Reading on Three Fronts

I took a three-pronged approach to my summertime World War II reading: a novel about North Africa, a profile of a POW in the Pacific, and a biography of the preeminent Soviet general. I haven’t kept up on reading Jeff Shaara’s war novels as well as I’d like, so I started with The Rising Tide. My grandfather was a bombardier in World War II, so most of my reading has been in that direction. His father was in Eisenhower’s tank company in World War I, so it was good to get a sense of the tank battles in Northern Africa under Eisenhower’s command.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand recounts the extraordinary experiences of a B-24 bombardier, but that’s where the similarities with my grandfather’s WWII service ends. He wasn’t a neighborhood nuisance or a world-class distance runner. He didn’t serve in the Pacific theater, or go down in the ocean. He didn’t survive weeks afloat on a drifting raft with no provisions and circling sharks. He wasn’t captured and treated inhumanely as an enemy combatant. This is an amazing story told with great depth of research and emotion, but I also like my grandfather’s story: he finished his missions over Germany and returned to his civilian life.

Zhukov wasn’t a bombardier, and he did not return to a regular civilian life after accepting Germany’s surrender. He garnered so much success that he was elevated to commander-in-chief of the ground forces. His fame was as fickle as Stalin was suspicious, however. In a matter of months he was busted down in rank and sent away from Moscow. After Stalin died Zhukov participated in the arrest of Beria, and was rehabilitated under Khrushchev. He rose again to the position of Defense Minister, only to be deposed and exiled once more.

Zhukov was Stalin’s go to general, the one he sent into besieged Leningrad, recalled to defend Moscow, deployed to hold Stalingrad at all costs, and put on the offensive at Kursk. Stalin appointed him marshal of the Soviet Union two months before assuming the title for himself, and gave him the honor of reviewing the Victory Parade. When his popularity rivaled that of Stalin he was removed from the capital and the authorized history of the war. In present day Russia Stalin is still revered by some for leading them through the Great Patriotic War, in spite of all the self-inflicted damage he caused. Zhukov’s reputation has been restored in all its complexity, and he is no less revered for it.

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