“Reflections of Our Gentle Warriors: Personal Stories of World War II Veterans”
By Brad Hoopes
308 pp., Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by Peter S. Carmichael
Fluhrer Professor of History, Gettysburg College
Brad Hoopes’s Reflections of Our Gentle Warriors: Personal Stories of World War II Veterans, is a heartfelt tribute to the American soldiers who served in the European and Pacific Theaters. The author recorded oral histories of more than sixty veterans; from their testimonies he wrote efficient biographies of each. Their stories offer a different angle on the War, but for the most part the narratives are triumphant and celebratory, reflecting Hoopes’s great admiration and respect for the Greatest Generation that preserved democracy.
The army’s Dick Scholl, for instance, survived the lethal fighting in the Philippines, where life was always hanging in the balance, according to Scholl. He told the author about the Japanese who would climb palm trees under the cover of night to use as sharpshooting nests. From there they would begin their deadly work as soon as the sun rose. Scholl remembered seeing men fall – suddenly – with horrific wounds while standing in the chow line because of the murderous Japanese snipers.
By the end of School’s service, the toll of active campaigning had wrecked his body. He was weak and emaciated from malnutrition, with rotted gums and teeth, and malaria that besieged his body. None of that seemed to matter when he returned home to San Francisco, a moment so emotionally poignant that he broke down when he recalled the incident.
Hoopes shows a commendable sensitivity to the ways in which the War inflicted terrible physical and emotional pain on these soldiers, but the histories generally speak to the importance of cause and comrades as a coping mechanism, and not to the issues associated with PTSD. To conclude from Hoopes’s book that veterans just did their duty simplifies the complicated and contradictory thoughts and feelings of men who endured incomprehensible violence. I wish he had probed deeper into their struggles to “assimilate” afterwards.
During an interview with infantryman Bob Forrest, for example, the author noted: “He had a wide spectrum of experiences from the humorous to the bad. One memory Forrest could not repress was the moment he entered battle. “I remember thinking. I’m trying to kill that German, and that German is trying to kill me, and we don’t even know each other.” This admission is hardly rare among veterans of all wars, but Forrest reminds us that killing other humans – even if they fight for a reprehensible cause such as Nazism – is not just a question of courage, but a difficult moral quandary; they feared that committing murder would destroy their humanity.
Hoopes lets the men speak for themselves – and in most cases – keeps a respectful distance during the interviews, but in so doing, we don’t get access to the deep recesses of their minds. The author allows the reader to look to the historical scholarship on the issue of battlefield trauma, and how soldiers remember war, but the reader should not expect Hoopes to unravel all the intricacies and mysteries of battlefield survival.
Veteran Mike Martinez, for instance, remembered that he jumped from his bedroom window when he returned home because of a bad dream, and that when he worked in the fields, the sound of a crop duster sweeping overhead caused him to leap for cover.
From that section on, the author avoids any psychological explanation about PTSD and concludes: “He had one good postwar experience when the man whom he had helped save looked him up to thank him. After so many years of wondering whatever happened to that soldier, one ugly memory could now be erased.” It is hard to imagine that memories could be erased or compartmentalized so easily, but Hoopes is to be commended for recovering such valuable and interesting material from a generation whose voices grow fainter by the year.
Mr. Hoopes continues to preserve the veterans’ stories; he is also a member of the committee which built a plaza in their honor.
Peter S. Carmichael is the Director of Civil War Institute, Civil War Institute Office, at Gettysburg College. His is working on The War for the Common Soldier, which will be part of the University of North Carolina Press’s Littlefield History of the Civil War series. Learn more here.