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November's Book
BattleFire!
by Col. Arthur L. Kelly

Bill:
BattleFire! Combat Stories from World War II features 12 tales of courage told by ordinary men from Kentucky who participated in the war that shaped the latter half of the 20th century. Retired Army Colonel Arthur Kelly of Springfield takes us to the sands of Iwo Jima, the grueling Bataan Death March, and to Pearl Harbor through the eyes of these brave Kentuckians. bookclub@ket starts now.

Bill:
This book, written several years ago, came at a time when it seemed that there was a revival of sorts in telling stories and talking to people about being in World War II. In The Greatest Generation, Tom Brokaw did such a good job of going back and telling these stories. And then he wrote The Greatest Generation Speaks, and those were stories about men and women who fought in those battles [from] all over the United States. This book, written by Arthur Kelly—a veteran of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, and then he ended up teaching ROTC at Morehead, heading up the department there—tells the story of Kentuckians, all Kentuckians. And I think we know now that he interviewed something like 125 men telling their stories and then he’s capsulized them into 12 stories. That, I think, was sort of a way to remind us of what these old soldiers never forgot, and they were given an opportunity to talk to Col. Kelly about this.

Wilma:
One thing that impressed me about this book was that, first of all, I think it did take someone who was experienced in battle to be able to bring out the enormous detail, even though he is writing from firsthand experiences of the other men. But I think he also understands it, and he’s able then to bring out the right details to make us live through it. And I also respect him because he is not telling his own story—and I’m sure he could have very easily. I felt this is not a book I would have picked up, but I’ve thoroughly ... It just fascinated me, and if I can say I enjoyed it—you know, stories of battle—I think I did because it was so well done.

Gabrielle:
I think what made it so interesting is because many books you read are from a historical perspective ...

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Gabrielle:
... and this time we had the personal stories, so it was nice to hear—or not nice to hear. But as you went though it, you were reliving the experience through their eyes. And you could feel their emotions and your heart pounded when they were in battle and you really could feel it.

Dava:
He told stories from so many different theaters of war. I mean, you have land struggles and you also hear a lot about battles from the air, battles from the sea. You are in Italy; then you are back in the Pacific. He does a very good job at giving us a picture of the whole war from different people’s perspectives because they were in so many different places. I really appreciated this book for that. It’s one of the reasons I like it a lot.

Jonathan:
Yeah. It’s a wonderful eyewitness account, really, of what happened. I think its main value is its ability to capture, moment by moment, how it felt to be in combat situations based on the personal experiences of people who were there. And personally, I was very interested in it because my uncle just died last week. He was a prisoner of the Japanese for three years, and he didn’t like to talk about it, of course. And there was a chapter here about this heroic guy who was a prisoner of the Japanese in the Bataan Death March, and that was, I think, one of the most brutal chapters in the book.

[Everyone agrees]

Jonathan:
And it suggested that prisoners were very badly treated indeed. All kinds of international rules were transgressed by the captors. And I think that it brought out very well how, how awful it was, and all those details. I think that as a history book, it’s probably not really an introductory textbook. If you were introducing this to young people who didn’t know anything about the history of the battle, you might need a bit more context to see the relationship between this particular event and the larger war. But I think as oral history it’s very valuable. But, if I may say one thing about that, I felt—and I don’t know if you agree with me—but I felt that I wanted more of the voice of the actual person who is interviewed. I felt that Col. Kelly did an excellent job of synthesizing all of this information, but sometimes I wished I could hear more of the voices of the actual people who are participating rather than to have all their emotions and feelings described by him in the third person.

[Everyone agrees]

Wilma:
I kind of ... I agree with that, and I do look in nonfiction for that very type of thing. I don’t like the author interfering. You know, if I feel the author coming in, it bothers me or puts me off the reading. And he didn’t do that too much. I mean, I thought he did a pretty good job of that. There were only a few times he said things like, you know, “If the soldier had known so and so were going on, he would have felt even worse than he did now,” and, you know, that’s interfering a little bit, but I don’t know ...

