MARCHING HOME: TO WAR AND BACK WITH THE MEN OF ONE AMERICAN TOWN. By Kevin Coyne. Viking, 406 pages. $25.95.
They went off to war in the 1940s, six young men of the 16 million GIs who served in World War II. Though in their basic form war stories are all the same, each one is also unique and deserves telling. So it is with the stories of these six from Freehold, N.J., the author's hometown.
They went off to war individually, some volunteering, others drafted. They did not serve together. They were all in combat, but only one was in the infantry. One flew 72 missions as a B-26 waist gunner. There was a radioman on the flagship of a cruiser division, an intelligence sergeant in a bomber group, a private in a combat engineers regiment, and an operator in a radio intelligence company.
No one was wounded seriously, but Stu Bunton, a radioman on the USS Santa Fe, still can see the mustachioed face of the kamikaze pilot who passed within feet of him in his failed attempt to crash his Zero into the ship.
There were no Medals of Honor, but during the Battle of the Bulge, Walter Denise earned a Bronze Star for dragging a seriously wounded GI to safety while under fire.
One of the six, waist gunner Bill Lopatin, was an immigrant, a Russian Jew who came to the United States as a 9-year-old boy in 1919.
When the captured railroad bridge at Remagen fell into the Rhine River 10 days after its capture, one of the six, Buddy Lewis, and his segregated Engineers regiment helped build a new bridge. His regiment was issued picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows, while a white contingent alongside had power equipment. Radioman Jake Errickson monitored the airwaves through New Guinea and delivered his intercepts to those who could decipher them. Intelligence Sgt. Jim Higgins prepared mission maps and reports on flak installations his bombers would face over occupied Europe and Germany.
Kevin Coyne lifts these six stories out of the ordinary by seamlessly linking them to the official reports on each action. He also shows how they fitted into the larger picture of the war. Coyne refrains from melodrama, letting the facts do their job, and they do it well.
The first half of the book is better than most on individual GIs at war, but Coyne wanted to do more. He follows the veterans through their lives to the present.
He shows life in Freehold - they all remained there - during the last 55 years, but he loses the essence he captured while they were GIs.
Despite that failing, he offers a good social history of Freehold in the last half of the 20th century, showing his veterans doing their best to meet circumstances that frequently were beyond their control, including race relations, drugs, factory closings, and urban sprawl.
Marching Home is everything a war memoir should be, and more.
Jules Wagman is a freelance writer living in Jacksonville, Fla.