In mid-October, two days after Stephen Ambrose’s death, a group of American Theatre Company artists sit at a table bringing his favorite war back to life. Actor John Sterchi reads aloud, imitating the cruelly teasing Teutonic voice of Axis Sally, the Third Reich counterpart to Tokyo Rose. “‘So you fliers in Jeemy Stewart’s Liberator group got in trouble over Kassel today. You didn’t liberate anyone. How many Liberators did vee shoot down–30?'” Sterchi shifts his voice again. “I raged at the radio, ‘Twenty-seven, you Nazi bitch, and we got 25 Focke-Wulfs, including my kill from the nose turret! Hope it was your husband or brother.'”

On September 27, 1944, 117 American flyers died in the raid on Kassel. It was the largest loss sustained in a single day by the Eighth Air Force division–and as Axis Sally sardonically noted, many of the Yanks killed had served under Colonel Jimmy Stewart in the 445th Bomb Group.

One of the lucky ones that day was navigator Art Shay, flying in one of the four planes that survived the Kassel raid. Now 80, Shay went on to become one of Chicago’s best-known photojournalists. He has more than 1,000 covers to his name for publications such as Look, Life, and Time, and his photos of Hugh Hefner and Leo Durocher hang in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Shay’s celebrated 1988 book of photographs, Nelson Algren’s Chicago, includes not only shots of his longtime friend in his favorite haunts but sharp, poignant images of Chicago’s down-and-out. Shay had many encounters with the famous and infamous, from Marlon Brando to Judy Garland to Jimmy Hoffa, and recounts them in his photographic memoir, Album for an Age, published in 2000. He also describes his experiences in the war and the disappearance of his “genius hippie son,” Harmon, in 1972 when the boy was 20. Those memories are the basis of Shay’s new one-man play, Where Have You Gone, Jimmy Stewart?, directed by his friend Mike Nussbaum and performed by Sterchi. The piece opens at American Theatre Company on Veterans Day–November 11–and runs through December 8.

Like Stewart, who refused to allow the studios to use his war record for promotional purposes, Shay has no wish to exploit his experiences or nostalgia for that time. In the play he witheringly dismisses the notion of the Greatest Generation. “So Great–we sent our own kids to die for the French in Vietnam, then elected such minor-leaguers as Nixon, Reagan, and poor Bill Clinton. While worshipping our shoot-em-up Moses, Charlton Heston, neatly sidestepping the corpses of kids around our schools as he leads the NRA to the promised land of guns and roses.”

Shay says that his memoir “really began some years ago with my grandson Carter, who was then about 13. He said to me, ‘I have to do a report. What’s the worst thing that happened to you in the war?'” Earlier this year, under Nussbaum’s tutelage, Shay’s chronicle of “competing nightmares” received its first reading at ATC. (The last play Shay had produced was A Clock for Nikita, which ran at Chicago’s Stagelight Theatre in 1964, and he’s currently working on a solo piece about Simone de Beauvoir.)

Nussbaum says of the adaptation process, “Essentially the two themes from the huge number of things that could have come out of the book that I thought were the most universal and the most dramatic were his war experiences and the death of his son. The problem was in trying to get Art to interweave the two in a way that made dramatic sense as well. I think the discovery throughout the play of so many others who have also lost sons–to me, that is the theme that ties the whole thing together.”

Harmon disappeared while visiting his grandmother in Miami 30 years ago. No remains have ever been found, and Shay says that some members of his family believe that his free-spirited eldest son may still be alive. “They’ll say, ‘Well, you know Harmon. He’s off exploring the Orinoco or dealing drugs in South America.’ My theory is that he was picked up by a carful of people hitchhiking. He trusted anybody under 30. He had about $150, so they asked him, ‘What are you looking for, pot, LSD?’ He might have told them pot or LSD. ‘Got any money? Oh, come with us.’ And this is close to Okefenokee–like one of the guys in the play says, ‘Best place to hide a body in the world.'”

Three of Shay’s four surviving children are photographers and one is an attorney. Shay eloped with their mother, Florence, during World War II; now a rare-book dealer in Highland Park, she was one of the people at the first read-through in October. “She’s been a very big help on this play because she’s a terrific editor,” says Shay. “No bullshit.”

