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New Book Highlights Forward Observers in WWII

bracketing the enemy

It was the Civil War history of his family -- his great grandfather, his brother and cousin served in the Union Army -- that first captured the imagination of John R. Walker.

A Vietnam veteran, the 66-year-old Stow, Ohio man began by researching family genealogy nearly 30 years ago as he worked at the University of Akron in internal auditing and later as a grant accountant.

After discovering his three family members served in Company B of the 104th Ohio Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War, he was motivated to get a master's degree in history at the University of Akron and then a Ph.D. in history from Kent State University and to turn his dissertation into a book. His undergraduate degree in accounting was from UA in 1974.

His dissertation was somewhat of a tribute to his late father, Donald L. Walker, of Alliance, a retired cost estimator who died in 1990 at the age of 70 and served as a forward observer with the 87th Infantry Division, 334th Field Artillery Battalion, during the war in Europe.

Forward observers were artillerymen who directed fire from the front lines.

This summer, Walker's book Bracketing the Enemy: Forward Observers in World War II was published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

The book details the history of artillery forward observation usage starting with the Civil War on, when direct fire was used, meaning the target had to be seen by the gunners.

Practices of artillery units changed during World War I, Walker said, from direct fire to indirect fire when they realized their gun crews were getting wiped out.

By World War II, military commanders used indirect fire with artillery units so far from the front lines that an artilleryman at the front had to visually adjust the fire so that they could not be seen by the enemy, Walker said.

That is when forward observers came into use.

While much forward observing was done from the air, forward observers on the ground were critical because weather and terrain made observation from planes difficult or impossible at times.

Walker's father, who with a team of soldiers, would radio back target locations with a team of artillerymen who would then call for and adjust fire.

Artillery units would then "bracket shots" at targets by firing two shots on the opposite sides, equidistant from the target, then splitting the distance with the third shot to try to hit the target.

"A 1944 U.S. Army publication declared that in ground combat, 'The forward observer is potentially the most powerful individual in the forward area,' " said Walker.

Walker uses two units in which his father served as examples in the book.

He focuses on the 37th Division of the Ohio National Guard, in which Donald Walker served before with Battery C, 135th Field Artillery before WWII. The unit served in the Pacific during the war. And he focuses on the 87th (Golden Acorn) Division, in which Donald Walker served during the war in Europe.

John Walker, who currently works in the City of Akron Income Tax Division, said he never thought he would write a book let alone get a Ph.D. in history.

But he just continued to do what interested him, and that led to both the degrees and the book.

His advice for people who are thinking about writing a historical book is to be aware that publishers are looking for a topic that "either no one else has written about before or else offers a new twist or a new take on a previously examined topic."

Perhaps the most important thing, he said, is to "pick a topic that interests you intrinsically; something that you are genuinely interested in and or fond of so much that you will be willing to work on for hours at a time over an extended period and never grow tired of working on it."

Walker, who with his wife Alice, have three adult children and three grandchildren, said his favorite history book is J.W. Gaskill's Footprints Through Dixie that was published in Alliance in 1919.

The book, he said, is his favorite not so much in terms of content but "rather the effect it had on me when I read it in 1984."

The book, he said, "fostered a lasting interest in genealogy, family history, military history and history in general, adding an entirely new dimension to my life."

After reading the book, he said, "I couldn't believe that my father's grandfather had served in the Civil War. It made the nineteenth century seem much more recent than it ever had before. As I was reading the book, I felt like J.W. Gaskill was talking to me."

He would like to write another book. Among the topics he said he is considering are Marine Corps field interpreters on the battlefield or survivor's guilt, which he said his father had because he witnessed such horrific scenes in Europe and yet survived so much carnage.

Researching, writing and having his book published, he said, "is a dream come true.... It's a lot of work. I'm just thrilled."

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