Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Jon Meacham on the evolution of Abraham Lincoln's moral principles and political leadership -- and what the era of Lincoln can teach us about the state of our democracy today.
Most stories about World War II focus on the men who fought. A new novel follows instead the lives of the women, children and parents they left behind. The main subjects are three women in a small Massachusetts town. They fall in love and get married before their men ship off to battle. They dream of happiness and safety after the war, and they can’t imagine how much their lives and society will be transformed. Two of the husbands are killed; the other is a psychological casualty. And amid the post-war decades of prosperity, seeds of the civil rights and women’s movements start to sprout. Diane talks with author Ellen Feldman.
- Ellen Feldman Author of the novels, "Scottsboro," "The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank," and "Lucy."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. World War II and its aftermath are the subjects of a new novel by Guggenheim Fellow, Ellen Feldman. It's set in a small town in Massachusetts and follows three women whose men go off to battle and how their lives and their country change in the decades that follow. Her new book is titled "Next to Love" and Ellen Feldman joins me in the studio.
MS. DIANE REHMOf course I'll look forward to hearing your questions and comments, 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to email@example.com. Good morning, Ellen, it's good to have you here.
MS. ELLEN FELDMANGood morning, Diane, I'm delighted to be here.
REHMI gather you've taken that title from something, a quote that lexicographer Eric Partridge once said.
FELDMANYes. Actually, he fought in World War I and before the war, he said, war next to love has captured the world's imagination. And I think there're two powerful emotions avenge that go hand in hand and it applied to this book.
REHMYou were inspired by the Bedford Boys. Tell us about them.
FELDMANYes. Years ago, I read about the Bedford Boys and I -- for a long time, I wanted to write a book about them, wasn't sure how to go about it. The Bedford Boys were a group of young men in Bedford, Va., small town, about 3,200 population before the war.
FELDMANAnd during the Depression, they all joined -- this group of young men joined the National Guard, mainly because the National Guard paid, that you got a salary or a stipend for training and training on weekends. And this was the Depression and the young men in this small town needed this money. Then we went to war -- or just before, before we got into the war, they were called up to duty.
FELDMANThey trained together, they shipped out together, they trained again in England and they were in the first wave of young Americans who landed on Omaha Beach. Nineteen of them were killed within minutes, three more were killed during the day. It was a devastating loss for this small town. It was said that this was the greatest loss sustained by any town in American during one day -- a one day period.
FELDMANRevisionist history suggests that it wasn't the town of Bedford, it was the county, but it doesn't make any difference. Geography is beside the point. This was, as I say, a devastating experience. When I started to write the book, I decided I didn't want to write about these young men themselves. They were private citizens and I felt they deserved their privacy, but also, I wanted to use this as emblematic of what America was going through during the war.
FELDMANThe loss was so great and it touched every family. Everyone knew somebody who perished in the war and that's what I wanted to write about.
REHMAnd how different from today's situation?
FELDMANExactly. Today, very few of us know anyone who is serving in the military and it's 1 percent of the American population. Then, as I say, everyone knew someone.
REHMAnd after this dreadful situation that happened recently with the loss of so many Navy SEALS and other personnel.
FELDMANYes. It's just -- I -- on the news this morning, I was listening to the fact that that terrible loss made headlines over the weekend and now it's off the front page. We've moved on. America doesn't -- we're not aware of the wars that are going on over there.
REHMI know that in doing this novel, you did a great deal of research into some of the letters that came out of World War II. Talk about that research.
FELDMANThe letters actually were one of the most pleasant aspects of the research 'cause so much of it was to heartbreaking and some of the letters were heartbreaking, too. But one of the beautiful things about it is these men wrote such moving, passionate letters, whether they were well-educated or not illiterate, but certainly not terribly well-educated or whether they -- some of them were beautiful writers naturally, some of them were barely intelligible.
