“The Good War” is a testament not only to the experience of war but to the extraordinary skill of Studs Terkel as an interviewer and oral historian. From a pipe fitter’s apprentice at Pearl Harbor to a crew member of the flight that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, his subjects are open and unrelenting in their analyses of themselves and their experiences, producing what People magazine has called “a splendid epic history” of WWII. With this volume Terkel expanded his scope to the global and the historical, and the result is a masterpiece of oral history.
“Tremendously compelling, somehow dramatic and intimate at the same time, as if one has stumbled on private accounts in letters locked in attic trunks . . . In terms of plain human interest, Mr. Terkel may well have put together the most vivid collection of World War II sketches ever gathered between covers.” —The New York Times Book Review
“I promise you will remember your war years, if you were alive then, with extraordinary vividness as you go through Studs Terkel’s book. Or, if you are too young to remember, this is the best place to get a sense of what people were feeling.” —Chicago Tribune
“A powerful book, repeatedly moving and profoundly disturbing.” —People
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About the Author
Date of Birth:May 16, 1912
Date of Death:October 31, 2008
Place of Birth:New York, NY
Place of Death:Chicago, IL
Education:J.D., University of Chicago, 1934
Read an Excerpt
A SUNDAY MORNING
A huge man, built along the lines of a sumo wrestler. He manages a complex of apartment buildings in Los Angeles. He could quite easily be the bouncer, too. He is resigned to the assortment of illnesses that plague him; his manner is easygoing. "With my age, my love for food, that's caused diabetes, the whole bit." He is a Hawaiian.
I was sixteen years old, employed as a pipe fitter apprentice at Pearl Harbor Navy Yard. On December 7, 1941, oh, around 8:00 A.M., my grandmother woke me. She informed me that the Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor. I said, "They're just practicing." She said, no, it was real and the announcer is requesting that all Pearl Harbor workers report to work. I went out on the porch and I could see the anti-aircraft fire up in the sky. I just said, "Oh boy."
I was four miles away. I got out on my motorcycle and it took me five, ten minutes to get there. It was a mess.
I was working on the U.S.S. Shaw. It was on a floating dry dock. It was in flames. I started to go down into the pipe fitter's shop to get my toolbox when another wave of Japanese came in. I got under a set of concrete steps at the dry dock where the battleship Pennsylvania was. An officer came by and asked me to go into the Pennsylvania and try to get the fires out. A bomb had penetrated the marine deck, and that was three decks below. Under that was the magazines: ammunition, powder, shells. I said, "There ain't no way I'm gonna go down there." It could blow up any minute. I was young and sixteen, not stupid, not at sixty-two cents an hour. (Laughs.)
A week later, they brought me before a navy court. It was determined that I was not service personnel and could not be ordered. There was no martial law at the time. Because I was sixteen and had gone into the water, the whole thing was dropped.
I was asked by some other officer to go into the water and get sailors out that had been blown off the ships. Some were unconscious, some were dead. So I spent the rest of the day swimming inside the harbor, along with some other Hawaiians. I brought out I don't know how many bodies and how many were alive and how many dead. Another man would put them into ambulances and they'd be gone. We worked all day at that.
That evening, I drove a truckload of marines into Palolo Valley because someone reported that the Japanese had parachuted down there. Because of the total blackout, none of the marine drivers knew how to get there. It was two miles away. There were no parachuters. Someone in the valley had turned their lights on and the marines started shootin' at that house. The lights went out. (Laughs.)
I went back to my concrete steps to spend the night there. Someone on the Pennsylvania was walking along the edge of armored plate. He lit a cigarette. All of a sudden, a lot of guns opened up on him. I don't know if he was hit.
The following morning, I went with my tools to the West Virginia. It had turned turtle, totally upside down. We found a number of men inside. The Arizona was a total washout. Also the Utah. There were men in there, too. We spent about a month cutting the superstructure of the West Virginia, tilting it back on its hull. About three hundred men we cut out of there were still alive by the eighteenth day.
How did they survive?
