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The Greatest War, by Gerald Astor, Presidio Press, Novato, Calif., 1999, $39.95.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans flocked to recruiting offices. Forgotten almost immediately was the attitude that had prevailed for more than two decades that the country had been inveigled into the Great War and should avoid becoming involved in another world war.

Public ardor alone, however, does not win wars. Two years and three months after World War II broke out, America’s armed forces were still small, poorly equipped and woefully unready for global war. Such unpreparedness, combined with the country’s traditional predilection for independence and suspicion of military regimentation, made it a daunting task to turn millions of freethinking citizens into a formidable fighting force.

Although they may have lacked experience, the early volunteers were eager and enthusiastic. As Captain Glen L. Strange of the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion, who would later be grievously wounded near the Remagen Bridge, described the situation: “Hitler was a no-good bastard, but he came along at a time when the German people were ripe for a change and needed a leader, and this p– had the ability to take over. He had to be stopped, as he was in the process of trying to enslave all of Europe, and what he did to the Jews and to the free people of the countries [Germany] captured could not be tolerated in the free world.”

Captain Strange was part of the great crusade that had been initiated in the tense, frantic months following Pearl Harbor as American industry geared up to perform miracles and Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall set about molding a host of eager but disparate civilians into one of the most powerful armed forces the world had ever seen. The army that had been so hurriedly created after December 7, 1941, would not participate in its first major engagement, Operation Torch, until November 1942. Many observers among the British, Germans and Japanese doubted that the easygoing, comfort-loving Americans had the discipline and resolve to become effective fighters.

Yet the Americans learned quickly, and their same streak of independence, coupled with their resourcefulness, proved to be among the great strengths of the American fighting man, as author Gerald Astor illustrates in The Greatest War. Astor’s work is an epic-scale oral history of Americans in combat from 1941 to 1945. From Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal, from Cassino to St. Lô, from Bastogne to Okinawa, the book provides a group portrait of U.S. servicemen–soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen–of all ranks, and their victories and setbacks, triumphs and hardships, on the grueling road to victory.

Astor gives the reader a sense of what American fighting men experienced in terms of what they thought, felt, saw, heard and tried to do. Their vivid, frank eyewitness accounts of the war were collected from the lowest to the highest ranks, from privates to General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower. Covering all the service branches in all theaters of operation, The Greatest War is a most impressive tribute to the World War II generation.

As General George S. Patton, Jr., noted, combat for the World War II generation was, for the most part, not a matter of massive armies contending on a grand battlefield, but myriad small-unit actions. While superiors exerted some command and control, Astor writes, in many situations the watchwords of the military text vanished and victory or defeat depended on small groups of men functioning on their own, often without the benefit of an officer. This resourcefulness was dramatized many times in the Ardennes during the winter of 1944-45, when groups of two or three determined GIs armed only with a machine gun or bazooka defended vital road junctions and bridges against overwhelming numbers of Germans and, in the process, halted Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt’s last desperate attempt to win the war for Germany.

Whether the World War II fighting men were Marines, paratroopers, infantrymen, naval gunners or airmen, they all built on the training and whatever discipline had been instilled in them to carry out their missions successfully. At the same time, as Astor shows, it would be a mistake to think that America’s war was prosecuted strictly by “citizen soldiers.” The leaders of the mighty force were professionals, graduates of the service academies, as well as reservists with experience–men like Eisenhower, Patton, Douglas MacArthur, Chester W. Nimitz, Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, and many others.

This book shows how the men they led endured and prevailed, though few of them regarded themselves as heroes. In the process of their long march to Berlin and Tokyo, America’s citizen soldiers developed the toughness and resilience without which they would never have made it.

Michael Hull