Read an Excerpt
World War II involved every inhabited continent, killed more than sixty million people, permanently maimed another seventy million, and drove one hundred million from their homes. Never before had such devastation fallen upon the earth. The conflict generated some of the noblest deeds of courage and most demonic acts of cruelty ever committed in recorded history.
From the ashes came an enduring question: how was such a horrific event possible? In search of an answer, I interviewed many who had, from various vantage points, seen the conflict firsthand. To better comprehend their viewpoints, I asked them what they called the war. Witnesses generally agreed on a surname of “War” but varied on the prefix—the Pacific, the People’s, the Great, the Good, the Awful, the Second European, the Stupid, the Terrible.
Walter Joseph Bryant, an American who experienced the Pacific theater as a nose gunner in a navy reconnaissance bomber, felt he could not give a suitable answer. He simply said, “Each man has his own war.” His profound response eloquently synopsized the war’s general nature and how it came to exist.
There was not one war but many. What humankind experienced between 1937 and 1945 was a catastrophic convergence, an abysmal host of wars. By their simultaneous appearance, the conflicts were able to grow beyond any logical limit, overlapping and interbreeding until they appeared to be a singular beast, a proclaimed “world war.”
Understandably, this inherent complexity can be muddling if not frustrating. The mountains of available print on the war frequently add to the confusion. Military histories are often drowning in minutiae. Memoirs tend to be steeped in agenda. Biographies give a single portrait but often neglect the landscape. Lost in the names and dates is the big picture.
Presented here is a concise, convenient way to make sense of this most intricate era. The format and aim of this book are in keeping with its predecessor, The History Buff’s Guide to the Civil War. Using top-ten lists, the intent is to provide a compelling overview, employing comparison and contrast to give a different and balanced perspective on people, places, and events. Every list begins with background information and criteria for the respective topic. Some are in chronological order to illustrate progression. Others are quantitative or qualitative, placing the more prominent elements of the war in their proper context. Lists for this volume were chosen for their respective ability to illustrate the fundamental aspects of the war.
A note on text presentation: where appropriate, names and words appear in small caps to indicate a subject appearing in another list. In stating East Asian names and cities, the book displays transliterations commonly used in the West during the war years rather than the contemporary pinyin demarcation. For Chinese and Japanese surnames, the text employs the traditional order of family name first.
Though one surname is on the cover of the book, hundreds of individuals brought this work to fruition. Particular gratitude and honors go to the following: military consultants were Thomas O’Brien Sr., Walter Bryant, William Phillips Callahan, and Wendell Fry. On social and cultural issues, many thanks go to Dr. Joan Skurnowicz, formerly of Loras College, for her boundless knowledge of Central Europe; Kent Wasson for his fluency in the Japanese language and social history; and Jerry Mach on civilian life in Eastern and Central Europe. Todd Erickson and Joseph and Robert Ortner provided considerable assistance on war films. Bob Yaw supplied exceptional insight on the conditions of Weimar Germany and the speaking style of Adolf Hitler. John Dankert served as a sounding board on topics of military leadership. In the critical writing process, the creative consultants were Michael Bryant of the U.S. Department of Education, plus Karl Green, Patti Hoffman, Sue Nading, Ann Rushton, and Marie Sundet of Prairie Writers. In addition, Mary Elworth gave much-needed marketing help. Dan and Michele Flagel commanded all computer and data-processing work and saved the manuscript on more than one occasion. As always, countless thanks go to Ed Curtis, Ron Pitkin, and the rest of the patient and professional staff at Cumberland House. Of the many archives, museums, and libraries to which much is owed, special appreciation goes to David Muhlena of the U.S. National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; the SAC Museum of Omaha, Nebraska; the Airborne Museum of Oosterbeek, Holland; and the Atlantic Wall Museum of Oostende, Belgium.