Side Effects

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In 1942, as war entered American life, a non-profit, government funded group called the Council on Books in Wartime was created and staffed by some of the largest names in the publishing business. The Council’s aim was to maintain the will to fight through information, printing books about how the war was being won and about the enemy. Books, the council felt were the “Weapons in the War of Ideas”.

For men and women serving overseas boredom was a more persistent enemy than the Germans or the Japanese. The Council on Books in Wartime felt reading was the perfect solution and endeavored to get books to soldiers. Believing in  the patriotic and generous American spirit the council organized book donation drives. Americans responded, donating thousands of books. The drive was a great victory but the victor was the American public.

Emblem of the Council on Books in Wartime

Emblem of the Council on Books in Wartime

Although the Council netted large numbers of books, the majority of tomes would put a strain on a soldier’s attention span. The Council book drives had given the public a chance to pass on volumes no one would want to read while feeling patriotic about doing it. In May of 1943 the Council decided “American soldiers were going to have books, even if the Army had to buy them itself”. A plan was drafted to purchase an initial 50,000 books for the armed forces. But this plan was not a solution.

Even with reading material available, soldiers weighed down with army equipment did not have room to carry a hardbound novel, even paperback books were not pocket sized. The Council decided the best answer to the problem would be to print the books themselves. Using magazine rotary presses thousands of books could be made to give to bored soldiers. From a business standpoint, it gave publishing houses a cheap, easy way to expose a captive new market to reading. The solution seemed obvious but there was one problem—money.

The problem wasn’t finding the cash to print the books or distributing them. The problem was if popular books were given away, who would buy them after the war? Publishing houses would be flooding the market with free books that could be taken home and sold second hand when the boys came home. Companies would be giving away millions of dollars worth of a reusable products, cheating authors and booksellers out of business by a good but unsound patriotic deed. The problem was solved in two ways: one, books for the armed forces would only be available overseas, not competing with the US market. And two, they would be printed on cheap paper that would fall apart with multiple readings.

Actually printing the books proved challenging. The rotary printing presses available were designed to print magazines not books. To navigate around this problem, two separate books were printed as one, magazine size, one on top of the other, then cut in half. Short paged books were printed in Reader’s Digest size and long volumes in pulp magazine size resulting in books measuring 5 1/2 by 3 7/8 inches or 6 1/2 by 4 1/2 inches respectively. The books were sold to the military at cost of about six cents per volume plus ten percent overhead, with authors and publishers receiving a half cent each per book.

Soldier on a troopship reading an Armed Service Edition book.

Soldier on a troopship reading an Armed Service Edition book.

Inside cover of an Armed Service Edition book

Inside cover of an Armed Service Edition book

Armed Service Edition books

Armed Service Edition books

Titles were decided upon by a committee that tried to cater to “all levels of tastes within reasonable limits” and had to be acceptable to both the Army and the Navy. Minor disagreements arose between the committee which wanted to print serious literary works, and the Army that wanted popular best sellers, westerns and mysteries, while the Navy held opinions somewhere in between the other two. Works deemed anti-democratic, offensive to an ally or religious or racial group were excluded.

Starting in September 1943, Armed Service Edition books found their way to the front line in the Pacific as men traveled from island to island before entering the combat zone. In England in June 1944, each soldier boarding an invasion ship for Normandy was given an Armed Service Edition book. Newspapers reported at the time that, although many things were found discarded from soldiers packs before going into D-Day, not a single book was left behind.

From 1943 to 1947 nearly 123 million copies of 1,322 different titles on all subjects were printed and became the only type of book reliably  available to service personnel overseas. Authors received hundreds of letters from people who before the war had never finished reading a single book. Some would meet ex-servicemen years later telling them how they had read their book in a foxhole in France, in some Pacific jungle, or in a frigid Alaskan or Icelandic outpost. The most reprinted book was Webster’s New Handy Dictionary, a book that depression kids with little education wanted to help them understand the new written world given them.

The men and women of World War Two came home with something other than memories of war, they came back with educations in history, the arts, poetry, science and popular fiction, all from little books named Armed Service Editions, a side effect of a war.

Gunshot

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The war was almost over. Germany in March 1945 was cold and crisp, with a pale gray tint over the ruined countryside. It was quiet as Lieutenant Hecker’s jeep drove down the road. Europe was a hulk of shattered cities. The Third Reich was in ruins, its soldiers surrendering by the thousands to the American Army, but still Germany fought on. Lieutenant Hecker rode with his men, Private First Class William L. Piper and James Wardley.  They had been together through Northern France, the Hurtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge. Now they drove in the enemies heartland. Hecker knew the end of the war was in sight. He knew all they needed to do was stay alive a little longer. What he didn’t know was his jeep was driving toward a buried land mine.

Norbert A. Hecker

Norbert A. Hecker

Norbert A. Hecker was a not a soldier by trade. He hadn’t planned on knowing things like range, targeting and trajectory. He was a clerk who compiled reports on factory labor costs and production. When  he graduated college he thought he would be behind a desk not leading men into battle. He entered the army in 1942, and was assigned to the 8th Infantry Division’s 28th Field Artillery code named “Gunshot” .

