In a poignant, penetrating and pertinent work, Jerry Borrowman pays wholesome tribute to some of the indomitable heroes of World War II, heroes whose exploits have either been recognized long after such an act was due or have been acknowledged much later than even the lifetimes of the valiant protagonists.
“Extraordinary Wartime Stories of Ordinary People” is a rousing paean to the will of the common man which rose beyond its own determination and packed punches well beyond its expected weight. The chronicles of these selfless men and women not only induce a smile to the lips of the reader, but also brings forth a tear or two.
Nancy Grace Augusta Wake, known as “The White Mouse of French Resistance” by the Gestapo for her uncanny ability to evade the Axis Forces while wreaking havoc upon their infrastructure in tandem with the French Resistance Forces was forced to endure a harrowing experience of losing her well-do-to husband to torture at the hands of the German Forces. Nancy once “volunteered to ride a bicycle more than 150 miles (250 kilometers) through German occupied lines to ask a radio operator in a different zone to request a new radio and code book for Nancy’s area.” Nancy was, by the end of the war, the most decorated Australian in World War II. Her recognitions and honours resemble a string of pearls. The Companion of the Order of Australia, the George Medal from England, the Officier de Legion d’ Honneur and Croix de Guerre (three times) from France, the Medal of Freedom (with Bronze Palm) from the United States and the Returned and Services Association (RSA) Badge in gold from New Zealand.
If Nancy Grace’s case was one of celebration, the story of Joseph Hyalmar Anderson makes for some heart wrenching reading. Going Missing In Action (“MIA”) after his Lockheed PV-1 Ventural Patrol Bomber went missing whilst on a routine training patrol off Vancouver Island, British Columbia, his family was left waiting for a definitive closure for an inordinately long time before the puzzle of the missing aircraft was finally pieced together. Finally, in 2006 the 101st Squadron ‘erected a permanent marker at the site’ of the crash.
The contribution of indigenous and immigrant populace such as Native Indians and Japanese Americans respectively, to the Allied Cause in World War II have to a great degree gone unnoticed. Borrowman strives to ameliorate this lapse by chronicling the feats of this section of the military component.
Joseph Medicine Crow, the first member of the Crow Nation to receive a master’s degree was a post graduate student in anthropology at the University of South California when he was drafted into the armed forces. Crow distinguished himself admirably well in a few battles while posted in France and Germany. In true Crow Nation fashion, he also managed to stealthily divest from the possession of a band of fleeing SS Officers, their horses, thereby facilitating an easy capture of the officers forming part of one of Hitler’s most venomous and brutal military wings. As Borrowman patiently explains, “more than 25,000 Native American men served in the armed forces in World War II…”
The heroics of the ‘Navajo Code Breakers’, twenty-nine innovative “living code machines whose transmissions were never deciphered by the Japanese” is one for the ages. Rendering yeoman service to the American cause in the Pacific, these code breakers provided a viable and imaginative alternative to the Shackle protocol, a cumbersome method to transmit codes that usually took four hours to send and receive. The Navajo Code, on the other hand, took just two and a half minutes to send and receive messages – a virtually incredulous and exponential improvement over the Shackle method! However, it was not until the year 2000 that the bravery of the Navajo Code breakers was recognized. The Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to the code breakers. However only, five of the courageous men remained in flesh and blood to receive the awards.
Executive Order 9066 issued by then President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the 19th of February (coincidentally 77 years before this very day of reviewing Borrowman’s work), “authorized the relocation and internment of more than 120,000 people of Japanese descent into ten guarded camps deep in the United States interior.” Ironically, some of the bravest and most decorated armed personnel distinguishing themselves in the Second World War were Japanese Americans. The Purple Heart Battalion or just the 100th Infantry Battalion consisted of 1,432 men who demonstrated exemplary act of courage. The Purple Heart Battalion received the Presidential Unit Citation and sixteen Divisional Citations. The indiscriminate wrongs against this community was finally righted when first President Ronald Reagan announced a compensation of $20,000 to each surviving detainee and later when George H.W. Bush tendered an unconditional apology on behalf of the United States.
Borrowman also chronicles in a painstaking and refreshing manner the contribution of thousands of unsung engineers and African Americans. “For example, one battalion of US combat engineers, the 291st, replaced fourteen German autobahn bridges in forty-eight hours.” Subject to intense isolation and immense racial discrimination, the extraordinary achievements of these patriots warms the very cockles of the heart. Benjamin Davis Jr. the first black American to be honoured with the Brigadier General title had it extremely rough in his initial West Point Cadet dates. “The silent treatment was enforced on Davis for the entire four years he was in the academy. He lived without a roommate, was assigned to his own tent during field exercises, ate by himself at every meal, and was never spoken to by other cadets, except for official communications.” Overcoming such seemingly insurmountable odds, Davis Jr. rose to become a superb tactical airman and an integral part of the famous, Tuskegee Airman, nicknamed, “The Red Tails.” The airmen commanded by Davis Jr, “flew more than 15,000 sorties, shot down 111 enemy planes, and destroyed 273 on the ground. They lost 66 aircraft.”
However, the most stirring and inspiring story in the book is reserved for narrating the exploits of one of the greatest women war photojournalist, Dickey Chapelle. Posted or as the current prevailing military-journalistic terminology would state, embedded with the Marines during the battle of Iwo Jima, Chapelle covered the battle of Okinawa as well. When the dust settled on the greatest slaughter in the history of mankind, Chapelle’s zeal for truth and adventure remained unquenched. Crisscrossing the world, Chapelle was captured and jailed for over seven weeks during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Chapelle’s inspiring and singularly unique life came to an untimely and cruel end November 4, 1965 while on patrol with a Marine platoon during Operation Black Ferret, a search and destroy operation 16 km south of Chu Lai, Quang Ngai Province. The lieutenant walking in front inadvertently made contact with a tripwire booby-trap with a hand grenade attached to the top of it. Chapelle was struck in the neck by a piece of shrapnel which severed her carotid artery, and she died soon afterwards. Her last moments were captured in a photograph by Henri Huet. Chapelli was thus the first female war correspondent to be killed in Vietnam, as well as the first American female reporter to be killed in action.
Douglas MacArthur’s immortal quotes ring in one’s ears as the covers come down upon Borrowman’s splendid book. “The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.” The soldier who neither relents nor remonstrates; one who neither complains no criticizes.