FELDMANBut they all -- suddenly, I think being away from home and being in danger and being frightened, they were all very young and of course frightened and they -- their heart -- they opened their hearts to mostly wives and girlfriends. I mean, I came across one love letter parents, which was very nice. Now, the tragedy is it said, you won't get this unless I don't survive and he perished on D-Day, too.
FELDMANBut you get others saying -- there's one young man and he did survive who said -- says, I've been in real danger for the -- several times over the past few weeks and every time -- to his wife -- every time, I've thought only of you and how much I miss you and if I don't make it, how much I'll miss spending my life with you. They were beautiful letters.
REHMAnd in your novel, you've included several letters from 1942 through 1944.
FELDMANYes. Those were fictionalized letters I made up, but they were based very closely on the letters that I read.
REHMSo Ellen Feldman, in your novel "Next to Love," you follow the lives of three women who've been friends since kindergarten. Tell us about them.
FELDMANAll right. Well, about the women or about the inspiration for them?
REHMAbout the women.
FELDMANAbout the women, all right (laugh).
FELDMANThe first woman, who is probably the main protagonist, she's called -- her name is Bernadette, but she'd called Babe and she is from the other side of the tracks, we might say.
FELDMANShe's tough. Well, she's resilient. And she takes a job. She's the only one who takes a job. Well, the other two have children during the war and she is has to promise when she gets the job that she will leave it as soon as the men come home.
REHMEven as she's given the job, it's under that condition.
FELDMANEven as -- yes. This was not uncommon at the time.
FELDMANBecause they were very worried about unemployment after the war, so she promises that, she takes on the job in a Western Union office. And she's the only one who does not have a child during the war. The other two, they have been friends since childhood, one is kind of well-born, but she marries the golden boy of town, but golden boy sounds as if he's sort of a playboy. He's not. He's a very serious young man and they're happily married and have a little girl who's...
REHMAnd her name is?
FELDMANOh, I'm sorry, her name is Grace.
FELDMANAnd they -- Grace and Charlie have a little girl who's one as the war starts and that's important because I wanted to deal also with the effect of the war and the loss of life on the children as they get older. And the third woman is Millie, who has been in love with this boy for some time and he dated her and then he left her and then he dated her. But when the war comes, he married her and this happened all -- all the time.
FELDMANI mean, it was just a rash of marriages as soon as we got into the war and as we saw the war coming. And she wants a child very much and she follows him to his training camp and she gets pregnant and has a child, which he never sees when he goes off to war. He is not -- and this is very common, too. You get a lot of letters about children coming from fathers who have seen nothing but pictures and the letters going back and forth, they're often about the little or little boy that they know only by letter and by photograph.
REHMAnd of course, Millie thinks that if not for the war, her husband would not have married her.
FELDMANThat's true. Millie thinks that -- Babe also suspects that because she married upwardly (laugh) and she sometimes wonders if he would've married her if there were no war. And nobody knows, of course. She does ask the question at the end of the book (laugh).
REHMI remember this owner of the hardware store who takes it on himself to begin delivering these telegrams to the families of the three and more who have died in that early chapter. What a heartrending moment that was.
FELDMANThat was -- when I was (word?) I did not research the Bedford Boys much 'cause I did not want to use them as individuals. I was shocked to find out, these young men died on D-Day. The telegrams from the war department did not come until six weeks later. I couldn't believe that. And then, of course, as I thought about it, I realized D-Day was such a massive invasion and it was I mean, there was such chaos that of course it would take some time to sort this out.
FELDMANAnd so these women, families and wives, parents and wives, were writing to these young men for six weeks. And after they found out that they died, the letters began coming back, each one stamped deceased. But in the meantime, the day -- these all came in in one day, these telegrams, and they just started piling up and they couldn't get -- there was no way to deliver them, it was just small town and so the woman asks the man in the hardware store to deliver them and it was just heartbreaking because people quickly saw what was happening.
FELDMANThey -- word spread that he is driving around delivering these telegrams. And people watched him, praying he would not stop at their house.
