Every global event is shaped by human stories. As the Covid-19 pandemic progresses, the efforts of a few boldfaced names dominate the news. But countless others whose names may never come to light are caring for the sick, searching for a cure, and ensuring that essential public services continue.
Rona Simmons thought a lot about quiet sacrifices as she wrote The Other Veterans of WWII (Kent State Univ., out now). In fact, she says, her original title for the narrative was Untold, Unsung. What’s true in the fight against Covid-19 also holds true for the behind-the-scenes veterans in her book: “For every man who was on the front line,” she says, “there was one behind the line.”
In this feature, PW surveys titles that shine a light on unsung heroes and delve into untold war stories.
A second look
“Everybody has this vision of all the men going overseas and fighting on the front lines,” Simmons says, an image reinforced by countless books, films, and TV shows on WWII. But those who did not go into battle—and more than half did not—performed crucial support roles as mechanics, cooks, and supply managers.
Simmons records 19 such accounts, including those of Lt. Col. Francis D. Peterson, who within hours of battles designed and built cemeteries for the fallen, enemies and allies alike, and of Eleanor Millican, who consulted navigational charts in order to assign ships to convoys for passage across the Atlantic. Each played a key role though neither saw combat.
Women aviators did not see combat in WWII either; rather, they trained future fighter pilots and ferried supplies and troops from base to base. Katherine Sharp Landdeck, a history professor at Texas Woman’s University, relates the story of the Women Airforce Service Pilots in The Women with Silver Wings (Crown, Apr.). The book explains why the short-lived organization was disbanded in December 1944, says Emma Berry, nonfiction editor at Crown. “As the Allies started to win the air war in Europe there became less of a need for pilots to continue to go over. That meant that pilots who were working for the military domestically were at risk of being drafted into the ground forces.”
To avoid ground combat, male pilots launched a smear campaign against the 1,100 women fliers, according to Landdeck. They called the women shrews and harpies and insisted they were out to seduce the men and steal their careers, and succeeded in claiming the noncombat jobs the women had been doing. The WASPs were sent home and later had to fight for postwar benefits. Still, PW’s review said that Landdeck captures “the joy of flying and the unique sense of freedom and independence these women would remember for the rest of their lives.”
Male and female troops alike would have had a different experience in WWII without the leadership that Paul Dickson describes in The Rise of the G.I. Army, 1940–1941 (Atlantic Monthly, July). Dickson (The Electronic Battlefield) notes that in 1935 the entire U.S. Army could fit in Yankee Stadium; by 1941 it was 1.5 million strong. He details the maneuvers in the South that readied those troops, the 1940 peacetime draft that required the registration of over 16 million men ages 21–45, Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall’s purge of ineffective leaders in favor of George S. Patton and Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the way Marshall motivated troops by giving them a culture of their own. Considering these stories “shows us the paucity of leadership we have now,” Dickson says. “It’s a reflection of how good we were in a crisis.”
Good enough in a crisis, in fact, to thwart an attempt on the lives of Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Josef Stalin at the Tehran Convention in 1943. Vanity Fair contributing editor Howard Blum (In the Enemy’s House) details the little-known plot in Night of the Assassins (Harper, June), which PW’s review called a “wide-ranging, novelistic account.” Blum describes the Secret Service and Soviet efforts that upended the plan and asks questions with contemporary resonance about political assassinations.
For instance, Blum says, when U.S. forces killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in a drone strike in January, that was an act of war in keeping with a long line of assassinations carried out between hostile nations. Bringing to light such tactics, as he does in Night of the Assassins, is necessary, he notes, in order to “debate the issues [surrounding them] intelligently.”
Out of the shadows
Other forthcoming titles delve into the years before and after WWII with lesser-known tales of the human side of global conflict.
In The Liberation of Marguerite Harrison (Naval Institute, Sept.), Elizabeth Atwood, a former newspaper reporter and editor who worked for two decades at the Baltimore Sun, profiles a Sun reporter turned spy of an earlier generation. From the end of WWI into the 1920s, Marguerite Harrison, a 39-year-old socialite from Baltimore, spied for the U.S. Army and Department of State in Germany, Russia, and the Middle East. “The fact that she accomplished these missions when many Americans still believed women should not involve themselves in the sometimes dirty business of government and politics,” Atwood writes in the preface, “is testament to both her
talents and the vision of the men who trusted her.” Though Harrison is
considered the first female foreign intelligence officer for the U.S., she’s never before been the subject of a biography, according to her publisher, and her story has gone largely untold.
The Korean War, mostly in the public consciousness thanks to MASH, is often referred to as the Forgotten War. Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Charles J. Hanley, who has reported from 100 countries over the course of his four decades with the Associated Press, also calls it a hidden war, because until recently, many important details were buried along with the dead. The war was “not just about generals moving pieces around on a map, and it’s not just about our boys, meaning American troops and their experiences,” he says. “It’s about an array of people.”
