Mon September 19, 2005
1942: The Year That Tried Men's Souls
Winston Groom may be better known for Forest Gump, goofily portrayed on film by Tom Hanks. But Groom is also a historian. His newest work, 1942: The Year That Tried Men's Souls, is a focused study of that crucially important, pivotal first year of WWII.
By Don Noble
Twenty years ago, most Americans would have identified Winston Groom as the creator of Forrest Gump, goofily immortalized in film by Tom Hanks.
But Groom's newest work, an account of the first year of the second world war, comes with a publisher's announcement describing Groom as an "acclaimed historian."
And, in his way, he is. Groom has been writing the kind of histories laymen, not academic historians, want to read, the kind the average reader, the common reader if you could ever find one, enjoys. He reads whole libraries of secondary documents and then brings his powers as a story-teller to bear.
He has done this again with 1942: The Year That Tried Men's Souls.
Generally, for those of a certain age, the story is familiar. At the time of the raid on Pearl Harbor, America was unprepared. Much of the Pacific Fleet was sunk at anchor on December 7, some aircraft carriers having been spared by chance. During the Depression, the U.S. had reduced the size of the military until it was smaller than that possessed by Portugal.
Groom's early chapters describe our state of unreadiness and the military losses that inevitably followed as the Japanese took island after island, most painfully the Philippines, and raged across southeast Asia. In north Africa Rommel triumphed in the desert, but of course, the tide turned, and much of this is pretty well known.
Groom makes some points, however, and includes some material that is less familiar and sometimes controversial.
To begin with, he suggests some similarities between December 7 and 9/11 and the war in Iraq, in terms of American preparedness and attitudes toward pre-emptive strikes. Each reader will have to sort this out for himself.
More interesting to me was his discussion of the Japanese internment camps. I had not known that the Japanese, citizens and non-citizens, were asked at first to move away from the west coast on their own. Ten thousand did, but 100,000 could not or would not.
Groom also reminds the reader that there were in fact Japanese spies in the west and that Santa Barbara, California, had been shelled by a Japanese submarine, which terrified everyone.
Also new to me: J. Edgar Hoover, insulted, objected to the internment, insisting that the FBI already knew who the Japanese spies were.
The many stories of Japanese racism and atrocities in China, and especially on the Bataan Death March, are chillingly told, and some will say over-emphasized, but, however unpleasant, seem true to the facts.
On a lighter note, one might say, were some of our military experiments. At one point the U.S. military was training dogs to come ashore off the Higgins boats to attack Japanese defenders. Alas, like most inadequately trained soldiers, the dogs broke and ran under mortar fire.
1942 began badly for the U.S., but it ended better. Groom spends a good deal of time on the pivotal Battle of Midway, and then on the protracted battle for Guadalcanal, our first important island victory.
In north Africa, Rommel suffered defeat by Montgomery and then Patton, and the long marches towards Tokyo and Berlin were under way.
American industrial might was mobilized for war. The number of B17s went from 150 to 100,000. At one point we were manufacturing 100 B24s a day.
The army increased hugely in size, although an astounding 40% of the men who reported for physicals failed them. Americans, at the close of the Great Depression, suffered from untreated hernias, tuberculosis, lack of teeth, and many other ailments. Two million of the applicants were rejected by the psychiatrists.
Of course, most Americans know how all this comes out. But this is not a mystery. Groom has written a focused study of one crucially important, pivotal year and has told this tale about as well as it can be told.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.