The good war: an oral history of World War Two.
"I was pulled in two directions," recalls Bob Rasmus, then a rifleman rumbling through Europe on his first tour abroad:
Gee, I don't wanna get killed. And, Boy, this is gorgeous country. . . . When the truck took us from Cologne south through Bonn, for me it was, Hey, Beethoven's birthplace. . . . I was struck by the sheer beauty of the countryside, the little villages, the churches. This sort of thing the impressionists did.
Images like these from the Western front (in sharp contrast with those from the Pacific) taught small-town boys to think big. When they got home they no longer wanted to work with their hands as their fathers did. "The war changed our whole idea of how we wanted to live when we came back," explains Jack Short, who returned to Poughkeepsie from Central Europe with a longing for "a good job, a respectable life," and made it all happen, as did many, with the G.I. Bill.
What is arresting about those visions is how well they served to insulate American soldiers from some of the more brutal facts of the European war. When Bob Rasmus's unit relieved the Eighth Division on a "quiet front" along the Rhine in 1945, he had an "inkling of some other evil abroad" besides the retreating German Army. That evil was the slave labor camps, where young Americans saw prisoners of war killing horses in the streets for food and digging mass graves to bury their dead. "As each town was captured, you were liberating Slavs, Poles, French," Rasmus remembers. "It was often highly emotional." The liberation of those ghostly ruins became for American soliders one of the transcendent experiences of the war; it, too, helped to distract their attention from Nazi genocide, while it also provided them with an image of American power and goodness. According to Rasmus's memory, news of the death camps had not reached his unit in 1945. When the men took Ludenscheid, they camped in a beer hall and celebrated alongside a mountain of clothing piled high on the dance floor. "You knew this wasn't just a Salvation Army collecting clothes. . . . [But] it really didn't register with us." Now he realizes that it was probably clothing stripped from Jews who were sent to their dealth at nearby Dachau.
Jack Short came a bit closer to the truth when his unit stumbled on a camp in Nordhausen just before the German surrender: "It was unbelievable. The dying and the many dead stacked up like cordwood." Nordhausen was the site of the underground rocket factory and crematorium where some 30,000 prisoners of war and Jews lost their lives, but if Short realized the full significance of the place, he doesn't actually say so. Short's commanding officer hutled his troops away and returned to photograph the site, later distributing a set of prints to each member of the unit. "I never discuss what I did in the service with my children," Short observes, but sometimes he pulls out those old pictures, to refresh his memory.
It is strange to find so little trace of the annihilation of European Jews in the memories of these veterans, until one is reminded by David Wyman's The Abandonment of the Jews of how hard both the State Department and the British Foreign Office worked to control public awareness of the truth. As Terkel is able to show, it was their seeming immunity from evil that allowed many American soldiers to move through the most terrifying moments of combat with a curious detachment--at least in retrospect. rasmus's buddy Red Prendergast: So there I am wandering around with the whole German Army shooting at me, and all I've got is a .45 automatic. . . . Every place you went there were bodies and soldiers laying around. Mostly Americans. . . . You'd run out of ammunition with [one gun], you'd throw it away and try to find something else. One time I had a submachine gun, first experience I ever had with one.
That was the Battle of the Bulge.
Looking back at the war, Prendergast concludes that "in spite of the really bad times, it was certainly the most exciting experience of my life. As a character in Terry and the Pirates once put it so eloquently, 'We shot the last act in the first reel.' . . . Everything after that is anticlimactic." In a very real sense, men like Prendergast had their great adventure in World War II. And their triumphant survival amid foreign ruins gave the good war a meaning it could never have for the veterans of, say, Stalingrad, whose horrific memories Terkel contrasts so dramatically with the reveries of Americans.
For American veterans of the Pacific, however--where the atomic bomb opened a war that, in a sense, is still going on--World War II was something else. Nobody in "The Good War" toured the Pacific in wide-eyed wonder. "What you tended to see were miserable natives and piles of dead Japanese and dead Americans," remembers Robert Lekachman, who was drafted into the infantry after Pearl Harbor. There is a bitterness to American memories here that is absent from even the most cynical G.I.'s reflections on how swiftly the U.S. command "climbed into bed" with the Nazis after the German surrender.
In december 1941, when John Garcia was a 16-year-old apprentice pipe fitter working on the U.S.S. Shaw, he was ordered to cut open the wrecked hulls of three ships overturned during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After eighteen days his crew managed to rescue some 300 men who were still alive in the U.S.S. West Virginia. Thousands more were dead. Later, Garcia joined the Seventh Infantry Division in time for a quick raid on the Marshall Islands, then went back to Hawaii, where he was ordered to perform in a "swimming show" for visiting general Douglas MacArthur and President Franklin Roosevelt. (American recollections of the war are punctuated by these strange interludes, none strange than the time General MacArthur waded onto a beach in the Philippines and said, "I have returned," then turned around with all his aides behind him and repeated it for the cameras.) Garcia went on to Okinawa, where he did what he had to do: "When I saw a Japanese, I shot at him and ducked. Shot and ducked. . . . I was drinking about a fifth and a half of whiskey every day. . . . It was the only way I could kill."
