Many years ago when the world was new, the Twin Towers stood over Manhattan, and Europe was just starting to adopt the euro, I discovered a trilogy of books in my high school library about World War 2. They formed the basis of my knowledge of World War 2 and have, through repeated readings, merged into one composite tale. I was recently itching to re-visit them, so I hunted down copies of the two volumes I didn’t have.
In Overlord, Marrin combines details with narrative storytelling to deliver a sense of the importance of the mission of D-Day, the insane amount of prep work and logistics required to support it, and of course the outstanding courage of the men who broke through the walls of Hitler’s “Fortress Europe”. We learn about the extreme measures adopted to prevent the Nazis from learning about the plan, and take a look at pre-D-Day Britain, which suddenly had to host thousands of young Yanks and provide parking for an unbelievable amount of war material — planes, trains, and automobiles. (Yes, trains. The Allies anticipated the Germans destroying existing rail stock and were bringing their own, long with improvised harbors.) Once the action starts, Marrin covers everyone — the paratroopers, the glider crews, the men on the beaches. There are ample photos, though the quality is wanting. For a younger reader who wants an overview of how important D-Day was and how it was accomplished — and needs interesting details like Patton’s decoy army — Overlord remains a terrific read if you can find it.
Marrin’s story-like narrative with immersive details, and side explanations as needed make Victory in the Pacific especially valuable to those who know little about the conflict. This particular volume, in addition to including the expected (the story of the war, recollections of Marines doing the hard fighting in Tarawa, Iwo Jima, etc, small biographies of major military leaders) also explains how the machines involved in the war worked: there are illustrations of battleships’ firing anatomy, and of submarines’ double hulls along with information as to how their crews initiated dives and returned to the surface. There’s much color here, too — sailors’ songs and funny anecdotes that leaven the seriousness of the Navy/Marine mission to end the Japanese Empire’s dominion over the Pacific. One of my favorites was Marrin’s inclusion of a story about a Marine who, after his company had been briefed on how full their target island was full of venomous critters and nasty predators and the like, inquired — “Why don’t we just let the Japs keep it?” What I most remember about Marrin is his combination of technical details and emotional heft — so that we not only know how the machinery of war worked, but we get some sense of what it was like to be immersed in the war — to be bored, terrified, tortured by heat and pests, or ecstatic to hear the big guns of the US Navy driving away the enemy that relentlessly bombarded your camp.
My favorite in this series, of course, is The Airman’s War — but it merits its own post. (Also, I’ve misplaced it in my library. I took it out to read it, laid it down somewhere, and now it’s hiding.)