Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A surprising experience in personal discovery

I was born August 10, 1945—the day after Nagasaki and four days after Hiroshima. What little I knew about rationing, scrap metal drives and war bonds I learned by listening to my dad, who experienced them as a father of three already in his early 40s. I first became aware of the warfare part of World War II by watching some of the popular movies of my childhood. Thirty Second Over Tokyo; Run Silent, Run Deep; Bataan and Mr. Roberts come immediately to mind. After I reached adulthood, I started reading books about the war—dozens of books. My fascination related to having come along right on its heels as I did, and being exposed to its fresh memories as I was.

When I was approached about turning the transcripts of Dr. John Elliff’s interviews with the Sterling Heroes into a book, I relished the opportunity to work on a subject that interested me so much. I thought I knew a lot about the war by this time; more, certainly, than most post-war Americans. What a surprise that awaited! At the beginning of this project, I also assumed that a book of this sort would appeal, most of all, to the generation that had lived the war day after day for almost five years. What a mistaken premise!

If another historical event exists about which more has been written, published and (in this era) posted than World War II, I have somehow missed it. WWII likely exceeds even baseball—with all of its lore and statistical achievements recorded in countless books, articles, videos and Web sites—for the sheer volume of its recorded milestones and memorable moments. Every unit that served; the crew of every ship or squadron; and every major battle each has its own Internet site. Every ship, airplane and military honor has its own curriculum vitae, as it were, in print or online. And the books. Thousands of books explore every imaginable facet of the greatest global conflict man has ever known.

Sterling Heroes exposed me to this vast panorama—teaching me how little I really knew. So to ensure that the references to historic people, places, events and phenomena that appear in every first-person account are understood in their historical context, bits of history supplement each chapter. It may not be possible to condense more than four years of danger, death and destruction—and slices of life during that time—into snippets of a few hundred words apiece, but that is what “Historical References” attempts to do at the end of each chapter.

Part of what makes Sterling Heroes unique within this unmatched written record is the microcosm the lives of these 36 veterans represent. Here is rural, small town America at a time when larger cities shared many more of their traits. Here are American teenagers leaving home to risk their lives, just as real adulthood drew near. In these cases, they usually were leaving the farm or ranch, but the experience was virtually the same no matter what kind of family environment a boy was leaving. They all went in “for the duration” and were moved around the country, usually to four or five newly constructed training camps—regardless of their branch of service—before shipping out to Europe or the Pacific. What they left behind was a nation totally preoccupied with the “war effort.”

The Sterling Heroes served in the Army, Navy, Marines and Army Air Corps. They saw service in North Africa, Italy, France, Germany, the Aleutians, New Guinea, Australia, the Philippines, Okinawa, Iwo Jima, every little atoll in the seemingly endless Pacific and—not to be forgotten or underestimated—in America itself and along her shores. As a result, their stories, collectively, document the truly global nature of World War II and the unimaginable scope of the mobilization that occurred on the home front, while shedding light on the patriotism and commitment that dominated America through years of sacrifice.

Nearly all of the World War II veterans that I have known in my life were reluctant, if not outright unwilling, to talk about their experiences during the time they spent in uniform. They did what they had to do. It was, in most cases, violent, terrifying, heart-breaking and sadly wasteful. For those lucky enough to come home, it was time to get on with life. They would reminisce with each other, through their reunions and alumni associations, or remember quietly on their own.

This is another element that makes Sterling Heroes such an exception in the realm of World War II literature. Widely respected and ultimately trustworthy, Dr. Elliff persuaded three dozen men to talk about their places in that war—to confide their fears and heartaches; to admit at least some of their shenanigans; to share dramatic moments during combat; and to reveal personal feelings about family, faith and the future course of their lives. Of the thousands of books that deal with some aspect of World War II, precious few offer the broad sense of Americans facing this time in the way that Sterling Heroes does. Most deal with military analysis of a particular battle; re-create a pivotal event; or profile a given individual. Some attempt to chronicle the entire global conflict, or everything that occurred in one of its theaters.

Each Sterling hero has his own chapter. Each chapter is original, personal—one of a kind. Yet there are threads that connect some to others. “The Coincidental Patient” and “The War Correspondent” show how small the world can be—even the world at war. “The Weary Warrior,” “The Battle Baby” and “The 99th’s Memorialist” illustrate the horrors of ground warfare, and “The Frightful Flier,” “The Flying Ace” and “The Early Centurion” paint a vivid picture of combat in the skies. The gripping accounts in “The Indomitable POW,” “The Forgiving Captive,” “The Intrepid Escapee” and “The Post-War Citizen” provide different perspectives on being captured by the enemy. And life aboard ship ranges from “The Pearl Survivor” to “The Dual Personality,” the “The Deliveryman” and “The First In Line.” The infrastructure of war is captured in “The Unsung Pilot,” “The Flight Instructor,” “The Sudden 1st Sergeant” and “The Plains Yachstman.” And Okinawa—the last battle of the war—is recounted in “The Combat Engineer,” “The School Teacher” and “The Grieving Son.” Believe it or not, this is barely half of the chapters.

Members of what has been dubbed “The Greatest Generation” may well enjoy Sterling Heroes, as I originally thought they would. But I now realize that this book offers much more to those who, like me, were born after World War II—whether that refers to the late 1940s, the second half of the 20th century, in the New Millennium or sometime beyond. There will never be another war like it, nor another time when the United States, as a nation, is so galvanized by a single cause. Thanks, to the Sterling Heroes for sharing, and to Dr. John Elliff for asking them to.

D.D. 2012

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