Tag Archives: World War II

Another chance to read — not see — ‘The Book Thief’

January 2, 2014

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200px-The_Book_Thief_by_Markus_Zusak_book_coverRecent release of the movie of the same title blessedly returned attention to Markus Zusak’s 2005 novel, “The Book Thief,” giving lovers of great writing a second chance at this superb read.

So many forms of the reality of the human character — the harmful, the hateful, the uplifting, the depressing, the heartwarming and the inspiring — pour from the pages of this World War II-based novel of a young girl’s experiences in a small German town.

It humanizes the German populace in ways few stories from that era do.

As good as the story is, it’s the way the book thief’s story is told that sparkles with creativity.

First, the narrator is unique: “Death,” who throughout the tale gathers souls when, well, when you might expect Death would

Sprinkled here and there are little bursts of bold type in a slightly larger size that serve to further explain or clarify — something like the narrator thinking aloud.

The book isn’t written in the typical story-within-a-story technique, but the text of little books or booklets do appear twice; both times Zusak uses them briefly and with just a perfect touch.

Amid the horror of Nazism, Zusak bring us characters fully human — mean at times and kind at others, foolish yet wise, smart-mouthed yet shy, downhearted yet hopeful. You’ll love the surprises.
Don’t miss another chance to read a great book.

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German Catholics in WWII play role in modern mystery

February 16, 2013

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“The German Suitcase”  (Premier Digital Publishing, 2012) is one more novel to feed my World War II addiction.
Greg Dinallo puts complex, likeable characters into an interesting plot with flashbacks to Nazi Germany to fill in the mystery.
Prescient readers may solve that mystery relatively quickly, but that doesn’t make “The German Suitcase” any less of a good read.

german suitcase coverThe fictional story includes a family of Catholics who assist Jews to escape the Holocaust. The fact that a contemporary author is writing anything positive about Catholics makes Dinallo’s bit of fiction unique today.

Of course, the page-turning story was going along swimminglywhen for some unknown reason there is a gratuitous reference to how the Vatican has handled the clergy sex abuse crisis. For the love of God I can’t understand why Dinallo included that in the novel; it doesn’t do one thing to advance the plot.

But here’s a theory: Major publishers think it helps sell books if there’s something in them to bash the church. Have you noticed, too? I’d love to hear from those who’ve found evidence in other novels that either prove or disprove my theory. — bz

 

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Finally, I found Ernie Pyle

February 2, 2013

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here is your war coverYou’d think that as both a WWII junkie and a newspaper guy I’d have read Ernie Pyle before. I’ve read a few of the war correspondent’s columns in anthologies, but never the bulk of his work until I came across two of the three collections of his famed syndicated columns in book form at an antique store.

So, 70 years after Pyle sent his stories from North Africa back to the 300 newspapers who ran his stuff, I ate up “Here Is Your War.”

Pyle’s brisk newspaper prose, the short, tight sentences, the reader-friendly language, the storytelling format combined with the folksy, guy-next-door tone helped me understand why he became a legend both to soldiers, sailors and airmen and to mom and pop back home.

His great technique of identifying sources not just with their name and rank but with their street address back home — “The navigator was Lieutenant Davey Williams, 3505 Miller Street, Fort Worth, Texas.” — was not simply a feel-good for the man in uniform and a way to sell newspapers around the country but a tool that brought reality and truthfulness to the reporting Pyle did. These weren’t fictional characters fighting this war but real people, sons and daughters, neighbors, someone to care about.

Although flatly unable to write about strategy due to war-time censorship, Pyle doesn’t let that stop him from giving the folks at home an understanding of what life was like for those at war. A foxhole is a foxhole, and he doesn’t sugarcoat the drudgery, the terror of shells exploding nearby and especially the destruction and death war causes.

Yet, as good as all these columns are about the early portion of the U.S. involvement in World War II, it’s at the back of “Here Is Your War” that Pyle may have made his best contribution, and that’s not to slight all those earlier columns.

Because as the Allies pushed the Germans out of North Africa, Pyle is able to add analysis to the stories he shares, to give people back home a perspective on the war that might have been perfectly timed. Take this excerpt:
“In the final phase of the Tunisian campaign I never heard a word of criticism of our men. They fought like veterans. They were well handled. They had enough of what they needed. Everything meshed perfectly, and the end was inevitable. . . . Even though they didn’t do too well in the beginning, there was never at any time any question about the Americans’ bravey. It was a matter of being hardened and practiced by going through the flames. Tunisia was a good warm-up field for our armies. . . . The greatest disservice the folks at home did our men over here was to believe we were at last over the hump. For actually — and over here we all knew it — the worst was yet to come.”

