Helping A Pal Tell His WWII Tale
Sunday, August 26th, 2001
By the time World War II
started for most Americans, in December 1941, Brian Hodgkinson already
had been told his war was over. Some way to be over. Some way to get the
news. Two months earlier, Hodgkinson was shot down over France on his
sixth combat mission with the Royal Canadian Air Force. Shot in the
thigh and badly burned, he managed to bail out of his plummeting
Spitfire at 31,000 feet, defiantly saluting the Luftwaffe pilot he
expected to finish him off in his parachute. He was captured as he
passed out on the ground. When he opened his eyes, a German officer
leaned over and said, "For you the war is over." It had, of course, only
entered another phase.
Hodgkinson spent nearly four years in prisoner of
war camps. Recalling everything from "Stalag 17" and "The Great Escape"
to "Hogan's Heroes," it was "an existence not easily lived, and not
easily forgotten," he said. The remarkable part is that he remembered so
well. Almost 60 years later, and two years after his death, Hodgkinson's
memories have been published as the book Spitfire Down. It's both a
page-turning testimony to his storytelling ability and a tribute to the
friendship that ultimately brought it to light.
Laboring on a balky old
word processor at his home in Willoughby, Hodgkinson didn't expect the
memoir to be published. Even so, he wrote a dedication to his sons,
Brian Jr. and Lance, to his fellow former prisoners of war, and to his
friend George Condon, the retired Plain Dealer columnist who "made my
life miserable demanding that I write this."
Their friendship started in
the late 1940s. Cleveland was becoming radio's hottest market, and
Hodgkinson--who before the war was a CBC broadcaster in his native
Winnipeg, Manitoba--came looking for bigger things. He worked into the
early '60s as a newscaster and commentator for WHK, WERE and WDOK. An
imposing 6-feet 6-inches tall, he had the deepest voice in town and was
an irrepressible storyteller--which drew him to Condon, despite
Hodgkinson's "natural antagonism" for newspaper critics. "We always
argued, but it was in an amicable way," Condon said. "He was a guy who'd
blow up and sheepishly apologize the next day or a few days later. He
and I became friends and got to know each other pretty well. For many
years, we'd meet almost weekly for lunch at Bearden's with Linn
Sheldon," the TV personality best remembered as kids' host Barnaby. They
remained friends after Hodgkinson, who never caught his big break in
radio, left the business and tried his hand at politics, commercial
production and building.
From time to time, more as years wore on, he
would talk about his POW experiences, usually growling at friends who
urged him to write a book. But four years ago, Condon said, "he allowed
that he was working on a little bit of recollection." He let no one see
In March 1999, while hospitalized for minor knee surgery, Hodgkinson
died at age 84. Condon asked if he'd left anything on his desk, and son
Lance brought him a 500-page manuscript. "It was well-written but needed
editing--one chapter was 143 pages long," Condon said. "He had unique
powers of recall. He could come up with details from 50 years ago
without any difficulty." Condon, now 84, is the author of nine books,
including "Cleveland, the Best Kept Secret" and "Stars in the Water,"
about the Erie Canal. He worked six months trimming and polishing
Hodgkinson's book - only to find no American publisher was interested. A
friend in Canada led him to John Flood, a former professor who runs the
small Penumbra Press and happens to be the son of an RCAF pilot. He
published Spitfire Down.
Already in a second printing, it has no U.S.
distributor but is worth asking for in stores. Or, call Penumbra at
613-692-5590. "I did it for Brian," said Condon, who earns nothing from
it. "He wrote the book. I edited it, that's all."
Copyright 2001 cleveland.com Online.