REHMAnd one of your protagonists in the novel begins swimming away into the mud so that the hardware store owner cannot reach her.
FELDMANYes. I that came to me as I was writing, that there's anything -- I mean, I think you get into magical thinking in this sort of a...
FELDMAN...situation and she thinks if she -- if he can't hand her the telegram, her husband won't die and she'll do anything to get away from this.
REHMEllen Feldman, her new novel is title "Next to Love." If you'd like to join us, 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. what I love about your book is that you include some of the recipes of the era, the things that people used to make during those years of rationing, meat rationing, egg rationing, butter rationing, all of that is part of what you write and we'll talk more about that when we come back from a short break. Do join us, I look forward to hearing your calls, seeing your e-mail, your postings on Facebook and Twitter.
REHMAnd welcome back. Ellen Feldman is with me, she is a writer of several books. She's a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow. She's the author of the novels "Scottsboro," which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, also "The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank" and "Lucy." Her newest is titled "Next to Love." It's the story of three women who have endured the chaos and the change that comes with losing spouses in one way or another and the years that follow World War II.
REHMDo join us, 800-433-8850. Here's a single tweet, Ellen, from someone who says, "I have to respectfully disagree that 'nobody knows anybody in the military anymore.' I have cousins who serve and friends who did." Obviously you were making a generalized comment and there are many, many people who know others who are going through this right now.
FELDMANOf course there are and what I meant was that -- by that was that during World War II, everyone knew someone.
FELDMANAnd now it is so shockingly -- of course, there's a segment of the population, as we said, 1 percent who are fighting this war and most people do not know someone in the military and I think that's tragic because as a result, these wars and the people who are fighting them get pushed to the background.
REHMWould you read for us from the prologue here?
FELDMANYes. This is the scene that we were talking about where the seven -- the 19 telegrams -- actually 23 have come into the telegraph office from the war department and there are just too many to deliver by bicycle, which is the way many telegrams were delivered during World War II. So she asks the -- the protagonist, Babe, has to find another way to get them delivered.
FELDMAN"By noon, she has cut and pasted 16 messages from the war department, enough to break the hearts of the entire town, more than B.J. will be able to deliver on his bicycle in one afternoon. She tells B.J. to watch the office and walks quickly down the street to the hardware store. Mr. Shaker is sitting on a stool behind the counter. She starts to explain that she has 16 telegrams in the war department and wants him to deliver some of them, but before she can finish, he says he will close the store and deliver all of them.
FELDMANIt is the worst day of Sam Shaker's life until his wife dies eight years later. By three o'clock, he has delivered 10 of the 16 telegrams that came that morning and the three more that arrived later. By then, everyone knows what he's up to. He can feel eyes watching him from behind half-drawn blinds tracking the progress of his truck driving slowly up one street and down another, praying he will keep going.
FELDMANOne of the telegrams takes him out to the Wohl farm outside of town. On his way back, he passes the pond that serves as a swimming hole. The heat has brought out half the women and children in town. He pulls off the road. Millie Swallow sits on a blanket with her little boy held in the embrace of her crossed legs.
FELDMANGrace Gooding is standing waist deep in the pond, her hands supporting her little girl, while the child churns her arms and kicks her legs and sends up a spray that splinters in the sun like diamonds. At the water's edge, a group of matrons sit in low canvas chairs. The scene is as peaceful and perfect as a Saturday Evening Post cover, 'What We're Fighting For.'
FELDMANA sudden wave of nausea makes him lean back in the driver's seat and close his eyes, which hearts break harder, wives' or mothers'? The question has no answer. Misery cannot be weighed on a scale. He slips the envelopes into his pocket, gets out of the truck and starts toward the pond."
REHMAnd we know he delivers some telegrams.
REHMWhen Babe who has cut and pasted all these telegrams continues to work, her husband does survive.
REHMHe comes back, but he's a totally changed man.
