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An Air Force legend returns: the Gremlins are back

Gremlins have returned to help the Air Force celebrate its 60th anniversary.  (U.S. Air Force phot by MSgt Andrew Cleaver; illustration by SSgt Robert Wollenberg).

Gremlins have returned to help the Air Force celebrate its 60th anniversary. (U.S. Air Force phot by MSgt Andrew Cleaver; illustration by SSgt Robert Wollenberg).

Dec. 1, 2006 -- During World War II, a special wartime publication, limited to 5,000 copies, brought some welcome light in the Allies' darkest days. But this "rarest of the rare" books appealed to more than just yesterday's Airmen--it charmed their children. Now, after 63 years, and the hard-fought efforts of one Air Force historian, the book will again be made available to Airmen in time for the holiday season.
The gremlins have returned.

In commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of the U.S. Air Force, the Army Air Force Exchange Service is distributing a limited edition of the 1943 children's book, "The Gremlins: A Royal Air Force Story." Roald Dahl wrote the book and later went on to write "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "James and the Giant Peach" and other children's classics.
"The Gremlins is unique on many levels," said Andrew Stephens, 11th Wing historian and the man behind the Gremlins project. "The 1943 edition only had 5,000 copies published worldwide and was never again reprinted, making it one of the rarest children's books in existence.
"The illustrations in the book were all done by Walt Disney Studios, many coming from the storyboards for an animated feature about the interaction between World War II Allied flyers and their magical little friends.
"The movie was never finished, but Walt Disney had committed great resources to pursue the project and the book is part of his legacy to the air forces of the world, and the U.S. Air Force in particular."
Mr. Stephens began the Gremlins Project in February 2006, finding a rare copy of the Dahl book in the National Archives. His research showed that Dahl, then a Royal Air Force flight lieutenant, had served in Washington during the time in which the book was written.
"Dahl was an air attaché here during the war," said Mr. Stephens. "His duties had him working closely alongside Air Force visionaries at Bolling Field on Operation Bolero, as well as other critical needs. Bolero was an important mission, providing flyers, airplanes and other equipment to Britain for the extensive buildup of the Normandy invasion over a long period of time. It is likely that then-Lieutenant Dahl wrote this book as a way to de-stress from the demands of mission planning, as well as a tongue-in-cheek ribbing of mechanical problems that plagued Allied airmen."
The story goes that, after Lieutenant Dahl crashed an airplane earlier in the war, he blamed gremlins--little magical creatures that injected mischief into the everyday operations of pilots. The concept had universal appeal: a scapegoat for when things don't go the way they're supposed to, and was embraced by pilots everywhere.
But Dahl's story goes further, Mr. Stephens said. The book delivers a moral lesson as well--that those problems that plague pilots can be overcome through cooperation and that building a friendship can turn a problem into a winning solution.
The message for children is different, said Mr. Stephens.
"Airmen can read this book to their children and explain that they always have someone looking out for them. Children worry that their parents go into battle alone, because they don't understand the social structure of the military. The gremlins then becomes a metaphor for the wingmen who serve alongside us, comforting our children in the process. It's an unrivaled opportunity for parents to bond with their children in a military setting; a real win-win for the Air Force."
Mr. Stephens said that Walt Disney was one of the loudest and most effective advocates of airpower and of a separate service during World War II. He added that the animator-entrepreneur invested his own money into a serious animated feature making the case for the Air Force. That movie, "Victory Through Airpower," is also part of Mr. Stephens' history-themed projects for the Air Force 60th Anniversary.
"Walt Disney created this image of the air as a place of adventure and wonder, inspiring American citizens to think of the world beyond their horizon," Mr. Stephens said. "The Gremlins was one such vision, and it clearly moved the great thinkers of the time. During World War II, many airpower advocates owned copies of the book--from the Women's Air Force Service Pilots, who adopted the female gremlin, Fifinella, as their mascot, to first lady Eleanor Roosevelt herself. The book is almost impossible to find now; the rarest of the rare with fewer than 300 copies known to exist worldwide today."
Originally intended as a local re-release for the 11th Wing only, the Air Force 60th Anniversary Committee asked Mr. Stephens to pursue a larger-scale project to get the books into the hands of Airmen everywhere. The fastest and fairest way to distribute the books was through the AAFES main exchange stores.
The book will be available at the base exchange beginning today. The print run is limited and advance ordering of the book is not possible.
"The story has a charm all its own," Mr. Stephens said. "It isn't preachy and the painted illustrations are as rich as those in Walt Disney classics such as Pinocchio and Dumbo. It has such a rich and timeless quality to it. I know this book will go fast."