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'The Oranges Are Sweet'

Major Don Beerbower1 / 2
Paul Sailer2 / 2

Paul Sailer was introduced to the intricacies of World War II at a young age.

His father, Archie Sailer, an Eighth Air Force chemical warfare officer, often discussed the war with friends, two who'd come ashore on Normandy D-Day and an intelligence officer who worked behind enemy lines.

"The war never strayed far from the thoughts of my father," the rural Wadena County resident recalls. "I have a vivid memory from the 1950s of my father relaxing in an armchair in our living room, paging through his scrapbook. I sat beside him on the wide armrest while he showed me photographs, newspaper clippings and other mementos from his past.

"Dad stopped when he came to a photograph of the basketball team that he played on in his hometown, Hill City, during the winter of 1932-33," he said.

Standing beside him was one of the team's mascots, Don Beerbower, five years Archie Sailer's junior. "That boy was a real hero," he told his son.

"That boy" would become Major Don Beerbower, a P-51 Mustang fighter pilot, leading ace in the Ninth Air Force and commanding officer of the 353rd Fighter Squadron in Europe during World War II.

A half-century later, Beerbower would become the subject of Sailer's book, "The Oranges are Sweet," an evocative, well-researched story of Beerbower's boyhood, pilot training, months of combat and his death, at 22.

'I'm the person to talk to'

Sailer's interest in the fighter pilot waned during his years spent pursuing a career in human services. But the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II in 1995 revitalized his interest.

"I realized the contribution of veterans I knew would soon be forgotten," he said. He began interviewing family members.

"Their experiences gradually renewed my desire to know more about the boy in the photograph of the Hill City basketball team," he said of Beerbower.

Independence Day, 1998, by "chance encounter," he met Elayne Beerbower, Don's widow. When Sailer told her of his interest in her late husband's distinguished career, she replied, "Well, I'm the person to talk to about that."

In the ensuing weeks, Elayne provided Sailer with articles and introduced him to brothers-in-law and daughter Bonnie. Beerbower's plane - Bonnie "B" - was named in her honor.

Sailer, a Minnesota State University, Moorhead history major and subsequent helicopter pilot with the 20th Engineer Brigade and Engineer Command in Vietnam, utilized his life experiences in compiling information for the manuscript.

"People know someone who's flown wrote this," he said.

Sailer interviewed members of the 353rd Fighter Squadron and poured through documents and photographs (200 appear in the book) via museums, libraries, archives and record centers. The "Hill City News" held insight into the era.

He studied encounter reports, submitted by pilots when they encountered enemy aircraft during World War II.

"Most importantly, the Beerbower family allowed me access to Don's diary and correspondence. Much of what I compiled included unpublished aspects of World War II aviation," he said.

After more than five years of research, he began to write, up at 5 a.m. to begin.

Some of the scenes, he admits, were difficult to write, specifically when Don and Elayne bid farewell when Beerbower bound for Europe. "I knew the outcome.

"The heart of it is about remembering," Sailer said of his motivation. "Society longs to remember stories that enrich," he said, "from the first infantry at Gettysburg to Minnesota's top fighter pilot.

"I want the public to remember people with this kind of courage, this man's sacrifice," Sailer said.

The history major said part of his interest in the period was that "unlike Vietnam, this was a very black and white issue. If it didn't stop," if Hitler's totalitarian regime had been victorious, "it would have consumed the country."

"The world today would be something I can't even imagine," P-51 fighter pilot and prisoner of war Edward Regis told Sailer.

Author of the Year

Sailer's initiative has earned notable honors.

He has been named Minnesota Author of the Year by the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame, the award to be presented at a banquet in April.

"'Oranges are Sweet' is a long overdue book detailing the youth and combat career of Minnesota's most important WWII air ace, Don Beerbower," MAHF executive director and Park Rapids area resident Noel Allard said. "This book is well written and colorfully illustrated and claims an important place on any World War II historian's bookshelf."

Dr. Roland Dille, who was president of MSUM when Sailer attended as a student, agrees.

"More than six decades after the end of World War II there are dozens of books about the war published every year," Dille states. "'The Oranges are Sweet' is different. It is the story of Don Beerbower, the leading ace of the Ninth Air Force, his boyhood, his training as a pilot, his months of combat and his death...

"The book is a masterful job of research, giving us not only the 'big picture' but the small moments and little details that recreate the lived experience of these fliers," the MSUM president emeritus wrote.

"Beerbower became a person of raw courage," Sailer said of the P-51 Mustang fighter pilot who was engaged in air battles over Nazi Germany "when the fate of western civilization hung in the balance between victory and defeat."

As a kid, Sailer said he knew of his Beerbower's personal aerial victories, but was not aware the 353rd Squadron had the highest number of aerial victory credits of any Armed Forces squadron during World War II.

When Beerbower died strafing a German airdrome north of Reims, France, on Aug. 9, 1944, he was the leading ace in the Ninth Air Force with 15.5 aerial victories and the commanding officer of the 353rd Fighter Squadron.

The Fighting Cobras, as the unit was known, ended the war with 290.5 aerial victories, more than any other squadron in the United States Army Air Forces.