FELDMANThis is another one of the heartbreaks of the war. We -- and I think it was even more difficult in World War II. We're much more aware now of the fact that men and women come home changed and wounded in ways that are not obvious physically. During World War II, there was not this feeling. There was a lot of government work, pamphlets and stuff like that telling the returning GIs how to readjust -- what it's going to be like to readjust.
FELDMANAnd the interesting thing is -- and I've gotten this from friends whose parents came -- whose fathers came home. A lot of men said, oh, I'm not going to need that. Just let me get out of the military and I'm going to be just fine. In fact, they found that wasn't true and very few of the men talked about it. They couldn't talk about it then. Our society frowned -- to be strong was to not talk about your problems and not talk about hurting. And so we had a lot of men who came home who were terribly damaged from the war. And in this book, Babe's husband comes home a very different man.
REHMYou know, it's interesting one -- well, all of my male cousins were in World War II and one of whom actually lived with us with his dad. And I can remember his sitting in the den of our house smoking cigarettes and then just going to sleep in that chair as dusk fell just sleeping a lot of the time. And, you know, I'd say to him, Sam, tell me what it was like. And he'd say, I don't feel like talking. And I think that must have been how it was for a lot of these men.
FELDMANI think that's very true. They did not want to talk, but perhaps they talked about it among themselves, too.
FELDMANThey were all buddies when they got together, but they didn't want to talk about it to their wives and children and parents. They had seen horrors that they -- no one who had not seen them could understand. Nobody who had not served could understand what they had lived through.
REHMAnd here was Babe's husband so in love with her.
FELDMANYes. And he still -- his silence and his pain comes between them tremendously. Now she has her own silence (unintelligible), but that's a different story and more personal and unique for her. But certainly, I think this was common. Men came home to the women they loved and they couldn't speak about what they had gone through.
REHMAnd of course, now we recognize something called post-traumatic stress syndrome. Back then, it was just a letter. You may have some difficulties readjusting.
REHMHere's how you can seek help. And of course, as you said, most people just said, I don't need that.
FELDMANExactly. It would be a sign of weakness for most of those men.
REHMEllen Feldman and the book is titled "Next to Love." Two of your characters spend time in a sanitarium. How common was that and what kind of treatment were they likely to get?
FELDMANI actually don't know how common it was. I don't have statistics. I think it was probably more common than we know, again, because people didn't talk about that. In the book, when the man who has been in a sanitarium is trying to persuade the woman who needs help to go to one, she's afraid that people in the small town will find out and it will reflect on her and her daughter. And he tells her, no, you didn't know that I was there. We'll say you went away, went to visit friends in California or something like that.
FELDMANAnd so it was not something you talked about. If you had a member of your family in a sanitarium, it was a shameful secret, not just a secret, a shameful one. I don't know a great deal about the treatment. I do know some treatment that was common, because I know of a case, was electric shock treatment, which then went out of fashion and is now somewhat back in fashion, but that was one treatment. I -- they -- to my knowledge, and I don't know about this, they did not have this sort of group therapy that we use a great deal now.
REHMOn our webpage at drshow.org we posted a photograph of you and your uncle. Tell us about that.
FELDMANI love that photograph (laugh).
REHMYes. It's a charming photograph.
FELDMANThank you. That -- my uncle served in the war. He was a surgeon and he was in the Medical Corp. and served -- he trained in England -- well, he served in England and then he served in a field hospital in France. And I did -- as you can see, I was a baby when (laugh) he -- during when he was in the service.
REHMYou were just two.
FELDMANI think I was -- I'm trying to figure -- well, yeah, I was one or two when that picture was taken. And -- but by the time -- and I don't remember his coming home except a lot of excitement after the war. I do remember him when I was older, as I was growing up. And he came home a changed man, I mean, from what I understand about what he was like before. I had not even realized that I had used him as much as I did in the book until I was close to the end of the book.
FELDMANHe came home, he opened an office. He never practiced. As the character in the book does, he walked out of the office one day. He simply couldn't practice medicine. He could go into hospitals and do all sorts of work that didn't involve seeing patients, but I think he had just seen too much horror in that war. And his life was ruined by the war. He was a casualty. Even though he lived for another 11 years after the war, he was a casualty of the war.
