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SunLit Interview: Author Bill Sonn found a “starter drug” in library archives

The writer of the nonfiction "Something Like Treason" came across a trove of documents on an Army unit for misfits that led to his obsession with their story

Bill Sonn is an author and long-time writer whose work has appeared in Outside/Mariah and Chicago magazines, The Progressive, Columbia Journalism Review, The Boston Globe, Bild, Westword and more. A former news and communications executive and editor of several health care and general periodicals, he co-founded a news company and served as a consultant to various health care companies. He lives in Denver with his wife, Edie.


Tell us this book’s backstory. Not much has been written about this piece of World War II history. What inspired you to write it? 

Truth is, I was doing research for a (health care) client at a library (History Colorado’s, as it happened), and dragging by mid-afternoon. Instead of plunging ahead for still more background about hospital development in the state, I offhandedly scrolled the online catalog and spied a vague reference to court-martial and Camp Hale. I put aside my guilt about not getting back to work (I have some practice at that) and asked a librarian what the reference was about. She brought out a box of materials. I read one document and didn’t understand it. I read the next and soon, I couldn’t stop until I could put the pieces together. There were four boxes of the stuff.

It turns out a library catalog is the starter drug for spending four years or so doing research for a story. Be careful.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

Tell us this book’s backstory. Not much has been written about this piece of World War II history. 

A few things have indeed been written about this. There’ve been a few magazine articles, a research paper (written at Metro State University), reams of (mostly adulatory) stuff about Camp Hale, and rarely with any mention of German POWs or would-be traitors at the place. A thin book about one of the plot leaders came out a couple of years ago. None measured up to a three-part New Yorker series in 1950 about the same guy written by the excellent E.J. Kahn, Jr.

I ended up telling a longer story about these misfits. Understanding them led into tales of Nazi spies and the rise of fascism in the United States, an FBI turf war, the spread of German POW camps around the country, judicial reform, the second Red Scare, racism and, among others, the prosperity and then rusting of America in the post-war era.

Place this excerpt, which begins at the storied Camp Hale, in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?

I took multiple stabs at where to start the story, and remnants of them remain in this excerpt. But I settled on this as a way to introduce most of the main players and, I’d hope, engage readers. It also was a chance to start building the suspense.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Tell us about creating this book. What kinds of research did you do? Were any first-hand sources available among the dwindling ranks of World War II veterans? Was it difficult to find documentation on this unit of “misfits”? 

The four boxes of papers at History Colorado were a wonderful start. They included court-martial papers, some FBI records and, best of all, the notes of the terrific journalist E.J. Kahn, Jr.

Filling in holes, researching the era and extending the story another three decades led me through the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, the National Archives, old Department of War records, municipal and tax records in San Diego and Miami, alumni bulletins, old newspapers & magazines, school records and campus clippings from Southwestern, Columbia, Texas, Michigan and Harvard, additional FBI and Office of Naval Intelligence records, interviews with modern-day military law experts, and the books and scholarly papers listed in the back of the book.

The principals, of course, are long dead. Four of five of the men who make up this story had children. Finding them (with one exception) was not all that challenging, but their responses ranged from being very generous with their time to those who wouldn’t talk to me. Most were generous, as were experts I consulted about military law, sexual orientation “treatments,” sentencing trends and more.

Interestingly, none of the children and nephews I interviewed knew anything about their fathers’ and uncles’ dubious wartime activities until I contacted them.

Once you began researching this book, did the story take you in any unexpected directions, or did you already know the odd history of the men involved?

Just about every direction it took me was unexpected. I said, “Are you kidding me?” more than once.

Tell us about the title. What do you mean by “Something Like Treason”?

On the tense, frightening home front, where everyone knew of someone who fell overseas or worried daily for a telegram about the death of a loved one, mercy for outliers was in short supply.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Germany was still smoking and Japan still fighting, however, when the military began what I think was a remarkable overhaul of its justice system. It balanced on the idea that some of what looked like intolerable crime during wartime was going to look different in peacetime. That, in turn, included charges amounting to treason and aiding the enemy.

And though attempts at sabotage and recruiting others for a guerilla army in the mountains of Colorado were still sabotage plans, they turned into something with different names and different consequences as the reform gained speed. It wasn’t quite treason anymore.

What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered as you researched and wrote this book? 

Secondary research in the digital age is fantastically easier than it was when I did my first book in 2006 and isn’t even on the same planet it was on when I was in grad school and college. (High school was and is a blur. Who knows what I was doing then?)

A project like this would have required a vast amount of travel and Robert Caro-level years in various libraries and archives. Most people writing history could never afford such things.

Arranging interviews, however, remains much of the same kind of pursuit and even tooth-pulling as it always has been. I’ve always hated talking on the phone, which makes interviews a bit challenging to me. But in-person or virtually, interviewing is pretty much the same as it’s always been. One exception: Virtual interviews leave out the visual clues that can be a big help in discerning what’s important in the discussion.

Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them? 

In these opening publication days, I have yet to get much feedback. I don’t really plan to challenge opinions. Everybody gets to have his or her own.

Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write? 

I’m a morning writer. The dog wakes me up at about 5:30, I pad downstairs to feed him and make coffee and, as it’s brewing, get in front of my computer. I write and add research and organize notes and write a little more. Before I know it, it’s 10:30 or 11:00 a.m. and I’ve forgotten all about the coffee. I go to the kitchen, find the contents of the pot have been largely reduced by my wife and ice cold anyway. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

In the afternoons, I either give up or watch my writing descend into gibberish. In all, I try to do 2,500 words or so a day, end up with 400, go to bed, wake up, and delete most of what I did the day before. 

How did you handle writing about the soldiers who were either closeted or openly gay?

There is plenty of material in the book that establishes some of these men’s sexual orientation and the prices they paid for it.  I cover it, its references, and the ways the military and even health professionals treated the subject. 

Otherwise, I really didn’t want to make a big deal about it. The most interesting point to me was that one of the men eventually made his living in risk management while he was living in what was at the time a socially risky way. 

Tell us about your next project.

I’ve pretty much had it up to here with paranoid stories about corporate plots (as opposed to White House plots) to overthrow the government. But while researching “Treason,” I tripped across one that, lo and behold, was true. It was well-funded and in motion. Then, like today, there was a Congress with compelling evidence of the plot in front of it that chose not to investigate further. 


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