I read the book When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning last week. The topic is the efforts to provide books to the armed forces -- every soldier, sailor and marine -- in World War II. I had no idea about this aspect of WWII until I read the review in the New York Times and decided to get the book.
This book is extremely well researched and covers the beginning of the movement to provide books to the troops through book drives and then continues with the creation of the Armed Services Editions. The effort was partly in response to the Nazi book burnings in Germany and partly to provide entertainment and comfort to the U.S. troops. These were special editions that were designed to be lightweight and fit easily into a soldier's pocket. The list of titles that were printed is extensive and covers many genres. The books were distributed everywhere -- the battle fronts in Europe, hospitals, every Pacific island where servicemen were stationed, and even to prisoners of war.
The books were enormously popular, with men lined up to get new books when a shipment arrived. Soldiers wrote to authors to thank them and talk about how certain stories, like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, reminded them of home and why they were fighting. From the soldiers' own words, it is clear how essential they found the books.
World War II was, of course, a time before personal computers, smart phones, video games, streaming, and all the other distractions of modern life. When Books Went to War is a look into a different time when provided a personal space in a crowded barracks, ship, or foxhole. Many of the men wrote that they had never read much before the Armed Services Editions. Many of these soldiers took advantage of the GI Bill after the war to get an education and become professionals.
I thought about my dad, who served in World War II as a Navy officer, first in the Atlantic and then in the Pacific. He must have read some of these books. He never talked about the war or what he had done as a naval officer on a sub chaser. The little bit I know I learned after he died from my mother. In my experience it seems like veterans of WWII either never want to talk about their experiences or they want to talk at every opportunity. I think both responses are attempts to process a traumatic experience.
The more I thought about the book, the more I could imagine how my dad might have felt. Manning writes that after V-E day, the troops in Europe thought they were done and would be going home. Many of them had been fighting for three or four years already. Instead, they found they were either reassigned to the Pacific or would continue in Europe to assist in post-war rebuilding. I wonder if my dad had felt that way -- wishing to go home but instead being sent to the Pacific. I also learned how brutal the Pacific war was -- never-ending bombing, tropical heat, swarms of insects. How much of that would he have experienced on a ship? What would he have been reading? I imagine him choosing the nonfiction selections -- maybe reading history, and then towards the end of the war, reading some of the books that were intended to help soldiers transition in civilian life. I could imagine him reading Ernie Pyle, and books about political systems.
I will never know for sure, but I felt closer to my dad while reading When Books Went to War.