Pyle’s columns from the war in Europe went into another book, “Brave Men,” that I’ll be searching for soon. He went to the Pacific Theater afterward, and his columns from there are collected in “Last Chapter.” That book, published posthumously, is just as good as the collection from North Africa, but much shorter. His stories of how an aircraft carrier got flights off — and on — are exactly the kind of reporting we see in the Twin Cities with the “Good Question” segments on the CBS affiliate, WCCO-TV.

This war the United States had been in for four years came to an end for Ernie Pyle just four months before the war itself was to end. A Japanese bullet found him in April, 1945.

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Memorial Day is more than just a holiday

May 25, 2012

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As I went on my 3-mile walk last night, I walked past an American flag at Cretin-Derham Hall High School, just a block from my home in St. Paul. I’m sure I’ve seen it before, but it caught my eye on this occasion.

It got me to thinking about Memorial Day. This particular day has special meaning for me in two ways: 1. My dad is a World War II vet; and, 2. My first wife, Jennifer, died on Memorial Day in 1995.

My thoughts – and emotions – vacillated between these two realities as I took my paces in the evening twilight. The month of May is always hard for me, and this was no exception. I found myself silently saluting those who have paid the ultimate price in military service. I’m glad my dad was not among them, or I wouldn’t be here.

Though Jennifer never served in the military, she is forever linked to this day for me. Perhaps, it’s fitting she died on Memorial Day. I believe she gave everything she had in being a nurse, mother and wife. Many people, myself included, consider her a hero for the way she tirelessly and fearlessly cared for the many cancer patients in her charge, during the time she worked as an oncology nurse. She treated them with respect and dignity, and was not afraid to ask them how they were preparing for death when that reality was imminent in their lives.

One story stands out. On our wedding day in February of 1990, she had invited a terminally ill teenager named Melanie to our wedding and reception. Melanie was a standout track athlete, and beautiful on top of that. Sadly, the cancer ravaged her body, and quickly. In just a matter of months, she wasted away to the point where she looked like a Jew in a Nazi concentration camp.

Amazingly, so close to death, she managed to come to our reception. Seeing her come into the hotel lobby, Jennifer rushed to greet her, seeming not to notice her gaunt condition. I, on the other hand, was taken aback by her appearance, and thought she might die right there in front of us.

Jennifer cheerfully embraced Melanie and thanked her for coming, as her mother stood somberly behind the wheelchair. After a few minutes, Jennifer leaned over to say goodbye. She said that she wasn’t coming back to work for another week, so she wanted to say goodbye.

She knew she would never see Melanie again, and was offering her final farewell.

Jennifer was right. Melanie died a few days later. I often wonder if the two have met in heaven. I know Jennifer is there. I hope Melanie is, too.

This will be a hard weekend for me, as it always is. But, as I like to tell people, it is not a grief without hope. So, as I prepare to shed the tears I always do on this weekend, I humbly ask for prayers. And, I offer this simple message to my dear, departed wife:

“Jennifer, I will always love you. I miss you, and look forward to seeing you again in the fullness of God’s Kingdom. I salute you and your dedicated service to the Lord and to all of those who suffered with cancer whom you lovingly ministered to throughout your nursing career. May you rest in peace.”

 

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Honoring the four ‘Immortal Chaplains’

February 2, 2012

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The chaplains were honored with a commemorative stamp in 1948.

Flags are flying at half-staff in Minnesota Feb. 3, but it isn’t because of a recent military casualty. It’s in memory of the heroic sacrifice made exactly 69 years ago by four Army chaplains on a troop transport ship torpedoed in the icy North Atlantic in the middle of World War II.

Gov. Mark Dayton has proclaimed Feb. 3 Immortal Four Chaplains Day in the state of Minnesota to honor the men and their interfaith spirit.

A Catholic News Service story from 2002 recalled the tragic, yet inspiring, story of the four chaplains — Father John Washington, a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J.; the Rev. Clark Poling, a Dutch Reformed minister; Jewish Rabbi Alexander Goode; and the Rev. George Fox, a Methodist.

Gone in 18 minutes

On Feb. 3, 1943, a German U-boat fired three torpedoes at the Dorchester. One of them hit the ship’s boiler room, and it started to sink quickly.

