Tuesday, October 2, 2012

"Marching Home" by Kevin Coyne (2003)

When the United States began its first peacetime draft in the spring of 1940, all eyes were focused on the European conflict between the British and the Germans. Along with their Il Duce, the Germans were seen as the big threat to the United States. The rumblings by Japan, in the East, had been mainly confined to aggression against China. Acting on that premise the United States had begun the “Lend-Lease” program in order to get the necessary war materials to Britain, as well as to buy the United States more time to prepare itself for the coming conflict, which many people felt was inevitable. Freehold, New Jersey, sitting about 50 miles west of New York City, took all this talk of war with Germany very seriously. They began training for their local defense shortly after the draft began, about a year before Pearl Harbor.

The town of Freehold in 1940 was pretty much like most small towns in America at the time. Just emerging from the Great Depression, the most coveted jobs in town were at the rug mill. Some folks went on to college, or into family businesses, but for the most part Freehold was an agricultural town as well as a factory based one. Life was bucolic.

Author Kevin Coyne has written a book which follows 6 men from Freehold, tracking their journey from the end of high school and through the war, and then following them into their civilian post-war occupations. It is the story of America, told through the experiences of these men, and their town, covering 60 years, which make this book so gripping. Here is a brief accounting of the 6 men;
Freehold was a town with separate schools for the “colored”. Though they had lived in Freehold since it was settled in 1690, it was not until the early 1800’s when free persons of color outnumbered slaves. And, though well over a hundred years had passed, the schools were still segregated and the town’s African-Americans still lived in separate quarters. Bigerton “Buddy” Lewis was a part of that world. He enlisted as a Private with an engineering company, serving in Northern Europe. There he was caught in two wars; one with his own fellow countrymen, some of whom would not accept a “colored” man on equal terms, even while fighting for the same cause.

Stu Bunton served as a radioman aboard the USS Santa Fe in the Mediterranean, and later in the Pacific. Walter Denise served as a rifleman in the 324th Infantry, fighting in France and Germany. Jake Errickson was a radio intercept operator working out of Australia and New Guinea. Jim Higgins was with the 391st Bombardment Group, serving as an Intelligence Sergeant in England, France and Belgium. And, last, but not least, was Bill Lopatin, who served as a waist gunner in the 322nd and 394th Bomber Groups, flying out of England. All of these men saw extensive combat, either in the air, on land, or at sea.
The book is neatly divided into 2 sections; with the first half devoted to the history and social composition of the town, along with brief biographies of the six men. This section also covers their wartime experiences in their respective Theaters of Operations. As interesting as this section is, the second section is even better, as the men return home from war to face a new kind of struggle, both social and economic, as the world about them changes rapidly from the small town America they left behind, into a world power, even as “Buddy” Lewis finds himself in the midst of racial unrest in the land of the free.

As the economy changes, so do the lives and fortunes of these 6 men who fought for a better world. Bill Lopatin went on to obtain his Master’s Degree as an Engineer, spending his life building the same things he had been called upon to destroy in the war. Freehold itself, a town which gave up over 400 men in defense of freedom, would find itself embroiled in the racial unrest of 1969-70. Stu Bunton, who served aboard the Santa Fe, would go on to become a police officer back in his home town during this period, trying to keep the peace for which he and the others had fought so hard to preserve in the war overseas.
Written with great charm, the author has done a superb job of chronicling the stories of these 6 men, as well as drawing a vivid picture of the irony of their wartime experiences once they returned home. In addition, it is also a description of a nation which won the biggest war in the history of man, and how that victory began a backslide; economically as well as socially; and which affects us even today.

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