Picks and Pans Review: Lines of Battle

updated 06/22/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/22/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Annette Tapert

The story of World War II has been told by dozens of our top historians. This, however, is a unique volume, subtitled Letters From American Servicemen, 1941-1945, which describes that period of our past from the inside, by the men who fought it. An infantryman wrote of a night in a Texas hospital ward: "There was a section of snorers so magnificent in massed symphonic effect that one couldn't refuse to listen." Beaumont Newhall, who later became a noted photography curator, wrote to his wife about a dinner overseas: "The kitchen help, Italian kids in their teens, put on an impromptu songfest. A little fellow, in rags and tatters...sang like a bird, filling the room with a voice that hardly seemed to belong to him, and with an assurance and stage presence of a mature professional." Geddes Mumford, who would later be killed in action, wrote while in training, "To me death is a thing to be left alone. It comes when it is least expected, and there are no ifs and buts about it. Once it has happened, nothing could have stopped it. I know I'm not very clear, but I hope you get a little of what my feelings are." A Marine lieutenant in the Pacific: "War is terrible, just awful, awful, awful. You have no idea how it hurts to see American boys all shot up, wounded, suffering from pain and exhaustion, and those that fall down, never to move again. After this is all over, I shall cherish and respect more than anything else all that which is sweet, tender and gentle." An American private described what his unit found at a German work camp: "We entered the building and near the door on our left was a stack of human bodies piled about four feet high. At first they hardly looked real and they seemed small enough to be midgets...There were others scattered about the floor. I guessed that these were not quite dead when they had been brought in, so were left to finish dying." There is nothing new in these missives from the past, but after 40 years they still have an immediacy that reveals war in fresh, intimate horror—a reminder that those who suffered and died were just like us. (Times Books, $22.50)

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