Thomas Calabrese– Professor Ronald McNally taught American Literature and English at Auburn University. He had been there since the spring semester of 1956 and would be coming up on his ten year anniversary in a few months. One of his classes was currently reading the book, To Kill a Mockingbird and he thought it might be educational and entertaining if they could meet the author, Harper Lee. He knew the reclusive author from when he was a boy growing up in Monroeville, Alabama, not far from the Lee family home. After the premiere of the movie in December, 1962 which quickly became a box office and critical success, Nelle as her friends called her, slowly withdrew from the spotlight.
Professor McNally wasn’t going to push the issue; he would just ask politely if she would meet with his students and answer a few of their questions. If Nelle said no, seemed hesitant or uncomfortable, he would drop the issue immediately. He called her private number and after two rings, Nelle Harper Lee picked up, “Hello,” in a soft gentle voice.
“It’s Ronnie, how are you?”
“Ronnie, it is so nice to hear your voice, “Nelle responded with true sincerity, “How are things at Auburn?”
“Good, thank you so much for asking. We are studying your book in one of my classes,” Professor McNally said.
“You are so thoughtful for doing that,” Nelle responded appreciatively, “I hope that you are enjoying it.”
“Very much, my class would love to meet you, but I know how much that you value your privacy,” I…” before Professor McNally could continue.
“I’d be happy to meet with your students. By the way, give my regards to your mother,” Nelle quickly answered.
Professor McNally was pleasantly surprised, “I’ll call back and set up a convenient time for you. Thank you so much for doing this.”
“I’ll look forward to your call,” Nelle Harper Lee hung up.
Wyatt Connors was a senior at Auburn University and majoring in English. He had not made a final decision yet, but he was seriously thinking about joining the Navy after graduation even though he knew the Vietnam War was escalating in intensity and there was a good chance he would be sent there.
“I have an announcement to make, “Professor McNally said, “I’ve managed to set up a time for the class to meet Harper Lee, author of, To Kill a Mockingbird. Those of you that would like to go, just let me know and I’ll put your name on the list. Let me remind you, if you plan on asking any questions, make sure that you make them coherent inquiries. Miss Lee is a very private person, so please keep it focused on the book and not her personal life.”
There was a lot to know about Nelle Harper Lee that the class eventually found out; she was named after her grandmother Ellen, Nelle is Ellen spelled backwards. Her parents chose her middle name, Harper, to honor pediatrician Dr. William W. Harper, of Selma, Alabama, who saved the life of her sister Louise. She originally wanted Spencer Tracy to play the role of Atticus Finch and she was a big University of Alabama football fan.
The thirty individuals from the class of Professor McNally met Nelle Harper Lee in the small park, located down the street from the modest house that she shared with her sister Alice. The class asked the unusual questions; what motivated you? Did you expect the book to be so popular? When it came time for Wyatt Connors to speak, “My grandfather knew your father and often spoke of him.”
“Who is your grandfather, young man?” Nelle Harper Lee asked.
Nelle Harper Lee eyes lightened up and she flashed a big smile, “The character Atticus Finch was a combination of your grandfather and my father. My father always said that Atticus Connors was his mentor, role model and the best friend that he ever had.”
“There’s one other thing.” Wyatt said.
“What is that?” Nelle Harper Lee asked.
“My cousin Mary Badham played Scout in the movie and she told me how nice that you and the director Richard Mulligan were to her. She also said how much she liked Gregory Peck.”
After the meeting, Professor McNally approached Wyatt, “Why didn’t you tell me about your grandfather and cousin?”
“I didn’t think it was my place to say anything,” Wyatt responded, “Like you said, Miss Lee is a very private person and I didn’t want to use her personal connections to my family for my own benefit.”
“That was very honorable of you, Mister Connors,” Professor McNally responded.
Nelle Harper Lee and Wyatt Connors became friends and over the next few months they met several times to discuss a variety of issues including Wyatt’s desire to be a writer. Nelle Harper Lee looked at some of the young man’s short stories and encouraged him to continue with his literary pursuits. After graduation Wyatt followed up on his plan and went to Birmingham, Alabama to enlist in the Navy. The recruiter was out to lunch so Wyatt walked next door, where Marine Gunnery Sergeant Benjamin Barclay was more than happy to give him a place to wait while telling him about the great opportunities that were available in the Corps. By the time the Navy recruiter returned, Wyatt had already signed up with the Marines.
After boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina and Officers Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia, Wyatt was commissioned as a second lieutenant. While on his last liberty before shipping out for South Vietnam, he visited Johnny’s Tattoo Parlor in Norfolk, Virginia and had the Marine Corps emblem of the Eagle, Globe and Anchor, imprinted on his upper left arm.
Second Lieutenant Wyatt Connors was assigned to Lima Company, 2nd Battalion, and 26th Marines. One of the perks of serving in the Vietnam War was that military personnel were able to correspond with people back in the states without paying for postage. A Marine could write on the back of a c-ration cartoon or on any piece of paper and as long as it had a legible address, the post office would deliver it.
Wyatt began documenting everything that he saw and experienced and focused on being as descriptive and detailed as his vocabulary allowed without being verbose or pretentious. Even though he didn’t have a story yet, he would still send six or seven letters a week enclosed with his writings to Nelle Harper Lee in Alabama. Then one day while he was on patrol in a village, a plot came to him.
His main character would be a naïve young Marine, confronted by the brutality of war and forced to balance his utopian sense of right and wrong with the harsh realities of survival.
One of the other characters in his book was an orphan Amerasian nine year old girl, who was the daughter of a Vietnamese mother killed by the Viet Cong and an American serviceman who never knew that she existed. The fictitious story had the Marine infantry unit adopting the young girl, who acted as their interpreter, and in return they provided her with food, shelter and medical care and the connection that they developed through horrific incidents.
Wyatt Connors had a unique gift for developing his characters; he made them so real that they seemed to walk off the page and into the mind of the reader. It was one thing to capture the emotions of the Marines and their trials and tribulations, but what was truly amazing was that Wyatt was also able to write through the eyes of the nine year old Vietnamese girl with poignancy and believability. When Harper Lee began receiving the correspondence from the Marine lieutenant, she was so touched by his words that she started editing and typing the story. She wanted to have it ready for Wyatt by the time he returned home so that they could go over it together and get it published.
Nelle Harper Lee had already spent hundreds of hours helping her childhood friend Truman Capote with his book, In Cold Blood and had not expected to get involved in a similar project. However, she knew that there was something special about Wyatt’s story and saw it as a unique opportunity rather than a burden or imposition.
Lt. Wyatt Connors’ battalion was transferred to Khe Sanh in December, 1967 and immediately started conducting patrols in the area. At the end of each day, unless his duties prohibited it, Wyatt would write for a couple hours then send it with the next outgoing mail. The Siege of Khe Sanh began on January 21, 1968 and the Marines were surrounded and outnumbered by North Vietnamese forces. Every duty at Khe Sank had ample risks, but Lt. Connors’ assignment was especially risky. He would lead his platoon on daily patrols, with the intention of locating the enemy’s fortified artillery and mortar positions, then calling in air strikes. It became a common occurrence for the Marines to come in contact with NVA patrols and have to fight their way back to camp. During one particularly intense firefight, Wyatt was shot, it was an in and out wound that went through the fleshy part of his upper arm and took out a piece of the Eagle’s wing on his tattoo. From that point on, the men in Wyatt’s platoon playfully referred to his scarred arm as the ‘Wounded Eagle.’
Wyatt incorporated his injury into the plot of his story then sent it to Nelle in Alabama. For the next two months, he continued his writing while trying to keep his men alive…not an easy task. When the siege increased in intensity, Wyatt was given orders to bring back a prisoner for interrogation. The Marine platoon left just before sunrise and took a southwest heading, they had humped two clicks (one click equal one thousand meters) when they were ambushed.
Several Marines were killed and the rest were captured, including Lt. Wyatt Connors. When he heard that his former student was missing in action, Professor McNally’s first two stops were the Connors’ home to offer any assistance that they might need and to see someone else.
When Nelle Harper Lee opened the door, Professor McNally could tell that she had been crying and surmised that she already heard about Wyatt. When she looked into his eyes, her emotions overcame her and she collapsed into his arms.
The North Vietnamese prison camp was nothing more than fifty holes in the ground with bamboo gates over the top of them. The American servicemen were kept isolated from each other, although they could hear the screams of anguish from their comrades. When the Americans tried to speak to one another, the guards would jab them with sharpened sticks. The holes were six feet wide, ten feet long and ten feet deep. They were damp, filled with bugs and parasites and had a putrid odor. The prisoners were fed once a day and the guards thought it was humorous to drop the food on the heads of their captives.
Six months after he was reported missing, Nelle Harper Lee decided to honor the memory of the young Marine by having his book published. Since he was an unknown author, the best way to convince her publisher to take on the project was to put her name on the cover. Nelle Lee had too much honor and integrity to take credit for the story so she did the next best thing; The Wounded Eagle Still Soars by Wyatt Connors, Edited by Harper Lee.