One night he shot at a figure darting across of field in front of his perimeter; in the morning he learned that the bullet had gone through a woman and out the back of a baby strapped to her shoulders. Today Garcia manages apartment houses in Los Angeles. Two weeks before hia appointment with Terkel he had another of his recurrent dreams about the woman he killed--the only flashback, so reminiscent of Vietnam, in "The Good War."
Celebrated battles on both fronts are not much celebrated in Terkel's book, and this is especially true of the great battles in the Pacific. E.B. (Sledgehammer) Sledge kept notes of casualties in the pages of his Gideon's Bible: "We had more than a hundred percent at Okinawa [before reinforcements] and almost that many at Peleliu." Another marine, Ted Allenby, says, "the only way we took Iwo Jime was because we outnumbered them three to one. . . . [and] we had to starve them out, month after month."
Stories of American savagery toward dead and dying Japanese soldiers are recounted, more often than not, with shame in these interviews. But hatred toward the Japanese ran deep--and still simmers when veterans contemplate America's postwar realignments. Sledge's drill instructor reminded his troops: You're not going to Europe, you're going to the Pacific. . . . Most Americans . . . are taught not to hit below the belt. It's not sportsmanlike. Well, nobody has taught the Japs that. . . . Kick him in the balls before he kicks you in yours.
Sledge's brother, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, told him what good fighters the Germans were, but that when things were hopeless, they surrendered. "When they surrendered," Sledge adds, "they were guys just like us. With the Japanese, it was not that way." Japanese soldiers were liable to hang themselves rather than be taken prisoner by American forces, a fact that comes into focus when one remembers that at home hundreds of thousands of American citizens were being carted off to detention camps simply because they were Japanese--another front that Terkel explores in "The Good War."
The Japanese emerge as human beings for American soldiers only during the occupation, and nowhere more vividly than in a story told by a former Michigan City steelworker named Joseph Stasiak who was assigned to guard duty in Hiroshima. Stasiak's unit landed in Japan two months after the United States unfurled its "gimmick bomb," first over Hiroshima then over Nagasaki, thereby concentrating in two raids all the firepower unleashed in ninety-nine raids on sixty-six Japanese cities and towns in the preceding months. After his unit finished burning what remained of a vermin-infested evacuated town nine miles from Hiroshima, Stasiak was reassigned to Ground Zero to guard a copper smelter full of coins. "In the rubble is arms and legs and torsos," Stasiak recalls in one of Terkel's most memorable interviews. "The smell of death all over. The place was full of these former people."
After a few days alone, Stasiak looked up to find a man staring at him. "A walkin's balloon, this Japanese. . . . His fingers, it was like giant rubber gloves. . . . I was gonna shoot him, but he makes these motions like he don't mean any harm. . . . He wanted to be by me, "cause he was like an outcast." They sat together for a few hours. "He kept saying, 'You see, you see, you see.' I kept lookin' at him. I realized he wanted to show me somethin'." They walked maybe six blocks, "smoke and drizzle everywhere. Around the corner . . . is a crematorium. Bodies and rats. Guys would take 'em and make big pyres out of 'em and burn 'em. . . . All of a sudden, one of these fellas seen us standing there and there comes this screaming in Japanese." Stasiak shot over their heads and they fell back; they were coming for the man who had brought him there. "This was like a tremendous humiliation."
Stasiak led the man, whose name was Akira, back to the smelter. By day they shared Stasiak's rations, and at night Akira would disappear. One morning "daylight came and I'm lookin' for this guy. . . . I'm gettin' lonesome, too. I'm missing this Japanese balloon man. Like he's my friend." He searches through the rubble and finds some feet sticking out. It was Alira. The men from the pyres had killed him. Stasiak started walking aimlessly until, out of nowhere, an American jeep came along and picked him up. "They didn't nobody say nothin'."
After he got home, Stasiak's abdomen and testicles began to swell. His doctor tried to get him into a Veterans Administration hospital, but the V.A. ruled that his disorders were not service connected. A Japanese he met who knew he had been in Hiroshima said the only chance he had was to stay in water constantly. Now, Stasiak spends six hours every day in a tub. He has three souvenirs of his five days in Hiroshima: a big bag of copper coins, a photo of the crematorium and something called "hemopneumothorax": liver, heart and lungs "ballooning."
For most American soldiers who returned from the Pacific, the curtain dropped on the war with more finality than it did for the veterans of the European campaign. For these men and women and their families, the very idea of the good life was born, in part, out of the need to forget. In 1945, the welcome mat back home was a yellow brick roac to the Emerald City. "While the rest of the world came out bruised and scarred and nearly destroyed, we came out with the most unbelievable machinery, tools, manpower, money," remembers Paul Edwards, a wartime Red Cross officer who once worked in New Deal programs: The war was fun for America--if you'll pardon my bitterness. . . . Farmers in South Dakota that I administered relief to . . . when I came hom were worth a quarter-million dollars. . . . What was true there was true all over America. New gratifications they'd never known in their lives. Mass travel, mass vacations.
