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Read it: 'When Books Went to War'

"When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II" by Molly Guptill Manning (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, December 2014). Photo Credit: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

"Were you ever so upset emotionally that you had to tell someone about it, to sit down and write it out?" a Marine asked in a letter to the author Betty Smith. "That is how I feel now," he confided.

"You see I am . . . 20 year[s] old . . . . . . but I feel twice that age. I went through hell in two years of combat overseas . . . . . . I just wanted you to understand that despite my youth I have seen a little bit of suffering."

At the time this Marine wrote his letter, malaria ravaged his body and he was hospitalized and confined to bed rest. Yet he credited the illness with saving his life. During his time in sick bay, he was given an Armed Services Edition of Smith's "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." "I have read it twice and am halfway through it again," and "every time I read it, I feel more deeply than I did before," he said.

"Ever since the first time I struggled through knee deep mud . . . carrying a stretcher from which my buddie's life dripped away in precious blood and I was powerless to help him, I have felt hard and cynical against this world and have felt sure that I was no longer capable of loving anything or anybody," he wrote.

He went through the war with a "dead heart . . . and dulled mind," believing he had lost the ability to feel. It was only as he read "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" that something inside him began to stir. "I can't explain the emotional reaction that took place, I only know that it happened and that this heart of mine turned over and became alive again. A surge of confidence has swept through me and I feel that maybe a fellow has a fighting chance in this world after all. I'll never be able to explain to you the gratitude and love that fill my heart in appreciation of what your book means to me." It brought laughter and joy, and also tears. Although it "was unusual for a supposedly battle-hardened marine to do such an effeminate thing as weep over a piece of fiction . . . I'm not ashamed," he said. His tears proved he was human.

"I don't think I would have been able to sleep this night," he wrote in closing, "unless I bared my heart to the person who caused it to live again."

The American forces serving in World War II were composed primarily of citizen soldiers -- people who had no notion of going to war until Pearl Harbor was attacked. Many volunteered and others were drafted, and together these unprepared and unknowing souls faced a daunting combination of hurried training at bare-bones facilities, and days and weeks of transport, boredom, and fear. They experienced horrors and unimaginable scenes of violence and destruction for which no training could fully prepare them, and, for many, recuperation in hospitals spread around the world. They were constantly reminded of their proximity to death. As one soldier remarked, it was not uncommon to "have breakfast with a man and at supper time he has been buried."

The war took a tremendous physical and psychological toll on the men who fought it. The infantrymen plodded through endless mud, advanced as snipers fired at them, and slumbered in the comfort of rain-filled foxholes -- sometimes to the lullaby of squealing mortars in the distance and buzzing insects swarming about them. They always seemed to be wet, dirty, muddy, uncomfortable, and exhausted. They marched and fought through searing heat and bitter cold, faced disease -- malaria, typhus, and infections of all kinds -- and bore the brunt of the enemy's bullets and bombs. It is understandable why they referred to themselves as the "God-damned infantry."

The pilots and crews of the B-17 Flying Fortresses, B-24 Liberators, B-25 Mitchells, B-26 Marauders, and B-29 Superfortresses faced a different series of perils: flying a steady course as flak pierced holes in their planes, engaging in sudden aerial battles, and witnessing crew members suffer or die from injuries incurred midflight. Their limbs became painfully numb as they endured subzero temperatures during long journeys in unheated aircraft, and the relief they experienced upon safe return was often accompanied by the devastation of learning that others did not complete the trip back. Many planes crash-landed, ran out of fuel, or just plain crashed. The B-24s and B-26s did not earn the monikers Flying Coffin and Widow-Maker for nothing.

Those in the Navy had their own set of problems. The initial thrill of sailing the seas and seeing the world from a gleaming ship was chilled by the isolation of days and weeks spent outside the sight of land. "Loneliness" and "boredom" took on new meanings. Meanwhile, the constant threat of lurking submarines and the mere sight or muffled din of an approaching enemy plane rattled the nerves of even the bravest sailor. There was no disguising cruisers or destroyers on the open sea. When the "music" started, they were like ducks in a shooting gallery.

The days were grinding, the stress was suffocating, and the dreams of making it home were often fleeting. Any distraction from the horrors of war was cherished. The men treasured mementos of home. Letters from loved ones were rare prizes. Card games, puzzles, music, and the occasional sports game helped pass the hours waiting for action or sleep to come. Yet mail could be frustratingly irregular -- sometimes taking as long as four or five months to arrive -- and games and the energy to play them could not always be mustered after a long day of training or fighting. To keep morale from sinking, there needed to be readily available entertainment to provide some relief from war.

The story of the Armed Services Editions -- portable, accessible, and pervasive paperbacks like the edition of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" that so moved a young Marine to write Betty Smith -- is a remarkable one.

Excerpted from "When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II" by Molly Guptill Manning. Copyright © 2014 by Molly Guptill Manning. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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