It’s fashionable for men of my generation to be fascinated by World War II, a conflict that showed both tremendous heroism and the depths of human depravity. For most of us, our fathers and uncles were in uniform and sent to faraway places they never dreamed of visiting, particularly under their circumstances.
I’m no different. My father was a Marine who fought on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. An uncle flew in the Army Air Corps, at first over the Hump in Burma and later in P-51 fighters over Europe. Another uncle was a sailor in the Pacific.
So, yes, I tend to scour the American Heroes Channel — formerly the Military Channel — for documentaries on the war. Often I turn them off because I’ve seen them already. Twice. Or more. The old movie channels are usually checked, too.
Mostly, though, it’s books. I’m a writer, after all, and I’ve read more books on World War II than I can hold in my arms. For Veterans Day, then, here is a look at my favorite written works on the conflict that consumed the earth in the 1930s and 40s.
- The Winds of War – this sweeping novel by Herman Wouk about the run-up to the U.S. involvement is a must-read for anyone who wants to know how the times impacted ordinary people and made them remarkable. Even though the story is fictional, the history is on target, with strong insight into what made Britain, Germany and Russia tick.
- War and Remembrance – Wouk’s epic sequel has the same strengths as his original work but is somewhat overblown, IMHO. But it’s still good, and you want to know what happens to the characters, right? The story includes some unforgettable emotional tugs and exceptional accounts of the Holocaust, and battles of Midway and Leyte Gulf.
- Eye of the Needle – Ken Follett’s breakout book is arguably the best World War II spy novel, a genre with many quality entrants. Good fiction sets out the stakes early and makes them consequential. The stakes for both sides as a German spy tries to escape England can’t get any bigger.
- Miracle at Midway – a scholarly and detailed, yet approachable history of the battle that turned the tide of the war in the Pacific. Historians Gordon Prange, Donald Goldstein and Katherine Dillon conducted years of research that became the basis for this and At Dawn We Slept, their account of Pearl Harbor. Prange lived in Japan after the war and interviewed numerous survivors, so both sides are well-represented.
- A Bridge Too Far – similar treatment by Cornelius Ryan for Operation Market-Garden, a too-complicated-by-half attempt to shorten the war by seizing a series of key bridges in Holland. Success would have put Allied forces on Germany’s doorstep, but the heroic airborne troops were doomed by errors and false assumptions by top brass. Ryan’s brilliant account brings together multiple elements into a work that reads almost like a novel.
- An Army at Dawn – Washington Post reporter Rick Atkinson’s first entry in a trilogy on the defeat of Nazi Germany, beginning with a nascent U.S. Army learning early and mostly bitter lessons in North Africa. His later books focus on Sicily and Italy, and western Europe from D-Day to the end of the war.
- Where Eagles Dare – my guilty pleasure, I admit. It’s an old-fashioned shoot ’em up but a great story all around. Depending on the account, Alistair MacLean wrote the novel at the same time he wrote the screenplay for the Richard Burton/Clint Eastwood movie, or in a real twist, did so afterward. Still, like Follett’s novel, huge stakes and a lot of fun.
- The Bedford Boys – one of the truly shocking things about the war that a lot of people don’t know is that many of the company-sized units flung onto Omaha Beach on June 6, 1941, were comprised of young men from small towns in Virginia. A company from the town of Bedford, population 3,200 at the time, took part in the first wave on D-Day and lost 19 soldiers. Compare that to a top 10 U.S. city in population, and you’d be talking about 10,000 killed in action. Alex Kershaw does a great job telling us about the youngsters, how they ended up in the armed forces and how they met their fates.
- Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors – a dramatic account of the climax of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, in which a bunch of U.S. Navy destroyers and lightly armored escort carriers were faced with holding off the most powerful warships in the Japanese Navy. James Hornfischer shows how sailors who found themselves in a dire and unexpected predicament gave their all to prevent the enemy warships from reaching the Leyte invasion beaches. (Photo is the memorial to the sailors in San Diego)
- Raid on St. Nazaire – my favorite of a long series of short nonfiction World War II stories from Ballantine Books. Author David Mason tells of perhaps the most audacious attack in the whole conflict, an attempt to ram an old explosives-laden boat into a French dry dock in an attempt to prevent Germany from sending out the battleship Tirpitz to attack convoys bringing in supplies from the U.S.
Three often-mentioned World War II books don’t make my top 10 for various reasons. Although I appreciate the theme of Catch-22, I just couldn’t get into it, either in high school or in a later attempt as an adult. Slaughterhouse-Five is the same way. Unbroken would probably make this list if I expanded it to 12 or 15, but the non-stop gruesome torture chapter after chapter was sometimes a bit much for me. Accurate and well-told, but it was difficult to wade through.
Some of the authors mentioned in here wrote other books worthy of reading, particularly Prange’s At Dawn We Slept, Ryan’s The Longest Day, MacLean’s The Guns of Navarone, the other two in Atkinson’s trilogy, and two by Hornfischer — Ship of Ghosts and Neptune’s Inferno.
This Veterans Day, as in other patriotic events in 2015, will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the war’s conclusion. The continued high interest seven decades later is interesting in itself and, I think, fueled by several factors:
- The Baby Boom generation still sets the social and cultural agenda, and the children born of World War II veterans in the late 1940s and 1950s are still very interesting in writing and reading about the subject. Their fathers and uncles fought in the war, like mine, and many of their mothers and aunts helped the cause by joining military auxiliaries, working in defense factories or tending the family farms while the men were overseas.
- Early works about the war did not have access to records that were kept secrets for decades, either here or in the former communist nations of eastern Europe. A lot of research in the last 20 years or so brought to light a lot of new information. Plus, our scramble to record the personal histories of World War II veterans before they die has revealed thousands of stories deserving of being told.
- The Jewish community has a vested interest in maintaining awareness of the Holocaust and man’s inhumanity to man. Many of the top World War II books and movies deal with the Jewish experience in Europe. Also, if you have not visited the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, it is highly recommended. A couple of years ago, my family listened to a fascinating talk by a woman who survived the war in Poland, something that happens regularly there.
- For younger audiences, we are a nation that has been at war for their entire teenage and adult lives, a sad state of affairs unlikely to change for many years. We learn the lessons of the horrors of war, but that doesn’t mean everyone does.
- Wars between nation-states, such as World War II, are about as familiar to younger Americans as battling attacking aliens from outer space. Since Sept. 11, 2001, we’ve been fighting a concept — terrorism — and an ideology — Islamic extremism. The war in Iraq wasn’t against the Iraqi nation but to remove Saddam Hussein’s regime. In World War II, the citizens of Germany and Japan were almost fully invested in their leaders. We were fighting the people, not just the governments. It wasn’t western democracy vs. national socialism. That was a sideshow — big talk by political leaders and academics. The crux was this: the citizens of the U.S., Britain and the Soviet Union against the people of Germany and Japan, both sides alternately fighting to take over the other or stave off invasion.
As we move away from this year’s celebration and the round numbers don’t add up to anniversaries anymore, it will be interesting to see if World War II history retains its place in the spotlight. The rush to record personal histories of veterans is likely to shift to the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. Even Desert Storm is beginning to look like ancient history. Events leading up to the first Persian Gulf War took place 25 years ago, if you can believe that. The veterans of that war had children, too, and some of them are going to write books and make movies. And they’ll find an audience. That’s how it should be.