Today on the blog, we have another wonderful interview with one of our authors! Rob Morris has answered a few questions about his background, his writing career, and his new book, Prisoner of the Swiss, which was adapted from the memoirs of Daniel Culler, a World War II airman and POW.
Where were you born? Where did you grow up?
Born in Rapid City, South Dakota, and grew up both there and in the Washington, DC area.
Could you tell us a bit about any history of military service in your family? In what ways was the military part of your life from an early age?
I intended to be a Marine fighter pilot flying off carriers. Got my pilot’s license at 18 in 1977 in a Cessna 150. However, I flunked out of the OCS program because of an issue with my spine (which has never caused me as much as five seconds of problems in my life). My family history is no more military than anybody else’s. I had relatives in all the wars but that’s true for most Americans. My personal interest was in flying airplanes and military airplanes in particular, which drew me into writing about military aviation.
What kinds of books did you read growing up? Which had the greatest impact on you?
I read a lot of history, and historical fiction. I always had a book with me, loved to read and write. As a little kid, loved Winnie the Pooh. As an older kid, liked sports books and military books, and as an adult I have a wide range of interests, from military and aviation history to sports history to fiction. I was also influenced by growing up around comic books, which tell tales in a visceral, visual way.
When did you first realize that you wanted to become a writer? What is it about writing that appealed to you?
I wrote my first book at age 9 on a wide-ruled Indian tablet. It was 50 pages long, with illustrations, and called “The Little Things of Life” about an ant family. I still think it’s pretty good. I’ve written on and off ever since, though I didn’t get serious about writing again until about 1995. Most of my published work is nonfiction, and I try to tell stories that I think are important and that are in danger of being forgotten. Focused heavily for years on WWII because the veterans were still around. Prisoner of the Swiss is an example of a book I helped an aged veteran re-do for a broader market. I’ve also been interested in the history of professional football, and just helped an 18-year pro write his memoirs. That was incredible, and one part that was very appealing was doing the research and interviewing men who had been heroes of mine as a kid. I like telling stories about and with others that have deeper meaning and which are in danger of disappearing. That means a lot to me.
What did you do before you started (or in addition to) writing? Did you have any odd jobs?
I’ve taught junior and senior high school in rural Wyoming and in Idaho for the past 32 years, so I’ve been teaching my whole adult life, really. Before my first teaching job I worked in Upward Bound up in Montana with Native kids off the rezzes so in a way I’ve been working with kids since I was a teenager myself. I worked from the time I was about fourteen, as a paperboy for the Washington Star-News and as a day camp counselor. In college, I worked as a dishwasher, bartender, grill cook, and busboy. After college, while getting my teaching certificate, I worked as a banquet setup man at the Billings, Montana Sheraton Hotel and as a sales clerk in paint and hardware and Monkey Wards. While waiting for my first teaching job I worked as a tutor in Upward Bound and as a bank messenger. Since I began teaching I’ve spent many years coaching junior and senior high school sports, including track and field, cross-country, and soccer. I do my writing in my small window of free time after my 12-hour teaching days (I now teach 9th grade World History in Idaho Falls, ID) and in the summers.
When and how did you become interested in Military history?
Since I decided at an early age to become a military pilot. I read books, built models, and then got a pilot’s license, but did not make it into Marine OCS as mentioned above. I then tried to get into the Air Force and they also flunked me. So for a number of years, I did not write anything. Then, around 1999 or so, I decided to write military aviation history, because the WWII vets I admired were all getting old and their stories were disappearing with them. That’s why I wrote my first major book, Untold Valor, which has had five or six printings now since coming out in 2006.
Who are your favorite authors, fiction and non-fiction, and why?
My favorite military historians are Walter Boyne, Robert Dorr, and Barrett Tillman, all of whom are also friends of mine because of the small group of writers that do this in the United States. We all know each other. I read Boyne since my teen years, the others later. I also love the books by British historian Ian Hawkins, who became a mentor to me early on in my writing career. As for fiction, I’m a fourth-generation Idahoan, and I love the West, so I enjoy reading AB Guthrie, Wallace Stegner, James, Welch, Sherman Alexie, and other Western writers who write outside the hackneyed Western genre. I read the Bible daily for inspiration and comfort. I also love fantasy books such as Lord of the Rings.
Have you read anything lately that you’d like to recommend to our readers?
