Tag Archives: World War II

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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Saving Europe’s art during World War II re-opens a part of history that should never be forgotten

February 10, 2010

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Monuments Men cover

“The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History'”

by Robert M. Edsel, with Bret Witter

In the middle of World War II, precious works of art — many of them objects of religious relevance — were saved by the efforts of a handful of soldiers. This is their story, one that really hasn’t been told before, and it’s a great read.

Many of the rescued art pieces were priceless and well-known in art circles. Others held value only to the townspeople who revered them. In some cases historic churches were saved; in other cases they were not, like the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino. Some of the pieces were rescued from the hands of Nazi Germany’s thieving leaders; others were rescued from the bombs and shells of war.

Men from 13 nations, many of them volunteers, formed the new Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the Allied force. They hunted for, found, and preserved for posterity pieces like Michelangelo’s statue, the Bruges Madonna, Vermeer’s The Astronomer and a Rembrandt or two or three.

One-time museum directors, curators, artists, art scholars and archivists became The Monuments Men, as they came to be called. Author Robert Edsel explained that their job was simple: “to save as much of the culture of Europe as they could during combat.” It was the first time in history that an army fought a war while simultaneously attempting to mitigate cultural damage.

From the first efforts to protect a remarkable 16th-century Renaissance church in Normandy, to finding boxcars loaded with paintings the Nazis stole from the French, to sleuthing out where Hitler had hidden an enormous cache of art work in an ancient salt mine in Austria, the Monuments Men did an invaluable service to not just the cultural heritage of Europe but all of human civilization.

Incredible amount stolen

The Nazis had gone so far as to take the stained glass windows out of the cathedral in Strasbourg, France. They had transferred so many art pieces to the famous fairy-like castle at Neuschwanstein, Germany, that it took six weeks to remove them all.

In the salt mine at Altaussee the Monuments Men made an amazing discovery. Deep inside that Austrian mountain the Nazis had hidden, well, here’s the list:

  • 6,577 paintings;
  • 230 drawings or watercolors;
  • 954 prints;
  • 137 pieces of sculpture;
  • 129 pieces of arms and armor;
  • 79 boxes of objects;
  • 484 cases of what was thought to be archives;
  • 78 pieces of furniture;
  • 122 tapestries;
  • 181 cases of books;
  • 1,200-to-1,700 cases apparently of books or similar items.

Edsel has done remarkable work here, piecing together interviews and documents to tell this story, one he calls “a footnote” in the larger story of the war. He allows us into the humanity of the Monuments Men as they discover that the Nazis are not only brutal warriors, amoral killers, but, at the highest levels, simply thieves.

Yet, despite his obvious passion for the arts and culture that were saved and make this story, what I admired most in reading this work was a few lines where he put the horror of Hitler’s Nazi regime into perfect perspective:

“More than sixty years after the death of Adolf Hitler, we still live in a world altered by his legacy…the lasting impact of his bitter reign is best measure in more ephemeral ways: fifty million loved ones who never returned home from the war to rejoin their families or start one of their own; brilliant, creative contributions never made to our world because scientists, artists, and inventors lost their lives too early or were never born; cultures built over generations reduced to ashes and rubble because one human being judged groups of other human beings less worthy than his own.”— bz

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Do you know where you came from?

December 12, 2008

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“Disguise,”

by Hugo Hamilton

What’s your earliest memory?

You’ve heard from parents and extended family stories from that part of your life for which you have no memory because you were just too young to remember.

But what if you discovered that maybe you hadn’t been told the complete truth about those early years?

What if there was evidence that the people who call themselves your parents may not be your parents at all?

Hugo Hamilton gets inside the mind of a character in that very scenario. It’s a novel that traps you into reading to the end.

Who are we, really?

The setting is Germany, and the story starts during World War II and flips back and forth between the generations and decades after the war and 50 some years later. Hamilton offers us a wonderful sense of place in every one of the locales he takes us to.

And as much as “Disguise” offers plot as a main device, it’s really character that is in the spotlight, and not just for the family whose story is drawing us in.

How is who we are and where we come from — and who we come from — important to what we become?

What impact is there on our psyche in knowing our ancestry, or, more to the point, of not knowing? What does it do to you when you can’t trust — or don’t know if you can trust — your own parents? If you don’t belong in a place, where do you belong?

How do you know when you’re home?

No formulaic ending

“Disguise” isn’t a book I’d jump up and down to recommend. By grade, maybe it’s a “B+” thanks to the absolute beauty of the prose.

But I do recommend this Harper title (www.HarperCollins.com).

We need to read literature that doesn’t have the formulaic endings of best-selling novels where you know before you start that the hero will conquer evil. — bz

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Know D-Day like never before

July 14, 2008

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“THE STEEL WAVE,”
by Jeff Shaara

You’ll feel like you’re in on the planning of the Normandy invasion with Ike and Monty.
You’ll ride the landing craft with the foot soldiers as they near Omaha Beach.
You’ll drop from the sky with the paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne.
And you be there as so many of the men who landed in France on June 6, 1944 died in order to free the world from tyranny.

The middle novel of Jeff Shaara’s three-part World War II saga rivals the film “Saving Private Ryan” for realism. War is hell, as we’ve heard, but Shaara pounds in the point.

His reader-gripping fiction puts you right in the violence of the battles, the mental strain of those leading the attack that started the end of Hitler’s Third Reich, the political hurdles that challenged Eisenhower and his foe across the English Channel, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel.

So much has been written about D-Day, so much known through film, that Shaara’s work in a couple of instances seemed less than original. In fact, when they made those great war epics, good screen writers may have been using some of the same source material that Shaara did for “The Steel Wave.” Insight into Rommel may be the most enlightening chapters.

But where this book is at its best is jumping from the plane and walking in the boot steps of Sgt. Jesse Adams, a real-life soldier whose ordeal leading a platoon as it fights its way across the hedgerow country of France is what brings drama and punch to “The Steel Wave.” Finding out what happens to Sgt. Adams and many of the other players in the Normandy invasion is a fitting end to a very nice read. — bz

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