Once in war, they lived to tell about it: In honor of Veterans Day, here are 5 books about service by vets with Minnesota ties
ST. PAUL -- There are a lot of books about war. But for Veterans Day on Wednesday, if you want to read about it from someone who was actually there, here's a selection of books by Minnesota veterans and authors. They are memoirs and novels -- som...
ST. PAUL -- There are a lot of books about war.
But for Veterans Day on Wednesday, if you want to read about it from someone who was actually there, here’s a selection of books by Minnesota veterans and authors. They are memoirs and novels - some famous, some now obscure - covering several wars over a span of nearly 100 years. They range in tone from heroic to cynical to surreal. What they have in common is they were all written by men with Minnesota ties who wielded the sword, and then the pen.
“With the ground getting larger and larger below me, I also felt that I must have made a mistake and that what was about to happen to Harry and me was my fault. I knew the odds were high that I would be killed or captured within the hour, especially because my knees would not support an attempt at evasion. But there was another thought that alternated with the guilt that flooded me - a voice, actually, rather than a thought. It was loud and clear and kept repeating like a tape loop, ‘Leo, you are going to make it …. Leo, you are going to make it …’ It was the first time in my life that the Lord pre-emptively answered my prayers. The voice and these words would stay with me for the next six years. This was God’s gift to me as I descended into a nightmare.” - excerpt from “Surviving Hell”
Leo Thorsness is the only living Medal of Honor recipient from Minnesota.
But when he wrote a book about his experiences during the Vietnam War, he spent only a few pages on the action for which the fighter pilot was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Eleven days after the April 19, 1967, mission over North Vietnam where he shot down two enemy MiG fighters and engaged three others while protecting downed American flyers, Thorsness himself was shot down.
The Eagle Scout from Walnut Grove, Minn., would spend the next six years in North Vietnamese prisoner of war camps.
His 2008 book, “Surviving Hell,” started as a letter to his granddaughter about what he did in Vietnam. A publisher became interested in turning the letter into a book, but only if Thorsness would describe when he endured as a prisoner of war.
“I was not going to talk to the grandkids about that,” Thorsness said. But for the book, “I put enough in there to describe what it was.”
It’s a short read, only 127 pages, ending with his release in 1973. But it’s not always an easy read. There’s both outright torture and terrible conditions. For example, Thorsness describes how fortunate the American prisoners felt when they found a box of razor blades. They immediately put them to use slitting their infected gums to let the pus drain out.
“I think I captured the experience,” Thorsness said recently. “I didn’t go into as much detail as I could’ve.”
There’s also humor and ingenuity the POWs used to cope with their years of captivity and retain their humanity, including developing a “tap code” to conduct forbidden communications with fellow prisoners in different cells, conducting classes in math, music, foreign languages and bridge, memorizing poetry, holding church services, creating contests and devising science experiments.
“I’m not naturally a good writer,” Thorsness said.
But Thorsness said he hopes the reader will “get out of it that the Vietnam War was a lousy war. Any war is lousy. War is a failure of statesmanship.”
After the war, Thorsness lived in South Dakota, where he narrowly lost elections to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. He now lives in Florida.
In his book, he wrote that since his release as a prisoner of war, “I’ve never had a really bad day.”
‘Through the Wheat’
“War was a business of tightening things, he observed, as he fastened the chin strap of his helmet more tightly. Corroborating the evidence, he tightened his belt over his empty stomach. The men were marching along, an interval of three yards between each. A shell struck directly upon the moving front wave a few yards to the left of Hicks. An arm and a haversack foolishly rose in the air above the cloud of smoke of the exploding shell. Slightly farther on, machine-guns began an annoying rat-tat-tat, the bullets snipping off the heads of grain. More men fell. The front rank went on with huge gaps in it. On they stolidly marched. Hicks, glancing back, saw that the four waves had been consolidated into but two. But the bayonets glistened as brightly as before.” - excerpt from “Through the Wheat”
When the Southern Illinois University Press republished Thomas Boyd’s novel, “Through the Wheat,” in 1978, it was part of what it called its “Lost American Fiction” series.
These were books the publisher described as “obscure or unavailable works of fiction that merit a new audience.”
But 50 years earlier in 1928, when Boyd first had his novel published based on his experiences as a Marine infantryman fighting in the trenches in World War I, it was hailed by F. Scott Fitzgerald as “not only the best combatant story of the Great War, but also the best war book since ‘The Red Badge of Courage.’”
Literary critic Edmund Wilson said it was “probably the most authentic novel yet written by an American about war.”
Those are the kind of blurbs that can really help book sales. But the original dust jacket of Boyd’s book featured quotes only from fellow veterans of the war, who said things like, “It just tells things the way they happened.”
Boyd, originally of Ohio but who ended up in Minnesota after the war, enlisted in the Marines when he was 18. He fought at Verdun, Belaau Wood, Soissons and St. Mihiel. He survived a poison gas attack at Blanc Mont and was awarded the Coix de Guerre.
His novel centers on a young Marine fighting a battle in a wheat field, capturing the details of life and death in the trenches: the bullying officers, the gear, food, filth, how the men thought and spoke.