I don't know. We were too busy to ask. (Laughs.) It took two weeks to get all the fires out. We worked around the clock for three days. There was so much excitement and confusion. Some of our sailors were shooting five[inch guns at the Japanese planes. You just cannot down a plane with a five-inch shell. They were landing in Honolulu, the unexploding naval shells. They have a ten-mile range. They hurt and killed a lot of people in the city.
When I came back after the third day, they told me that a shell had hit the house of my girl. We had been going together for, oh, about three years. Her house was a few blocks from my place. At the time, they said it was a Japanese bomb. Later we learned it was an American shell. She was killed. She was preparing for church at the time.
My neighbors met me. They were mostly Japanese. We all started to cry. We had no idea what was happening, what was going to happen.
Martial law had been set in. Everyone had to work twelve hours, six to six. No one on the streets after 6:00 P.M. No one on the streets before 6:00 A.M. The military took over the islands completely. If you failed to go to work, the police would be at your door and you were arrested. You had to do something, filling sandbags, anything. No one was excused. If you called in sick, a nurse would come to your house to check on you. If you failed to be there or were goofing off, you went to jail. All civil liberties were suspended.
There was no act of treason by anyone that I know of. There were spies, but they were all employed by the Japanese embassy. If they had arrested the ordinary Japanese, there would be no work force at Pearl Harbor. There were 130,000 Japanese on the islands. There'd be no stores, no hotels, nothing. You'd have to shut the city down. They suffered a lot of insults, especially by the servicemen. They took it without coming back.
I tried to get in the military, but they refused. They considered my work essential for the war effort. I was promoted to shop fitter and went from $32 a week to $125. But I kept trying for a year to get in the fight. Finally, I wrote a letter to President Roosevelt. I told him I was angry at the Japanese bombing and had lost some friends. He okayed that I be accepted. I went into the service and went down to $21 a month. (Laughs.)
My grandmother signed for me because I was only seventeen. She said she would never see me alive again. It turned out prophetic because she died one day before I got home. January 1946.
They wanted to send me to Texas for training. I got on the stick and wrote to the President again. I wasn't interested in Texas, I wanted to go into combat. I got an answer from the White House requesting that I be put into a combat outfit. I got thirty days washing dishes for not following the chain of command. (Laughs.)
"When I went into the military, they asked, 'What race are you?' I had no idea what they were talking about because in Hawaii we don't question a man's race. They said, 'Where are your parents from?' I said they were born in Hawaii. 'Your grandparents?' They were born in Hawaii. 'How about your great-grandparents?' I said they're from Europe, some from Spain, some from Wales. They said, 'You're Caucasian.' I said, 'What's that?' They said, 'You're white. ' I looked at my skin. I was pretty dark, tanned by the sun. I said, 'You're kidding' (Laughs.) They put me down as Caucasian and separated me from the rest of the Hawaiians.
"Some of my new buddies asked me not to talk to three of the men. I asked why. They said, 'They're Jews.' I said, 'What's a Jew?' They said, 'Don't you know? They killed Jesus Christ. I says, 'You mean them guys? They don't look old enough.' They said, 'You're tryin' to get smart?' I said, 'No. It's my understanding he was killed about nineteen hundred years ago.'"
I joined the Seventh Infantry Division in time for the run to Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands. It took six days to take it. We went back to Hawaii. I don't know what we were preparing for, but we practiced and practiced and practiced swimming, some other Hawaiians and me. I said, "Eleanor must be coming here." I was taken to the FBI in Honolulu and asked how did I know the President was coming. I said I don't know. They said, "You said Eleanor was coming." I said, "Yeah, I just figured somebody important was coming because we've been practicing this show for two months." They said, "Okay, keep your mouth shut."
All of a sudden one day they told us there'd be a swimming show. We threw oil in the water, set the water on fire, and dove into it. Then they told us to get dressed and get ready for the parade. We were all searched for ammunition. No one could have ammunition in his rifle, no pocket knives. But we had bayonets. (Laughs.) As we went past the parade stand, we saw General MacArthur and President Roosevelt.