David Fox, a nephew of Rev. Fox, told the story:

After the torpedo hit, “the chaplains were the first on board to calm the men. [They] found the lockers with lifejackets in them, handed them out and, when they ran out, witnesses said that … the chaplains simply removed their own and placed them on the men. They never asked, ‘What religion are you? What race are you?’ It didn’t matter to them. It was simply an action of compassion and love they extended to their fellow human being.”

Fox said the four men “were last seen, as the ship rolled onto its side, standing on the hull of the ship. All joined hands together — with heads bowed — praying together, each in their own way, as the ship went down with 672 men.” It was the third largest loss of life at sea for the United States during World War II.

The Dorchester sank in just 18 minutes about 100 miles off the coast of Greenland. Although it resulted in a huge loss of life, the chaplains’ actions are credited with helping to save the lives of 230 men.

The chaplains’ story is forever linked with their actions on the Dorchester, but they also changed lives before that fateful day.

Father John Washington

A niece of Father Washington, Joanne Brunetti, spoke in the same CNS story about her uncle, who “knew from the time he got out of grammar school that his calling was to be a priest.”

She remembered him as a “friendly, outgoing, fun-loving” man with a great sense of humor and a love of music who enjoyed working with youths.

“He ran the CYO and ran the youth groups in the parish. He took young teen-agers who had never been to a Broadway show to matinees just to open up their minds. He was just always trying to do something to make things better for someone else … and bridge the gap of the generations.”

Not forgotten

Today, the chaplains’ memory lives on in sculptures, plaques and chapels around the country, including at nearby Fort Snelling Memorial Chapel, which features a stained glass window of the men.

The Immortal Chaplains Foundation was created in 1997 to perpetuate their legacy. Its website features a video and other resources about the men and their service to others.

Today, after reading those words of David Fox, I can’t get them out of my mind: “They never asked, ‘What religion are you? What race are you?’ It didn’t matter to them. It was simply an action of compassion and love they extended to their fellow human being.”

If only we heeded those words more often in our own lives, particularly when it isn’t easy and when the cost may be great. That’s the legacy the chaplains leave us — an example that we should never forget and that we should always try to emulate.

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If only FDR had listened about Hitler

July 1, 2011

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Are you a World War II junkie?

Love history and politics?

Here’s a great read for you.

As Adolph Hitler was gearing up his Nazi steamroller, American diplomat William Dodd tried to warn the U.S. government.

The Holocaust and World War II are evidence that Ambassador Dodd failed.

“In the Garden of Beasts” tells how and why Dodd couldn’t convince either Franklin Delano Roosevelt — the president who appointed him – or the high-society members of the U.S. Foreign Service that Hitler shouldn’t be treated like the leaders of other countries.

The four short years of Dodd’s tenure as ambassador to Germany come alive in Erik Larson’s latest superb nonfiction work. The brutality of Hitler and his Nazi brethren is palpable. The internal politics of 1933-37  Germany are ruthless and bloody.

And the snooty wealthy class that populated U.S. consulates at the time played no small part in enabling Ambassador Dodd’s cautions to go unheeded.

Unlikely and disliked

Plucked out of the history department of the University of Chicago, Dodd may have been a third or fourth choice for the post in Berlin, an appointment FDR made under pressure of a deadline. Naive enough to have his family Chevrolet shipped to Germany when the world’s ambassador class generally used limos and chauffeurs, Dodd’s middle-class values put him at odds with the consulate staff in Berlin, made him the source of German leaders’ ridicule, and worst of all caused his reports to be disrespected by those in Washington who should have been listening to his warning cries.

Don’t be put off by the nonfiction character of “In the Garden of Beasts.” Larson has done amazing research here, but the way he fashions the change in Dodd and Dodd’s daughter Martha, too, from being lovers of all things German (Martha in more ways than one!) to a critical analyst of that country’s leadership and people is brilliant and makes for meaty reading.

As you’re reading, try to be aware of parallels in the social culture of 1930s Germany and some aspects of 21st century life. A word to the wise?– bz

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Inside the head and heart of famed newspaper cartoonist Bill Mauldin

February 5, 2011

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On Saturday, Nov. 23, 1963, the back page of the Chicago Sun-Times carried what may be the most memorable editorial cartoon of the 20th century.

Cartoonist Bill Mauldin’s drawing of a weeping Abraham Lincoln from his Lincoln Memorial chair captured the emotion of a nation when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

That Mauldin was able to get to the core of human feelings shouldn’t have been surprising to those who had been able to literally be in the foxholes with soldiers during World War II thanks to the cartoons of “Willie & Joe” that Mauldin drew from the front lines and newspapers across the nation carried.

