World War II Experience, Long After the Fact
May 28, 2012 9:33 AM   Subscribe

I'd like some topnotch resources, whether books, websites, possibly videos, movies or other, to help me understand my father's experiences in World War II. I'm not looking for the tactical or strategic elements of the military campaigns that he was part of, but what his role and experience was like.

My father, now deceased, would never speak with his family about his experiences during the war. The only information I have is that my father served with the 43rd Infantry Division as a Technical Sergeant in Guadalcanal and the Northern Solomon Islands. I do know that he was hospitalized for "exhaustion" (shell shock? PTSD?) on his return to the States; it doesn't appear that he was part of the troops stationed in Japan at the end of the war. He did receive a Silver Star.

Please forgive my ignorance, but I know nothing about WWII resources, not even enough to ask this question in a more knowledgeable and effective way. My father was an exceptional person, and I'd like to understand this part of his life better.
posted by vers to Human Relations (25 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
For World War I, I have found that it's fascinating and vivid to read magazines and newspapers from that time and their coverage of the war, especially chronologically stepping through the years to see how things progressed, and how people were reacting to it and experiencing it. The same thing will be available for World War II, though due to copyright rules a bit more will likely be available in libraries rather than online.
posted by XMLicious at 9:51 AM on May 28, 2012

Helmet for my Pillow is the memoir of Robert Leckie, a Marine that served in Guadalcanal. During the war, Leckie was also hospitalized for PTSD-like symptoms. This book was used, in part, for the excellent HBO series The Pacific, which I also recommend.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:52 AM on May 28, 2012

Guadalcanal Diary is a well-regarded novel from the soldier's point of view.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:52 AM on May 28, 2012

First of all, I would strongly steer clear of History Channel documentaries. You will probably understand your father's experience less if you watch them. Also, military historians are the worst. They understand war worse than you and I; that's what drives their fascination. If you don't want to romanticize too much, I'd recommend Catch 22 for a general view of the absurdity of that war. The first thing you should understand about all war is that it's boredom punctuated by horror. Anyone who doesn't talk about the boredom is a Romantic. With that in mind, the film, Das Boot isn't half bad, although it may not be exactly what you're looking for.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 9:53 AM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Let There Be Light^, a 1946 film made for the United States Army Signal Corps by John Huston^, who also directed films like The Maltese Falcon and The Man Who Would Be King, about psychologically traumatized soldiers being treated after returning home. I find it hard to watch. It was censored by the Army out of fear that it would be demoralizing.
posted by XMLicious at 10:09 AM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can't back up outlandish's commentary about the History Channel strongly enough. I also agree that most military historians just plain don't get it, though some do. (John Keegan is a good one, though he's not a light read and from what I've seen tends to focus on the "big picture" stuff. He does a good job illustrating the plight of the common soldier along the way, though.)

Though it's set in the European theatre, I thought Band of Brothers did a very good job of staying accurate and striking a good tone. That said, your father was on the other side of the world.

If you want to do a FOIA search on your father, that could tell you a lot. The form that will record his discharge is called a DD-214; that's what they're called today, and I've seen a couple from the WW II era with the same designation. That will at least tell you things like what his training & awards records were like, and you could research more from there.

Usually, any award of a medal like the Silver Star will have some sort of written citation to go with it. It will describe the conditions under which he earned the decoration. You may be able to find that under a FOIA search as well.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 10:11 AM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

The National Archives provides many resources online (and many, many records offline), if you're interested in the specific details of your father's service.
posted by GPF at 10:18 AM on May 28, 2012

While the book doesn't speak directly to your father's experience, it does paint a vivid picture of what could have happened to him--Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. The Pacific Theater war isn't as well known as the European front, because there are far more recent films about that arena, and Holocaust studies, etc.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:24 AM on May 28, 2012

Wartime by Paul Fussell for a more critical take on how the war (and still is!) usually portrayed.
posted by un petit cadeau at 10:25 AM on May 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Fussell, who died this past week, is outstanding. He was shot up as very young Lt and is a great writer-taught literature after the war--. His Wartime a great book.
posted by Postroad at 10:35 AM on May 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Wow, XM, I'm watching Let There Be Light right now. It's really excellent.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 10:38 AM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Follow @RealTimeWWII on twitter. They are livetweeting the 2nd World War, as it happens on this date & time in 1940, & for 6 years to come. Use the news from the feed to spark conversation with your father. They also have a FB page.
posted by cior at 10:41 AM on May 28, 2012

So I'm assuming you want sort of "soldier's eye view," less moving tanks and divisions around, more in the muck and the mud with the grunts kinda things. The theater you're in would be the Pacific theater of operations. Here's the 43rd Infantry Division website listing all the things they did in the Pacific. Guadalcanal is probably going to be the big one of the ones listed, at least in terms of information and documentation, if you want to dig into it.

