December 2000

Battles for the bookshelf

By edited by Hammerton
By Andy Rooney
By Max Allan Collins
By Stewart Binns
Review by
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If you're searching for a gift for a member of the greatest generation, this season's offerings of World War II books provide an exciting range of choices. With the phenomenal popularity of Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation as an incentive, publishers have combed archives and other sources to produce books that give new, eye-opening accounts of the war to readers young and old still fascinated by this pivotal event in world history.

What better place to start than Page One: The Front Page History of World War II as Presented in The New York Times. This is a compilation of selected issues of the nation's greatest newspaper covering our nation's greatest crisis and it makes for fascinating reading. Each front page is reproduced in its entirety, and you can't help but take note of the way the headlines grow in point size as the years go on. The smaller stories of the war can be just as fascinating as the headlines. Not many people know that the U.S. mainland the Aleutian Islands in Alaska was actually attacked twice in the summer of 1942, which a careful reading of these front pages will reveal.

A similar approach can be found in The Second World War: An Illustrated History of World War II, Volume I, edited by the writer and literary critic Sir John Hammerton. This is a massive set of books that reprint the journal The War Illustrated, a popular British publication that covered the war practically from its inception. For the true aficionado of WWII memorabilia, this is as close to source materials as you're likely to get. Where else would you find the verbatim dispatch of a Russian journalist as he waits in Moscow, listening to the sound of German guns only 70 miles from the city? Or the account of an RAF bomber crew, shot down over the Atlantic, who survived nine days in a life raft before finally being rescued? Maybe you'll want to get the volume covering the beginnings of the war, or perhaps the one concerning America's entry into the conflict. A truly interested reader will want to have them all.

Another excellent entry is Our Finest Hour: Voices of the World War II Generation. While it contains only a fraction of the vast archives of Life's World War II photographs, every picture included here is superb. In truth, words aren't needed, but contemporaneous material from the magazine enhances the photographs. Photographers for Life have always had a knack for capturing a story on film. Whether it's a colonel kneeling before the flag-draped body of his son on Okinawa, or the mute exhaustion of a foot soldier after D-Day, words aren't even necessary; each photo conveys a wealth of information and emotion.

Five years after its original publication Andy Rooney's My Warhas been reissued in a gift edition with a new forward by Tom Brokaw. Rooney was a young sergeant writing for Stars and Stripes during the war, and he was eyewitness to some of the most momentous events in this nation's history. He focuses not on the planning sessions or the summit meetings or even the crucial battles though he was present at many of these things but rather on the experiences of the common soldier. Whether it be the pilots who bombed Germany despite their horrendous casualty rate, or the foot soldiers who plodded across Europe, Rooney tells their story. Drafted at the war's beginning, he began as a member of an artillery company, but used his writing background to gain a position with the Army's newspaper. Rooney tells his story in such an appealing, matter-of-fact style that the reader feels like he is part of a private conversation. An excellent, funny and moving book, My War makes a worthy addition to any World War II bookshelf.

Now if you're wondering, Which of these books should I buy my Granddad? we have a surprising answer for you. If he's a veteran of the war, he'd enjoy any of these selections, but we would be willing to bet that Max Allen Collins' For The Boys: The Racy Pin-Ups of World War IIwould put the biggest grin on his face. This is a full color collection of the arty and racy pin-ups and posters that ended up on the walls and jackets and bombers of the soldiers of the war. It may be politically incorrect, but it's history. Just don't give it to him while the great-grandkids are around!

A personal favorite among the new World War II books is one of the most unusual books on the war I've ever seen. While we all have been raised to think of the war as one fought in black and white, in newsreels and grainy photographs, The Second World War In Color by Stewart Binns and Adrian Wood is just that a collection of color photographs of the war. Adolph Hitler lounges in a smartly cut blue pin-stripe suit and olive bombers warm up with brown beaches, blue skies and green palm trees in the background. This book is at times jaw-droppingly amazing; somehow the color makes the impact of the war more immediate.

From funny posters to heartbreaking photographs, these new books bring to life the experience of World War II and provide fascinating reading for the veterans who were there and for those who want a revealing glimpse of history in the making.

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