THE GREATEST WAR by Gerald Astor


Americans in Combat 1941-1945
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A sweeping, imaginative oral history of WWII from the American point of view. The shelves now overflow with one-volume histories of that war, books containing few speakers other than their authors, and with exhaustive official histories like Samuel Eliot Morison’s 20-volume account of the U.S. Marines in the Pacific Theater. Military historian Astor (Crisis in the Pacific, 1996, etc.), aiming for something of Morison’s completeness within the bounds of a single fat volume, succeeds by the thoughtful coupling of a narrative that touches on most of the war’s most important engagements with the reminiscences of hundreds of participants. For Pearl Harbor, he includes eyewitness accounts from sailors on sinking battleships, fighter pilots, and ordinary soldiers—all of them admitting to panic and confusion, especially after nightfall, when, in the words of one GI, —every wave that hit the beach we saw as another landing barge.— To relate the bloody assault on the Japanese-held Aleutian Islands in 1942, he draws on the memories of several participants, including one Army officer who wonders how it was that his unit, trained for desert combat in North Africa, had come to be deployed in the Arctic. (In one week that unit shrank from 1,000 to 200 men, with most of the losses due not to bullets but to cold.) And so on, and on, until final victory. Lacking the vivid storytelling skills of a Stephen Ambrose, Astor offers instead the most salient facts in what otherwise could have been an overwhelming mass of detail. He also turns up some surprises—for one, the reminiscences of American veterans of Jimmy Doolittle’s air raid on Tokyo, who crash-landed in the Soviet Union and were held prisoner there rather than being sent home. (They eventually escaped, but, on arriving in Washington, were ordered not to breathe a word of their exploits lest the Russians be offended.) Invaluable to historians, with much to interest general readers as well. (Maps and b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-89141-695-1
Page count: 1056pp
Publisher: Presidio/Random
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 1999


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