Author Jay Wertz and Armchair General Editor Jerry Morelock – Interview
"On December 7th, when the attack come I had just bought me the paper, the Honolulu Times I think it was, and I lay down by a casemate and I was fixing to read it when the first bomb hit … We had targets, they were coming in from every which way; this way, that way, they just flied in a swarm; they’s just like a hive of bees coming through there. You just picked out the one you thought you could get … "
That description of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was given by Bud Taylor, a Texan who manned a .50-caliber machine gun on USS Pennsylvania. He is one of many veterans who share their memories in War Stories: The Pacific, Volume I, Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal, the first book in a new series that blends those veterans’ stories with historic narrative, photos, maps, and numerous sidebars to provide a comprehensive history of the Second World War.
The book’s author, Jay Wertz, conducted hundreds of interviews exclusively for the War Stories series. His previous publications include The Native American Experience and The Civil War Experience 1861–1865. He co-authored Smithsonian’s Great Battles and Battlefields of the Civil War with prominent historian Edwin C. Bearss. Armchair General readers may also know him from his previews of history-themed television programs for ArmchairGeneral.com and our partner site HistoryNet.com.
War Stories is edited by Armchair General magazine’s own editor-in-chief, Col. (ret) Jerry Morelock, PhD. A previous director of the Combat Studies Institute—the history department of the Army’s Command and General Staff College (CGSC) at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas—and former executive director of the Winston Churchill Memorial & Library at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, he has authored numerous publications including Generals of the Ardennes: American Leadership in the Battle of the Bulge and Great Land Battles From the Civil War to the Gulf War.
ArmchairGeneral.com: What was the impetus behind creating this series?
Jay Wertz: About four years ago, a book packager I had written for asked if I could find and interview enough World War II veterans of the German forces for a book-length work. He didn’t think I could locate them. I located almost 20 of them, but the publisher who was interested in the idea changed personnel and the project died. I then approached Bill Breidenstine of the Weider History Group about doing a book continuity series based on interviews with veterans of all forces in World War II, and he championed the idea for me with the company. Getting the stories that I did initially made me realize this would be a significant opportunity to capture these first-hand, personal stories covering the full scope of the war while these rapidly vanishing veterans are still with us, and I could use them to create an important and dynamic document.
Jerry Morelock: Of course, I was brought into the project after it was created and already underway; Jay had already written his draft of this first volume. But I see the impetus for the series as being driven by at least three goals: to present an exciting, accurate, readable and accessible narrative history of World War II; to enhance that narrative with the “real history” of the war as related by those who actually fought it; and to capture those veterans’ accounts before it is too late. The Greatest Generation is passing away at an alarming rate and it is essential, really a duty, to provide them a chance to tell their stories—in their own words—while we still have the opportunity to do that. I applaud Weider History Group for creating this War Stories series, and I’m very pleased that Jay was chosen as the series author.
ACG: How many veterans did you interview, Jay? How did you go about locating them?
Jay: I have interviewed more than 200 veterans so far, with more interviews being arranged all the time. I contacted clubs, veterans’ organizations and famous individuals who served in World War II. I have attended World War II reunions, commemorations and conferences. Friends and family members have made recommendations. Through Weider History Group magazines and Websites I learn of other veterans and those willing to share their stories contact us.
ACG: Did you only interview American veterans for this series?
Jay: Thus far I have personally interviewed Germans, as mentioned, American, Russian, Armenian, Filipino, and British veterans. I’ve spoken with one tank commander of the Free French. A dear friend is assisting me by talking to Albanian partisans. We had a contribution from the family of an Australian soldier. Archives have led us to Imperial Japanese Navy veterans. We currently have overtures out to New Zealand, Italian, Chinese, Canadian and Japanese Imperial Army veterans as well as more of the above. My goal is to get veterans and stories from as many of the World War II combatant countries as possible.
ACG: There’s already been a battalion of books written about the War in the Pacific. What do you think this book will contribute to the subject?
Jay: It feels more like a division than a battalion. Rather than be an in-depth, scholarly work of a particular leader, campaign or battle, or even a general history of the Pacific war, this book charts a course of major events, campaigns and trends driven by the stories of the veterans themselves. I set the scene and illustrate their words, but their stories hold center stage. The body of interviews I have deems it necessary to follow Volume I with two additional volumes on the War in the Pacific.