But poet, novelist and veteran James Dickey wrote that Boyd’s novel isn’t just a tell-it-like-it-was “eye-witness novel.”
“It is a war book of the most striking and moving kind, and its poetic qualities are evident everywhere from its title to its extremely matter-of-fact but sensitively realized details,” according to Dickey.
After the war, Boyd was the book editor of the St. Paul Daily News. He also co-owned a downtown St. Paul bookstore called Kilmarnock Books, which eccentrically didn’t shelve books in any particular order.
Boyd wrote a few other now-forgotten novels and short stories related to the war. He moved to Vermont, joined the Communist Party and unsuccessfully ran for governor there. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1935 when he was 36.
‘Never so Young again’
“Gerald’s voice: ‘Oh, blast! They’ve hit the tail … sorry, chaps … did the best I could.’
You sat there crouched, now badly frightened, mouth dry, stomach faint and cold and empty, your thighs stricken stiff as boards. Oh, God, you thought, get me out of this. You had never prayed before because you believed, as most air crews believed, that if you were doomed, you were doomed. Neither prayers, sacred medals, nor a rabbit’s foot would be of any help. But now you prayed. My God, you prayed.” - excerpt from “Never So Young Again”
Dan Brennan was another Twin Cities newspaperman who went to war and came home to write about it.
His World War II novel, “Never So Young Again,” first published in 1942 while the war was still going on, is about a young man bored with working at a newspaper in Minnesota, so he enlists in the Royal Canadian Air Force before America’s entry into the war. The hero ends up as a tail gunner in a British bomber, flying missions over Europe and wishing he had stayed in that dull newsroom.
In reality, Brennan was a journalist in Minneapolis who volunteered for the RCAF, was a tail gunner in an RAF bomber and then a ball turret gunner in the U.S. Eighth Air Force. He flew more than
80 missions over Europe. Like his hero in “Never So Young Again,” Brennan fell in love with a woman he met in Britain. In Brennan’s case, he ended up marrying her.
After the war, he was a reporter, and then press secretary for Minneapolis mayors Hubert Humphrey and Eric Hoyer.
He wrote more than two-dozen paperback novels, some pretty pulpy, with titles such as “The Velvet Rut” and “Sex and the Superbowl.”
Brennan died in 2002 in Artesia, Calif., at age 85. A card in the back of a 1946 Minneapolis Public Library copy of “Never So Young Again” showed it was last checked out in 1967.
“‘So what’re you reading there, Professor?’ asked Hatch.
‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom,’ I replied, ‘by T.E. Lawrence.’
‘He translated Homer and s---,’ said Phalen, ‘d’you know that, Gunny?’
‘No, guess I didn’t. Is one of them pillars “Never be a company gunny?” ’” - excerpt from “Baghdad Express”
Joel Turnipseed drove a tractor-trailer truck in Saudi Arabia as a Marine reservist during Operation Desert Shield in the Persian Gulf in 1991. His account of the experience is less “Sands of Al Jabar” and more “Catch-22” in the desert.
As a philosophy major who quotes Thoreau, Plato and Diogenes, and smoked a pipe and used a fountain pen in a war zone, Turnipseed isn’t a typical Marine - and this isn’t a typical war memoir.
On his website, Turnipseed said that when his book came out in 2003, he quit his job at a tech company “for fifteen minutes of fame on Fox News, CNN, ABC Nightline, and seemingly every NPR affiliate in the country.”
Turnipseed lives in Minneapolis, according to his website. He originally is from Duluth. He studied philosophy at the University of Minnesota, started a software company, sold it and has taught or been a visiting writer at Morningside College, the University of Minnesota, The Loft and Intermedia Arts.
‘Going After Cacciato’
“They did not know how to feel. Whether, when seeing a dead Vietnamese, to be happy or sad or relieved; whether, in times of quiet, to be apprehensive or content; whether to engage the enemy or elude him. They did not know how to feel when they saw villages burning. Revenge? Loss? Peace of mind or anguish? They did not know. They knew the old myths about Quang Ngai - tales passed down from old-timer to newcomer - but they did not know which stories to believe. Magic, mystery, ghosts and incense, whispers in the dark, strange tongues and strange smells, uncertainties never articulated in war stories, emotion squandered on ignorance. They did not know good from evil.” - excerpt from “Going After Cacciato”
Tim O’Brien was born in Austin, Minn., went to Macalester College and was drafted into the Army in 1968, which sent him to Vietnam as an infantryman until 1970.
In 1978, he published a novel, “Going After Cacciato,” about a soldier who decides to walk away from the war in Vietnam and head to Paris, trailed by fellow soldiers who try to bring him back.
According to O’Brien, “War stories aren’t always about war, per se. They aren’t about bombs and bullets and military maneuvers. They aren’t about tactics. They aren’t about foxholes and canteens. War stories, like any good story, is finally about the human heart.”
O’Brien is probably best known for a later book about the war, “The Things They Carried.” But he called “Going After Cacciato,” “my sort of first successful book.”