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Of the 135 contributors to the i book, some '30 are outright celebrities lor have recognizable names in their "fields. They include Maxine Andrews of the Andrews Sisters ("As we sang Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree, all the mothers and sisters and sweethearts sang with us as the ship went off'), Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, Actor-Producer John Houseman ("For me, it was a madly exciting time") and Poet John Ciardi ("When you're on a mission and you saw a Japanese plane go down, you cheered. This was a football game"). One might also include Irving Goff, Spanish Civil War veteran, OSS operative and the reputed model for Robert Jordan in Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Why this big percentage of high achievers and Trivial Pursuit candidates in a book by the U.S.'s leading troubadour of the unsung? Terkel, who knows everybody who is anybody, also knows that Everyman can always use a little help. No matter how moving and personal, back-to-back stories of suffering, death and destruction soon grow undifferentiated and numbing. It is something of a relief when Pauline Kael, film critic for The New Yorker, knocks old American war movies as "grotesque" and "condescending," even though it is doubtful she reacted that way at her neighborhood picture palace 40 years ago.
"The Good War" is a barrage of contrasts and images: descriptions of Los Angeles chicanos lounging on street corners in zoot suits; burn victims without skin; deferred civilians earning $200 a week in safety; infantrymen dying for $40 a month; a sign on Buchenwald's gate that identifies the death camp as zoological gardens; Operation Paper Clip, the innocuous code name for expediting U.S. citizenship for useful ex-Nazis. We are told that millions of dollars in trucks and equipment were dumped into the sea after victory, and we hear a general say that the $811 it cost to process a displaced person was expensive.
A few words about editing. Terkel shapes his interviews into a uniform style: terse sentences that focus attention on what is said rather than how. One could quibble that this is not authentic oral history, but it works. Passion and pride not only survive intact, they are strengthened. Douglas MacArthur may have had it backward: old soldiers do die, but they do not fade away.
"I had to condition myself . . I was never really a soldier. I was caught up in the army, a civilian putting in my service. When it was over, I had a longer view. It's anyone's universe. Anyone has as good a right to it as I have. Who am I to want to go out killing people?
I think the Germans of that era were guilty. On the other hand, I think any people subjected to a propaganda barrage, with their patriotic feelings worked on, could become savage.
When one of your guys went down, you sighed. It was miserable. One of the saddest things I ever saw, when we were flying wing on a plane that got hit, was the barber's-chair gunner in the big bubble at the very top. He was right there beside us in plain sight, beginning to go down. He just waved his hand goodbye. There was nothing you could do. You couldn't reach out to touch him. Of course, that got you.
B-29 Gunner John Ciardi"