November 23, 2016
(+++) APPROACHES TO THE PAST
Honor Before Glory: The Epic World War II Story of the Japanese-American GI’s Who Rescued the Lost Battalion. By Scott McGaugh. Da Capo. $25.99.
Terrible but True: Awful Events in American History. By Dinah Williams. Scholastic. $9.99.
For many people and in many ways, the good old days were horrible. Yet we cannot seem to stop revisiting them – not so much to learn lessons from them, which would be a useful approach, but to explore their horrors in detail and be glad that things are better today, for us personally if not necessarily for people in general. There are particular time periods that get more than their share of revisits on this basis, with World War II being among the most frequently re-explored. Honor Before Glory reexamines a part of it with more-direct relevance to the 21st century than many other elements. This is the story of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a group of Japanese-Americans who volunteered for military service partly to demonstrate that they were not, as Japanese-Americans were feared to be, a fifth column; and partly out of understandable self-interest, to get out of the government internment camps in which the United States had placed them after the attack on Pearl Harbor. This group would become a much-decorated regiment, with 18,000 awards for valor and 21 Medals of Honor. More than that, though, the 442nd, with its motto of “Go for Broke,” would become known for its dramatic rescue of 211 fellow soldiers who had become trapped behind enemy lines in 1944 and were surrounded by German troops. That is the specific story that Scott McGaugh tells here. Readers already interested in World War II will know of the 442nd already, but this book is not solely for them. It is, in many ways, an absolutely ordinary wartime story of sacrifice, drama, intensity, loss, and the circumstances under which ordinary people rise above themselves to accomplish more than they or anyone else would have expected. But of course no such story is “ordinary” for those who were involved in it or those who are concerned about them. And Honor Before Glory has some extra poignancy, and extra importance for contemporary times, because the members of the 442nd not only suffered discrimination, suspicion and ill treatment before joining up but also returned home, after their heroic exploits, to confront many of the same circumstances again. Thus, these Japanese-Americans came back to lives in which they, like black soldiers in and after the same war, became second-class citizens all over – after their frontline successes were suitably recognized within a military context. Honor Before Glory may stand as a cautionary tale, one among many, about the ill treatment of those who fight to keep their country free – and, in this case, to rescue fellow fighters from imminent death. But McGaugh, although he is obviously aware of this aspect of the story, gives it fairly short shrift, being preoccupied with details of the battle in France’s Vosges Mountains that is his main focus. That focus limits the appeal of the book. It is further limited by its style: McGaugh starts with a dramatic attack scene but then jumps back and forth each time he tells the readers about a new soldier – a choppy stylistic approach whose necessity is scarcely obvious. Readers need to keep close tabs on chronology to understand what is going on. McGaugh carries his method through to the book’s end, in which he follows some members of the 442nd to the ends of their lives – then jumps back to the war. For those not enamored of return after return to battle after battle in a war that ended more than 70 years ago, the best parts of Honor Before Glory are the ones that connect most clearly to today. There is, for example, the story of Richard Naito, who was denied American Legion membership after the war – provoking a rousing defense of his honorable service from one of the commanders of the 442nd, who wrote that the discrimination against Naito would lead people around the world to “question the sincerity of American policies and ideals.” Such questions are still being asked today, in different circumstances – but ones that clearly echo those that faced the members of the 442nd.
Terrible but True is intended for younger readers and is as much a once-over look at multiple past events as McGaugh’s book is an in-depth exploration of a single one. Dinah Williams’ histrionic style is intended to alarm and upset readers while allowing them to assume comfortable positions of superiority – we 21st-century people are so far beyond all this old stuff, after all! Well, maybe. The stories here of assassination attempts against Presidents Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt certainly have more-modern parallels, such as the attempted assassination of President Reagan. The medical misunderstandings and outright errors that led to the deaths of two other presidents, George Washington and James Garfield, have been followed in the 21st century by all sorts of other medical mistakes that have led to many other deaths, if generally ones that are not as high-profile. The hurricane that destroyed so much of Galveston, Texas, in 1900, has plenty of more-recent parallels, albeit ones in which the loss of life was lower. Actually, Williams herself provides some comparable information in certain of her entries, for example by listing the five deadliest hurricanes after discussing the Galveston storm, and providing information on the death toll from the deadliest 19th-century yellow fever and cholera epidemics in the United States. There are, however, no suitable modern comparisons with some of the items here, such as the speed with which cholera victims were buried to try to prevent the disease from spreading, resulting in premature burials and the development of “safety coffins” from which people who were buried alive could send signals. Some of the stories here are well-known: the cannibalism of the Donner Party, the heroism of Texans at the Alamo, the blizzard of 1888 that slammed New York City, the financial scheming of Charles Ponzi. Other information is much less familiar: the generosity of Confederate President Jefferson Davis when Richmond residents rioted for food, the kidnaping of Olive Oatman and her life with the Mohave, and the war between George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison over alternating vs. direct current (comparable in some ways to the war between computer and smartphone operating systems today). An occasional item here seems funny, but in reality was not, such as a molasses flood in Boston that occurred when a tank ruptured in 1919 and caused 150 injuries. By and large, though, what Williams wants to do in Terrible but True is cause shock, awe and dismay, whether writing briefly – all the entries here are brief – about the 602 deaths in a Chicago theater fire in 1903 or the 1,500-plus who died in 1865 after a boiler explosion on a steamship carrying recently freed Civil War prisoners. The parade of horrors becomes numbing after a while, even tedious, with no disrespect intended to those who lost their lives in these many events, but with no authorial voice putting any of these terrible occurrences in much of a perspective. Many of the most interesting items here are sidelights to the main stories that Williams tells. The attempted theft and dual reburials of Abraham Lincoln’s body, for example, is quite a tale, as is the church elders’ attack on Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rod because it interfered with “the artillery of heaven.” Franklin, ever the pragmatist, asked if it was also against God’s will to build roofs to keep out heaven’s rain. A little more wry commentary along those lines would have been welcome in this amply illustrated cavalcade of sorrow.