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'Soldier of the Press' comes to life after years in a Northfield attic

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July 08, 2009
NORTHFIELD — Decades after finding in his attic a 1943 manuscript written by a United Press correspondent, Kenneth Gorrell has finished the editing process and has published his grandfather's cousin's firsthand accounts of the wars that raged across Europe, Africa and the Middle East in the late 1930s and early '40s.

According to the forward written by military historian John C. McManus, Henry Gorrell was the kind of war correspondent who "risked life and limb on the front lines," from the Spanish Civil War through World War II. Though Ken Gorrell, who lives in Northfield and graduated from Winnisquam Regional High School, didn't know what he had on his hands when he first found the manuscript as a teenager, nearly 30 years later he recognized the significance of the 400 typewritten pages.

"(My interest in) military history came during my time in the Navy," Ken Gorrell said.

That interest was piqued as he read through his distant relative's accounts of the siege of Madrid, of the Allied retreat from Greece in 1941, and of earning the Air Medal for saving the life of an airman on a B-24 Liberator during a bombing raid over Greece. Despite knowing it would be a "daunting" task working his way through the fragile pages with their handwritten corrections, Ken Gorrell started to edit the book about 10 years ago. After what he calls "a fitful start," he really got down to business in '06.

Ken Gorrell called the editing process "difficult," and he broke the project into pieces to make it more manageable. While fascinating, he said that researching facts on the Internet so he could verify names and events was time consuming. He did, however, manage to track down the pilot who flew the B-24 Henry Gorrell flew on.

"It was just great to talk to him," Ken Gorrell said of the pilot, who is now in his '90s and living in Utah.

One of the biggest reasons Ken Gorrell wanted to publish this manuscript was for the younger generation of soldiers fighting overseas. Henry Gorrell talked about what is now known as post traumatic stress disorder at a time when it was largely ignored.

"He watched ships sink, he watched planes crash, men die, tanks blow up," Ken Gorrell said. "It affected him. He's very upset and upfront about it."

By reading this book, Ken Gorrell hopes that veterans and those who are currently serving will be able to relate to the human side of warfare and potentially find comfort in the words of a man who recognized the emotional consequences of war.

"War is war," he said. "It doesn't change all that much in the way it affects people."

Throughout the editing process, Ken Gorrell had the opportunity to revisit wars he'd previously learned about from an American perspective, this time seeing them mainly from the perspective of British soldiers, with whom Henry Gorrell spent most of his time. He reported into the Madrid bureau.

"His perspective is fresh," Ken Gorrell said. "The manuscript was written as he went along. It's very much a time capsule."

It's also a heart-wrenching tale at times, as Henry Gorrell did not shy away from the humanity of war. Chapter 22, Ken Gorrell said, is particularly haunting because of how Henry Gorrell reports on the death of a young British private.

"Even though I've read the chapter several times, the way Henry writes it, it's still very affecting," Ken Gorrell said.

As a journalist, the author is "very honest" in his reporting, including in his manuscript the failures of the British troops as well as the triumphs. However, the manuscript is a memoir and does read differently than the articles he sent back to the United Press for publication in America. He is "clearly not a fan of fascist forces," Ken Gorrell said.

In working through the manuscript, Ken Gorrell said he contacted some of Henry Gorrell's family members, including his children, who were "very willing" to work with him. He had to change the name of the original manuscript, which had been titled "Eyewitness," and had it published by University Press. A lot of the marketing has been left up to him, he said, but mainly he just wants the book to get into the hands of people who will benefit from its messages on humanity and its historical value. To that end, he plans to talk and hand out books to local rotary clubs and veterans organizations. He'll also have a book signing at Border's in Concord toward the end of summer.

As a Winnisquam graduate, Ken Gorrell said he was pleased to be invited to speak to teacher Denise Lessard's history and economics classes about the book. He said he hopes discussions like those will help younger people who likely know someone who has fought overseas understand what it's like for those soldiers to come back home.

"They (students) should talk about people coming back now," he said. "We need to understand that they've gone through something most of us have never gone through."

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