Journalist Coyne (Domers: A Year at Notre Dame, 1995, etc.) won the first J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award in 1999 for this thoughtful account of six young men who went to war, came back home, and then had to adjust to new challenges.
The author deftly keeps track of six protagonists and their hometown, Freehold, New Jersey, as the years advance from spring 1941 to the present in a tale that is both portrait and history. Now a New York suburb whose potato fields and orchards have given way to subdivisions and malls, Freehold then was a close-knit town where everyone turned out for the Memorial Day parade, watched the home team play baseball, saw the latest movies at the Strand movie house, and mostly worked at the carpet-weaving mill. The scene set, Coyne introduces the six young men who fought in WWII: Stu Bunton, a radioman on the USS Santa Fe who saw action in the Mediterranean and the Pacific; Walter Denise, a rifleman who served in France and Germany; Jake Errickson, a radio intercept operator stationed in Australia and New Guinea; intelligence officer Jim Higgins; Buddy Lewis, a private in a segregated colored regiment in Europe; and Bill Lopatin, a waist gunner who flew bombing missions from England. Coyne vividly describes their varied war experiences—Denise heroically rescuing the wounded, Lopatin flying more than the usual 50 raids—and their determination to get home alive and get on with their lives. When they did, Freehold was booming, and all six found work. But life changed in the ’50s, and Coyne poignantly details how the men and the town adjusted as the mill closed down, racial tensions intensified, the antiwar movement grew, and fire destroyed the heart of Main Street.
A notable achievement in understanding as well as reporting that pays moving tribute to the men and their town.