Bill:
I think I know what you are talking about, because sometimes I think we have felt in reading nonfiction that maybe somebody has taken something out of context or they have elaborated or worked in a way that bothered some of us. And I do understand what you are saying, Jonathan, but at the same time, quite honestly I think that the narrative style that he uses is very well done. I mean, it reads very, very nicely. And I do understand—and we all agree, too—that you can’t really say this is a good book because of the nature of the stories and all of that, but I found it very easy to read, to keep up with the stories. And in some sense it was a geography lesson. There are some very well-done maps, and he gives so many locations [that] if you had forgotten exactly the locale of some of the places where they did have to go through in Europe ... It’s a renewal of a geography lesson of sorts.

Wilma:
One thing I found very interesting was how often luck played a role in who survived and who didn’t.

Jonathan:
Yeah.

Wilma:
And there were a few other things besides luck: physical stamina, especially with the Bataan Death March. You know they just couldn’t physically make it. So the people who were in better shape could survive a little bit better. And even though intelligence and intuition played a role, luck and physical stamina played a great deal, too—because they were there for so long, was one of the things.

Jonathan:
Absolutely. Yes, yes.

Bill:
We’re 40-something days or so since September the 11th in the year 2001, and we chose this book over a year ago—certainly not knowing anything that would happen like the events in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania—but we’re focused on war. And, of course, they were so focused coming out of the battles that were raging and then Pearl Harbor. How did it strike you that these were soldiers of five decades ago or more, and yet we are seeing National Guardsmen today being called up; we are seeing young men and women being sent to another foreign land. That makes for me the reading of this more, more relevant.

Wilma:
I thought ... There was one section here about the men from Harrodsburg ...

Bill:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
... and it was a guardsman group.

Bill:
Uh huh, it was.

Wilma:
It was a tank battalion. And they still have, outside Harrodsburg, a tank with the soldiers’ names beside it. So I’ve thought that that was a National Guardsman group, and they were called up with the tanks and went through some horrible experiences. So I think that has to bring some of that home. You know, it’s like: What are we in for? Are we into another war? And what about our young men? Because these were very young men, of course, and we were fortunate to still have so many of them alive and able to tell their stories and do it so well 50 years after the fact.

Dava:
Reading this book, you can really see that what we are facing now is such a different type of war. I, of course, am part of a generation that until now had never even seen—well, other than Desert Storm, the Gulf War—a real conflict. I mean, I’ve lived in peace for my 22 years. But just reading this and then, like, the rules of war that were for the most part obeyed—like you don’t fire at medics coming to get an injured person; if you take a prisoner from your enemy, you treat them well, or at least, you know, the Americans did. They were talking about how they were trying to take care of Japanese prisoners of war on the battleships outside of Iwo Jima. And now it’s just so scary to think about what we are facing because there are no rules and there is absolutely no civility, for lack of a better word, and it’s very eye-opening in that respect to see how things were done over 50 years ago and how chaotic it is now. I mean, not that this isn’t chaotic, but ... Very scary.

Jonathan:
On the question of rules of war, it’s interesting that there were some episodes here where it’s a given that you are in a regiment and you are trying to fight the enemy and you are trying to kill them and they are trying to kill you, but even so there are certain rules that are followed and obeyed, and everybody knows that. And when that line is crossed—when those rules are broken—it seems appalling, horrifying. There is one moment in the chapter on the battle at Monte Cassino when there was a German soldier wounded, or apparently wounded, and he was screaming, and the Americans sent out their medics. And then apparently it was an SS unit—not just the German army but particularly an SS unit—and they actually captured the army medics, and then they shot them in the head. It was a moment ... I mean, Americans could hardly believe that it happened because it was such an obvious transgression of all the rules of war up to that point ...

[Everyone agrees]

Jonathan:
... in the European theater. So it’s a real reminder that there is this chaos of battle, but nonetheless there are these rules that ought to be obeyed, including treating prisoners properly. And the Japanese and the Germans did not have a good record of that.

Bill:
No.

Jonathan:
The Germans more so, but the Japanese not at all. But as for its relevance today ... It’s a good question, but it just reminds you of ...

Bill:
Horror.

