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This time around we present brief reviews of three compilations of stories of individual soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines in World War II.
Prados, Edward F. (editor) Neptunus Rex: Naval Stories of the Normandy Invasion, June 6, 1944. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1998.
ISBN 0-89141-648-XTo the many books about D-Day editor Prados adds this compendium of first-person accounts collected from sailors of the US Navy. The naval side of Overlord -- itself code-named Operation Neptune -- has been less examined than the air and ground aspects, and these stories provide a wide spectrum of viewpoints: providing fire support from battleships, action aboard destroyers, taking landing ships and craft up onto the beach, constructing mulberries, etc.
Outside of brief introductory notes for each of the eight chapters, Prados allows enlisted men and officers alike to tell their stories in their own words with minimal annotation and commentary. These stories range from a few paragraphs to a few pages and vary greatly in perspective. Mostly they deal with what the men themselves saw and experienced, but inevitably a certain amount of "I heard" and "a buddy told me" creeps in.
Kidder, Rolland E. A Hometown Went to War: Remembrances of World War II. Chatauqua, NY: Sandy Bottom Press, 1996.
ISBN 0-9652842-0-4Kidder's volume similarly presents the words of veterans mostly unadorned save for his opening remarks and short notes about the vets' post-war lives. In this case, the unifying theme comes from gathering the stories of men (and women) from the same hometown -- Jamestown, New York -- who went to war.
These veterans fought World War II in all the services and on nearly all the fronts: Greenland, Iran, Normandy, Italy, the Pacific, the Burma Road, at sea, over Tokyo, and more. They tell of their training, first taste of combat, losing buddies in action, and meeting up with long-lost friends in unlikely places. Especially notable are "A Young Negro Goes to War" and "Identical Twins Go to War", but each has an interesting tale to tell.
Williston, Floyd. Through Footless Halls of Air: The Stories of a Few of the Many Who Failed to Return. Burnstown, Ontario: General Store Publishing House, 1996.
ISBN 1-896182-44-5The third volume here also contains stories of many individuals at war; however, these are carefully researched capsule biographies told in third-person by author Floyd Williston rather than in first-person by the individuals themselves. In fact, these stories must instead rely on official documents, letters, and the memories of others because they are all tales of Canadian airmen from the Atlantic provinces who were killed in action.
Of the six lost airmen, two are the author's brothers. While the accounts of the author's brothers contain a certain amount of additional factual and emotional detail, these are all scrupulously researched and presented vignettes of young RAF men at war in the sky and include corroborating information and testimony from the Luftwaffe. In that sense, compared to the preceding first-person collections, a much more polished and complete picture of each man emerges.
Different readers will prefer different approaches. While Through Footless Halls of Air offers a more studious perspective, Neptunus Rex and A Hometown Went to War both convey a great deal of immediacy and personal flavor by relying almost entirely on snippets of first-hand accounts.
History begins with these kinds of first-person accounts by participants; of course, it doesn't end there. While undoubtedly there is much of interest in such personal stories and most of these men tell their tales as they truly remember them, careful readers will want to employ a modest amount of caution and skepticism. Not every memory is infallible after all these years, and many personally held wartime "facts" stemmed from scuttlebutt, hearsay, and propaganda. For example, as one naval officer recalls the scene, author Ernest Hemingway landed at Normandy with the Rangers who assaulted Pointe du Hoc. "Papa" might have enjoyed the excitement, but that's not quite the way it happened.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from the publishers.
Thanks to the publishers for providing these review copies.
Reviewed 13 September 1998
Copyright © 1998 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone
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