Friday, June 15, 2018

In the Offing: "Aztecs" at War

No Forgotten Fronts: From Classrooms to Combat 

By Lisa K. Shapiro (Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2018)

Reviewed by Ira R. Hanna

In early 1942, Dr. Lauren C. Post’s classes at San Diego State College, now known as San Diego State University (SDSU), included many young men and even some women who would volunteer or be drafted into military service during WWII. He asked them to write to him about their experiences and contacts with fellow “Aztecs.” Post had served on a destroyer in WWI and hoped that the letters would provide them with a way to release their feelings about their experiences and keep them connected to their home and college life. When the letters began to arrive, he decided to edit them into the San Diego State College Service Men’s News Letter (later changed to The Aztec News Letter), which would be sent back to them so that they would know what was happening to their college friends. Starting in May 1942, Post published it each month for the duration of the war.
After the end of the war, the original letters and copies of the newsletters were archived at the college. Dr. Lisa K. Shapiro, a SDSU assistant professor and community college teacher whose classes were always filled with veterans, discovered them one day while doing research for her creative writing class. For over two and a half years she read every letter and newsletter. From this experience, she became determined to turn them into a book that would bring home the meaning of war–what happened to those who were thrust into combat and faced the ultimate sacrifice. As she said, “Fighting changes not only the world, but the minds, hearts and even the souls of those required to carry out battlefield orders.” These letters described in simple, beautiful and profound prose those experiences. They also told of the boring daily life of those on the “forgotten fronts.” They painted a vivid picture of the exciting, fearful and exacting exploits of airmen, grunts in foxholes, and, if captured, their survival in enemy hands. They showed how these events changed them, not only physically, but mentally and spiritually- their pride in what America stands for – and tears at their sacrifices.

Shapiro chose one young Army Air Corps pilot, 1st Lt. Lionel Chase, to describe the beginning of Dr. Post’s effort. She ended her book with Chase’s last letter, dated October 1, 1945. In it, Chase expressed what Post’s newsletters meant to those servicemen and women. “No one can possibly tell you [Dr. Post] what a magnificent job you have done in making life more livable for the guys overseas. In my own experience, your News Letter has been something that really helped when I was down to the last blue chip.”

Shapiro helped make sense of the letters by tying them together with contextual and historical information. Chapters are arranged topically rather than chronologically, which sometimes makes for difficult transitions. On the other hand, in order to clarify the content of the letters, she selected several letters from a serviceman and his friends and provided relationship to historical facts. For example, POW letters were put in the context of what they said happened to them in relation to the 1929 Geneva Convention’s agreement on the treatment of POWs. Neither German nor Japanese POW camps fully complied with the agreement.

One chapter was dedicated to the letters from servicewomen. Many of them were commissioned as nurses, as Women’s Army Corps (WAC) pilots to ferry planes to airfields within the U.S., or Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) who worked at naval stations throughout the country. Ensign Laura E. Chase, USNR, who had an apartment on Stockley Gardens in Norfolk, Virginia, related that her job involved being a flight planner at the Information Center at the Naval Air Station. This showed that some Aztecs were even assigned to the East Coast, far from their homes in San Diego. Dr. Post’s newsletters helped to lessen their homesickness.

The letters covered most of the major battles. One group described vividly the strategic bombing raids on German and Japanese cities and factories, and the pilots’ views of the destruction and loss of lives. They covered the daily struggles on the battlefield, in the air, and on naval ships, standing long boring watches waiting for the action to begin. Their writers even documented their time on leave. They captured the thoughts and emotions of the events as they unfolded. They are powerful reminders of what war is really about- respect for their country, its values, and their willingness to fight for what they held most dear – their love of home and family. If you want to know what war can do to the average Soldier, Sailor or Marine, here is an excerpt from Private First Class Chester A. Hagman’s September 23, 1945, letter: “Death becomes so commonplace that we often ate our K-ration lunch right by the side of bloody corpses.”

More than 4,500 letters were received by Dr. Post. He selected what information would be important to them and their families, particularly about those who were wounded or killed (but not before the family had been notified) and published it in 48 monthly newsletters and several special editions at Thanksgiving and Christmas. There were 2,800 Aztecs in military service, 135 being women. Of those, 30 became prisoners of war, 81 were killed, and 72 wounded. An average of 3,700 copies of the newsletter were printed and mailed throughout the world each month, with 500 more distributed on campus. They were partially paid for by Dr. Post himself and the rest by contributions from fraternities and other SDSU organizations. In the last year of the war, monthly publication sometimes rose to 6,000.

This book examines the changes in the emotions of those young men and women who were thrust into the cauldron of war and matured in the face of danger. Through that process, they determined what was most important in their lives, especially the relationships with their Aztec classmates. As Dr. Shapiro concluded, “Dr. Post seemed to have an unerring instinct for meeting the needs of his students. From classrooms to combat theaters, his words stayed with them. He honored their service and never lost track of their whereabouts, even on the ‘forgotten fronts.’”

Numerous WWII servicemen have written about their wartime experiences. I have read many of them. None of them compare well to No Forgotten Fronts. None of them provide the breath of experiences and depth of feeling expressed in the Aztec newsletters. Shapiro has taken Post’s efforts to a new level.

Only recently, in Andrew Carroll’s “Legacy Project” (Words to Live By) has there been an effort to collect and preserve the personal letters of WWII servicemen and women. Shapiro has set the bar high for anyone who may try to edit those letters and put them into a book format.
Commander Ira "Dick" Hanna (USNR, Ret.), one of HRNM's longest-serving docents, holds a masters degree in history from Old Dominion University and a doctorate in education administration from The College of William and Mary. Among the many leadership posts he has held in the educational field, he has served as superintendent of Mathews County Public Schools and has taught as an adjunct professor of history and education administration at Old Dominion University.  

Editor's Note: This review is the sole opinion of the author and does not reflect an official view of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, Naval History and Heritage Command, the United States Navy, or the Department of Defense. 

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