For ethnic Americans, the new American dreams hatched in the ruined cities of the Old World triggered a more fundamental change. Before World War II, "staying in America was something [Italian-Americans] did to make money," explains Paul Pisicano. "You didn't stay in America to lead a good life. . . . That happened after the war." He goes on: "You never enlisted to defend America. No, America was like your boss. (Laughs.)" Mussolini's disgrace covered Italian-Americans with shame, and the war's end was greeted with deep relief--and what Pisicano calls "this amazing transformation. They're now the most right-wing."
Pisicano rmembers standing on a corner during the Harlem riots in 1945, when a friend drove up and said, "'Come on down. . . . Let's beat up some niggers.' It was wonderful. It was new. The Italo-Americans stopped being Italo and started becoming Americans. . . . Now we're like you guys, right?" A whole generation from Pisicano's neighborhood became professionals. Italian shops and basement wine cellars disappeared and Italians started speaking English to one another. "We became respectable. We lost class."
When Dempsey Travis, a black realestate broker and writer in Chicago, describes the war as "a step on the first rung of the ladder," it is hard for us to remember that he is talking about the same war that received black troops in Jim Crow trains and assigned them, more often than not, to all-black labor battalions. Travis himself was shot up in a racial incident in boot camp and singled out as a troublemaker because of his high I.Q. But for him, as for others, the wartime intermingling of men from different backgrounds pried open new opportunities. Travis was spotted by an ex-Texas Ranger, Major Sloan, who insisted he study the Bretton Woods report and explain it to the troops; later Sloan made him manager of the first integrated PX in Marland.
Accounts like these recall an early observation of Jamese Baldwin's: "I could not be certain whether I was really rich or really poor, really black or really white, really male or really female, really talented or a fraud, really strong or merely stubborn. In short, I had become an American." A better envoi for the good life in postwar America is hard to imagine.
Postwar wheelers and dealers in Whastington, such as Tommy (the Cork) Corcoran, emerged from the war triumphant in the faither that it was not only "the great adventure of my life" but the wave of the future as well. When F.D.R. said, "Tommy, cut out this New Deal stuff. It's tough to win a war," Corcoran moved into "the Pacific business" and teamed up with Chiang Kai-shek's pal Claire Chennault to send the Flying Tigers to China. "I was in a completely new world over there," Corcoran told Terkel before he died in 1984: Look at the maps. . . . maps tell you more than all the books in the world. See where the green stuff is? See in China? That's the only place where there's fertile land. See Manchuria up there? Where the coal mines are. See little Formosa? Formosa is a fixed airplane carrier. As long as it's in fascinated by the Far East, I can't tell you.
There's an ecstasy in this reminiscence that hints of buried treasure, former loves--and it captured the imagination of the generation that brought us Formosa, Korea and Vietnam. In many ways, "The Good War" comes full circle to illuminate the present. Joe Kennedy (in Corcoran's recollection) privately argued for Hitler's takeover of Europe, suggesting that we could have assassinated him later, but that we could never do business with Russian totalitarianism--thus, in a sense, anticipating NATO. Henry Luce appears reviewing a parade of U.S. Marines in China in 1944. And there's corcoran pushing Bayer Chemical out of Latin America to launch the American pharmaceutical industry's control of the world market. For men at the command centers of industry and government, World War II was the great awakening of the imperial dream.
Terkel's book also reminds us of some of the strange alliances that accompanied America's first tentative steps into the European theater. Veterans of the Spanish Civil War such as Milton Wolff organized counterespionage networks for the Office of Strategic Services (later the C.I.A.) through their civil war contacts in Yugoslavia, Austria, Italy, Czechoslovakia and Poland. One speaker notes that official American entrance into the war began not with Pearl Harbor but with the secret service that former members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade performed for British intelligence in Egypt and North Africa early in 1941. In the end, Wolff and men like him were withdrawn from action for the same reason they were invited in: because of their ability to mobilize partisan (mostly Communist) networks throughout Europe.
The alliance that the United States forged after D-Day with German generals from the Wehrmacht and the Waffen S.S., who were "captured" under operation Paper Clip, was more enduring. Promised citizenship for their help in illuminating the battle order of the Red, Army, the generals were joined in Washington by top German scientists such as Werner von Braun and put in the hands of a 19-year-old "morale officer" named Arno Mayer. There is no more bizarre scene in "The Good War" than Mayer's description of the day he escorted four German scientists in long leather costs and green Tyrolean hats on a Christmas shopping expedition to the lingerie counter of Landsberg Brothers, a Jewish department store. Mayer, who used to be hailed over the loudspeaker at Fort Knox as "the intellectual fuck" (and was known privately by the Germans as der Kleine Judenbube), was prohibited from revealing anything about what he was doing at "Post Officer Box 1142, Alexandria, Va.," Operation Paper Clip's secret headquarters. Whenever he was asked, his answer was the same, a chilling postscript to Terkel's masterful communique: "I was preparing for World War Three."