I haven't read it, but here's a book on the history of the division during the war that'd probably give you a good place to start.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 11:06 AM on May 28, 2012

If you read With The Old Breed : At Peleliu and Okinawa by Eugene Sledge, along with the the book and series recommended by Cool Papa Bell, you will go a long way toward understanding the Pacific theater a bit. Watch Band of Brothers, for the European experience, as it shows the bond of the men in combat in that war really well, and Das Boot shows the hell of war pretty well, though from the German side. For the experience of returning veterans, a bit on the sentimental side but still worth watching - The Best Years of Our Lives.
posted by gudrun at 11:30 AM on May 28, 2012

William Manchester's memoir Goodbye, Darkness recounts his experiences as a Marine in the Pacific, including Guadalcanal, and their aftermath. I can't recommend it enough.
posted by rtha at 11:48 AM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Japan At War: An Oral History is an excellent, if somewhat depressing and horrifying book.

Mizuki Shigeru also drew a manga series about his time as an infantryman in Borneo fighting Americans and Australians.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:36 PM on May 28, 2012

You've provided wonderful resources that I will without a doubt spend many days with. If possible, what I'd like to round this out is more first person accounts from these campaigns, original sources if at all accessible. My father's records don't mean as much as what this war was like for him.
posted by vers at 4:39 PM on May 28, 2012

I understand you father's theatre was the Pacific, not Europe, but I thought I'd mention this anyway. I was enchanted to read Alan's War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope, which is an illustrated memoir about a GI's experience in Europe in WWII. It gives a real sense of the chaos and uncertainty that the troops had to live through.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 6:34 PM on May 28, 2012

How about Studs Terkel's The Good War?
posted by idb at 6:57 PM on May 28, 2012

In case you don't know about it, Google Books lets you just search printed books. You can't necessarily read all the books you get search results for online, though, you may have to go to a library.

The Internet Archive, where the film I linked to above is hosted, also has many other books, movies, and audio recordings, but only public domain ones.

Here's a book online: Guadalcanal - The First Offensive written in 1948 by an Army historian, with the dust jacket description,
This account of the first victory over Japanese ground forces, told at the level of companies, platoons, and even individuals, demonstrates the relationship between air, ground, and surface forces in modern warfare.
From the U.S. Army Center of Military History, which says it has 600 other publications in total, many concerning World War II.
posted by XMLicious at 7:04 PM on May 28, 2012

James Jones's book "The Thin Red Line" was an "autobiographical novel" based on his experiences in the 25th Infantry Division on Guadalcanal. I cannot say whether the Terrence Malick movie based on the book had any similarity or captured its feeling, but the book might be a good place to start.

Also, given your admitted ignorance of the events, I'd caution you to distinguish between the accounts of Navy, Marine, and Army personnel engaged in the battles of Guadalcanal. The fight was a different thing to each of them; the Naval Conflict is a very distinct thing compared to the battle for the control of the island carried out by soldiers and marines.

I do recommend Robert Leckie's book,though. Eugene Sledge's book, while good, concentrates on events later in the islands campaign in which the Japanese have developed their "defense in depth" strategy (digging in layer upon layer upon layer of defensive bunkers) which made them so difficult to fight at Iwo, Peleliu, and so on. At Guadalcanal, they didn't really have this strategy in place, and so there was jungle fighting above ground the entire time, which Robert Leckie and John Basilone (the third Marine, like Leckie a machine-gun-operator who served at Guadalcanal and who was also featured in "The Pacific" miniseries). IIRC neither Leckie nor Sledge spoke or wrote of their experiences until encouraged to do so decades after the war's end. Your father's reticence was not uncommon. After reading those books, one gets a glimpse at the reason.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:23 PM on May 28, 2012

The also has a ton of WWII era public information/propaganda movies which, while they won't necessarily will provide you what it was like for your father, will give you some insight in the kind of information he had during the war about the war, the enemy and so on.

Particularly recommended: Why we fight, a series of films explaining the causes of the war and why it was necessary for the US to be involved.
posted by MartinWisse at 7:03 AM on May 29, 2012

Thank you all -- as much as this information is difficult for me to read/watch/absorb, I am grateful for your input. I've also started watching The War by Ken Burns, and am a little surprised it didn't get recommended here -- anything I should know about it critically or otherwise?
posted by vers at 6:02 PM on May 30, 2012

Oh, I should've mentioned the Oscar-winning short film "With the Marines at Tarawa," (1944) which was a propaganda film, to be sure, but it was one of the first times American movie audiences saw footage of dead Americans on their cinema screens. It's about 20 minutes long, color (such as it was) and intense.

As I mentioned above, though the fight for Tarawa was different from Solomons/Guadalcanal because of the defense strategy developed by the Japanese. It was also different because the Marines and Amphibious Navy forces had a whole lot more experience with landings than they did at Guadalcanal, and really knew how to take a beach. Nonetheless, Tarawa was and is the battle in which the Marines took the greatest number of casualties (that is, killed and wounded to the point of being unable to fight-- about 3000) as well as total dead (over 1000).
posted by Sunburnt at 3:10 PM on June 1, 2012

If anyone finds this, Losing the War is a great read, from another AskMe later. Thank you.
posted by vers at 6:55 PM on August 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

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