Jonathan:
Horror of conflict, but also the sense of duty that people feel to risk their lives and the sense of loyalty they feel toward one another in military units: intense loyalty, intense sense of brotherhood and dependency.

Bill:
Well, I think this goes back to what we have witnessed in the last decade with this revival of thinking about World War II and Vietnam and Korea—all of the battles we have been in and, of course, currently in war today. Col. Kelly started this process over ten years ago. I wonder why he did that. Now this was before Tom Brokaw sort of stumbled onto his Greatest Generation, although they were always there. If you’ve heard the NBC anchor talk about this, he [says he] really stumbled on it at a time when we were celebrating an anniversary, and he began to do these interviews and to put this book together. But Col. Kelly started several years before Brokaw did. Where do you think he got this idea?

Wilma:
I think—and I’m speaking for Col. Kelly now ...

Bill:
Sure. Uh huh.

Wilma:
I think possibly he was getting older. He knew most of these men. He probably had seen a few men who had good stories die, and I think maybe he thought ... As we all get to a certain age, we start thinking, “Oh well, if there are stories to be told, we need to tell them now.” And so that’s possible. I’m just thinking about that. And then it wasn’t that long before the 50-year anniversary—certainly if he started ten years ago, it might have been—of the beginning of our involvement in World War II. It might have been the 50th anniversary of his involvement, maybe. I don’t know.

Jonathan:
And of course there have been a lot of 50th anniversaries.

Wilma:
Yes.

Jonathan:
Because I mean the first one was 19, uh, 1989.

Wilma:
That’s right; exactly.

Jonathan:
It was the 50th anniversary of the beginning of World War II.

Bill:
Of the beginning, yes.

Wilma:
Exactly.

Jonathan:
And then the 50th anniversary of the battle of Britain: 1940, 1990. And each year since then up until 1995. It was a time of retrospection about the war, I think; about World War II.

Bill:
And you mentioned, too, that maybe some men and women have always maybe been uncomfortable talking about it, but there were vast legions that did not. You mentioned that your uncle who just passed didn’t ever speak to a family member about it, Jonathan.

Jonathan:
No, he didn’t like to talk about it. And my father was in the Normandy invasion, and he didn’t like to talk about that. And I think that a lot of combat veterans just don’t want to talk. I mean, I think many of them would, probably, if they were interviewed by a professional soldier for a book, but it’s not something that they want to talk about because it was pretty chaotic and pretty brutal. But I noticed that the guy who he interviewed for the Bataan Death March did not want to be reinterviewed. He interviewed him once and then he wanted to get back to check the details, but he said that he found it too painful after the initial interview to rehash the details. I think he mentions in his introduction that a number of people found it very painful to bring it all up again.

Gabrielle:
I think it’s almost a survival mechanism in battle and trying to move forward. You can’t dwell on it. And that was a common theme, even though we were talking to different people in different positions throughout. That was how they survived: by not looking back and not talking about it. And when someone they were friends with or a very close friend died, they tried to keep moving on so that they wouldn’t dwell on it. So I think it was curious to read about the different reactions where some seemed to survive and move forward and [for] others [it] just stopped them in their tracks, and that was it.

Wilma:
Battle fatigue, some of them had ...

Jonathan:
Yeah, they had that thousand-yard ...

Gabrielle:
Yeah, the death stare.

Jonathan:
Stare, yeah.

[Everyone agrees]

Dava:
It was interesting how so many of the soldiers were more afraid of the battle fatigue than they were of physical injury.

Gabrielle:
Right. They were afraid they were going to lose their mind.

Dava:
But they were like, you know, anything but that.

Bill:
Well, the story that you just mentioned of the Bataan Death March ... Corporal Field. I really liked his Kentucky name, if that’s what it is. That was an incredible story of his survival.

Wilma:
And his bravery.

Bill:
Oh, of his bravery, and everything that he did all through that. And there were so many of them. These 12 were in conditions that make you think of their courage and their bravery, but at the same time what they saw and what they witnessed: being concerned about family members, brothers who were in the war with them, and not knowing where they were or what condition they were in. Worrying about family back home and seeing so many die. It was quite chilling to read. And again, I think that Col. Kelly did such a good job of putting this in a narrative style. I think all of these, or at least a majority of these audiotapes, if I understand it correctly, will be archived at the University of Kentucky library. So I sort of want to, in a way—though I don’t want to call too much attention to it ... I mean, again, it’s not something that you would enjoy listening to, but ... Do you want to hear their voices?

