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Book Notes

January 27, 2011

Book Notes: Author Colton connects with latest book

— When it rains it pours. No sooner do I finish one book on American prisoners of war in Japan during World War II than an even more provocative one appears. While Linda Hillenbrand brilliantly documented the remarkable life of Olympian Louie Zamberini and his survival at sea and in prison in “Unbroken,’’ Larry Colton gives an even more measured account of four sailors in “No Ordinary Joes: the Extraordinary True Story of Four Submariners in War and Love and Life.”

Unlike Hillenbrand, who was already well known due to her best-seller, “Seabiscuit,’’ Colton has flown under the radar. He was a relatively unknown pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies in the late 1960s, and has written three fairly obscure books before this one. However, he has finally connected in a big way.

Ten years in the making, his writing is every bit as good as Hillenbrand’s, and, believe it or not, produces a storyline that is even more compelling.

What sets Colton’s book apart is the four men he covers.

They are the “everyman,’’ men who were products of the Great Depression where they were starving half the time, living in houses with no indoor plumbing, and alternately freezing or boiling to death depending on the time of year.

The men were a cross-section of America as they hailed from upstate New York, Texas, Oregon and Washington. Their lives were so difficult that all of them joined the Navy before Pearl Harbor simply to have a steady income. They actually enjoyed boot camp as it provided three square meals a day and a bed to sleep on.

Colton tells their stories by focusing on each one individually in alternating chapters but keeping the time line consistent. He examines their boyhoods, how they ended up in the Navy, life at Pearl Harbor after the war began (Honolulu was described as a dump, not a paradise), and the good times in Australia where the women were both plentiful and grateful to have the Americans there.

After two months of joyous living in Australia, the four men were assigned to the submarine “Grenadier” and went off on assignment. The captain, who was eventually hailed as a hero by most of his men, initially made a tactical blunder when he surfaced the submarine in enemy waters and left it open to attack. The resulting torpedoes wrecked the sub and led to capture by the Japanese. The “hero’’ label came after his men saw the way he was beaten and tortured on a daily basis (including severe waterboarding) yet managed to survive the war.

The captain’s men fared little better. They were constantly beaten and starved, and often suffered from disease. Their treatment was probably due to the Japanese guards wanting to find a way to feel better about themselves.

After all, they had to do something to feel superior since they hadn’t qualified for the regular army. They also thought it was unconscionable to be captured rather than commit “hari-kari.”

It should be noted though that there were some Japanese guards who showed kindness to the American prisoners. Their actions were heroic in their own way. The guards risked their own safety by showing compassion to the enemy. Brutality wasn’t universal.

As demoralizing as prison life was, post-war life was no picnic either.

All four of these men (and countless thousands of others) did not have it easy in the post-war world. Each one was touched by tragedy when it came to their own marriages and children. Fortunately there was at least one unexpected but beautiful outcome that made up for much of the despair (I won’t give away any more than that!).

Colton spent 10 years researching the stories of these four men. It was supposed to take a couple of years but the more involved he got the more complex his odyssey became.

The wait was worth it. The end result is a narrative so riveting that it’s impossible to put down. After reading this wonderful book you’ll know why these veterans deserved the moniker of “The Greatest Generation.’’

DAVID KENT is the Cooperstown Village Librarian.

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