How Mauldin was able to document history in the space of an editorial page cartoon is documented itself by Todd DePastino in a thorough biography published by Norton in 2008 and now out in paperback, “Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front.”

There’s all the usual biographic information, of course, but DePastino takes us inside the complex artist-journalist-author to learn what drove the man to do all he did. Readers will learn not only how Mauldin crafted those “Willie & Joe” cartoons by why he did them and why they were important enough to society to earn Mauldin the Pulitzer Prize.

The war-time “Willie & Joe” cartoons first made Mauldin a celebrity, but the cartoonist’s path to fame took him first to Army life where pettiness and inequality reigned, allowing Mauldin to take the side of the underdog, the abused foot soldier, with the aim of helping them make it through the grim, grimy, death-filled, often hopeless side of combat and army life.

Mauldin’s confrontation with Gen. George Patton — and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower telling Patton to leave the cartoonist alone — is a freedom-of-the-press scene that never made it into the award-winning “Patton” movie but DePastino tells well.

Like each of us, though, Mauldin was not without his faults, and DePastino isn’t shy about recording the lows of his subject’s life as well as the highs. The ambiguity of human life becomes clear as we read how this one talented artist could prick the conscience of so many — and really have an impact that forces change — while having conscience failings of his own in his personal life.

More than a few Mauldin cartoons help illustrate each chapter, but this isn’t a picture book. For a complete list of that kind of work, go to http://www.billmauldin.com. Most of his work is out of print, but they might make for a fun search when your browsing your local used books store. — bz

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Hidden heroes of World War II given their due in entertaining format: Pulp history

October 30, 2010

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Remember “Classics Illustrated”?

The comic book-style versions of “The Count of Monte Cristo,” “Treasure Island” and “The Three Musketeers”, were my first taste of great stories.

Simon & Schuster taps into some of that cartoon format in “Shadow Knights: The Secret War Against Hitler,” one of the publisher’s “Pulp History” series.

First, though, these are great stories that keep you turning the pages.

  • A one-time school teacher is dropped into occupied France and organizes resistance groups that badger the Nazis. Will he survive?
  • A young female refugee parachutes into France to send wireless messages right under the noses of the Germans. Will she escape before she can be caught?
  • Norwegians face impossible odds and endure incomparable suffering to try to blow up the factory making heavy-water that the Allies fear the Germans will use to create nuclear bombs. Will they get there to place their explosives, and, if they do, will they get out alive?

Great writing by Gary Kamiya of these stories of the agents of the British Special Operations Executive makes for 163 pages of entertainment, and the illustrations by Jeffrey Smith would make great posters if any of these stories of behind-enemy-lines fighters were to become movies.

Archival photos and propaganda posters from both sides of the conflict and informative sidebars add to a unique fun read that’s educational as well.

Yet, as thrilling as the spy stories are, as exciting as it is to read about the hidden heroes that helped to win the war, the post-script of “Shadow Knights” makes this work of history something to make today’s reader think about the events of our own time.

It isn’t far-fetched to read about the deaths of innocent civilians when a spy blows up a Nazi boat and think of both the deaths of thousands of innocents at the World Trade Center and the leaked informaton about the deaths of thousands of innocents in Iraq due to the terribly named “collateral damage.”

“Shadow Knights” makes it clear that the stories of the SOE agents is a tribute to the power of humans to sacrifice for others and achieve incredible feats for a greater goal; they do not glorify war.

An excerpt carries that message. David Howarth, who helped run the legendary small-boat service between Scotland and Norway for SOE, wrote:

“ To ascribe glory to the violent death of any yong man loving life is only to add further folly to the failure of human wisdom which is the cause of war.”

Amen. — bz

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Best book you’ll read this summer has a quirky title

July 20, 2010

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Guernsey-cover

“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,”

by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

A delightful read for any time of year, this New York Times #1 bestseller is a perfect summer treat now that it’s out in paperback.

The use of a string of letters to tell the story doesn’t even seem like a gimmick once Shaffer and Barrows pull you into this gem.

In the novel, Juliet Ashton is a journalist and author who finds herself intrigued by a request she receives in the mail from a resident of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands between France and England.

The setting is just a year after the end of World War II. Guernsey’s inhabitants had endured four years of occupation by the forces of the Third Reich, and woven through the novel is their telling what life was like as British citizens under German military rule.