Jerry: The book is an extremely valuable contribution to the existing—and quite extensive—body of work on World War II in a number of ways. First, it is a marvelously accessible and eminently readable history of the war that serves as a wonderfully written narrative history of the most destructive war in human history. Jay presents the causes, the major players on both sides, the strategy and tactics, the main battles and campaigns, the reality of combat on land, sea and in the air. And, as this first volume in the planned series reveals, all of this is woven together to present a history of the war that has wide appeal. Second, this is a “warts and all” presentation of the history of the war—it is not a trite, hagiographic celebration of a pre-ordained Allied triumph. This first volume is a great illustration of that point: the early war in the Pacific, with America’s egregious unpreparedness, mistakes and initial defeats emphasizes that no one at the time knew what the final outcome of the war would be. The Pacific: Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal captures the real tension and uncertainty of that critical period. Finally, and most importantly in my opinion, the heart of the book is the veterans’ accounts—the real war just as they experienced it. The World War II generation is passing away at an alarming rate—16 million served, but only about 2 million are still alive—and Jay has done a tremendous service to the veterans, the reading public in general, our future generations and to history at large by capturing and printing their true stories before it’s too late.
ACG: Jerry, an editor’s work on a book is like that blue screen used in making movies that permits backgrounds to be filled in behind the actors later—it’s essential but shouldn’t be obvious to the audience. What were some of your specific responsibilities on this book?
Jerry: As an editor and as a PhD historian whose primary field is World War II, I see my role in the book series as two-fold. First, from purely an editor’s point of view, my goal is to ensure that Jay’s narrative reads smoothly and consistently and, to the best of our ability, without any obvious errors in grammar, punctuation and word usage. I have endeavored to maintain Jay’s superb writing style throughout and to avoid as much as possible the all-too-common trap some editors fall into of “wordsmithing” someone else’s text—some wag once said, “The most compelling urge in all of human nature is to change what someone else has written.” I have resisted that “urge” to the best of my ability, and since Jay’s writing is superb, that wasn’t very hard to do. Second, as an historian specializing in World War II, I see it as one of my responsibilities as editor to ensure we have the facts correct throughout the book. I would point out, however, that we intentionally did not edit the veterans’ eyewitness accounts; we let what they have to say and how they have chosen to say it stand in the veterans’ own language and style. For clarity, however, we have occasionally added notes in brackets within the veterans’ accounts at any place where we felt that readers might need some explanation or clarification.
ACG: Was there a particular section of the book you especially enjoyed working on?
Jerry: I particularly enjoyed working on the first sections of the book; in those sections Jay presents the background setting that led to the outbreak of the war in the Pacific. It is critically important to understand what forces and events led to Japan and the United States going to war in 1941, and many readers likely will not be aware of everything that happened to set the stage for the war’s outbreak. You cannot begin a book on the Pacific war with the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor and truly understand what led to Japan’s decision to drop those bombs on the U. S. Pacific Fleet. The emergence of Japan as a major power on the world stage and how that happened is vital to understanding the overall context of the war’s start. In that regard, I wrote and added the sidebar on Japan and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05 since that conflict—the first one in which an Asian nation soundly defeated a European empire—is pivotal in explaining Japan’s rise and the tensions that caused the country to embark on creating its own Pacific empire.
I also thoroughly enjoyed working on the section recounting the early war in the Philippines, from Japan’s initial attack on December 8, 1941 (still December 7, Pearl Harbor time), to the fall of Corregidor in May 1942. MacArthur’s defense and the courage and sacrifice of the U. S. and Filipino soldiers fighting outnumbered, outgunned, sick, starving and abandoned by President Franklin Roosevelt is a story that should never be forgotten. After the surrender, American and Filipino soldiers endured the Bataan Death March, and the survivors of that war crime were subjected to years of Japanese brutality as POWs. Few troops in the Pacific war suffered as much cruelty and sheer horror as MacArthur’s American and Filipino defenders. Yet, their stubborn defense of the Philippines accomplished much and has not received due credit. Japan expected to capture the Philippines in two months; the American and Filipino defenders held out for five. In contrast, the British held out in Malaya and Singapore for only two months, barely a “speed bump” in the Japanese advance, compared to the “roadblock” put up by the Americans and Filipinos. MacArthur’s Philippine defense significantly slowed Japan’s Pacific “blitzkrieg,” buying the critical time needed to organize Allied defenses that led to victories at the Coral Sea, Midway and Guadalcanal. Jay has included several fascinating American and Filipino eyewitness accounts of the fighting on Bataan and Corregidor during what, in hindsight, is one of the most gallant and important struggles of the entire Pacific war.