We knew something was up but we didn't know where we were gonna go. A rumor came down that we were going into Africa after Rommel. The main body of the Seventh had trained in the Mojave Desert, but was sent to the Aleutians. They had figured on Africa. So we thought for sure it was Africa for us. We got orders for the Pacific. They said Yap.
"I had been made a sergeant by this time because we were given jungle training and I knew the tropics. So they sent me to Alaska. (Laughs.) After three weeks, they had to send me back because I was shaking. It was too damn cold. (Laughs.)"
Several nights later, a broadcast came from Tokyo Rose: "Good evening, men of the Seventh Infantry. I know you're on your way to the Philippines." She was right. (Laughs.) We were there from October of '44 until March of '45. Totally combat.
I fought very carefully, I fought low. There were a couple of Japanese boys, our interpreters, who were a little bit heroic. They would climb on board a Japanese tank going by, knock on the things, converse in Japanese, and as soon as the door popped open, they'd drop a hand grenade — boom!
Our next stop was Okinawa. We landed there on April 1, '45. No opposition. Several days later, we got word that President Roosevelt had died. We were all sort of down — boom! They said a man called Truman replaced him. I said, "Who is Truman?" We were there eighty-two days. I did what I had to do. When I saw a Japanese, I shot at him and ducked. Shot and ducked, that's all I did. I was always scared until we took Hill 87.
We buried General Ushijima and his men inside a cave. This was the worst part of the war, which I didn't like about Okinawa. They were hiding in caves all the time, women, children, soldiers. We'd get up on the cliff and lower down barrels of gasoline and then shoot at it. It would explode and just bury them to death.
I personally shot one Japanese woman because she was coming across a field at night. We kept dropping leaflets not to cross the field at night because we couldn't tell if they were soldiers. We set up a perimeter. Anything in front, we'd shoot at. This one night I shot and when it came daylight, it was a woman there and a baby tied to her back. The bullet had gone through her and out the baby's back.
That still bothers me, that hounds me. I still feel I committed murder. You see a figure in the dark, it's stooped over. You don't know if it's a soldier or a civilian.
I was drinking about a fifth and a half of whiskey every day. Sometimes homemade, sometimes what I could buy. It was the only way I could kill. I had friends who were Japanese and I kept thinking every time I pulled a trigger on a man or pushed a flamethrower down into a hole: What is this person's family gonna say when he doesn't come back? He's got a wife, he's got children, somebody.
They would show us movies. Japanese women didn't cry. They would accept the ashes stoically. I knew different. They went home and cried.
I'd get up each day and start drinking. How else could I fight the war? Sometimes we made the booze, sometimes we bought it from the navy. The sailors stole it from their officers. (Laughs.) Sometimes it cost us seventy-five dollars a bottle, sometimes it cost us a Japanese flag. You'd take a piece of parachute silk, make a circle on it, put a few bullet holes in it, give it to the navy, and they'd give you a bottle of whiskey.
I drank my last drink on the night of August 14, 1945, I think it was. When we heard from Swedish radio that the Japanese wanted to contact the Americans in order to end the war, we just went wild. Every soldier just took a gun and started shooting. I got into my trench and stayed there because the bullets were all over. Thirty-two men out of our outfit were killed that night by stray celebrating bullets.
I haven't touched a drop since. I wasn't a drinking man before. I started in the Philippines when I saw the bodies of men, women, and children, especially babies, that were hit by bombs. They were by the side of the road, and we would run over them with our tanks.
Oh, I still lose nights of sleep because of that woman I shot. I still lose a lot of sleep. I still dream about her. I dreamed about it perhaps two weeks ago ... (He lets out a deep breath; it's something more turbulent than a sigh.)
Aaaahh, I feel that if countries are gonna fight a war, find yourself an island with nobody and then just put all your men in there and let them kill each other. Or better, send the politicians, let them fight it out. Yeah, like this stupid race that we're having of atomic wars. So much money is being devoted to killing people and so little to saving. It's a crazy world.
