You might find it strange, that I, an all-around girly girl, have such an interest in stories of war. My bookshelves are filled, not with chick lit, but with tomes about military campaigns, about soldiers, military nurses and doctors and the innocent victims of war. I am darkly compelled to read of the horrendous futility of it all. I am fascinated with the impossible capacity of the human spirit to persevere and survive when everything around is vicious, heartless and cruel. I know of the misery that lives in green fields dotted with white crosses and Stars of David. The cemeteries are too quiet, too permanent. Once there, the inhabitants never leave. As long as there is family, there are small mementos placed here and there, a photograph or some flowers. But in time, even the families vanish, and all that is left is a crumbling stone.
When we lived in Brussels, we attended a British Anglican church, and we always took part in the Remembrance Day services. Also known as Armistice Day, the U.S. Veteran’s Day, it marks the end of the hostilities in Europe in 1918, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. I am still moved by the English tradition of wearing a blood red poppy on the lapel, which may or not stem from the poem, In Flanders Field, by the Canadian soldier John McCrae. I never knew until I studied history at university, how many had perished in that war, more or less wiping out an entire generation of young men.
My interest in World War II probably came from living near the actual places where it hapened. There aren’t too many sites on American soil, other than Pearl Harbor, where the battles of that conflict took place. In Manila we used to drive through the American cemetery just about every day … the visual enormity of the loss of life wasn’t lost on me. I remember the meticulously manicured green lawn, the stark white tombstones, and the American flag standing guard, fluttering proudly in the breeze.
For some reason I never visited Bataan or Corregidor. I could kick myself for my teenaged apathy. My father, on the other hand, was involved in the construction of an oil terminal on the peninsula of Bataan, and drove over there on a regular basis. We could see the faraway shadow of the island of Corregidor lying low in the water as we stood on Dewey Boulevard overlooking Manila Bay. I heard stories about the Bataan Death March, and of families who were interned at the University of Santo Tomas. One acquaintance told us about being a small child when Manila fell, and how his parents told him it was all a game as they marched, under armed guard, through the hot, dusty streets of Manila to the makeshift prison.
My dad had joined the Navy when he was 17 years old, right after high school graduation. He was in boot camp in San Diego when the war ended; he told me once that he was in the group being prepared to invade Japan, had the nuclear bombs not put an end to it all. After the war he spent a year in the Pacific on a minesweeper, which had the grim duty of detonating the ocean mines left behind by the Japanese. Dad told me stories about salt-water showers and chow time, and how they sat on the bridge with a rifle, shooting at mines until they exploded. “Take all you want but eat all you take,” he used to say, a reminder of his Navy days.
In Belgium, as an 11-year-old, my parents took me to Breendonk Concentration Camp near Antwerp. When I came home I drew pictures in my childish hand of people hanging from hooks. I suppose this was my way of dealing with the incomprehensible. My parents never hid these things from me; I always knew about the Holocaust. I think I read the Diary of Anne Frank before I was out of elementary school. I can’t explain my morbid curiosity.
For every Allied soldier who died, I acknowledge that there were soldiers lost on the other side as well. Enemy or not, they were sons, fathers and brothers. It's not about "ancient" history any more, either. Too many young men have died in the Middle East in recent years, and too many are coming home with their limbs missing, bodies maimed, and minds darkened, never to be the same. What is it about mankind that makes us wage war? Can we not learn from the past?
I’m going to put on my librarian’s hat today, and share with you some of the books I hold very dear to my heart. Some stories are very hard to read, but imagine how hard it was to endure the reality. And I ask you to never forget. Every day should be Memorial Day.
World War II – Pacific Theater
The Iron Gates of Santo Tomas – Emily Van Sickle
The Pacific War – John Costello
The Flamboya Tree – Clara Olink Kelly
Manila Memories – Edited by Juergen Goldhagen
The Fall of Japan – William Craig
My Faraway Home – Mary McKay Menard
The Quiet Warrior – (Admiral Raymond Spruance) – Thomas Buell
Ghost Soldiers – Hampton Sides
All This Hell – Evelyn Monahan & Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee
We Band of Angels – Elizabeth M. Norman
Escape from Davao – John D. Lukacs
I Came Back from Bataan – Robert Whitmore
With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa – Eugene Sledge
Helmet for My Pillow – Robert Leckie
Bridge to the Sun – Gwen Terasaki
Hidenari Terasaki; Pearl Harbor and Occupied Japan – Roger B. Jeans
Flyboys – James Bradley
No Ordinary Joes – Larry Colton
Unbroken – Laura Hillenbrand
In Harm’s Way – Doug Stanton
Blind Man’s Bluff – Sherry Sontag, Christopher Drew and Annette Drew
Tears in the Darkness – Michael Norman
Bataan Death March; A Survivor’s Account – William Dyess
Ocean Devil – James McManus
Conduct Under Fire – John A. Glusman
Enola Gay – Gordon Thomas & Max Morgan Witts
Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan – Herbert P. Bix
Captured Honor – Bob Wodnik
World War II – Europe
The Wild Blue – Stephen Ambrose
A Lucky Child – Thomas Buergenthal
Partners in Command – Mark Perry
Edith’s Story – Edith Velmans
To See You Again – Betty Schimmel
The Lost – Daniel Mendelsohn
The Girl in the Green Sweater – Krystyna Chiger
Suite Française (fiction) – Irene Nemirovsky
The Pianist – Wladyslaw Szilman
Sarah's Key (fiction) - Tatiana de Rosnay
The Book Thief (fiction) – Markus Zusak
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (fiction) – John Boyne
Where the Birds Never Sing – Jack Sacco
Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. – H. Paul Jeffers
Jimmy Stewart, Bomber Pilot – Starr Smith
The Winds of War - Herman Wouk
War and Remembrance - Herman Wouk
Catch-22 - Joseph Heller
A Rumor of War – Philip Caputo
On The Other Side: 23 Days with the Viet Cong – Kate Webb
Vietnam, A History – Stanley Karnow
Faith of My Fathers – John McCain
War Torn; Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam
Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad (Not about Vietnam in and of itself, but formed the basis of the film "Apocalypse Now")