Wyatt found that the best way to keep from going crazy in his mud cell was to keep his brain functioning, so he wrote stories in his mind, visualized each letter of each word before he etched them into his memory. When he got tired of stories, he wrote songs, poems and limericks.
The release of The Wounded Eagle Still Soars was met with the same kind of enthusiasm that, To Kill a Mockingbird experienced years earlier. The novel remained at the top of New York Times’ Bestseller List as it became the defining piece of fiction literature for the Vietnam War.
When Wyatt heard trucks coming and leaving and a lot of talking from the guards, he guessed that the camp was being moved or abandoned. If it was being moved, the prisoners would be taken farther in North Vietnam, making it even more difficult to escape and if it was being abandoned, there was a good chance they would be executed. Neither one was acceptable to Wyatt so he began making handholds in the mud walls and found a way to reach the top of the hole and loosen one of the bamboo sticks and peer out. The guards were busy loading a vehicle and their attention was diverted so Wyatt used all of his strength to break through, then climbed out of his coffin. He experienced a mysterious energy surging through his weakened body when he felt warm sunlight for the first time in months.
He found a place to hide among the tall elephant grass and watched most of the guards leave with the trucks. The North Vietnamese commander left three men behind to execute the prisoners. Wyatt crawled on his stomach until he was only a few feet behind one of the guards. He leaped to his feet, snapped the man’s neck, took his AK-47 and shot the other two guards before they could react, then opened the cages of the remaining prisoners and began getting the men out.
Most of the men were so weak that they could barely stand, but the few that were strong enough to move began scavenging through the camp for food and weapons. They made makeshift stretchers for those who could not walk and prepared to escape the area.
“Where are going?” One emaciated Marine asked.
“South,” Wyatt responded and led thirty eight men into the dense jungle. The weak cared for the weaker, but they all looked to Lt. Wyatt Connors for strength. For six long torturous days and nights, Lt. Wyatt Connors put the welfare of his comrades on his shoulders like Atlas holding the world or a beast of burden with only one purpose. His knees buckled, his back ached and his muscles quivered, but his soul and heart refused to surrender. His throat was so parched that it felt like he was swallowing sandpaper and what little food and water that they had was being given to the more seriously ill Marines and soldiers. Not once did Wyatt let on that they would not make it, as he kept encouraging his desperate comrades, “Just one more step…just one more step.”
When the Green Beret patrol found the escaped prisoners, they were not only knocking at death’s door, they were already several steps passed the archway. Medivac choppers were immediately called in, and the men were taken to China Beach for much needed medical treatment.
When information reached the states that Wyatt Connors was alive and what he had accomplished, sales of The Wounded Eagle Still Soars skyrocketed. Members of Wyatt’s family, Professor Ronald McNally and Nelle Harper Lee were among the many attendees at the White House when Lieutenant Connors was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The movie, The Wounded Eagle Still Soars won three Academy Awards for; Best Picture, Best Screenplay, (Wyatt adapted his novel to the big screen) and best actor, Paul Newman for his portrayal of the heroic and conflicted Marine Corps officer.
Wyatt wrote two more books about the Vietnam War; Hope Has Got My Flank and Imagination Is My Weapon of Choice and the Trilogy became classics. He went on to the become the prolific writer of his generation; writing twelve more best sellers, numerous short stories, eighteen screenplays and the lyrics for forty three songs. Wyatt eventually moved from Alabama to Oceanside, California, where he purchased a large parcel of property in Morro Hills. He started the Connors Literary Scholarship Fund to help aspiring high school writers and designated that all proceeds from the sales of his Vietnam War books be distributed through his charitable foundation to veterans organizations across the country. Wyatt also founded the San Diego Veterans Writers Group where military personnel who wanted to write their memoirs, poetry, non-fiction or fiction could find assistance and guidance. The group meets on the first Saturday of every month in the large building on the southern part of the Connors estate, just a short walk down the flowery path from a larger and more modern version of the house that Wyatt Connors lived in as a boy in Bessemer, Alabama.
Despite his numerous accomplishments and awards, Wyatt Connors never hesitates when asked about his favorite work, “The Wounded Eagle Still Soars, without a doubt and for many reasons,” then subconsciously touches the faded and disfigured tattoo on his arm and thinks about Nelle Harper Lee.
This is a work of fiction and the product of the author’s imagination.