on America in the UK.
A few months after D-Day, 22 year-old Robert Hecker was flying high over Germany in a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. The bombardier from Long Beach, California led a fleet of 36 B-17 Bombers heading into enemy territory to drop bombs on the German village of Peenemünde, disrupting Nazi secret weapons development.
The Eighth Air Force bombardier was stationed at RAF Deenethorpe Northamptonshire, 401st Bomb Group, 615 squadron.
A lead bombardier, Hecker's B-17 Flying Fortress Ragged But Right flew 30 terrifying combat missions over Germany and across occupied Europe from May 1943 through April 1945, from the siege of Brest to the airborne attack on the Netherlands and the Battle of the Bulge.
On December 6, 1944 Hecker and his Air Force buddies earned 3-day passes to London. While out on the town a German V2 rocket hit the Red Lion pub on the corner of Duke Street and Barrett Street. “I narrowly escaped the bombing when a pretty gal dragged me to a party,” recalled Hecker. Eight American servicemen were killed along with ten civilians and 32 injured. Selfridges' Christmas tree displays were blown into Oxford Street.
A few years ago I wrote about Hecker’s time recuperating in a British Flak House. “Most of us spent a week or 10 days at Furzedown House in Hampshire,” he recalled. “The house had about 20 bedrooms, each seemingly bigger than my family’s farmhouse back home. There were ornate staircases, kitchens and pantries straight out of a fancy restaurant, carpets so luxurious I was afraid to step on them, and walls hung with paintings of people who looked like dukes and duchesses.”
That brief but unforgettable experience became the subject of his off-Broadway musical, Flak House, at the Actors Temple theater in New York in the fall of 2014.
Returning home a Lt. Colonel with five air medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross, Hecker did a 180 going from the wild blue yonder to center stage. With help from the GI Bill, he attended the Pasadena Playhouse appearing in several musicals and singing in a three-man combo before discovering writing was his forte, eventually becoming a writer of novels, documentaries, screenplays and radio dramas for the Mutual Broadcasting Radio network.
Hecker also worked on top-secret films for the Air Force Motion Picture Division on Lookout Mountain Air Force Station near Laurel Canyon. On several projects he met German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun “I certainly wasn’t going to tell him I was the guy who dropped bombs on Peenemünde” said Hecker referring to the site where the Germans built V-2 rockets.
Now 96-years old and living in Encino, California, Hecker could be considered the Forest Gump of his era, a renaissance man born under a lucky star. He survived the great depression, a father who abandoned his family in a two room farmhouse in Idaho. To date he’s the author of 12 novels, three off-off-Broadway stage plays and more than 500 documentaries and films.
Born May 26, 1922 in Provo, Utah, Hecker grew up in Long Beach with an older brother Eugene now 98, and a younger sister Verda Mae, currently a 92 year old theater reviewer.
With an Air Force background Hecker was asked to write and report for the aerospace industry. As documentaries were in their infancy, Hecker, always looking for something new and edgy, gladly took up the reins, producing, directing and writing. Topics ranged from space, nuclear physics and the plight of Alaskan Eskimos.
Once again Hecker hit the jackpot. While studying short story writing at Hollywood High Night School he meet his future wife, a blonde, blue-eyed scriptwriter from Texas. Frances Kavanaugh was one of a few female screenwriters of B-Westerns films and television during the 1940s. In a male-dominated profession she was able to pen over 30 B-Western scripts such as Song of Old Wyoming, Cattle Queen and The Cisco Kid series. She worked closely with famous Western stars such as Tom Keene and Lash LaRue. Dubbed ‘the Cowgirl and the Typewriter’, Kavanaugh grew up in Houston, Texas, riding horses and writing poetry. In 1940 her family moved to California. While attending the prestigious Max Reinhardt drama school, Kavanaugh began writing two-person gangster and cowboy sketches featuring molls and saloon gals.
Her scripts caught the eye of producer Bob Tansey. Impressed, Tansey made her his scriptwriter. From 1941 to 1951 Kavanaugh worked on 30 westerns, co-produced movies, and worked on scripted feature films such as Outpost in Morocco, starring George Raft and Enchanted Valley, which required a dog, a bear and a pick-pocketing crow. Frances married Robert in 1951. They had two children and adopted a young girl from Mexico.
The couple collaborated on television scripts for Disney Studios (Zorro), Four Star Productions, Goldwyn Studios and KABC Television.
After a long battle with Lymphoma cancer Kavanaugh died at her home on January 23, 2009. The Autry Museum honored her with an exhibit of her paraphernalia and movie posters.
Hecker looks at the future with pure imagination. His creative juices are non-stop, a constant flow ready for a new musical or novel to pen. The chatterbox with steel blue eyes can remember a story from 75 years ago with vivid details. 1942, a few months after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, 20 year old Hecker was taking a nap before his night shift at Douglas Aircraft. “Suddenly an air raid broke out. It was a total surprise,” he recalled. “The guns and sirens woke me up. I ran outside, but I couldn’t see any concentrated fire.” Hecker may not have seen anything, but he came close when a piece of flak bounced off the roof of his house. He was in the middle of the ‘The Great Los Angeles Air Raid.’
A bum knee finally put the kibosh on playing tennis yet Hecker drives to work every day to his two story office on Ventura Boulevard. The former actor remains humble...most of the time. “A newspaper columnist once called me ‘The Most Versatile Writer Who Ever Lived’, because I write in so many genres: radio, TV, music, novels, poetry, screenplays, theater plays and musicals, short stories, and computer games. I worked with five Nobel Prize winners and am a 40 year member of Mensa. Other than that, I’m pretty ordinary!”
LA-based Liesl Bradner is a Pennsylvania native who graduated from Florida State University and studied English literature at the University of Cambridge. She is a regular contributor for the Los Angeles Times and Truthdig and the author of Snapdragon: the World War II Exploits of Darby’s Rangers and Combat Photographer Phil Stern.
Essential Weekly Reads for Overseas Americans. Free