REHMAnd then he...
FELDMANHe committed suicide. And we -- as we know from news accounts now, that is a huge problem with men and women coming home from combat now.
REHMIndeed. All right. We have many callers. We'll open the phones now, 800-433-8850. First to Casstown, Ohio. Good morning, Roger.
ROGEROh, good morning, Diane. Good morning, Ellen. I'm trying not to cry. My father -- they put him in the naval reserve. He wanted to be a ground pounder. He was 32 years old, left my mother with two obnoxious children, some very ill parents and in-laws, was posted for London liaised with the British to work on the beachhead, wound up on Omaha Beach.
ROGERBut before he got there, the crown saw fit to provide him with a female companion. Her name was Burg -- Louie Burg. And I was seven when he came back and I would suppose that it was probably two or three years later. And one night, my mother was tight and they all got tight back then and she brought this up. Apparently my dad, you know, being a pretty nice guy, had mentioned this to her. Can you imagine -- or -- I mean, oh, anyway.
REHMWhat are you -- you know, Roger, I'm not quite getting it. What do you mean that the crown supplied your dad with a lover?
ROGERNot a lover, not a lover, and he would stress that in these conversations, a companion.
ROGERIn other words, when you're an officer, you have a batman and he takes care of your shoes and your clothing and this and that.
REHMOkay. All right.
ROGERAnd then, because there was a whole lot of partying going on in London at that time, if you were the sort who wasn't going to go out and consort with whatever -- women of whatever repute you wish to call them, the crown would provide you with a female companion to go to dances and go to parties.
REHMAnd your father reported that to your mother and...
REHM...what was her reaction?
ROGERWell, I can only imagine the fact that she drank herself to death...
ROGERI mean, that was part of it, I think.
REHMYeah, okay. Ellen, what have you heard about this?
FELDMANWell, I agree with you that the phrase (laugh) the crown provided him is a little strange.
FELDMANCertainly, I mean, there were USO dance -- or over there, there were all sorts of dances with English girls. In the pamphlets in the advice that the young -- that the wives were given when their husbands were coming home was, do not ask your husband what happened overseas. He was under enormous pressure. And of course, these men were. I mean, besides England, when they started -- when they reached the continent, their lives were in danger every day. And the idea was you do not ask them what they did. They were under stress and different circumstances.
REHMEllen Feldman, the book is titled "Next to Love." You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Roger, thanks for your call. It sounds as though you had a youth filled with stress. I hope that somehow you can find peace. Good morning, Betty, in Tulsa, Okla. You're on the air.
BETTYGood morning, Diane. I'm Betty from Tulsa right now. My father was in the service during the campaign in the South Pacific. And he wrote my mother constantly day in and day out. They corresponded back and forth with each other and I would hear her reading these out loud to herself. We took a loft in a great huge barn and it had been fixed for us, just us two. And she would write and receive letters from daddy throughout the time he was stationed. Wherever he was stationed, they were in touch.
FELDMANI think mail was so crucial to the men overseas and to the women at home. Mail call was one of the most -- was probably the most important part of the day for those men, more than chow or anything like that. And the day that a man got -- also the mail was very irregular, so you could get no mail -- even though your wife was writing daily, you could get no mail for several weeks and then you'd get 15 letters. And it was like breaking the bank. But otherwise, your heart was broken. It was essential, these letters going back and forth.
FELDMANAnd now we have immediate communication...
FELDMAN...through all this electronic -- all these electronic devices and I don't -- I doubt that we get the kind of love letters that those people -- those men and women were writing because I think that technology does not lend itself to it. But those letters were crucial.
REHMYou know, I think there's a lot to that that the writing of such letters allows the passion to rise.
FELDMANExactly. You're not going to say something at Skype or something like that, necessarily. Probably you'll say less than you will in person. And yet, if you're sitting there missing someone terribly, you will put in that letter.