Wilma:
Right.

Bill:
I think you do hear their voices in some way, but I think to hear them on audiotape as Col. Kelly interviewed them would be fascinating.

Jonathan:
I think it’s a real achievement, this book. But again, I think that he admits in the introduction; he says that:

“Although powerful in the simple starkness of the words on tape, verbatim interviews sometimes left gaps or lessened the impact of what was occurring. I decided therefore to use the interviews as key sources for written narratives that could use secondary sources ...”

But I think that when he is describing, for instance, basic facts like how many miles was the march, how many soldiers took part, and how many guards were guarding them, and how many people were bayoneted, etc., just facts like that, it’s OK to use third-person narration. But I think that when it comes to describing how the person felt—that at this point he felt sick, or he felt fear, or he felt anger—I think at that point it would be a very appropriate moment to quote the guy saying this.

[Everyone agrees]

Jonathan:
I think that would have enlivened it a bit more. But by the same token, it would have lengthened the book, and so I know that with any writing project you have to decide what you are going to cut. But I certainly do want to hear those tapes, and I think that will make the whole experience ...

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
... more immediate for people.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
I think I know what you mean, because—and I still really enjoyed the book and appreciated what he, the author, had done here, but—I know what you mean, because you are wondering, “Well, did he make up how he was feeling, or did the soldier actually say that on the tape?” And I think I know what you mean. It was like, how much did he conjecture as an author, and how much was actually on the tape? Because there are some things you could know that a soldier would be feeling in a situation, but to actually say it without the soldier having said it is taking some license.

Jonathan:
Yeah, that’s right. And I mean, in a sense it falls between two stones, because it’s not oral history, in the sense that you don’t ever hear the voices of the people whose oral history it is ...

[Everyone agrees]

Jonathan:
... and yet it’s not really traditional academic history either, because he doesn’t cite his sources, saying “the great study of the Bataan Death March of 19—,” you know. So there are sources mentioned at the back, but none of them are cited in the text. So you never know where the information is coming from: whether it’s from one of the books he read or whether it’s an informant or whether it’s from some general reading or his own memory. So it ... In a sense it falls in between, but I think it is a very good book nonetheless. I mean, it’s got a lot ... It’s so moving.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
It’s gripping. It’s a powerful read. It’s full of detail, and it makes those eyewitness accounts come alive to a great extent.

Wilma:
The way he wrote it, or the way he decided to write it, may make it more readable for the general reader. Do you think that’s true or not? I’m just trying to decide why he made those choices, because it is quite readable.

Bill:
Well, I don’t know if you read The Greatest Generation by Brokaw ... The narrative is quite similar and quite familiar, quite honestly. But I think what makes this important for me is the Kentucky connection—that these were Kentuckians ...

[Everyone agrees]

Bill:
... and they were from all of these small towns. Let me read just a little piece that is on our web site that Bob Edwards—the very esteemed commentator for NPR radio’s Morning Edition, who is from Louisville—wrote in a review back in ’97. I just think he captured in a couple of paragraphs the essence of this, and he also sort of reminds us how some of us learned about the war and now this makes it come alive. Edwards wrote:

“For more than 50 years we’ve watched World War II being fought and won by John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, and Spencer Tracy, but those guys never left southern California. The war was won by boys from Springfield, Harrodsburg, Anchorage, and Versailles. They are the old-timers you see every day in line at Wal-Mart and catching the Early Bird Special at a local restaurant. They may no longer look like the men who stopped fascism, but they were the ones who did the job.”

Wilma:
That’s interesting that you read that, because all through this I thought, “You know, I think those movies might have been after it.” You know, there were things in—details here—that they have placed in movies from time to time on the Second World War or about any battle. So actually I was struck at times: “Oh, that really did happen about the bridge or ...” You know what I’m saying?