I was a policeman for fifteen years in Washington, D.C. When I was involved in a hostage situation, I just waited. Eventually, the person gave up. There's no need to be playing gung ho and going in there with guns blazing. I worked always in black neighborhoods. I would not shoot. I would talk and talk and talk. In one instance, there were three men holed up. I took off my gun and I went in. I said, "You guys can kill me, but you're not gonna walk out of here because there's a lot of men waiting for you. You can give me your gun and walk out and do some time, but you're not gonna do it inside of a box." They said, "Man, you're crazy." I said, "I don't think you are." All three of them gave me the gun, and we walked out. It's just that I'm not a killer.
Santa Rosa, California. He came in during the conversation with his younger brother, Frank. He is a lawyer, successful, solid, and though easy with talk, is matter-of-fact in style.
I'd been to mass at Saint Rose and was on the floor reading the funny paper when we got the news of Pearl Harbor. We had the radio on, probably listening to Glenn Miller or Benny Goodman. It didn't really mean a thing for a while. Of course, we already had a brother, Bill, who was already in Canada, training to fly Spitfires. But these places were so far away from us. It just didn't seem possible that we were at war.
A friend and I were in San Francisco that Sunday night. We were stopped on the Golden Gate Bridge by a national guardsman. He looked in the car. It was a battered Chevvy. We heard later that a woman was killed on the bridge that night because she didn't respond to a guardsman's order to halt.
We decided to drive downtown. That was an eye-opener. Market Street was bedlam. The United Artists Theatre had a huge marquee with those dancing lights, going on and off. People were throwing everything they could to put those lights out, screaming Blackout! Blackout! The theater people had not been told to turn them off. Once in a while, they'd hit a light.
No cars could move. The streets were full of people, blocking the tracks, the trolley line. People were throwing rocks, anything they could find. A streetcar came along, one of those old-fashioned, funny San Francisco streetcars. It had a big round light. A man ran up with a baseball bat and smashed the light. But the city was lustrous, all the office building lights were on. I said to my friend, "Let's get the hell out of here before they smash our headlights."
I was a senior at the University of San Francisco. I had room and board with a lady and her daughter. I flipped on the lights because it was pitch dark. Mrs. Kelleher screamed, "Dennis, turn the lights out! The Japs are comin'! The Japs are comin'!" She and her daughter were sitting on the couch, clutching one another in absolute abject terror. "The Golden Gate Bridge has been bombed!" I said, "Mrs. Kelleher, I just drove over there a few minutes ago. There's nothing wrong with the bridge." But they were so terror-stricken, I turned out the lights.
Their son Frank was in the ROTC at USF. He got a call: For God's sake, get over here. We're gonna make a stand at the university! They'd been listening to the radio all day and were convinced the Japanese were here. They had landed all over the coast and had taken the Presidio. They would repeat it on the radio, again and again. Total hysteria.
The next morning, when we discovered that there weren't any Japs on the corner of Twelfth and Balboa, the fear subsided. We made it through the black night and we weren't bombed. We had our breakfast and everything was pretty routine. We were simmering but we weren't boiling.
Bill, who was in Canada, called our mother to find out if we were okay. He'd heard in Canada that San Francisco had been bombed and most of the West Coast. Mrs. Thurston, our doctor's wife, packed up and left. Back to Alabama, where she came from. The doctor said, "You go, I'm not leavin'." She took the jewelry, all the money, everything, and left him alone in the big beautiful house.