REHMJust think of all the beautiful letters we're going to miss because of e-mail...
REHM...because of Skype, because of so much advancing technology. We're going to take a short break here and when we come back, we'll talk more about Ellen Feldman's new novel "Next to Love."
REHMAnd welcome back. As you can imagine, have many calls, many e-mail's. I'll try to get to just as many as I can. Here's one about Americans buying U.S. Treasury Bonds. Pat, in Tulsa, Okla. says, "Talk about the benefit of Americans getting behind a drive to have Americans put a portion of their savings into U.S. 10-year bonds. If we were to repeat the World War II bonds strive, we could be less dependent on foreign loans, strengthening the U.S. economic position." I can remember, as a child, buying those $25 U.S. war bonds.
FELDMANExactly. I -- this comes back to everyone knowing someone in the service. World War II united this country and we got behind war bonds. We were all making sacrifices. You talked about rationing before, we -- it was ok to do without things because everybody was doing without things and we were doing it for a greater cause.
REHMAnd of course, I could remember standing in line for bubble gum. What else can I tell you? But there was gas rationing.
REHMYou could only drive a certain amount. Here's another e-mail from Winchester, Va. Jennifer says "I loved Ellen Feldman's novel of the relationship between Lucy Mercer and F.D.R. and would like to recommend it to "DR Show" listeners. Did the research of F.D.R. lead to interest in the Bedford boys?"
FELDMANActually, I think -- yes. I had forgotten that. That was the first time I read about the Bedford boys, but reading about F.D.R. as a war President and his experiences with Lucy Mercer during the war.
REHMAll right. To Rockford, Ill. To Alex, good morning. You're on the air.
ALEXGood morning, Diane. I'm so happy to hear this this morning. My mother's family still lives in Bedford County and the old city of Moneta. And my aunt, who recently passed away, she was in her 90s, said that that particular six-week period, after the D-Day landing, was the fattest in Bedford's history. She said, for six weeks, when somebody came to the door that you didn't recognize, you just held your breath because you almost knew it was somebody in the family who had died.
FELDMANI can believe that. I cannot imagine how people lived through it. It's just so heartbreaking. And as I say, I used to because I think that happened all over America, but there's no doubt that Bedford County just went through a tragic experience here.
ALEXAnd I don't know if anyone has mentioned it yet about the monument that was built to D-Day in Bedford simply -- I mean, especially because of the Bedford Boys. It is a gorgeous monument.
FELDMANI haven't seen the monument...
FELDMAN...but yes, they did build that special tribute.
REHMOh, it's something you should see having written...
REHM...this book. Alex, thanks for calling. Here's an e-mail from Roger who says, "My father was not drafted for World War II and was considered vital to the national defense at his work. He worked in an automobile factory that was converted for military contracts. Most of the workers were women whose husbands had been drafted or enlisted. At the end of the war, many of the women did not want to give up their jobs. It seems they were now union members."
FELDMANThat's a very good point because the official line after the war was that women couldn't wait to give up their jobs and go back to their kitchens and cleaning, cooking, sewing. In fact, many of them had got accustomed to making their own decisions and their own money during the war and they were not so eager to go home. It was the World War II version of the old World War I song "How 'Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree)."
FELDMANAnd -- but the government was very worried after the war because we had 16 million men getting out of uniform and looking for work. And there was great fear of a depression of huge unemployment of social unrest. There was no official policy toward women except that some -- that they had to give up their jobs, but some of the industries that catered to women came up with a solution. One was the fashion industry. And this is more symbolic than actual, but it was important.
FELDMANDior's new look after the war, during the war women had worn short skirts because of the regulations for fabric and whatnot and trousers to go to the factories. And in those outfits, they could walk and stride and reach and move. Suddenly after the war, here comes the new look and it cinched wastes, very tight bodices and yards and yards of skirts. Women couldn't do anything in those dresses except be. Just stand there and look pretty. Even more remarkable were the recipes of the war.