At the read-through, Shay brings out photos of his squadron in front of their B-24 Liberators. “We called them ‘flying coffins,'” he says. His old navigator’s sextant, ancient typewriter, bugle, and components of an early computer that Harmon built (“six or eight years before Apple was invented,” he says) appear in the play. “Originally, of course, Art wanted a slide show,” says Nussbaum. “The original version was 70 pages long and had about 75 slides. We’re now down to seven photos that we display at odd times. They are literal presences–huge photos.” The running joke was that any image cut from the show would be “put in the lobby.” And sure enough, blown-up photos of the 445th will be on display there.

Shay’s anger at the Nazis is still palpable–and Nussbaum urged him to include his defense of the U.S. attack on Dresden in February 1945. (“Revenge is part of war,” the director says.) Though many have argued that the Dresden attack came as the war was almost over, Shay notes that in the 86 days still remaining the Germans continued to lob V-2 rocket bombs at civilian targets–including a movie house in Antwerp where 700 people, many of them children, died while taking in a screening of Fantasia. He adds that some have inflated the death count: “This English Holocaust denier, David Irving, estimated 150,000 to 250,000 killed in Dresden. The official German count is around 36,000. Which brings to mind that the [German] generals complained that killing 33,771 Russian Jews at Babi Yar in two days took too many bullets and too much time.”

Shay readily admits in the play that “neither my war wound nor my peace wound has been healed.” And he says during our conversation, “There is no such thing as closure. You go around your grief. But it’s always there. Harmon is always with me.” He talks about Harmon’s computer. “It used binary code and would generate 200 random words. I didn’t quite understand it. I took it to a teletype place to see if they could print some stuff out, because they didn’t have computer printers in those days. The guy told me he could do it, but it would take a month

and cost about $25,000. Yesterday I’m going through the OfficeMax and they’ve got like 47 printers under $100. So I had tears.”

In 1966 Shay took pictures of Richard Speck’s victims in the morgue (one of the photos, with black boxes over the faces of the victims, appears in Album for an Age). He says that if Harmon’s body had been recovered and photographed it would have been painful, but he would have understood the photographer’s impulse to document and dissect the event. “A good photojournalist is unfortunately like a good doctor,” he says. Then he adds, haltingly, “When I realized, talking to the police in Miami like the sixth day [after Harmon’s disappearance], that we weren’t going to find him, I was sitting at my desk, and I had a camera with a wide angle sitting on it. And I realized that I was never going to see my son again. Because there were no records, no unidentified bodies at the morgue, nothing. In the back of my mind I was thinking about the alligators in Okefenokee. I ran out of a movie once that showed somebody falling into a swamp full of alligators. I’m sitting there, and here’s the camera, and I was looking at it, and slowly I picked it up and pointed down and shot my own picture. I’ve never told anybody about that. I don’t care now what it sounds like. But I had the pictures. It would be terrible to publish them. But I couldn’t separate the two–being a father and photographer.”

Shay’s chronicle details his loss and grief but is liberally sprinkled with puckish wit and exuberantly sexual anecdotes. In his Sun-Times review of Ambrose’s history of the B-24s, The Wild Blue, Shay gives the historian points for discussing the randiness of men and women living on the edge. He notes in the review that most of the “Greatest Generation” letters run along the lines of “Thanks for the socks, Mom. They keep me real dry. Golly, I miss the milkshakes down at Dooley’s.” In the play he says that, though Stewart himself was squeaky-clean, when comely English lasses descended on the base dances at Tibenham, “we brave but fearful young warriors reaped the sexual bounty of Stewart’s screen reputation.”

Shay’s play was begun before September 11, but resonance with that event is inevitable. Says Nussbaum, “I think that the play has a positive effect, given 9/11, to have the audience recognize that these kinds of crises are not unique. We’ve gone through periods that were even worse, and we’ve come out through the other end. We’ll get through this, too.”

Muses Shay, “I almost got killed in the last moments of the war by a German fighter over Norway. I suddenly realized I survived World War II. At that moment, and from that day, I felt that I was in the tradition of all the stories and fairy tales and adventure stories I used to read–the white knight syndrome. Somehow I was on the team that won the biggest game in the world. We had wiped out–forever–the bad guys. I did not realize that the bad guys keep springing up.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Saverio Truglia.