They came from all over.  From Painted Post,
    New York, and Scott City, Kansas, and
    Comanche, Texas, and Brunswick, Maine.
    From Spokane, Washington, and Broken Arrow,
    Oklahoma, and Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and
    Wakefield, steps holding a nippled bottle in one
    hand and an imported French rattle in the other,
    to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, where they drank
    Kickapoo Joy Juice and couldn’t read past “A.”
    From Fairmount, Indiana, where they baked
    homemade bread and attended Quaker services
    every sabbath, to Flatbush Avenue near Bedford
    and Sullivan, where they’d been weaned on
    Nathan’s hot dogs and orange pop, and where
    they’d learned at a very early age that religion
    was looking up at the sky and saying things like
    “Hail Mary, full of grace, please don’t let
    Lavagetto hit into a double play.”

    Together they comprised the last bunch of guys
    who went to war willingly, who abdicated youth
    for loyalty, puppy love for national pride, and
home cooking for stuff that came in a tin and was indistinguishable in every way from
camouflage paint. Yet they embraced it wholeheartedly and went nonetheless; by
whatever means and down whatever roads would take them there, lying about their
ages and memorizing eye charts in advance, the same way they’d only yesterday
memorized the fundamentals of plane geometry, so that the medics wouldn’t discover
how nearsighted they really were. Or how undernourished.  Gangly arms hung alongside
Depression stunted legs, and underdeveloped chests were incongruously flanked by
biceps the size of basketballs. Nobody had to tell these guys that life was tough. They’d
already figured that out.

Some of them actually knew what they were doing. The lucky ones didn’t. Harlon Block
had been raising hell in Weslaco, Texas, when the Japanese Zeros made their first
passes over Hickam Field; lack of prescience alone left him happily unaware that, at
some point during whatever future he had left, the only raising in which he was likely to
participate involved a flag, five buddies, the 28th Marines, an astute photographer, and
bronzed immortality on the banks of the Potomac River. Had he been blessed with such
extrasensory insights, he might never have come out from under his bed. And even if he
had, it is doubtful that he would have been accorded much in the way of genuine
sympathy by Charles Graves, a conscientious young man of conservative sensibilities
who had seen the handwriting on the wall as early as the Anschluss in 1938. Being
pragmatic as well as conscientious (a thoughtful combination, especially then), Chuck
joined up while he still had a choice, figuring he’d serve his hitch and get the hell out
before any real trouble started. It almost worked.  He was due to be discharged on
December 10, 1941. If bluer prosaism was ever shot out of a purpler face, it was neither
recorded for posterity nor survived by the living. Then there was 19-year-old Bill Mauldin,
an aspiring artist first and a flat broke aspiring artist second, who had enlisted in 1940
because he’d run out of pencils.  Insofar as military protocol was concerned, he didn’t
know his ass from a barracks bag. Yet, in time, his brutally sensitive Willie and Joe
cartoons would give names and faces to an entire generation of incandescent young
men who didn’t love war, but who fought as if they did.  

In May of 1942,
Yank, the GI weekly, was first published “by the men.... for the men in
the service.” Its rules were simple and direct if you had dogtags and a nickel (or $2 for
a year), you were in. If not? Forget it, Charley read
Newsweek.  Initially the top brass
dismissed it as another self indulgent noncom rag catering to a bunch of homesick
kids, an assessment they might have been inclined to reevaluate had they invited a
psychic to analyze the bylines: Andy Rooney was still calling himself Andrew in those
days; Walter Bernstein was only then beginning to fancy himself a screenwriter, two
decades before
Fail Safe and half that many before Joseph McCarthy and the House
Un-American Activities Committee would try to change his mind; Irwin Shaw was
recording his impressions daily, only to revive them collectively as
The Young Lions
William Saroyan, getting as much mileage out of a title as circumstance and Hitler
would allow, was doubtless convincing his foxhole buddies that this was the time of
their lives; and Bill Mauldin, oblivious to the Pulitzer that would put him on the map by
the age of 23, was just as blind to the fact that one day, a generation hence, the
phrases “by Mauldin” and “cardiac arrest” would come to be regarded as
synonymous on Capitol Hill.

Originally intended as a morale builder at a time when MacArthur was desperately
attempting to salvage something akin to confidence out of the shambles of Corregidor
and Bataan,
Yank’s popularity was both instantaneous and overwhelming; possibly
because it was well written, possibly because its pinups merited the Army Navy “E” for
Excellence; and probably because in its pages a private felt free to express his i
nnermost thoughts without fear of reprisal, particularly if he called himself “Name
Withheld.” ’Cause boy, did they gripe. From Anzio to Biak, from Port Moresby to
Algiers, from Iron Bottom Sound to the Huertgen Forest, the enlisted men finally had
a chance to tell their side of the story, just the way it was happening. With humor. With
honesty. With integrity. And whether Patton liked it or not. Perhaps their manners left
something to be desired—the world, after all, was a vastly different place then, and
words like “Nip,” “dago,” and “kraut” were not without their considerable rhetoric.
That is, until they pulled cleanup on Tarawa and found out that a dead American body
smells just as bad as a dead Japanese one. Or until they watched a German soldier of
eighteen lose most of his face without uttering a sound, and it hit them all of a sudden
that everybody bleeds the same. Only they weren’t likely to tell things like that to the
chaplain. They told them instead to

They had their heroes, sure. Bobby Feller was one of them, Joltin’ Joe another. The
rest fluctuated along with their moods: Gary Cooper when they first got their guns,
John Wayne when they learned how to work the triggers, Betty Grable and Lana
Turner when they were feeling sexy (which wasn’t as often as you’d think; it’s difficult
to maintain passion when you’re staring down a Krupp 88 or dodging a Mitsubishi),
President Roosevelt when they were scared, and Eleanor when they were lonely or
maybe a little homesick and just needed to be tucked in. But mostly their heroes were
themselves. As Bill Mauldin observed:

    “Just gimme a coupla, aspirin. I awready got a Purple Heart.”
    “This damn tree leaks.”
    “Beautiful view. Is there one for the enlisted men?”
    “I wish I could stand up and get some sleep.”

They knew enough to be cynical, but enough not to quit.  

In the end, it all came down to the unforgettable prose of Ernie Pyle, who always
suspected his luck would give out before Axis ammunition did; and who, when that
happened, on an unjustly unremarkable little island called Ie Shima, became his own
last column. Pyle had long since warned his readers, “This is
your war”—and in so
doing had inadvertently evoked the words of Alexander Hamilton a century and a half
earlier. Hamilton, at the Constitutional Convention, had presaged America’s role as
a future world power when he stated, with less equanimity perhaps than blind faith, “It
belongs to us to vindicate the honor of the human race.”

Well, these were the men who pulled it off.

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