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, Massachusetts. From Bel Air, California, where they’d taken their first faltering 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 innermost 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 Yank.
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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