THE GHOST MOUNTAIN BOYS HAUNT ME

In Neil’s recent column about That Problem Participant, he mentioned That-Reminds-Me-of-an-Unrelated-Personal-Story Johnson who has found a personal connection to whatever book is being read and needs to talk about.

That is me today.  Although, I would argue that mine is a That-Reminds-Me-of-a-Related-Personal-Story.

I read The Ghost Mountain Boys by James Campbell recently because I have been thinking about my father who passed away in 2006.  My father served in WWII in the 32nd Red Arrow Division which fought across the Pacific including the ill-conceived plan to march up and down the Owen Stanley Mountains in order to attack the Japanese. 

When I was a young man I used to love to read narrative nonfiction about the Second World War.  Bring on all those soldier memoirs, submariner tales or the aerial acts of those daring fighter pilots.  I lost that focus somewhere, I think it was college during the early seventies, but recently I have it back. 

This time it is personal.

Most book discussion leaders will tell you that getting men to come and discuss is difficult.  Perhaps an evening of war stories might get them out.  But today’s war stories are different from the ones I remember as a younger man.  Back then, everything seemed so purpose driven, meaningful and noble.

Now I read with a jaundiced eye, perhaps colored by my generation’s experience with the Vietnam War.  Campbell’s book is a tribute to the men who went on a mission which was doomed to be desperate from the first step these ill-trained and ill-equipped flatlanders set their first foot on the mountains of New Guinea.  These were not Marines but rather Army foot soldiers, most of whom had joined the National Guard to get ahead.  Some of the men remained noble during combat, some did not.  The mission never rose above a catastrophic waste of the soldiers sent to fight it. 

Because men of his generation never talked about the war, I only have some funny asides and a few letters to try to piece together what life was like for a twenty-something year old sent to the Pacific for three years to fight.  Campbell’s book makes it clear why some of the soldiers may not have wanted to remember. 

How different I look at combat now.  This might make a good companion work on a bibliography to support the latest HBO series, The Pacific (which because it deals with Marines never talks about the New Guinea campaign). 

Maybe what might get a person into the library to talk about something is their personal connection to it.  I wanted to talk about this with someone today and share a little personal history from my family.  Thanks for listening.

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About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

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