FELDMANDuring the war, as you've pointed out, Diane, there were all these recipes using the book where it -- they -- you had to -- even women who worked were expected to get a healthy meal on the table for their families at the end of the day. So in 1944, I have a recipe from Good Housekeeping or several recipes, which have little clocks at the top that tell you, if you start at 6:00, you'll be -- dinner will be on the table at 6:30. This was all fine. By early 1950s, the recipes in Good Housekeeping are a lot more elaborate and theirs one that starts dinner after breakfast.
FELDMANAnd the recipe I do use in the book, which is from a 19 -- early 1950s cookbook calls for 32 ingredients.
REHMSo what you're suggesting is that once women are taken, literally, out of the workplace, they are given chores and constricted in clothing that will keep them in one place?
FELDMANYes. That was what the -- that was what people -- we were trying to do. And the interesting thing is it was pretty successful for a while in the '50s. But the genie of feminism couldn't be put back in the bottle. And the women -- the daughters of the women who went out to work during the war were the women who made the feminist revolution of the '70s.
REHMYou know, I think we should go back a little bit and talk about the benefits of the G.I. Bill. And what that meant to creating a middle class in this country.
FELDMANThat was amazing. Every war transforms the society that fights it. But the G.I. Bill was unlike anything that had gone before. And that was because World War I, we were so unsuccessful at repatriating, the men who came home from World War I when we had the bonus march. So now the government decided, well, the war -- we're still fighting the war that we -- there would be something to take care of -- some program to take care of the men who were coming home.
FELDMANThe GI Bill as extraordinary. Suddenly, young men who were coming back could go to college on the government's money, they could -- with government backing, they could buy homes, they could start businesses and it made a middle class such as we had never had before and perhaps don't have anymore, but it thrived in the decades after World War II.
REHMAnd of course, there were many negative elements. For example, African-Americans who served in World War II side by side with white soldiers somehow came back expecting, realistically, that they would be treated the same in open society. It didn't happen.
FELDMANIt did not happen at all. In fact, you said they did fight side by side, but with -- would separately.
FELDMANYes. The war -- the military was not integrated until three years after the war, 1948, and then it took longer, that was just official. The line was always that, American boys were fighting to preserve a way of life, African-Americans were fighting to change that way of life. And they went overseas -- and especially the ones who went overseas and were treated much better frequently then they were at home.
FELDMANAnd they came home and expected to be treated decently. Afterall, they had -- many of them did not see combat. Not because they didn't want to, they wanted to very much, but the official thinking was that they should not be in combat. But the...
FELDMANBecause they were not reliable enough...
FELDMAN...they were not smart enough, they were not brave enough. And of the -- more -- a little more than 1 million African-Americans who served in World War II, only 50,000 saw combat. But the ones who did proved themselves and they came home ready to be first class citizens and they were not. And I use something in the book which is a real -- it's a story I'd read.
FELDMANA man who went back to school and got enough credits to qualify for college was accepted by college and he went to his counselor for the GI Bill and the man said, no, you can't go to college. The jobs that you'll get, you'll be qualified for after college, they won't give to -- he didn't say African-American, he would say Negro. Negro's don't qualify, you know, you can't get that job, go to training school. And he had the power to sign off and make him go to training school and not let him go to college.
FELDMANOn the other hand, the men who had fought through this war and came home this way were angry when they saw what -- the treatment they were getting and there's no doubt that they found the flames -- embers of a Civil Rights movement.
REHMNow, there was also anti-Semitism that many of these men experienced.
FELDMANYes, very definitely. Before the war, Jews certainly, but most communities live in ghettos of kind. People knew only people who looked the way they looked and thought the way they did. Suddenly, you had -- it's a half a million Jews who served in the military and they left their largely ghettoized existences and they lived among the other. You know, they lived among other people and it was not easy. There was a lot of prejudice.
