The Veteran Next Door – Book Review
The Veteran Next Door: Stories from World War II, Vol. 1 is an oral history project of personal stories of WWII. It is quite unlike many oral histories, however, as the author, Randall Baxter, is the radio host of The Veteran Next Door Radio Show, and the book is comprised of interviews conducted with guests on his show. Baxter began interviewing veterans for his show in 2010, and has logged over one hundred interviews with veterans from WWII through the Iraq War. This book is only a small compilation of the interviews he has conducted, and obviously focuses on the veterans of WWII. Baxter holds a Bachelor’s degree in social studies and taught school at the elementary level. While Baxter is not a professional historian, his book demonstrates that one does not need to hold an advanced history degree in order to understand and appreciate the impact of history.
Each chapter highlights a different story from WWII, and begins with a short overview introducing the subject of the interview. The first chapter is an interview with a Hidden Child from WWII. It is important to remember that a person does not need to have participated in combat in order to be affected by a war, and many Jewish children are referred to as Hidden Children. A Hidden Child was a child of Jewish descent whose parents arranged for him / her either to be physically hidden or to be cared for by a Christian family while the child posed as a Christian. Many Hidden Children survived the war, but sadly, many of them were never to see their parents again.
In the second chapter, Baxter focuses on what he calls “Supermen.” Supermen were men of the “greatest generation” who fought in the Second World War, and this chapter highlights comments made by several different WWII veterans about why they chose to fight. Chapter Three addresses a black sailor’s experience. It is important to note that during WWII, the United States military was still officially segregated. It would not be until the Korean War that black and white Americans would fight together in the same units. In this chapter, Baxter includes several poems written by James Julian, the subject of the interview, with this chapter.
The fourth chapter highlights the story of a veteran engineer, George Harper, who was a member of the Third Marine Division. He arrived in the Pacific Theater shortly after the battle of Guadalcanal, and was in-theater for action at Bougainville, as well as participating in action on Guam. Chapter Five builds a bit on Chapter 4, as the veteran Baxter interviewed, Norm Bakley, was a part of the Americal Division that relieved the Third Marine Division at Bougainville.
In Chapter Six, the reader learns about Murl Conner for the Third Infantry Division, a unit that holds the unfortunate distinction of having lost more soldiers during WWII than any other US Army division (nearly 26,000). His story is told by Randy Speck from Kentucky, who was familiar with Conner and his family. Speck said that on January 24, 1945, Conner was “individually credited with stopping more than 150 Germans, destroying all the tanks, completely disintegrating the powerful enemy assault force, and preventing heavy loss of life in his own outfit. He almost single handedly turned back the enemy advance and prevented heavy casualties in his own battalion.” (Lieutenant Gavin Murl Conner was denied a posthumorous Medal of Honor in 2014 when a Kentucky court ruled his widow had waited too long to provide new evidence.—Editor http://www.cbsnews.com/news/second-most-decorated-wwii-soldier-wont-get-medal-of-honor/) Chapter Seven describes the service of Robert Harvey and his transformation from cotton picker to soldier. Chapter Eight’s subject is John Shell, who fought and was captured in the Battle of the Bulge.
Chapter Nine is an interview with Charles Beal about his experience fighting in Europe with the 76th Infantry Division. In Chapter Ten, the subject of the interview is Hal Johnson, a pilot with the US Army Air Corps Eight Air Force 388th Bombardment group. This was before there was a separate Air Force as there is today, so the Army was tasked with providing air support. Chapter Eleven brings the reader back to the Pacific Theater where they learn about the war experience of Clyde Beeler, who served in the US Navy on the USS Pittsburgh. The final chapter, Chapter Twelve, is titled “A Son Remembers the Father He Never Met.” When Early Henry was six weeks old, his father, also named Earl Henry, died at sea while serving with the US Navy. This emotional chapter demonstrates that people do not have to participate in a war to have it deeply affect their lives.
The Veteran Next Door is great for the average reader of nonfiction, history buffs, and historians alike. Historians may find the interviews lacking in some details they would find necessary, but these are interviews with veterans and can be considered primary sources. The average history buff would probably get the most out of the book, and will enjoy the individual interviews. Additionally, the introduction before each interview will give the average reader some background to understand the interview more fully. As the WWII generation ages and passes away, it is crucial that we have their accounts recorded for future generations to learn from.
(You can listen to Randall Baxter‘s The Veteran Next Door radio program online at www.knoxtalkradio.com, Saturdays at 11 a.m. Eastern or join in the discussion with The Veteran Next Door LIVE, Sundays from 9 a.m. to 11 a. m. Eastern.)
Abigail Pfeiffer is a recent graduate of Norwich University with a Master of Arts in Military History. She lives in Phoenix, AZ, with her husband and stepdaughter. She focuses on 20th-century American warfare and American POW history and has a special interest in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. When Abby does not have her nose in a book, she can be found hiking, swimming, running, and cooking.