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An Old Captain Remembers World War II

As each day passes fewer people have any first or even second-hand connection to World War II. This year our president did nothing to commemorate D-Day (deciding campaigning was a better use of his time than actually acknowledging the sacrifice of our men and women in uniform). Therefore, it is important that Jeff Shaara does for this generation what Herman Wouk did for the last: remind us all that it happened. In his World War II trilogy, Shaara paints a vivid picture of the madness and heroism than gripped our world from 1938-1945.

Many names in this historically accurate story are familiar. There is Dwight Eisenhower excelling at walking the political tightrope that ensures the cooperation and success of armies from many nations. Field Marshall Montgomery is his usual pompous self: distasteful to most, yet necessary for the people of Great Britain in desperate need of a hero. And of course one can’t forget George Patton, the man who General Eisenhower doesn’t know what to do with yet can’t win the war without. On the German side, lesser names like Albert Speer rise to prominence as we are shown their loyalty to their country, yet increasingly aware of the insanity they have allowed in the person of Hitler. None of these are cardboard cutouts, but rather real men with real hopes, fears, and frailties.

The real heroes of this story, however, are the soldiers few but their own families remember. Most notable is Benson, a foot soldier. His 106th Infantry faced some of the fiercest fighting of 1944 and emerged a ragtag group of stragglers thrown into units where they knew virtually no one. His story is where historical fiction rises to importance and Jeff Shaara excels. While numerous volumes have been written about the world leaders and generals of that time, the stories of men like Benson are only known through eye-witness remembrances of people in their 80s and 90s and family members who remember the stories of those no longer with us.

The most powerful scene in No Less Than Victory is when Benson’s unit comes across what they first think to be a POW camp in Germany, only to realize they have discovered the first of Hitler’s infamous death camps. Here we see men hardened by years of war weeping like children, sick at their stomachs as they try to understand what they see. It is a sight too horrible to be fiction, yet in need of good fiction to tell the story. And then we see Eisenhower, who first works to control the press lest it blow the story out of proportion, and then after visiting the camp personally commands all press members to witness for themselves lest others in later years think it was fabricated. Ironically, we still need great historical fiction writers like Jeff Shaara to remind yet another generation that none of the characters or events he writes about is fiction at all, no matter how much we wish it was.

If this story sounds more like a book review than history, it is really both and more. Not long after writing this review, I had the honor to interview the author while he was visiting the Naval Air Station here in Pensacola. Better yet, I was able to take my friend, Captain Harry Bakkus (ret.), along with me. Harry flew dozens of B-29 missions over Germany, was shot down twice, a POW once, was liberated, and then volunteered to return and fly as one of the famous “Candy Bombers” after the fall of Germany.

While we waited to meet the author, I read my review of Shaara’s book to Harry and then he told me about a book, The Candy Bombers, that contains his name. The Candy Bombers were men who volunteered to fly missions over Germany just after the war. Their duty was to drop candy and leaflets over villages, letting frightened citizens know the GIs were their friends and to not be afraid. Harry then told me about a reunion with a man who was a nine-year-old boy in one of those German villages. He could have spoken with bitterness about his treatment as a prisoner, the friends he lost, or many other horrors of war. Instead all he wanted to talk about was his honor to serve his country and joy to meet that little boy grown up so many years later.

Just as Harry finished telling me his story, Jeff Shaara approached our table. This New York Times bestselling author talked very little about himself over the next hour. Instead, he engaged Harry Bakkus, never once addressing him as anything but “Captain.” And then something magical happened. With recorder running, the interview ended up being not just the author and me. It became a roundtable with Captain Harry Backus filling in the blanks with his living history. This was something more than books and authors and publicity.

Here was a man who seldom spoke of that war so long ago as though he was still piloting that B-29, naming one German city and village after another, recalling the name of a German captor who treated him with kindness, pausing to whisper the name of a friend who died in the cockpit beside him, and humbly refusing to be called a hero. For months after that, I never met Harry that he didn’t remember that day when an important author treated him with the respect many in our time forget to show. He placed the autographed copy of No Less Than Victory in an honored place on his shelf and showed it to me every time I visited. And one fine spring morning, no doubt with the Blue Angels flying somewhere through the crystal skies of Pensacola, Captain Harry Bakkus received his final flight instruction. His battle with a failing body was past, and he could finally land in a place where there will be no more wars forever.

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