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World War II Story With an Unusual Cast

In "Honor Before Glory," Scott McGaugh tells the story of a U.S. Army combat team made up of Japanese-Americans who shrugged aside prejudice at home to become the most decorated unit of its size in World War II.

The book focuses on one battle, the harrowing and costly rescue in 1944 of the "Lost Battalion," 200 American soldiers surrounded by German infantry along a mountain ridge in eastern France.

McGaugh, the author of six other books, is also the marketing director for the USS Midway Museum in San Diego.

Q: You describe this book as representing the best and the worst of the American spirit. How so?

A: The best of the American spirit is people being willing to sacrifice and rise to the occasion. The worst is when we allow fear and vengeance to sweep the nation and make decisions that perhaps in retrospect are not in true keeping with what this country is all about. In this case, it was the internment of 100,000 Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor.

Q: What did you find most remarkable about this story?

A: Visiting the Vosges Mountains and discovering the intimacy of warfare. I had no idea that I would sit in German and American foxholes 20 to 30 yards apart. Reading documents that report a day's advance of 100 yards and seeing just how short a distance that is in the forest and then looking at the number of that day's casualties. Just extraordinary.

Q: How long were you there?

A: I spent four days in the mountains with a local guide and expert on the battle. We hiked the six-mile ridge, on a logging road and its tributaries, from where they jumped off to where they reached the Lost Battalion.

Q: Is it protected as a battlefield monument?

A: No, it's not. Chunks of forest there are owned by counties or other municipalities. It's not a national forest. It's a dense forest with slopes like you wouldn't believe. There are different groups that have put up small monuments where the Lost Battalion was reached. Most of them were placed there by American veterans or residents of the local towns.

Q: Tell me about the foxholes.

A: They are there by the hundreds. Most I would guess are kind of half-filled with erosion. But even then, sitting in them was a remarkable experience. You would find pieces of shrapnel. And you would be reminded of the human nature of battle. Looking down and finding a small, rusted key that some young man used to open his C-ration or K-ration and eat that day's meal. It really drives home that we're talking about 19-, 20-year-old boys.

Q: How do you think spending time there and finding these things shaped your book?

A: I won't dare say I was in their shoes. But it gave me a sense of the micro-scale of fighting. The foxholes were so close together. In one, I saw a cartridge from an American machine gun and right next to it a cartridge from a German machine gun. Hundreds of young men on both sides sat in those foxholes. Too many died in them. It brought it to life in a way that no after-action report ever could.

Q: This book tells the story of one rescue mission. What did that narrow focus enable you to do as a storyteller?

A: I think often times the story of many is best told through the story of one or a few. This is my seventh book and they've all inadvertently followed the trail of individual sacrifice and service. With a story like this, we can get a better sense of the bigger story, the 16 million Americans who served in World War II. I think it represents the Greatest Generation in a dramatic way.

Q: How did you first come across this story?

A: One of my earlier books, "Battlefield Angels," had a chapter about World War II medicine and a 442nd (Regimental Combat Team) medic named James Okubo. In writing that chapter, it struck me that this was a little-known World War II saga so I put it in my back pocket. In almost every book I've written, I've come across the next book. It's been a delightful and unexpected stepping stone process from one book to the next.

Q: A lot of the book relies on oral histories. How did you come across those?

A: I was very fortunate that nearly 100 rarely seen oral histories were made available by the Go For Broke National Education Center up in L.A. That was the gold mine. What has happened is that for many members of the Greatest Generation, it's only been in the last 10 years or so of their lives that they've been willing to share their stories. Some of them were almost on their death beds. These provided remarkable insight both in terms of what they endured at the time and how they still felt decades later -- how deep the scars run. Some of the oral histories were gut-wrenching. Many times these men in their 90s broke down.

Q: In the interviews, is there much reflection on how they and their families were treated after Pearl Harbor?

A: They didn't look back at the injustice of internment. It was more about why they volunteered. One, it was to show that they were worthy Americans. And to bring pride to family. One mom told her son, "Die for your country if you must, but do not dishonor your family."

There were some comments about how deeply they were hurt by the mixed reaction they received when they returned from the war. President (Harry) Truman and all the Army officers extolled their virtues, but in some communities the war was still being fought long after 1945.

Q: As you mentioned earlier, this is your seventh book. You write in the preface that this was hardest for you to write. Why?

A: This was the one I came closest to being able to imagine the pain that these men went through. Not just from their oral histories, but from going to the forest and walking in their footsteps, spending time in their foxholes and their aid stations -- it just made it much more personal than anything I've written before.

Q: In your day job at the Midway Museum, you probably see Japanese veterans from the war on occasion. What does that say about the ongoing effort by survivors on both sides to find some kind of reconciliation or meaning in what they went through?

A: I think in the oral histories, part of what you see is the veterans reconciling what they endured. It certainly reinforced what has taken place on the Midway. We have had on several occasions American pilots from World War II meeting Japanese pilots from World War II. I think enough time has passed that after several generations, these warriors in many cases have been able to come face to face with the enemy. It's an interesting process.

"Honor Before Glory," by Scott McGaugh, Da Capo Press, 257 pages, $25.99 ___

(c)2016 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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This article is written by John Wilkens from The San Diego Union-Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.

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