Within a week we had a company of Texas National Guard boys. Six or seven hundred of them, camped in the old Fairgrounds building. They had been sent here to protect us. Everybody came out here to protect us from the anticipated invasion. The papers didn't help any. The Examiner had a headline: Japanese Invade West Coast. All we had out here were Hearst papers. We reacted like a bunch of nuts.(Continues…)
Excerpted from ""The Good War""
Copyright © 1984 Studs Terkel.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ITL[OTHER BOOKS BY STUDS TERKEL,
A SUNDAY MORNING,
MAYOR TOM BRADLEY,
A CHANCE ENCOUNTER,
RICHARD M. (RED) PRENDERGAST,
TALES OF THE PACIFIC,
E. B. (SLEDGEHAMMER) SLEDGE,
MAURICE E. (JACK) WILSON,
THE GOOD REUBEN JAMES,
BETTY BASYE HUTCHINSON,
MAYOR TOM BRADLEY,
REFLECTIONS ON MACHISMO,
JOHN H. ABBOTT,
ADMIRAL GENE LAROCQUE,
GENERAL WILLIAM BUSTER,
THE BOMBERS AND THE BOMBED,
JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH,
EDDIE COSTELLO AND URSULA BENDER,
GROWING UP: HERE AND THERE,
YASUKO KURACHI DOWER,
D-DAY AND ALL THAT,
CHARLES A. GATES,
DR. ALEX SHULMAN,
BOOGIE WOOGIE BUGLE BOY,
A QUIET LITTLE BOOM TOWN,
AT THE BAR,
GEORGE C. PAGE,
THE BIG PANJANDRUM,
THOMAS G. (TOMMY THE CORK) CORCORAN,
JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH,
W. AVERELL HARRIMAN,
JOSEPH L. RAUH, JR.,
EARL B. DICKERSON,
UP FRONT WITH PEN, CAMERA, AND MIKE,
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT,
ALVIN (TOMMY) BRIDGES,
HANS GOBELER AND JAMES SANDERS,
WALTER AND OLGA NOWAK,
A TURNING POINT,
MIKHAIL NIKOLAEVICH ALEXEYEV,
VIKTOR ANDREYEVICH KONDRATENKO,
IS YOU IS OR IS YOU AIN'T MY BABY?,
JOHN H. GROVE,
FATHER GEORGE ZABELKA,
HAJIMI KITO AND HIDEKO TAMURA (TAMMY) FRIEDMAN,
REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST,
NANCY ARNOT HARJAN,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I was sitting in a coffee shop in San Francisco the day the first exerpts (prior to publication of the book) from 'The Good War' first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. I had just picked up a copy at a newstand and began to read as I settled down with a cup of Java Jive. I heard a sound that got my attention and looked up to see a very dignified gentleman just opposite me reach up with a crisp white handkerchief to wipe a flood of tears from his face. I noticed that he, too, was reading The Atlantic Monthly. I didn't want him to notice me, so I quickly diverted my gaze and returned to the magazine. It wasn't long before my own face was awash with tears. There was a woman that Mr. Terkel had interviewed and one of the most poignant stories I had ever read was told in her 'voice.' It was an interview with Maxene Andrews, of the Andrews Sisters. You really should read the entire book...and especially note this story. It tells a poignant story that certainly touched that gentelman, and me. I'm certain it will touch you, as well.
Oral histories can be very flawed histories in that it is difficult for those living through an event to see it objectively; yet, they also provide those who did not live through an event to see it through the eyes of those who did and to see how it has changed their perceptions of the world around them. In "The Good War," Stud's Terkel does an excellent job of this by interviewing a variety of people from different ages, backgrounds, and nationalities to show us how the war affected them. The book brings the war to life for those of us who did not live it and allows us to question whether any war can ever truly be a "good war."Terkel's methodology of presenting this to us enhances the reader's understanding of the stark reality of the horrors of war, the camaraderie of the soldiers, the pros and cons of dropping the atomic bomb, and the way that the war affected the people of the post-war generation. He does this through the topical sequence of the individual histories and through rarely interjecting his own thoughts but instead allowing those who lived it to tell their own stories without the interference of a biased editor. In order to fully appreciate this book, the modern reader should already have some knowledge of world war history and some knowledge of the conflicting viewpoints of Americans about the Cold War and the war in Vietnam. However, anyone with a working knowledge about these topics should find this book very enlightening, and it will definitely enhance their appreciation of what these men and women went through. As far as oral histories go, "The Good War" is one of the best I have read.
One of the best books I've read with a new twist on WW II, and the stories most of us would never hear except for here.