FELDMANThey -- unlike the African-Americans who served in separate units, the Jews were integrated into it, but they came up against a lot of anti-Semitism. Sometimes they managed to fight through to friendships, sometimes they never did.
REHMLet's go to Syracuse, N.Y. Good morning, Renee.
RENEEGood morning. It's Renee Noellen (sp?). Good morning.
RENEEI'm also one of those babies who was born while my father was away. My Dad had an experience of World War II that sounds absolutely nothing like what I've been hearing. And while I certainly know from all of the things I've read that everything you said is right on, it's interesting that my own experience of that war, I mean, I didn't -- wasn't there, but, you know, what I've heard was so different.
REHMWell, when -- when you say so different, what do you mean?
RENEEWell, I'm going to tell you.
RENEEMy father was part of the 451st Bombardment Group, which still has reunions, and Bob Karstensen is somebody who has kept that group together all of these years and he's a man of great determination and loyalty. And the experience was that my father was the only Jew and the oldest of his group, the crew that few. My father was a radio pilot. And they all came back. And my Dad experienced absolutely no prejudice from his crew. They all adored him.
RENEEAnd they all survived and he talked endlessly about the war, which meant an enormous thing to him, but I think he had a tape in his head of every single thing that ever happened.
RENEEAnd so it was very different. One really quick experience was that he was on a train with an African-American and one of the soldiers did refuse, as you suggested, to share a bunk -- a birth with him, so my Dad said, I will share a bunk with this man. I don't have any problem with that. But later on, those men, the white men who had refused and the black man became best friends.
RENEEAnd my father thought it was because he had opened that door. And said, you know, nothing bad is going to happen to me.
REHMAnd probably so. Renee Noelle, thanks for being with us. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And to Ann Arbor in -- to Pamela who's there in Ann Arbor. You're on the air.
PAMELAI have two quick comments. One, my Dad fought in the South Pacific. He went into the Army as a drill instructor when he was 19 and went into the service and went overseas and he came back a second lieutenant and all he would ever say is that it was a battlefield commission. And it wasn't until after his death that members of his old group sent my mother letters that told her that it had been one of those heroic -- the officers were killed, the guidon was down, my Dad picks it up and says, come on men and leads them over the hill.
PAMELAAnd because of that, he got a battlefield commission and yet we never heard that story during his lifetime.
PAMELAAnd my brothers have the medals and the letters from the men and it's -- I mean, it's amazing, but the motto of my Dad and his brother and all of my Uncles was, you can tell the jokes about collecting coconuts and swimming, but you do not ever talk about what happened bad. And they didn't. They simply did not.
FELDMANI think that's so true and very common to so many of the men who had seen the horrors of war.
REHMDo you think it was an effort to protect others from hearing about those experiences or were they simply unable to open up themselves to let others who had not had those same experiences even feel them?
FELDMANThat's a fascinating question, Diane. And I can only speculate because I was not one of them. Obviously -- and I think in many ways, they did want to protect some. I have a friend whose father came home from combat in World War II and when her mother asked about it, he said, oh, I never killed anybody. I always fired above their heads. Now, you know he wasn't firing above their heads, but he was trying to protect his wife. On the other hand, I think probably, and this is a guess on my part, you couldn't talk about those things.
FELDMANIt -- they were, as I said, just so horrible. How do you put these things in words? And how do you make somebody who hasn't lived with what you have lived with and your buddies? I mean, this keeps coming up in the book, that Babe feels so distant from her husband because he talks about the men who he relied on who -- men who he would trust with his life. And she's so hurt, wouldn't you trust me with your life? But in fact, when you're fighting together, that's a different kind of trust. And I think that that was part of it, too.
REHMCourse, Tom Brokaw's book "The Greatest Generation," points to World War II as that time that produced the strength that this country is capable of.
REHMAfghanistan, Iraq, not the same.
REHMNot the same. Ellen Feldman, the book is titled "Next to Love." And I thank you for being here.
FELDMANThank you, Diane.
REHMThanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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