Marshfield grad authors veteran’s saga
BY MIKE WARREN
MARSHFIELD — A Clark County native has found himself in the middle of telling one of the most amazing stories of survival from World War II – and a story which includes a plot twist in his direction.
John Armbruster grew up in Chili, and is a 1984 graduate of Marshfield Senior High School. After graduating from the UW-Marshfield/Wood County Center, John attended UW-Madison, where he earned a degree in journalism. After brief stints at the La Crosse Tribune, Wisconsin Public Radio and the Marshfield News-Herald, Armbruster returned to the Madison campus to pursue his teaching degree. He’s taught American history, government and social studies in the Westby Area School District for thirty years.
It was there he first heard of Gene Moran’s incredible story of survival. After all one of Gene’s daughters – art teacher Joni Peterson – was a colleague, and her dad lived just down the road in Soldiers Grove, not far from John’s home in Viroqua. When John attempted to arrange classroom visits by Gene, he was told by Joni, “We don’t go there.”
As the years went by, Gene eventually became a family friend. And, after telling many others for many years he would not talk about his World War II experiences – in particular a four-mile freefall without a parachute over Germany from his tail gunner section of the B-17 Flying Fortress bomber Rikki Tikki Tavi – Moran finally agreed to a book, but only if John wrote it. Eleven years after he began his research and a series of interviews with Gene, “Tailspin” was released April 30.
“I’ve been overwhelmed,” says Armbruster, about the attention “Tailspin” has received so far. He’s been on an almost non-stop tour of the state since the book came out. “I’m a bit taken aback,” he says. “I was not expecting this reaction. On the night of the book launch, we were expecting 300 people, and my publisher thought that was a bit ambitious on my part. We had 600 show up. We ran out of food. We ran out of drinks, it was a crazy night,” Armbruster recalls. “Had a lot of people from Marshfield come down.” As for the book, “reviews have been outstanding,” he says. “Sales have been very good. It’s been overwhelming.” The self-proclaimed accidental author says someone told him recently, “You didn’t find the book. The book found you.”
The book is a project Armbruster initially turned down. “When the family approached me in 2010 I refused the project a few times and for several months,” he remembers. “I enjoyed my brief journalism career, but I just thought writing high school basketball roundups did not qualify me for one of the greatest stories I’ve ever heard of from World War II.” It was only after some prodding from the family that Armbruster finally agreed – in 2011 – to the project. “I was a friend of the main character, Gene Moran, and the family approached me and said, ‘He’s not going to do it unless you do it.’ He sat on that story, by that point, for 65-plus years. I was a good friend. He was a very good friend of my late wife’s. And both my late wife and myself, we lost our fathers early, so Gene was also a surrogate grandfather for my two boys, so he felt like part of the family,” Armbruster adds.
But just a year-and-a-half into the project, John’s story – and the book’s – took a turn. John’s wife, Carmen, lost her battle with brain cancer in December of 2012, at age 46. He remembers thinking, “Well, I’m done. It was too ambitious. I was overwhelmed.” That’s when his editor, Heather Shumaker, stepped in, and found out what the debut author had been dealing with.
“When my editor and I started putting this together, I knew right away that I wanted to write it in a narrative style,” Armbruster told us, during an Oct. 27 interview. “So, I kind of modeled the narrative style after the book “Unbroken”, another World War II survival story. But then my editor said, ‘You know, this Gene seems like a real character. I really enjoy listening to him as an old man. Let’s get into his mobile home where you did all those interviews, and reveal him as an old man as well, kind of like a “Tuesdays with Morrie” style.’ And I said, ‘Heck yeah, we can do that.’ But then she approached me as we’re putting it together, and she said, ‘Wait a minute. Your wife died of cancer in the middle of all this?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ And she said, ‘Well, if you’re going to include “old man” Gene and you as a character, we’ve got to know as a reader that you’re going through this.’ And I said, ‘Absolutely not. I lived it. I’m not going to write about it.’ But my editor kept twisting my arm, and she said, ‘You know, there’s been a lot of World War II stories the last 25 years, and I think we need to make this unique.’ So I went along with it,” said Armbruster, recalling those discussions with Shumaker. “Now that it’s out, that’s probably the comment I hear the most,” he adds. “People will say, ‘This is such a unique story. How did you do this?’ So, yeah, it’s hard to categorize the book because of that. Is it a World War II book? Is it a history book? Is it a biography? Is it a memoir? I would just say ‘yes’ to all of that.”
Those have been common questions at John’s book signings and presentations, but not the most common. “Every single time people say, ‘Alright, so when is this becoming a movie?’ I usually kind of laugh and I say, ‘Well, my dad was a carpenter (for Boson Construction) and my mother a school cook (in Marshfield). We really didn’t hang out with Hollywood types in Chili, Wisconsin.’ And people are almost angry,” says Armbruster. “Yes, if something came along, I’d certainly be interested.”
Gene Moran died March 23, 2014. He was 89. For his military service, he was awarded two Purple Hearts, the Air Medal with Gold Leaf Cluster, the European Theater Award, and the Good Conduct Medal. Gene Moran was also the first recipient of the prestigious Veterans Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wisconsin Board of Veterans Affairs.