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10 Indispensable Books
June/July 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 3
It was not until 2004, 59 years after the end of the war, that a World War II memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C. The eyewitness accounts of World War II are a different story. They began appearing while the war was going on, and as late as the 1990s they were still being written.
Some of their authors would never write again. Some would never write so well, and some would go on to distinguished literary careers. But whether the writer was a pro or an amateur, a private or a general, was of secondary importance. What defines the best eyewitness accounts of World War II is a preference for detail over abstraction and a deep empathy for the toll the war took on those who waged it.
The authenticity they share was epitomized by a letter written home in 1943 by a young naval officer serving in the Pacific: “When I read that we will fight the Japs for years if necessary and will sacrifice hundreds of thousands if we must, I always like to check from where he’s talking: it’s seldom here.” The young naval officer was Lt. (jg) John F. Kennedy, and at the core of the letter lies his belief that in order to understand the war, it was essential to be close to it.
The 10 books that follow, 5 from the Atlantic Theater of war and 5 from the Pacific, suggest that Kennedy knew what he was talking about. The books are very much of their time—for William Manchester the Japanese remained “Japs” and “Nips” years after the war’s end—but in being taken back to the 1940s by these accounts, we are not in the end simply set down in an era different from our own. We are also given a perspective on what it means to engage in a “good war” against an enemy that has attacked us and that, if unchecked, would destroy us.
Here Is Your War (Henry Holt, 1943) and Brave Men (Henry Holt, 1944). Nobody understood the infantry’s perspective better than Pyle. “My men always fought better when Ernie was around,” Gen. Omar Bradley insisted, and with good reason. Pyle not only shared the daily lives of the soldiers he wrote about in his columns but captured what it meant for men to make the psychological transition from knowing that taking life was wrong to believing “killing was a craft.”
Up Front (Henry Holt, 1945). It might seem frivolous to include this collection of Bill Mauldin’s “Willie and Joe” cartoons but no GI who read Stars and Stripes would question the choice. Like Ernie Pyle, Mauldin portrayed World War II from the bottom up. As in the drawing of Joe’s being repaid with a pair of dry socks for saving a buddy’s life, Mauldin’s humor continually captured the infantryman’s struggle to achieve dignity when the odds he faced gave him every reason to lose hope.
Those Who Fall (Random House, 1986). Muirhead’s descriptions of flying a heavy bomber under attack by enemy aircraft and flak bring home the terror of the air war and the experience of surviving an enemy prison camp.
The Face of War (Simon & Schuster, 1959). The Army’s public relations officers were never eager for women to be attached to fighting units, and it was only with the end of the war in sight that Gellhorn got to travel where she wanted, but her brilliant accounts of captured German prisoners, the Dutch town of Nijmegen after the Allies liberated it, and Dachau bring home something that in the 1940s never got the attention it deserved.
Crusade in Europe (Doubleday, 1948). Reading this account by the general who headed the European Theater of Operations provides an insider’s view of how complex the logistics and strategy of defeating the Germans was. But we also get a sense of Eisenhower’s humaneness, his concern with sparing the men on the front lines from exhausting marches and, whenever possible, bloody assaults.
With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa (Presidio Press, 1981). Sledge was a college freshman when he enlisted in the Marines in 1942. In his accounts of the battles of Peleliu and Okinawa he provides the most graphic combat descriptions of any World War II writer. He spares nobody, including his fellow Marines, whom he shows using their KA-BAR knives to pry out the gold teeth of dead Japanese soldiers.
Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War (Little, Brown, 1980). The author of acclaimed books about Douglas MacArthur, Winston Churchill, and John Kennedy, William Manchester is at first glance Eugene Sledge’s literary opposite. But Manchester’s accounts of the fighting he did as a Marine in the Pacific are almost as graphic as Sledge’s. What makes his memoir the perfect companion to With the Old Breed is the anger he still felt toward the Japanese and his acknowledgment that nobody came out of those brutal island battles with clean hands.