Today, like many of you, I’m thinking about war. So let me tell you about one of the finest nonfiction books about this subject that’s ever been published. Above all else, Kilroy Was There: A GI’s War in Photographs is an honest record of the mud, grime, fear and drudge of war. Combine these powerful images with Tony Hillerman’s moving, personal narrative and the result is an understated and immensely candid work.
What differentiates Kilroy Was There from other books about World War II is its intimacy. Open it to any page and you’ll see scenes that will remain with you for a long time. Here — an American medic lights the cigarette of a wounded German soldier whose face is lined with blood. There — a cocky SS officer holds his head high when he’s tied to a post in preparation for his execution by firing squad. Tranquil meadows and abandoned byways are gruesomely pocked with the charred remains of tanks and, worse, young men whose bodies are dehumanized by their deaths.
There’s no pretense, no posing here. The soldiers are kids from farms and factories, classrooms and mines, living the day-to-day reality of an extraordinary situation. Their lives are recorded by other kids — combat photographers in the Army Signal Corps — as they cook, walk, smoke and ride on the side of tanks. Those long-ago photographers were on the front lines too, in foxholes shivering with their buddies.
The truth in these black-and-white photographs moved Hillerman to become involved with the project because, "They didn’t make war look fun. They weren’t sanitized by a PR department."
The story of how the photos came to the university press is as remarkable as the book itself. It begins with Frank Kessler, an accountant, known as "Pops" (he was 26 years old) in his Army Signal Corps unit. One of his jobs was to assign photographers to particular shoots, log the photos and file them.
When the war ended, "Pops" didn’t know what would happen to the photographs; he just knew they were too valuable to be left behind or lost. So he took them, some 600 in all, and stored them in his attic at home. Later, he told his family he wasn’t sure if what he’d done was legal . . .
Fifty years passed. "Pops" died and his brother Lee found the photos. The younger Kessler had been a POW during much of WWII. For him, the pictures reflected a war he didn’t know — one he didn’t see as a prisoner. He understood their importance and spent time organizing the collection and carefully transcribing the captions as best he could.
Kessler approached editor Joanna H. Craig at Kent University Press with the idea of creating a book in time for the 60th anniversary of D-Day.
"We were working backwards. We had the art, but didn’t have the text," she says. But Craig knew Hillerman had served in WWII. He’d been awarded the Purple heart, and the Silver and Bronze Stars. She also thought a celebrity forward would be a nice touch. She planned to have a prominent military historian write the majority of the text. It would’ve been a wonderful idea, but the man she’d asked became gravely ill.
Of course, Hillerman was too busy. He was on deadline for a new book. Still, a desperate Craig hoped he’d be willing to expand his foreward into the entire narrative. "I basically pleaded with him," she says.
What a coup.
Through Hillerman’s masterful words, we learn about oft-ignored aspects of war. With the empathy of someone who has been there, he describes the palpable fear of troops scouting around street corners — possibly walking straight into gunfire or death. We itch when Hillerman explains what it was like to go without showers for months at a time. We can taste the food, C-rations and the much worse K-rations, neither one very good . . . never enough. Think about it, most of those kids were still teens; they were still growing boys. And the author tells us how these adolescents fought, marched, hid, killed and watched their friends die.
"War is mean, damaging and dirty," says Hillerman. "These pictures show the mud and blood." Through his spare narrative and the equally unadorned photos that Frank Kessler so wisely saved, Kilroy Was There emerges as an incredible reflection of a critical — and still meaningful — time in the history of the world.
. . . To everyone reading this post who has lost a loved one in war, known someone who fought or is fighting now — may this Memorial Day be one of peace and remembering.
Thanks, Pari – I have a son who is fascinated with WWII and this sounds like a wonderful book for his collection.
I also have a father who fought in Korea and who is now at home, in a slow decline, with Hospice helping my mom take care of him. He does terribly in hospitals and physical rehab centers due to flashbacks about the combat. It has surprised me that until I enlighten them, none of his doctors or hospital staff have ever made a connection between his obvious trauma in those settings and his history in combat. One would think that would be an automatic question, particularly since the Gulf War and currently.
Last night at my parents’ house, the neighbors were setting off fireworks. My dad kept listening to them, and because he was home, in his favorite chair, surrounded by family, he just turned to me and said “Sounds like war, but it’s just fireworks, right?”
He never had severe problems with this until he got older and frail and felt more vulnerable when in the medical settings.
My father is a WWII vet. He still has nighmares over 60 years later. What we call post traumatic stress syndrome now, he has suffered with since he arrived home when the war ended. He fought in North Africa, and Italy. He rarely talks about the war, other then a few funny stories, and knows he’s a walking history book and a part of a dying bred of teen age farm boys who went to war when they were far to young. Over 3000 WWII vets die everyday. Thanks for bringing this book to our attention.
Pari, thank you for telling us about the book. It looks like required reading … for all the right reasons.
Billie,You’d think medical professionals — at this point — would have a clue. That’s not to disrespect them, only to state that war is war and the lessons we’ve learned about PTSD now ought to apply to those kids who served more than 60 years ago.
. . . They’ve been living with it far longer than they should have w/o help.
My prayers are with you, your mom and dad. I hope this Memorial Day is a peaceful one for all of you.
Lee,My father made it through the Korean War mainly stateside. But my stepdad didn’t. His boat torpeoded itself in the Indian Ocean.
When he was dying, and suffering horrible DTs due to years of alcoholism, that’s the moment he went back to in his hallucinations. He was on the lifeboat, burning in the sun, waiting and praying someone would find him and his mates.
War isn’t pretty. When you think about the age of these kids fighting, its effects are bound to last far longer than a ticker tape parade or a happy homecoming.
That’s why I wrote this post for today.
The book is unflinching and accessible.
Anyone who fights in a war carries visions and experiences that the rest of us need to understand.
This book captures some of the realities without any of the hyperbole.
And Happy Birthday to Mr. Hillerman today!