ACG: This is the first book in a pretty extensive series. Will you be editing future volumes as well?
Jerry: I’ve been asked to edit the series’ future volumes, and I am really looking forward to doing that. This is an important project and I am very proud to be a part of it. Weider History Group has assembled a great team to work on the War Stories series and I’m very happy to be a member of the team.
ACG: Getting veterans to talk about their war experiences can be difficult. How did you go about getting them to open up, Jay?
Jay: Some, like the late Medal of Honor recipient John W. Finn, talk easily about their war experiences and everything else; they are natural talkers. Others will answer in just a few syllables at first until something opens them up. It’s not easy to talk about something as horrific as combat and war, especially when one was personally in a difficult situation or saw a comrade wounded or killed. But it’s not all gloom and I try to evoke some light moments of the experiences; often I’m surprised and entertained by what I hear. So far, I’ve only approached a few who have been too bitter or shaken or tired to talk. Often, the work I do is helped by family or friends who have opened up the veterans or encouraged them to speak and write details beforehand. Even then, the interviews can be emotionally draining for the veteran and me.
ACG: Do you have suggestions for family members who want to know more about their relatives’ wartime experiences, whether in World War II, Vietnam or other wars, but who don’t want to make the veteran uncomfortable?
Jay: Kids make the most effective recruiters. I’ve heard countless times from World War II veterans’ children that their father (or even their mother) would never speak of the war or their service until the grandchildren asked about it. Often a vintage picture, a medal or other artifact in the hand of an inquisitive child can get the ball rolling. Maybe a television program or other media stimulus, or a visit to a museum or other commemorative place can start the tales unfolding. Listen first, and ask questions afterwards. I always start at the beginning of their service, as the timeline approach often leads to more details later.
ACG: Jerry, you’re a veteran yourself, though not of World War II. Would you like to add anything to what Jay said?
Jerry: I could not help thinking about my Dad, Gale D. Morelock, when editing these World War II veterans’ accounts. He served in the U. S. Navy in the Pacific, 1942–45, and volunteered for the Naval Armed Guard—U. S. Navy gun crews serving aboard merchant ships bringing troops and supplies to Pacific bases. This was extremely hazardous duty—sailors had to volunteer for it—since the small, 3-inch naval guns and anti-aircraft guns mounted on merchant ships were the vessels’ only protection from Japanese submarines and aircraft and—in the war’s final year—deadly kamikazes. My Dad passed away in 2007, but he left behind numerous stories of his experiences in the war, and I will always treasure them. The most important thing, in my opinion, that family members can do is to listen. Let the veterans know that you want to hear their stories, that you value and appreciate their service.
ACG: Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
Jay: I would like to ask anyone who thinks they or someone they know who would like to share their stories of overseas service or combat experience to contact me with an invitation to allow us to contact them (see link below). The opportunity to get a broad spectrum of little- or never-heard veterans’ experiences in World War II is one with only a short time span remaining and we must move to record this unparalleled history.
Jerry: I’d just like to tell Jay and the entire War Stories team that it’s a pleasure working with them, and thank them once again for including me in this important and very worthwhile project. I am sure that readers will be enlightened and educated by the books—especially the veterans’ eyewitness accounts—which will occupy an important place in any World War II library.
Click this link to contact Jay Wertz if you, a family member or friend would like to share World War II experiences.
Jay Wertz and Jerry Morelock will be signing copies of War Stories: The Pacific, Volume I, Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal at the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl in Dallas, Texas, on December 28. Click here for more information on the book.