In Ghost Flames (PublicAffairs, Sept.), Hanley amplifies the voices of 20 people affected by the war, including an American nun, a British journalist, and a 10-year-old North Korean refugee. In his introduction, he explains the significance of their stories, writing that Korea was the “first major clash of arms of the Cold War and remains the last armed conflict between great powers.”
Caught between those great powers was theoretical physicist Klaus Fuchs, who contributed research to the Manhattan Project and headed up a division of a British nuclear research facility, all while sharing data that helped the Soviets make gains in the atomic arms race. Nancy Thorndike Greenspan (The End of the Certain World) has worked to create a three-dimensional portrait of Fuchs in Atomic Spy (Viking, May). PW’s review said her account, which “blurs the lines between courage and treachery in thought-provoking ways,” presents Fuchs as “a reticent figure motivated by sincere political beliefs and the idea that the free flow of information might prevent a nuclear arms race.”
It’s a more nuanced portrait than has previously been presented and one that Wendy Wolf, v-p, associate publisher at Viking, says could serve as a model for assessments of similarly controversial acts. “We live in a world of whistleblowers, leakers, people who have access to information they don’t feel should be kept secret. If we would approach people in our world who blow the whistle and leak secrets with full understanding of their motivations and their goals, we might change the way we think about what secrets we keep and how we keep them.”
Former FBI agent Ralph Hope spins a cautionary tale about secrets and their keepers in The Grey Men (Oneworld, Sept.), whose title refers to a name East Germans had for the Stasi, or Staatssicherheit—the nearly 100,000 state security agents who protected the Communist dictatorship by acting as “intelligence service, secret police, public prosecutor, and elite military all at once,” he writes. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the agents scattered, leaving behind more than a billion pages of intelligence on the citizens of East Germany. Only a small percentage of the papers were destroyed, and the agents disappeared into every sector of society without being prosecuted for violating citizens’ privacy and terrorizing, and in some cases murdering, their targets.
The intelligence is archived now, but Hope says the threat to former East Germans and their families is far from over, and a similar scenario could play out again anywhere. “If you’re concerned about government overreach, there’s much more to consider besides whether the NSA is targeting Americans or what the CIA is doing.” The East German government financed a mass surveillance campaign against its own people, and “nobody wants to talk about it in Germany and Europe, but they should talk about it because it affects the whole world. The chances of another type of similar secret police service arising is not beyond belief.”
Middle East security expert Samuel M. Katz highlights multinational covert efforts in No Shadows in the Desert (Hanover Square, Apr.), detailing the clandestine mission by Jordanian and U.S. intelligence agents to avenge the 2015 killing of a Jordanian pilot in Syria, which also strengthened the broader coalition campaign against ISIS. “When people think of the war on terror,” Katz says, “it’s mainly distant images seen in brief snippets on newscasts. They don’t realize that there are men and women who are able to keep people in the West and elsewhere safe as the result of great risk, great sacrifice, and great talent.”
Without the men and women of the Intelligence Service of Jordan, Katz notes, the U.S. would not have been able to target specific locations and people and ultimately strike a decisive blow against ISIS in Syria. PW’s review praised the way the author “briskly untangles the history of the Syrian civil war and the campaign against ISIS” in an “immersive account” of joint operations in the Middle East.
The war at home
When journalist John Hersey recorded the testimonials of six victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the New Yorker in 1946, he showcased the true horror the U.S. had set loose. Until his story ran, the U.S. government had managed to hide from the West the magnitude of the devastation to the Japanese cities.
In Fallout (Simon & Schuster, Aug.), Lesley M.M. Blume (Everybody Behaves Badly) reveals the story behind Hersey’s article and the deterrent effect his reporting has had over the past 75 years. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were off-limits to foreign reporters after the attack, and occupying forces forbade Japanese publication of articles pertaining to the bombs. Tens of thousands of people had been killed instantly when the bombs were dropped, but few, even among the Japanese, knew the extent of the damage before Hersey’s reporting. The U.S. wanted to obscure knowledge of the fallout from the atomic bombs, Blume writes, because it did not want to, as U.S. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson put it, “get the reputation for outdoing Hitler in atrocities.”
Historian Judy Batalion (White Walls) grew up in a tight-knit Jewish community in Montreal among family and neighbors who’d survived or escaped the Holocaust, but it wasn’t until adulthood, while conducting research at the British Library, that she learned about the efforts of young Jewish women in Poland, some of whom she profiles in The Light of Days (Morrow, June). In the book, which has been optioned for screen adaptation by Steven Spielberg, Batalion describes how the women became agents of resistance, building underground bunkers, bombing German train lines, and engaging in, as PW’s review said, an “astonishing array of guerilla activities.”
In terms of “military success, Nazi casualties, and Jews saved,” the women’s victories were relatively small, Batalion writes, but as she told PW, this does not detract from their heroics. “They knew they were most likely going to be killed, and they still fought back.” In telling these women’s stories today, she hopes to show that small victories are achievable. “We can organize,” she says. “Our small actions do have repercussions.”
Anne Kniggendorf is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to KCUR 89.3, an NPR station in Kansas City.
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Closing Chapters: War & Military Books 2020
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