Lieutenant Hecker was a Forward Observer. His mission was to report where artillery strikes landed and find new targets to attack. Forward Observers had a short life span on the front lines.  It wasn’t just the enemy that was dangerous, if the observer made a mistake and the coordinates were wrong, or someone else was careless, the called in artillery could land short, right on him.

When the 28th Field Artillery sent out fire, they radioed “Gunshot on the way!”. “Gunshot on the way” was friendly artillery that stopped the advancing waves of enemy armor and infantry, “Gunshot on the way” took out gun emplacements slaughtering pinned down American GI’s. It was that call that could make the winning difference on the battlefield. It was men like Norbert Hecker who brought the gunshot down on the enemy. He knew men were counting on him, that he must complete his mission at all cost. His radio calls could mean dozens or hundreds more men going home alive. It was men like Norbert Hecker who made small towns all over the United States proud of their boys.

Lieutenant Hecker in Dress Uniform

Lieutenant Hecker in Dress Uniform

In Hecker’s home town of Menasha, Wisconsin, the local paper followed news about its 1,384 residents serving in the World War. The daily paper got the residents atuned to where its boys were fighting and what they were doing. It gave folks the little picture they wanted to see of the big show; the news about the boys they used to see on the streets and in church. The paper spread news of men and women who had been promoted or seen action in big battles. When a local boy got a medal for heroism, the whole town knew. They also heard when a man was wounded, or when a someone’s son would not be coming home.

If Norbert Hecker and his men had been walking, they would have been safe. The mine in their path was a teller mine; a circular, anti-tank device filled with five and a half kilograms of TNT. It had a high pressure fuse and needed a vehicle to set it off.

Hecker’s jeep exploded when it ignited the weapon.  James Wardley, by some miracle, was unhurt. Bill Piper, was wounded but alive. They found Hecker covered in blood with his eardrums blown out. But he was breathing. The three men helped each other up.  Hecker’s helmet had a huge dent on the top from the exploding debris. Their jeep was destroyed and two of them were wounded. Hecker put his helmet back on, looked at his men, and they continued to the front.  The war wasn’t over yet. Until it was finished, Norbert Hecker would see his mission to the end.

Norbert A. Hecker's wartime mementos.

Norbert A. Hecker’s wartime mementos.

The dent on Lt. Hecker's Helmet

The dent on Lt. Hecker’s Helmet

Christmas wishes from the Second to None

2nd Infantry Division Insignia

2nd Infantry Division Insignia

It seemed like the fighting in Europe was almost finished. The American Army was in Germany. In the east, the Red Army was in Romania, Yugoslavia, and Hungary, and the Canadians had entered Holland.

Now a group of men sat in a German basement less than 450 miles from Berlin. They had landed with the 2nd Infantry Division on Omaha Beach on D-Day+1. The men were proud of their division, which they called “Indian Head” after their shoulder patch. They were proud to be in a unit where their dad’s fought at Belleau Wood and Château-Thierry. They were proud of their motto “Second to None”. In four months they had travelled more than 400 miles from the hedgerows of Normandy, to St. Lo and the port city of Brest. By September 29th, 1944 they had passed through Belgium and took positions at St. Vith. Four days later, they had entered Germany.

Soldier of the 2nd Infantry Division writing Christmas cards

Soldier of the 2nd Infantry Division writing Christmas cards

The air was thick with moisture and laced with the smell of mildew and wood, wet leather and sweat. The floor was cold, with ammo and empty ration tins littered about. There was a wooden ammo crate that the men sat around. On this makeshift table were Christmas cards, printed by the division, and they took turns writing theirs, getting ready to mail them so they could reach home in time for the holidays.  Their fathers had written their parents from Europe on Christmas in 1917, in a different war with the same enemy. Now their sons did the same for them.

In 1939, Hitler gave a speech saying “No foreign soldier shall ever set foot on German soil.” The 2nd Infantry Division remembered that speech. They put it on their holiday cards and added their kicker: “Nevertheless, from somewhere in Germany, we wish you a Merry Xmas.”

By Christmas, the men of the Indian Head were no longer in Germany; they were in Belgium, near an area called Elsenborn Ridge, in a battle where 19,000 Americans would die. There, the Indian Head performed what General Eisenhower would later call “One of the finest divisional actions of the war” holding back the German 6th Panzer Army in the Battle of the Bulge.

In November and December, till the end of the war in 1945, the US Army would suffer more than 450,000 casualties, including more than 133, 000 killed in action, almost as many as the Army had lost in 1941,1942,1943, and until October 1944 combined.

A GI in that basement had written his family, before the German offensive, when the war seemed almost finished and another holiday away from home was ahead. He wrote them with pride and loneliness: “I guess Adolph had never heard of the Second to None. Have a big ‘Xmas and drink some for me, Love J.P.”

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