Sunday, July 25, 2010

Fathers and Sons, Flags and Soldiers

In keeping with my recently established theme, there is another not so recently published book that speaks eloquently about the experiences of the American infantryman during World War II – in this instance primarily the experiences of the Marine rifleman in the Pacific theater. I avoided reading James Bradley’s “Flags of Our Fathers” for years because I underestimated both this book and the author. I claimed the historian’s skepticism of an unknown author writing on a topic of which I already knew a good deal from my own studies (including the controversy and allegations that the photo was posed), and more personally I expected a sentimental and even emotionally overwrought tale of father-son bonding left too late. I think that in admitting my error I can safely claim that at least I have only rarely been this wrong about something. Read this book.

James Bradley has presented us in “Flags of Our Fathers” with what is in fact a rather complex work. It is the story of a son reaching out to know more of the untold story of a father, it is a military history of one of our bloodiest battles in one of our bloodiest conflicts – the war with Japan that crossed the Pacific Ocean and back, it is the story of how the experience of war and close combat can and does effect men and in turn their families, it is the story of the power of an image and how we relate to that powerful image individually and as a society or as institutions within that society. As a historian, I enjoyed Bradley's ability to work with documents, people, places, and the artifacts of war to present as complete an account as possible of a moment in history – tracing back to its earliest roots and carrying the story forward to examine its lasting impact on individuals and even the nations represented.

As in the other theaters of war that we place together in that intellectual box we label World War II, combat in the Pacific was not a constant unchanging reality. The fighting on Guadalcanal, in the Philippines, on Tarawa, and on Iwo Jima, for example, shared only the reality of men fighting and dying. Bradley’s narrative does a good job of identifying and discussing this evolution that in simplest terms went from fighting off banzai charges to the hard slog of digging a hidden enemy out of his bunkers, caves, spider holes, and trenches – an enemy whose from was invisible even as he laid down a deadly fire with every weapon at his disposal. The author also places this experience of the ground war in its proper context within a war that called upon the full range of combined arms – artillery, tanks, naval gunfire, and aircraft – to which was ultimately added a new, ultimate weapon in the atomic bomb.

Flags of Our Fathers, by James Bradley, (c) 2000 James Bradley and Ron Powers, Bantam, New York

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Universal Soldier – the mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys of the infantry

Having recently written a blog about books on tanks and armored vehicles, my more recent readings have focused on the infantry, so I will now present several postings on books on the subject. (And don’t worry tread heads and tankisti, I will return to the subject of tanks for I am also fond of the great metal monsters myself.)

Ultimately, every individual who goes to war is an infantryman (or infantrywoman where applicable and accepted) for the individual soldier and his personal weapon is the fundamental building block of the military. The lot of an infantry soldier of any army of any period of history is recognizable to any of his counterparts, comrades, or foes who are also infantry. Some years ago, a colleague shared a text that illustrates this point as it describes the lot of an Egyptian infantryman (it was reportedly used as a practice text for Egyptian scribes learning their art and perfecting their craft):

Come, [let me tell] you the woes of the soldier, and how many are his superiors: the general, the troop-commander, the officer who leads, the standard-bearer, the lieutenant, the scribe, the commander of fifty, and the garrison-captain. They go in and out in the halls of the palace, saying: "Get laborers!" He is awakened at any hour. One is after him as [after] a donkey. He toils until the Aten sets in his darkness of night. He is hungry, his belly hurts; he is dead while yet alive. When he receives the grain-ration, having been released from duty, it is not good for grinding.

He is called up for Syria. He may not rest. There are no clothes, no sandals. The weapons of war are assembled at the fortress of Sile. His march is uphill through mountains. He drinks water every third day; it is smelly and tastes of salt. His body is ravaged by illness. The enemy comes, surrounds him with missiles, and life recedes from him. He is told: "Quick, forward, valiant soldier! Win for yourself a good name!" He does not know what he is about. His body is weak, his legs fail him.

When victory is won, the captives are handed over to his majesty, to be taken to Egypt. The foreign woman faints on the march; she hangs herself [on] the soldier's neck. His knapsack drops, another grabs it while he is burdened with the woman. His wife and children are in their village; he dies and does not reach it. If he comes out alive, he is worn out from marching.
Be he at large, be he detained, the soldier suffers. If he leaps and joins the deserters, all his people are imprisoned. He dies on the edge of the desert, and there is none to perpetuate his name. He suffers in death as in life. A big sack is brought for him; he does not know his resting place.