In the military genre, I’ve enjoyed reading some books by WWII pilots who wrote them for a small audience. My favorite is John Walter’s My War. John flew B-17s with the 95th Bomb Group. Another one I’ve read recently was by a 100th BG pilot named John A. Clark. I’d recommend anything by Walter Boyne or Ian Hawkins, as well as Robery Hilliard’s Surviving the Americans about how two young GI’s saved thousands of displaced persons in the American sector after WWII. Also anything by Winston Churchill.
How do you relax? Do you have any hobbies or interests?
I have a large vinyl record collection and spend a lot of time listening to music. I am also a distance runner and have run for over 40 years. I love to read, and also to write books. I also like to take long road trips and camp along the way in interesting places where I can hike, relax and write. I live close to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone Park. Either is a day trip. I’ve spent many days alone in the wilderness, and had my share of run-ins with moose and bear as well.
Could you tell us about Daniel Culler, how you met, and why you decided to adapt his story as Prisoner of the Swiss?
I met Dan when researching Untold Valor, and there is a chapter about him in the book. Dan and I became very close over the next 15 years, emailing at times more than once a day. I knew his story was incredibly dramatic and disturbing and completely overlooked by history. So a few years back, I asked Dan if I could try to re-write it and edit his three long books into a shorter book. He gave me permission. I worked at crafting it down and then added explication chapters, as did former West Point historian Dwight Mears. I did a lot of new research using sources in Switzerland and in the States. Dan and I re-published his book on Createspace as Prisoner of the Swiss. Dan saw it and loved it. Sadly, he died before Casemate expressed interest, so he didn’t live to see his dream of a major publication of his work come true.
What do you like most about your book? Why should we read it?
I like that it’s not the same story you hear over and over about World War Two. It’s totally different. It is a story that nobody wanted to have told—not the Swiss, not the Americans. And it is a disturbing story that turns accepted notions about Swiss neutrality on their heads. Every American should read it, if only for that, but also because despite being tossed aside by his own government and permanently scarred emotionally and physically, Dan never gave up trying to see the good in life despite the demons that haunted him. He was an intensely scarred individual, and the world didn’t do right by him. Instead of the story being a tragedy, in the end, it’s kind of a victory for Dan, that he lives to be an old man and see himself and others like him vindicated by history, in large part because of this book.
Anything else we should know about you and your books?
It’s all about telling stories that otherwise will be lost forever. True stories. With real people, ordinary people, put into extraordinary circumstances, and doing incredibly courageous things. We can learn so much from these people that it’s my mission to find them and tell the stories.
Rob Morris is a military historian and author of multiple titles including Untold Valor: Forgotten Stories of American Bomber Crewmen over Europe in World War II and Wild Blue Yonder and Beyond (Potomac).
Daniel Culler was a WWII veteran who wrote The Black Hole of Wauwilermoos about his experiences as a POW in a Swiss internment camp during the war. This was adapted as Prisoner of the Swiss by Rob Morris, with his co-operation. He passed away in 2016.
About the Book
During World War II, 1,517 members of US aircrews were forced to seek asylum in Switzerland. Most neutral countries found reason to release US airmen from internment, but Switzerland took its obligations under the Hague Convention more seriously than most. The airmen were often incarcerated in local jails, and later transferred to prison camps. The worst of these camps was Wauwilermoos, where at least 161 U.S. airmen were sent for the honorable offense of escaping.
To this hellhole came Dan Culler, the author of this incredible account of suffering and survival. Not only did the prisoners sleep on lice-infested straw, were malnourished and had virtually no hygiene facilities or access to medical care but worse, the commandant of Wauwilermoos was a diehard Swiss Nazi. He allowed the mainly criminal occupants of the camp to torture and rape Dan Culler with impunity. After many months of such treatment, starving and ravaged by disease, he was finally aided by a British officer.
Betrayal dominated his cruel fate – by the American authorities, by the Swiss, and in a last twist in a second planned escape that turned out to be a trap. But Dan Culler’s courage and determination kept him alive. Finally making it back home, he found he had been abandoned again. Political expediency meant there was no such place as Wauwilermoos. He has never been there, so he has never been a POW and didn’t qualify for any POW benefits or medical or mental treatment for his many physical and emotional wounds. His struggle to make his peace with his past forms the final part of the story.
Rob Morris’s introduction and notes provide historical background and context, including recent efforts to recognize the suffering of those incarcerated in Switzerland and afford them full POW status.
Prisoner of the Swiss is available in both print and eBook. Purchase your copy on our website, or from any bookseller.