Monday, August 01, 2011

Soldier From the War Returning

It's rare for me to pick up a book and read it in one day. Rarer still that it is a nonfiction book. Yet University of Pennsylvania history professor Thomas Childers' Soldier from the War Returning: The Greatest Generation's Troubled Homecoming from World War II is one of those priceless gems.

It is, in a word, brilliant. Not only does it delve into a topic largely neglected not only by historians, but also by the general public, but it also exposes the dark underbelly of war's emotional impact.

Childers profiles three different World War II veterans: Michael Gold, Willis Allen, and Tom Childers (his father). All three had radically different experiences during the war. Gold was shot down in a B-17 and captured, held as a German prisoner of war until Germany collapsed. Allen was part of the landings at Sicily and lost both his legs to a German shell. Childers was stationed in England as support personnel for an air base. Yet all three came back with emotional wounds deeper than any trench.

Based on interviews, oral histories, government documents, and diaries, Childers weaves a complex, heartbreaking tale of these three men and their families, and how the war infiltrated every part of their lives despite their attempts to hold it at bay. They were not the only ones. Thousands of returning vets faced the same problems - unemployment, divorce, emotional instability, nightmares, physical handicaps. The wounds ran deep into their psyche, leaping out like a demon when least expected, causing havoc and pain to themselves and those around them. Familiar phrases like, "He's changed since he got back from the war" or "He never was the same since the war" became common.

But it wasn't just the soldiers who suffered. Families, friends, spouses, and children endured the war's heavy toll. Broken homes and broken families were not uncommon. Even though society had tried to ease the blow of returning vets by creating articles and pamphlets about how "your husband will need time to adjust" and "it may take years for him to truly recover", they couldn't possibly know how their advice merely skimmed the surface.

Yet this is an aspect of World War II that we don't often think about. We tend to look at the Greatest Generation through a lens of nostalgia, one that shows us how rosy everything was when they came back home, picked up where they left off, and went on to live their lives just fine, thank you very much.

And for some veterans, it was like that. Adjusting to civilian life wasn't terribly difficult. But they were the lucky ones.

Every serious student of World War II history needs to read Childers' book. It is a necessary study, one that reads more like a novel than a history book, and one that tells the emotional cost of war in all its chilling detail.


Linda said...

War is so awful. This is such a sad story, but I'm sure a good and valuable read. Thanks for letting us know about it.


Melissa Marsh said...

Linda - It is incredibly sad. I so wish we didn't have to fight wars...they are such a horrific ordeal for everyone involved.

Ron Scheer said...

Sounds like an excellent piece of research and reporting. The myth of the returning WWII veteran was pervasive. I was a kid when that generation of soldiers came home, and I don't remember anything but the myth.

Years later, I saw THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, which was Hollywood's attempt to address some of the issues, but still I didn't get until after I came to know about PTSD that the return from war must have been traumatic for so many -- and like all emotional disorders at the time, denied and swept under the rug.

Thanks for the excellent review.

Melissa Marsh said...

Ron - You're welcome. I think this is a must-read for anyone interested in this time period. Dispelling the myth is important so that we recognize that these brave men and women continued to sacrifice their emotional and physical health for the rest of their lives.

Carol said...

I am now writing a book titled The Hidden Legacy of World War II. I am the daughter of a WWII paratrooper who lived the postwar life that Thomas Childers so poignant described in his book. He is writing the foreword to my book. The aftermath of WWII and the impact on families of combat veterans of that war is still not widely known.

Melissa Marsh said...

Carol - I'm so pleased to hear you're writing such an important book. I can't wait to read it! Thank you for stopping by. :-)

Carol said...

Thanks, Melissa - the book will be published at the end of October 2011. I will keep you posted :)

Kristi's Writing Desk said...

Last year, I saw this book at Barnes and Noble and snatched it up. I always wondered how it really was for a lot men returning from WWII. Many, many of them carry a part of the war with them throughout the rest of their life, and some take it to their grave. This factor of WWII must be told as well and Childers did a marvelous job of protraying with it was like for many veterans after the war. This is probably one of the best WWII non-fiction books I have read in ages. It is also great to hear that others like Carol have written their own stories. I'm greatly interested in The Legacy of World War II. Thank you, Melissa, for writing such a review about a poignant time in our history that, like you and Childers said, anyone hardly knew.


Melissa Marsh said...

Hi Kristi - Thanks for stopping by! I'm so glad you enjoyed the book, too. I wish more people would read it. It would have the effect of balancing out the "rose-colored glasses" view that so many people have of the soldiers returning from the war.

vaughnroycroft said...

Things weren't always so rosy. My Dad married right before he shipped out. He came home to a woman he barely knew. Turns out, the more they found out about each other, the less they liked one another. They divorced in '47. My Dad took a job as a letter carrier, and had a drug store with a soda fountain on his route. He ate lunch there often, and had easy conversations with a girl ten years his junior who worked the counter. That woman is my Mom.

When the subject of the war came up, my Mom was always the first to shush us. I recently asked her about it (my Dad passsed in '93). She said she'd only glimpsed the torment, and she wanted to do anything she could to sheild him from the memories of it. It was part of her 'duty' to him.

In a way, it affected all of us.

Really cool site and great post, Melissa! I'll check out the book.

Melissa Marsh said...

Vaughn, what an incredibly touching story. The fact that your mom felt it her 'duty' to shield him speaks of her love for him.

Yes, I think you would really enjoy the book. Would perhaps help you to understand your dad and your parents' relationship better, too.

When I read this story, I want to immediately write a novel about their romance and what he went through. Yep, guess I'm a writer. LOL