Telling the story – all through “the post,” at Brits call the mail – are the members of the book club with the odd name, as cleverly drawn a group of characters as have ever won over your heart.

Not to give away the story, but there’s a bit of romance involved, a bit of drama, some must-turn-the-page excitement, but in a genteel, well-mannered, earlier-generations sort of way.

In the Dial Press small paperback version I picked up, this wonderful story is told in just 274 pages.

A yardstick I’ve come to use as my standard for good reading is if I don’t want a book to end. Suffice it to say that 274 pages were hardly enough. What a great work of literature. — bz

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Can’t get enough of WWII history?

April 12, 2010

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pacific cover

“The Pacific: Hell Was an Ocean Away,”

by Hugh Ambrose

Whether you love reading about the Second World War because you lived through it — or like me — you feel you were born too late and missed it, you’ll sate your appetite for a good long while reading “The Pacific.”

It’s the companion book to the HBO miniseries, sharing some content with the video version. It’s also the untold half of the war from “Band of Brothers,” which covered the European Theater of Operations in a similar way.

“The Pacific,” too, tells its story through the lives of a handful of men who served in several branches of the U.S. armed forces, and most of those pretty much the full length of the war.

From Pearl Harbor to the acceptance of the surrender of the Japanese and beyond, this is an exactly researched collection of not just battle stories but human stories gathered often from first-person material: diaries kept by the combatants themselves and letters they wrote back home that were saved and cherished.

War’s brutality never hidden

Reading what happened to marines abandoned by Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines, how other marines survived suicide attacks as they fought from Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, among other island invasions, you can’t help but admire and be grateful for the sacrifices made by thousands and thousands.

“The Pacific” takes readers inside the minds of frightened naval aviators who had never landed on an aircraft carrier but had to not only do that but attack Japanese navy ships and airfields while flying through flak and fighting off enemy planes. These people were truly amazing.

Their stories are told straight. “The Pacific” doesn’t leave out facts like the number of men who left the battlefields frightened into shell shock by the non-stop bombing and the horror of the bodies of their fellow marines blown apart. The number of instances of Japanese brutality to those they captured winds up turning U.S. forces into revenge and brutality in kind.

No sugar-coating here

While the strategies of war that are successful are noted, so are the errors that needlessly cost lives. The flyers tell of poorly designed aircraft and poorly planned assignments. Marines point to ill-advised attacks, weak officers and lines of communication so bad officers are writing notes to their troops on scraps of papers that runners have to deliver.

The U.S. Marines’ disregard for soldiers in the U.S. Army comes out clearly, especially their thoughts about the grandstanding of the Army’s MacArthur. The supreme commander’s flamboyant “return” to the Philippines — wading through the water to the peaceful beach — didn’t play well with either the marines he sacrificed as his forces fled to the safety of Australia in early 1942 or with the marines who hit beach after beach and left thousands of their buddies’ bodies in the sands and jungles of the islands they won back from the Japanese.

Author-historian Ambrose does a brilliant job of piecing the stories of his primarily five men into a readable flow that moves readers day-by-day, month-by-month and year-by-year through the war in the Pacific. You’ll feel you’ve come to know “Shifty” Shofner, “Manila John” Basilone, Gene “Sledgehammer” Sledge, Sid Phillips and Mike Micheel.

What some of these men did as warriors falls into the superhero category. Ambrose, thankfully, include a chapter titled “Legacies” in which he writes about the aftermath of the war, how it impacted his subjects and their lives after the war. While the bombing of the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki isn’t given the treatment that one might expect, it would not be a stretch to wonder how many lives — both Japanese and American — would have been lost had the U.S. been forced to invade and conquer mainland Japan as it did the Japanese islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, where the Japanese fought until the last soldier even when there was no hope of victory. This book will not end the debate about whether or not the dropping of the atomic bombs on the two Japanese cities was ethical.

More maps needed

What is missing from this book — and I hesitate to fault such a wonderful read and terrific history — are more maps. I would think few of his readers who aren’t WWII vets could find the Solomons or identify the islands that make up the Phillippines, and as the battles island hopped up toward mainland Japan I kept losing track of what was where.

For those who have seen or are watching the HBO version, Ambrose notes that the book differs from the video. Two of the characters the book features are absent from the miniseries, and one of the video’s central characters appears just briefly in the book. As the author explains, “While the book and the miniseries share a core story, they are different mediums. Each must do what it does best.”

As satisfying reading, “The Pacific” does its best very, very well. — bz

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