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By Steven Martinovich
Until that first shot is fired in combat, no one can know what kind of soldier they will be. Our daydreams may cast us as Alvin York, the World War I hero who killed 25 Germans, knocked out 35 machine guns and captured 132 prisoners almost single-handedly at the battle of the Argonne Forest in the fall of 1918, but the grim reality is that soldiers usually serve as the anonymous fuel for the ever-hungry machinery of war.
And yet there are those men who manage what is thought the impossible. Ronald J. Drez's Twenty-Five Yards of War: The Extraordinary Courage of Ordinary Men in World War II is a collection of ten stories that excite those daydreams of glory. Some are well known, such as his recounting of the attack on Japan's aircraft carriers at Midway or the bloodbath that was Iwo Jima, which saw 30 000 Marine causalities, including 7 000 killed, and 20 000 dead Japanese defenders. Others were lost to history until recently or were recorded incorrectly by Hollywood.
Twenty-Five Yards of War grew out of Drez's work as a research associate at the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans. A veteran of the Vietnam War, Drez worked alongside historian Stephen Ambrose in a partnership that produced Ambrose's book, D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II and Drez's own book, Voices of D-Day: The Story of the Allied Invasion Told by Those Who Were There. Realizing that the stories of those that didn't land at Normandy but served elsewhere were just as important, Drez set out to collect their memories.
All branches of America's military have their place in Twenty-Five Yards of War, from the desperate air battles over the Pacific Ocean to the incredible story of Lt. Lyle Bouck and his 18-man platoon of the 99th Division that delayed an entire German panzer column on the opening day of the Battle of the Bulge. Each of the ten stories highlights exceptional courage displayed by men as ordinary as the reader. Men born in small or mid-sized towns, mostly working class some were educated while others fled school for the frontlines, all united by their desire to fight on behalf of the United States.
Unfortunately Drez's effort is sometimes uneven. Overall, Twenty-Five Yards of War is a worthy addition to the increasing canon of stories from those who were there, but some - such as his handling of Seaman 2/C Harold Eck's surviving the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis - are curiously flat and fail to capture the spirit of the event.
If Twenty-Five Yards of War is guilty of an oversight, it may be in not including the story of P/Sgt. Mitchell Paige, the Marine who defended a ridge on Guadalcanal against the remnants of two regiments of battle-hardened Japanese soldiers after his entire platoon had been wiped out, a feat that earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor and his face on the G.I. Joe doll.
Minor quibbles aside, Drez has provided another compelling addition to the field of personal war history. For those of us who will never live the fantasy of being a York or Bouck, and fortunately never experience the horror that war really is, Drez's effort provides the definition of the classic American values that make up her combat soldiers. Because they are so ordinary, embodying what Douglas Brinkley referred to as quiet valor, we sometimes forget their stories are extraordinary. Drez should be thanked that he has made it his life's mission that we hear from those who lived them.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
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