The American GIs, whom Ernie Pyle referred to as “the mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys,” would recognize themselves and their lot in the lament of this ancient predecessor. Ernie was with and reported on the GIs in North Africa, Italy, and France and then moved on to report on the war in the Pacific. He was killed on April 18, 1945 by a Japanese machine gun on the small island of Ie Shima near Okinawa. Perhaps the most indicative comment on how well Ernie Pyle told the story of the American infantryman of World War II came from the soldiers themselves for they posted a sign board on Ie Shima bearing the following words: “At this spot, the 77th Infantry Division lost a Buddy, Ernie Pyle, 18 April 1945.”

You can read what Ernie Pyle wrote about the American soldier in the two published collections of his wartime columns. Since these were meant for newspaper syndication, Ernie did clean things up a little bit for the home front audience but you can still get a sense of what it was like from his writing and I highly recommend them.

This presents Ernie’s columns from the North African campaign, Algeria to Tunisia.

Here is Your War by Ernie Pyle, Consolidated Book Publishers, Chicago, 1944 © 1943, Henry Holt and Company, Inc., New York

The second volume presents Ernie’s columns from Sicily (June-September, 1943), Italy (December, 1943-April, 1944), and France (June-September, 1944) including a column actually written while he was in the Pacific as the war in Europe ended but that was not published. It was found when he was killed and not printed because its tone was considered too depressing at the time.

Brave Men, by Ernie Pyle, Bison Books Edition, University of Nebraska Press, © 2001, University of Nebraska Press (originally published 1944, Henry Holt and Company, Inc., New York)

There are other memoirs relating experiences of GIs that should be easy to track down. However, one of the best and now a classic standard work for those studying the WWII GI was written by an infantry officer:

Company Commander, Charles B. MacDonald, Ballantine Books, New York, © 1947 Charles B. MacDonald.

In September, 1944, at the age of 22, the author took command of Company I, an infantry company of the 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division. He was wounded in January, 1945 and after two months convalescence was placed in command of a different infantry company, which he led until the end of the war in Europe. He received the Silver Star and the Purple Heart. His memoirs describing this experience were first published in 1947 but have remained available ever since. This book is widely considered a classic text for the study of command in the 20th Century and especially the American Army of the Second World War. After the war, MacDonald would rise to become Deputy Chief Historian at the Army Center for Military History at his retirement in 1979. Highly recommended.

Roll Me Over, An Infantryman’s World War II, by Raymond Gantter, Ivy Books, New York, © 1997 The Estate of Raymond Gantter.

Ray Gantter was a 30 year old draftee, after turning down his third draft deferment. As a result, he his jobs playing jazz piano and working as a program manager for a Syracuse New York radio station to join the army as a private, becoming an acting squad leader, and then acting buck sergeant, serving with the 1st Infantry Division where he earned the Silver Star and a battlefield commission. This book is based upon the wartime journal he kept from September 1944 to the end of the war and which he turned into a book manuscript in June 1949. The author’s wartime experiences covered northern France, Belgium, the Bulge, Germany, and finally Czechoslovakia. He also intersperses his descriptions of combat with discussions of the soldier’s daily life and its more mundane and less dramatic aspects. Recommended.

Night Drop, The American Airborne Invasion of Normandy, S.L.A. Marshall, © 1962 S.L.A. Marshall, published in 1962 by The Battery Press, Inc, Nashville, and in 1984 by Jove/The Berkeley Press, New York.

This work differs from the others discussed because it is neither a memoir nor autobiographical, and covers only one single combat operation rather than a longer period of the war. Noted military historian S.L.A. Marshall, Brigadier General, USAR, (ret.), based this book on the after action reports and his interviews with participants in the operation to tell the story of the American Airborne (parachute and glider) assaults in Normandy. Critics and scholars have found fault with some of Marshall’s work and you can find a great deal of material on that debate elsewhere on the internet and in the academic journals. Nevertheless, this is still a harrowing account of the confusion, chaos, courage, and desperation that surrounded the American paratroopers and glider troops in the D-Day operation. Recommended, with a caveat that Marshall’s methods as used in researching for this work have been challenged in connection with other books by him.