World War II: an on-the-spot but upbeat view

April 21, 1991|By Carleton Jones


Steve Kluger.

St. Martin's.

365 pages. $25.

Julius Caesar and Leo Tolstoy notwithstanding, war does noproduce great literature by nature. What it does produce, on the modern scene at least, is books like this one, an engaging anthology of the citizen soldier in arms, 20th century-style.

YANK was World War II's GI weekly -- a catch-up game of prose baseball played largely by amateurs in uniform, seeded with a few writing pros (Irwin Shaw, William Saroyan, Saul Levitt and E. J. Kahn Jr., among others) and edited for laughs, for GI Joe and the hometown trade. Today, it is obvious that the enduring visual images of George Baker's "Sad Sack" and Bill Mauldin's equally hapless Willie and Joe are perhaps the paper's highest artistic residue.

By contrast to the superb cartooning and photography the paper carried, the "poetry" (of which YANK ran reams) and some of the articles can only seem quaint, almost tentative to today's readers, dazzled by the war images of Mailer, Tom Wolfe and Gore Vidal. Violence then was seldom probed for its own sake and blue notes were all but nonexistent. One didn't want Ma or the girl back home shocked, and that appears to have been one of the guiding principles of YANK's legions of pfc's and sergeants who pounded out their battlefront accounts on military typewriters.

YANK was a distillation of the old America, a place of all but universal optimism, rooted in the novelty of the new, always an attractive quality to Americans. For the first time since the 1860s, virtually the whole adult male population under 45, and much of the female population, became homogenized geographically on a giant scale.

Seventeen million people donned uniforms. Missoula, Mont., met Hoboken, N.J., for the first time, and the very miscellany of it all called for symbols and catchwords. You could hardly cozy up to the stranger on the train without a military linkage. Grandmas and school kids learned WWII slang, like "snafu" and "goldbricking." At the same time, as this volume relates, GIs by the millions may have spent more time hating the home-front teen king, Frankie (Sinatra), and the "zoot suiters" with whom he was vaguely and inaccurately linked, than Adolf Hitler.

The majority of all young people were continually in motion for half a decade, in a way they have never been since -- the women, though not for the first time, for the first time in large numbers. (Sexiest uniform was that worn by the women Marines, a shapely designer skirt and blouse with a cute green cap).

Steve Kluger brings back those years with mood-setting intros and continuities, followed by slab after chronological slab of YANK excerpts with illustrations. Among the gems are Ralph Martin's wonderfully taut, informative account of the Sicilian campaign and Robert Schwartz's lurid but at times humorous story of the tragic sinking of a U.S. minicarrier, the Liscome Bay -- one of the few occasions in maritime history when a sailor abandoned the same ship twice.

John Bushemi told YANK the story of awesome Tarawa, a slaughter brought to a world audience in color movies, then was killed in action. The late Ed Cunningham survived the climactic ,, battle of the war in the Ardennes and wrote of the amazing defense of Hotton, Belgium, a key crossroad in the battle of the bulge. The defense was amazing because it was garrisoned only by support troops, cooks, clerks and a barber, who held out against a Wehrmacht assault until heavy U.S. armor showed up. There are heroes aplenty in these stories. But the impression persists that they were quiet ones -- that it had all been done "by the numbers," as the military phrase goes. There was one vehicle for every six men in the Normandy landings. At the end of the war a bomber a day was coming off U.S. assembly lines.

Mr. Jones is a writer for The Sun.

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