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.