GI tales dispel myths about vets

  • Article by: PAMELA MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 29, 2009 - 4:16 PM

"Soldier From the War Returning" is an unblinking account of the aftermath of World War II for those who fought it.

Soldier From the War Returning by Thomas Childers

He was never the same after the war.

Those words become a refrain in "Soldier From the War Returning: The Greatest Generation's Troubled Homecoming From World War II," Thomas Childers' haunting history of three GIs, including his father, whose fates were forged by the war.

Lt. Michael Rose, a smart, scrappy kid from New York, nearly starved to death in a Nazi POW camp. Years later, as a physician, he would rattle co-workers and relatives with screaming tantrums, many of them triggered by incidents involving food.

Cpl. Willis Allen, from Tennessee, endured horrific combat in Italy, then lost both legs when German artillery shells slammed into his foxhole in France. After a long, agonizing recovery, he burrowed into a tumultuous family life. Nonetheless, as an old man, he sounded darkly triumphant as he jabbed a finger at Childers and said, "So many boys never came home. But I did. I did."

Childers' father, also named Thomas, like Allen a Tennessee native, "was not even in harm's way" at a British air base. Yet many a jaunty airman he saw down the runway returned as bloody pulp or not at all, and when he went home to his young wife, Mildred, after the war, both were grieving for her brother, shot down over Germany. It must have been painful for Childers, a historian, to dig into their increasingly troubled postwar lives, including the years that encompassed his childhood.

This dark, disturbing book flays the mythology that proclaims that most GIs put "the good war" behind them and enjoyed stable, peaceful lives, "a reassuring, comforting portrait ... more liturgical than historical."

Rather, Childers says, many came home damaged and stayed that way, suffering as much from guilt, grief, flashbacks and altered personalities as soldiers from Vietnam and Iraq have in generations we more readily associate with such vulnerabilities.

In addition to the beautifully written stories of Gold, Allen and the elder Childers, he offers studies and statistics that underline the toll the war took on vets and their families.

Childers is perhaps overzealous in suggesting that our view of World War II veterans' postwar lives is too glib. Most of us who are the children of those vets always sensed the shrapnel and memories just beneath the skin, sometimes working their way to the surface when we least expected it.

Still, this somber book is a sharp reminder, as the Greatest Generation passes into history, that war is the most powerful of defining moments. "Must you have battle in your heart forever?/ The bloody toil of combat?" Homer asked in "The Odyssey," cited in Childers' introduction. The answer for most old soldiers, as well as the young ones just now coming home to us, is yes.

Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.

  • SOLDIER FROM THE WAR RETURNING

    BY: THOMAS CHILDERS.

    Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 352 pages, $26.

    Review: A historian's eloquent, elegiac examination of the trauma World War II inflicted on veterans and their families, including his own parents.

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