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Feature

A Great New Generation of Military Books

A battery of new books by WW I & II veterans -- and their children -- pay tribute to the generations that fought the 20th Century's great wars.
From the rise of Adolph Hitler to the bombing of Hiroshima, the years 1939 - 1945 brought out the some of best and worst behavior in the history of mankind. Circumstances of late have resulted in a boom in popularity of World War II lore. It began with books like The Greatest Generation and those by Stephen Ambrose and movies like Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line.

Many of us in the "baby boomer" generation have found our parents reluctant to talk about their wartime experiences, so we aren't overly surprised when these stories end up being told by the veterans' children. Remember, this generation had spent their childhood years surviving the poverty and hunger of the Depression, and just as they should have been entering the carefree and adventurous chapters of their lives, they were called on to sacrifice again and to fight overseas or work in factories for the war effort. After the war, and throughout their careers, the driving force was "to give their kids a better life than they had." It's no wonder that many boomers are inspired to memorialize their parents' generation in whatever way they can.

Wesley Johnston was so dedicated to researching his father's military experience that he wrote a book and created an amazingly thorough website on the topic, entitled Dad's War. "Time is the critical factor," says Johnston. "Rather than spending months or years trying to figure out how to do this, perhaps you can still find one of your Dad's buddies before it is too late."

The sense of urgency also applies to Veterans themselves. Indiana insurance broker Stan Huff had stayed in touch with his "L" company through annual reunions, but hadn't really considered writing a book-until he cleaned out his mother's closet.

"Ten years ago I was forced to move my 90 year-old mother to a nursing home. She informed me that she had all of my WWII letters in a bag in a closet. Although 50 years old, the letters were in good condition, and when I started reading them, many old memories were rekindled. My wife suggested I put some of these experiences in writing for my children and grandchildren and this was the beginning of my book."

Unforgettable Journey tracks Huff's 30-month Army stint and transition to manhood, following him through stateside training, from one side of Germany to the other as an infantry scout, and then on to Japan to be part of an amphibious invasion and the occupation force.

"My three children have all been very excited about this project, and have especially enjoyed reading letters I wrote as an 18 year-old teenager facing a very unnatural and dangerous situation. They all feel they know me better and more intimately now as they see how I reacted to various situations as a teenage soldier," says Huff.

"I have re-established relationships with some of the guys, although the number attending gets smaller each year," says Huff, acknowledging that time is of the essence when it comes to making contacts and gathering information. "Many of my friends and even strangers have written to me to tell me how much they have enjoyed the book. The one central reaction is that they now feel that they know me because they know my emotions, my thoughts, and my morals, having read the letters I wrote."

Huff also chronicles his return to Europe to retrace his steps. "The trip to Germany was very emotional. I saw actual fox holes we had occupied--full of leaves, but still there--I met Germans who were there when we went through and I was shocked that they treated me as a friend--not as an enemy invader. They threw a party for my wife, son and I in a castle we had captured 50 years before. I also met the Prince and Princess of Luxemburg who thanked me for my role during the war."

Sites like WarWeb.com, RZM.com, Military Reading List.com, and The Military Book Club carry a huge assortment of books from authors and publishers of all size and notoriety. Some sites post only books written exclusively by Vets themselves, like SubmarineVets.com, which specializes in submarine books written by Vets.

The Center for Military History website includes U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Erik K. Shinseki's "designated professional reading list for leaders," and he "challenges all leaders to make reading an important part of their professional development. These readings deepen our understanding of the timeless constants of the Army's values and traditions, the enduring dynamics of the human face of battle, and the future's potential to transform the profession of arms in the 21st Century."

The popularity of World War II books spans multiple generations, and there is no shortage of both fiction and nonfiction for children and young adult readers interested in learning more about it. For kids in about fourth grade and up, reading about World War II is like discovering the youth of their grandparents or their great-grandparents. Not all of the books deal with battles and war heroes--many of them deal with war and its social consequences, confronting issues like prison camps, Japanese interment, and the atomic bomb. The protagonists include nurses, air raid wardens, and war brides, along with child survivors of the Holocaust and bombardments.

Interest in parents' and grandparents' wartime stories also spans the 20th century, and books about World War I are also being researched and published. Eleanor Brownell was inspired by a cache of 30 letters that were sent home by her father to his wife and family from wartime France in 1918. Brownell, a veteran newspaper reporter, wrote and self-published About Face: A Daughter Looks Back at a Soldier and the Great War.

"The process of uncovering my father's wartime memories was like participating in a riveting mystery, with myself as the sleuth. I already had a reservoir of information from all he had told me when I was a girl. Perhaps for the very first time I drew upon this supply, finding it much more detailed and larger than I had ever consciously realized," she says.

"As I carefully read and reread the 30 letters still in existence that he wrote to his mother and other family members during his military career, I began to see my father in a new way. The letters reflected his patriotism and the excitement of a dramatically new experience for him--to be far away from home as he tested his mental and physical abilities with his fellow soldiers. I could see examples of his personality and character that I got to know only years later."

"The tour my husband and I took of the battlefields in France where my father fought tested my imagination because in the 80 plus years since he was there, the countryside had recovered, with only hints of those earlier battles. It was like the scene in the movie 'Patton' when the trumpets sound as George C. Scott portraying General Patton 'hears' the call from the ancient battle fought in that location."

"The real sense of mystery came as I read the many histories of the Great War and began to weave my father's experiences and that of his 4th Division into the larger historical event. During the periods of battles my father did not write much and what he did was heavily censored. As with so many soldiers, he did not go into detail about the terrible conditions. As a sleuth, I had to imagine what he and other soldiers must have experienced--the noise, the cold, the confusion, the fear, and the comradeship."

"The actual writing was a pleasure and the process of publishing was a learning experience. However, it has been the reactions of readers that have added an unexpected part to the whole process. Each reader seems to have a different reaction. One younger person said that she really understood for the first time what happened in the Great War. Another responded by writing down his own experiences as a soldier in World War II so that his family would know what he had done. Some readers have commented that they liked the writing style or that it brought back memories of their childhood or of their parents. One World War II, Korea, and Vietnam veteran said that I 'got the battle scenes right.'"

The consensus among authors of books about WW I & II is that they learn a lot about themselves, their families, and make lots of new friends and connections. "I most certainly learned an immeasurable amount about my father, the Great War, and the part the United States played in it," says Brownell. "The enthusiastic help of my friends in setting up book signings, arranging for talks to clubs, and telling others about the book has been unexpected and gratifying."


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