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A long time ago my Dad handed me a book.  It was a green hardback published in 1943–I can still see it clearly in my mind’s eye–entitled Guadalcanal Diary, by journalist Richard Tregaskis.  I didn’t know much about the author, but I knew something about the topic.  Dad had been in the U.S. Army during World War II, part of the “Americal” Division, and he had spent more time than he cared to remember on Guadalcanal.  The Diary was (and is) a great book–required reading on the war, really.  It’s about the Marine effort on the ‘Canal, but more than that, it’s about men under fire.  I learned how they acted, what they ate, the disparaging terms they used for their Japanese opponents–the whole nine yards.  It opened a world to me of reading books about the war, studying them for a lifetime, and eventually writing them myself.  It was a big hit with the public, deservedly so, and remains popular today with the World War II reading audience.  Hollywood even turned it into a movie in 1943, with William Bendix playing what the New York Times called “the inevitable Dodger fan from Flatbush” and Lloyd Nolan as a tough-as-nails sergeant.

Dick Tregaskis wrote another book about World War II that has never been made into a movie, however.  Invasion Diary appeared in 1944, and dealt with the invasion of Sicily, the landing on the Italian mainland at Salerno, and the subsequent gritty fighting for Italy.  Although the larger scale of the campaign makes it a little less immediate than the Guadalcanal book, it’s still a terrific read, and it is chock-full of the same kind of soldierly detail that made the earlier work so popular.  Even so, it can’t be denied that it never quite caught the same kind of fancy among the reading public.

And the reason for that, I think, is to be found on p. 208 (in my current edition, the one issued by Bison Books).  Tregaskis was attached to (I guess today we’d say “embedded with”) the 509th Parachute Battalion under the command of LTC Bill Yarborough, during the fighting for Monte Corno.  It was November 22, 1943, and both sides were exchanging artillery fire.  Tregaskis had already been under fire on a number of occasions, but this time his number came up.  The scream of incoming fire, a bright light, a sudden explosion.  He knew he’d been hit, but he didn’t know how badly.  That realization came slowly.  He could think coherent thoughts, he noted, but when he tried to call out for help, only gibberish came.  His right arm, he would later write, felt like “a foreign body” to him, and hung limply.  He could see his helmet, blown off by the force of the explosion, and he could clearly see the holes torn in it by the shrapnel.  He remembered thinking, illogically, what a “fine souvenir” it would make.

It turned out Tregaskis had a head wound, a bad one, and how doctors put him right forms the last, harrowing chapter of the book.  It’s tough reading:  an adult having to learn how to speak and read all over again.  He eventually triumphs, but it’s a rough road.

Perhaps–and this is not to be uncharitable, but merely to state a fact–the story that Dick Tregaskis had to tell in 1944 was more reality than many of the home folks wanted to read.

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