From the Charleston Gazette, December 12, 2015
During World War II, I read two books that changed my life. On a flight from Casablanca to Algiers I discovered in the seat I occupied a paperback edition of Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens (1812-1870) and in a tent cot near Caserta, Italy, I discovered a paperback edition of The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1737-1809).
The former introduced me to the works of Dickens and the latter introduced me to secularism or atheism. I read them and I was never the same again.
Reading Pickwick Papers led me to read many of Dickens’ books including Oliver Twist, an indictment of England’s treatment of children; David Copperfield, an autobiographical novel; Bleak House, an expose of political corruption and court delay; Hard Times, a scathing social criticism of his day including the educational system; A Tale of Two Cities, a novel whose background is the French Revolution; Great Expectations, considered by some to be his greatest; and of course, A Christmas Carol.
I read more than this list and got an education in the ills of society in England in the 19th Century as revealed by a host of characters created by Dickens.
When I was a student in high school, I was taught that Thomas Paine was an American patriot along with Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and others. But as an adult I discovered that Paine had suffered severely after the publication of The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason, works that led to his being outlawed as an atheist. In England he was tried for treason in absentia and for some seditious passages in The Rights of Man. He died in the U.S. amid poverty and calumny, denounced as a radical, a drunkard and an atheist, and was denied burial in consecrated ground. His remains were lost after being taken to England for reburial.
I have had the good fortune for a friend to send to me a book titled “When Books Went To War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II” by Molly Guptill Manning.
The following is a precis from the back cover. “When America entered World War II, we faced an enemy that had banned and burned over 100 million books. Outraged librarians launched a campaign to send donated books to American troops. Then the War Department joined the publishing industry in an extraordinary program: 120 million copies comprised of 1,200 different titles printed in small, lightweight paperbacks suitable to carry in pockets and rucksacks. Beloved by the troops and still fondly remembered today, theirs is an inspiring story for history buffs and book lovers alike.”
The story of the book war is interwoven with the actual war from its beginning in 1933 with a book burning in Germany until May 7, 1945 when Germany capitulated and surrendered unconditionally at Rheims, France. Hitler, hidden in an underground facility, committed suicide.
I was there consciously, at times in acute agony and at times in hopeful bliss, from 1933 when I was 12 years old until December 12, 1945, when I was discharged at Fort George E. Meade, Maryland.
On Sunday, December 7, 1941, I was living at 1904 Washington St. E. in Charleston. On that day I had walked to a local theatre to see, I believe, Wuthering Heights. On my way home I met a school mate who informed me that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor.
Where is Pearl Harbor? And what does this mean for my future?
I went home and began to listen to the radio. I wasn’t far from the radio for the next three days. I learned that America was at war with Japan, Germany and Italy. I listened to President Roosevelt’s Infamy Speech. I concluded that war was to be the occupation of my generation for the indefinite future.
So on December 10 I went to the local recruiting office and signed up. I was transported by the New York Central Railway to Columbus, Ohio, where I was sworn in on December 12, 1941. Thus I was keenly aware of the history being made from from December 12, 1941 until December 12, 1945. I also remember all the events leading up to Pearl Harbor.
I recall September 1, 1939, when the Nazis invaded Poland in a lightning and devastating attack and when Poland was divided between Germany and Russia. I recall that France and Britain declared war on Germany. I remember the long lull that succeeded the dismemberment of Poland.
Then came the sudden actions of the German Wehrmacht: the invasion and submission of Denmark and Norway. Germany was securing its right flank in preparation of its strike against France. Thus Germany continued to invade and defeat the Netherlands and Belgium, thus avoided the Maginot defenses and broke through Sedan into France, allowing the Germans to pin the British between their forces and the English Channel at Dunkirk.
The Allies waited in distress, and I was with them, for the resolution of the British dilemma. How glorious it was when thousands of small boats came down the Thames and with the British Navy rescued from certain defeat and sailed back to Britain with 300,000 if its army, which would soon have to re-arm and prepare for Hitler’s threat of invasion.
The Wehrmacht continued with tanks and planes to overwhelm French forces and on June 22, 1940, France signed an armistice with Germany and German troops marched down the Champs Elysees and under the Arc de Triomphe while Parisians stood by with tears in their eyes and hearts broken.
Now on the scene comes Winston Churchill. Britain was alone. Most of Europe was subjugated to the will of Hitler. Hitler vowed to conquer England after he had destroyed its will by bombing it to submission. The world watched and shared the agony vicariously of London and Coventry being bombed night and day while the population huddled in underground facilities. The Luftwaffe spared nothing. It bombed indiscriminately turning to rubble ancient architectural gems and killing humans without mercy. Britain sent many of its children to safety in the New World.
But the RAF won the Battle of Britain and swept the Luftwaffe from British skies. Churchill dedicated to the brave boys of the RAF an immortal award: “Never in the history of warfare have so many owed so much to so few.”
Hitler, defeated in the air over Britain, knew that an invasion of England was not possible so he looked west and invaded the Balkans and soon dominated the region. In the meantime the Allied forces had invaded North Africa. In late summer of 1942 Field Marshal Rommel was at the gates of Cairo and Hitler’s armies were still battling at the gates of Leningrad and had advanced to the environs of Stalingrad where they were engage in a death struggle with the Russian armies. But General Montgomery routed Rommel at Alamein and Stalin’s armies crushed the Wehrmacht at Stalingrad. Churchill opined that Russia gutted the Wehrmacht.
With Rommel defeated and retreating to Italy, the Allies invaded Sicily and then Italy and eventually brought justice by allowing partisans to capture Mussolini and hang him upside down from a tree. Now the focus turns to the strategy of invading Europe from the British Isles. Hitler had made Europe a fortress. So for months the Allies poured troops and military hardware into Britain in preparation for the return of France to Europe.
Thus, under the command of General Dwight Eisenhower, the Allies on June 6, 1944 crossed the English Channel and stormed the cliffs of Normandy. After days of uncertainty and fears the Allies scaled the cliffs and went on to cross the Rhine and eventually to defeat Germany — only after the setback of the Battle of the Bulge.
The book’s front cover shows an American soldier in a fox hole with camouflage on his helmet reading intently a paperback book.
I suspect that many GIs read wherever they could find time and some peace, and that the reading did to them what my books did for me; that is, changed them intellectually and ethically.
I owe particularly, and every American owes some, to all those soldiers that helped to defeat the Nazis and their despicable and terrible theology and ideology. The Book War helped to inspire the soldiers to military victory and to ethical and intellectual victory.
Perry Mann, a World War II veteran, is a lawyer and former county prosecutor in Hinton.