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R. G. Lasher
- Publié sur Amazon.com
Book Review: Assignment to Hell by Timothy M. Gay
Reviewed by Robert G. Lasher
In the winter of 1966, in a classroom where the steam heat was so stifling that even on the coldest day the teacher would throw open the windows to get a little fresh air into the mix, a young man stood before our class and professed the new love of his life. No, it wasn't Maria Frontera, the fiery redhead who sat next to him, or Janet Holding, the blonde two rows over (she was my girl); this twelve year old boy had fallen in love with a book: The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan. I don't remember everything he said, but I will never forget the passion in his voice as he delivered his seventh grade book report. "I love this book," he said. And today, almost 50 years later, Timothy M. Gay stands on his hero's shoulders to bring us the story he alone may have been born to tell: The War Against Nazi Germany with Correspondents WALTER CRONKITE, ANDY ROONEY, A.J. LIEBLING, HOMER BIGART, and HAL BOYLE, Assignment to Hell.
This is the story of World War II as we have never heard it. Told in a biographical context of five intrepid journalists, two of whom are household names to my generation, but all of whom were well known to our parents, it weaves together the history we have never been accurately taught with the personal remembrances that only people on the ground could possibly know. It's as if you were sitting with your grandfather and he says "Timmy, I know what the history books say, but let me tell you how it really was."
If you have seen the opening sequences of Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg's film that provides our generation the best visual depiction of the Battle of Omaha Beach, Normandy France, June 6, 1944, you will have a clue about how this book gets off to a roaring, action filled start. That said, do not even think of skipping the Author's Note, not exactly a foreword, in which Mr. Gay provides insights about the fortunes of war from a perspective of someone who has actually sat in the trenches and allowed himself to think and feel what our fathers did in their moments of deepest distress. He makes the point abundantly clear that what now appears like it was inevitable, wasn't all that certain when the rockets' red glare, and bombs bursting in air were the music that concussively, seemingly without ceasing, saturated their psyches.
Mr. Gay tells the story, many stories actually, in a way that you will still see the big picture, but what makes this book a treasure are the subtle details he provides, that allow us to experience as close to first hand as is humanly possible the joys and agonies of being on the front lines. For example, early in the book, he tells of a youthful Walter Cronkite crawling on hands and knees, or shimmying on his belly, to make his way through the fuselage, around 500 pound bombs and other mechanical implements of warfare, of a B-17, to make his way to a middle seat in the nose, a whole lot less comfortable than the middle seat I always avoid when climbing aboard the climate controlled Flying Fortresses of my battles. Gay gives such excruciating detail, that you can feel the pain in Cronkite's back, hands, knees and elbows.
Mr. Gay tells us who these guys really were, where they came from, the experiences and issues we would never have thought of, and the risks and sacrifices they made to get their stories out. The stories are all fact based and clearly well researched (there are over 300 footnotes, but they don't get in the way). He uses his imagination, and ties details together in a way to give us way more than a glimpse of what these men were actually experiencing as they conducted their business, and it was a business, and lives. He recounts some of their best stories and puts them vividly into the context of that day. He gives us plenty of opportunity to use our own imagination as well, so that all of these men become people we really know, as well as anyone can in this life.
He tells us stories about battles, people and places they never taught us about in the history classes we yawned through in high school. He allows us to appreciate things that ultimately really mattered, both to the people who were experiencing these stories in real time, and to us who have inherited the benefits of the legacy they sacrificed for. And believe me, their sacrifices were beyond even Mr. Gay's capacity to fully comprehend or report. If you are like me, you will have difficulty fighting back tears for much of this book. Don't fight. Let them come.
It is clear that I have known this author personally for a very long time. When he let us know his book was coming out, I told him I would read it, and review it. I had the choice to review it with some notion of veiled objectivity. Instead, like Tim, I have decided to share some of what I know about this great story teller of my generation. One of the correspondents he has chronicled grew up in a town perched in the mountains of north central Pennsylvania. Tim Gay grew up in a very similar kind of place. He was a great student, a very good athlete, holding the school record for the mile run, a record he may in fact still hold. He has had to travel just as far physically, and many miles farther psychically, to create the opportunities that resulted in this brilliant new book.
I love this book.
(Robert G. Lasher is a financial consultant specializing in commercial bank credit risk management issues. In 1966 he won the 7th grade spelling bee at Beaty Junior High School in Warren, PA. The winning word: riveting.)