Bill:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
I’ve forgotten what movie it was where they dumped the mules over the, over the bridge.

Bill:
Side of the ...

Wilma:
... bridge.

Bill:
Oh, of the bridge. I thought you were going to say the mountain.

Wilma:
It doesn’t matter.

Bill:
Yeah.

Wilma:
But, of course, that had to do with Italy. And there was one part in here—and in fact I already had the book open to it, on page 71—and it’s about Col. Butler. They have come upon a number of dead soldiers, and they are putting them on pack mules to take the bodies out. It’s a very difficult situation, and he comes upon one of the dead soldiers who is a friend of his, a Sgt. Eldridge, and he says:

“It pained Butler to watch his friend being loaded in the cold, dimly lit night in such an undignified manner. No oratory, no bugle playing taps, no firing squads, no family—just a few strangers struggling to strap the sergeant’s body onto a mule.”

And for some reason I already had that image.

Jonathan:
That was a great passage, I thought.

Wilma:
Yes, I thought so, too.

Bill:
Uh huh; very moving.

Gabrielle:
It was like the stories of courage and leadership, too, that ... You really kind of felt the spirit and you could see there was a common bond. And their celebrations at the end when they had just won ...

[Everyone agrees]

Gabrielle:
... territory and just the celebration. It was pretty interesting.

Bill:
Yeah, go ahead.

Wilma:
I was just thinking about the German shepherd dog that came over from the Germans ...

[Everyone talks at once]

Wilma:
... that came over from the German lines.

Bill:
Tell that real quickly if you can.

Wilma:
They feared for a minute. They laughed and said, “You better leave that dog alone because he may be trained to kill, to attack Americans.” Nevertheless, it says, “On the chance that the dog might have a common German name for dogs, Butler called out in German, ‘Kommen sie heir, Fritz.’ To everyone’s surprise the dog trotted over and licked Butler’s hand.”

[Everyone laughs]

Wilma:
The dog’s name was Fritz. And then they pet him a little bit, and then the dog starts off, and all at once Butler understands, “Wait a minute—the dog is going back across [the] lines.”

Bill:
He kept looking back.

Wilma:
And he held the dog and followed.

Jonathan:
You could not make that up. I mean ...

Bill:
No.

Wilma:
Absolutely.

Jonathan:
... in a James Bond movie.

Wilma:
That’s right.

Jonathan:
Fantastic detail.

Wilma:
It is.

Jonathan:
It led them through all of the mine fields ...

Bill:
Yeah.

Jonathan:
They didn’t touch any mines. They sneaked invisibly through the enemy lines, thanks to that dog.

[Everybody agrees]

Jonathan:
Real Rin Tin Tin story.

Wilma:
And you are right. If it were in a movie, we’d go, “Oh, come on.”

Bill:
You couldn’t believe it.

Wilma:
That’s right.

Bill:
Too hokey.

Jonathan:
Yeah, exactly. But another reason I liked the Monte Cassino chapter is because it focused to some extent on the antagonism between Butler and his superior officer.

Wilma:
Oh, yes.

Jonathan:
I mean, it was a real drama there between him and his superior officer, who was giving him an order that he didn’t like. I thought that was a very interesting aspect. You maybe don’t think that combat experience involves these ...

Gabrielle:
Right.

Jonathan:
... squabbles, you know.

Bill:
You would think I threw out that chapter. I kept thinking that, my gosh, all of this is hell. It’s enough just to try to survive and live through all of this, and [then] to have those misplaced directions and orders being handed down by someone who certainly wasn’t, at times, fighting the same war that Butler was.

Jonathan:
Right.

Bill:
But that was interesting. That was really a fascinating chapter.

Wilma:
He lost confidence in that leader. He didn’t think he was making the right decisions at all.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
And he wanted to argue more than he did.

Jonathan:
But then it was also a good chapter because it was a chapter in which he could make decisions. You know, he was in a position that he had freedom to make decisions, to make choices.

Bill:
Well, he was given some rank there, too.

Jonathan:
He was given rank; he was promoted.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
But if you take the story about the gunner and the bomber ...

 

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