Lest We Forget: The Sacrifices of U.S. Soldiers

Article excerpt

Lest We Forget: The Sacrifices of U.S. Soldiers Forever a Soldier Unforgettable Stories of Wartime Service. Tom Wiener. The Library of Congress Veterans History Project. National Geographic Society. 337 pages; photographs; index; $26.

"I'm probably the only GI in the history of the U.S. Army [who] sunk a warship single-handedly." This is the testimony of an American artilleryman captured in the Philippines and forced to work in a Japanese shipyard. He managed to sabotage some key welding on the vessel and then had the pleasure of seeing it "sunk in the waves" soon after its launching.

The former POW described his experiences in an interview undertaken by the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, one of an ever-expanding archive of more than 35,000 oral histories, memoirs, letters and photographs recording the personal stories of American servicemen and women and civilians who served in wartime. Begun more than five years ago, the collection includes material from veterans of World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf wars. Forever a Soldier offers the testimony of 37 men and women, reproduced and/or summarized with attendant background material, in a series of short accounts written by Tom Wiener, the historian of the project. His chapters provide a close-up view of the grimier side of war, far from the details of grand strategy or broad campaign operations.

To emphasize the range of experiences he describes, Wiener has divided his material into six sections, each with a separate theme or subject. The personal perspectives on which he focuses add a sense of immediacy to whatever other understanding readers may have of war and the sacrifices it entails.

The first of these sections examines the reactions of soldiers, sailors and airmen to their initial taste of battle: a gunner on the battleship Tennessee at Pearl Harbor, an artilleryman and a paratrooper at Omaha Beach in Normandy and a fighter pilot in the air above them, a World War I doughboy, an infantryman who fought in both Vietnam and Desert Storm and a Marine who also saw action in Desert Storm. Wherever they served, notes Wiener, they all shared a similar reaction to the physical demands and "the noise, the confusion, the chaos and the uncertainty of battle."

The next section, "The Brotherhood," focuses on the links forged between erstwhile strangers in the cauldron of battle. "War is a lonely business," wrote Gen. Matthew Ridgway, but Wiener points out that the "camaraderie planted in basic training and nurtured through the hardships of the battlefield is a powerful weapon against fear." He illustrates this with examples from three wars. The "inherent danger" of combat, writes one World War II artilleryman, "resulted in closely knit activities with comrades you could stake your life on and life-long friendships that can seldom be duplicated in the same way in civilian life."

"It's a bond you don't understand," adds one Korean War veteran. "It's kind of a family deal, but they're closer than family." A Vietnam infantry-man calls it "a brotherhood" tighter than marriage. "You can change your wife, but you can't change these brothers."

The arduous burden of constantly caring for wounded and dying men makes up a third section, which includes testimony by two nurses who served in Vietnam, a third in the Persian Gulf, and still another, an Army regular, who tended casualties in three wars. Here, too, are the stories of an American doctor attached to the British Expeditionary Force in World War I and another who treated American airborne wounded in Korea. All of these accounts portray the heart-rending task of attending wounded, mangled and dying soldiers and of witnessing what one doctor describes as the "deadly, sickening, bloody slaughter" of intense combat. One of the nurses also recalls using water hoses to clean the mud and slime off casualties in Vietnam, while a doctor speaks of having to paint over the red crosses on ambulances because they gave the Korean enemy an aiming point. …