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back from tobruk

Source: Review copy from Blue Dot Literary/Potomac Books
Rating: ★★★★☆

Soldiers always grumble, they say.  Most of the men go about their tasks and get them done each day, then smoke or chat about something inconsequential until time to sleep.  But under the surface of each man, if you probe him, you’ll find bewilderment, resentment, or a complete feeling of futility.  There is no one answer that sums up their attitude to the war, or what they’re fighting for, or their emotions about being at this godforsaken desert front.  The only thing they all have in common, of course, is that they want to go home.

(from Back From Tobruk, pages 102-103)

Back From Tobruk is the World War II memoir of the late Croswell Bowen, a journalist who volunteered to serve with the American Field Service ambulance drivers as a photographer.  Serving alongside the British Eighth Army, the AFS left for the North African front in 1941, before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  He finished the memoir in 1943, but as a pacifist, he was unable to get the book published because American involvement in the war was just beginning to heat up.  Back From Tobruk was finally published in 2012, about 40 years after Bowen’s death.  Edited by his daughter, Betsy Connor Bowen, it’s an interesting look at Bowen’s transformation from a man who wants to see the action at the front (though without a weapon) to one who understands the wastes of war.

The fact that Bowen was a journalist means that the book is very readable.  I was worried about it being dense and dry at times, but that wasn’t the case at all.  In fact, there were times I was so engrossed that I didn’t want to put the book down!  Bowen describes his time in the AFS, from the months on the ship from Halifax to Suez, his time in Cairo on leave, what it was like on the front in the Libyan port city of Tobruk, to his journey back to New York after his legs suddenly give out and he can no longer walk.  I’d never read a WWII book about the desert front, so I really appreciated how I didn’t have to know anything about Tobruk to follow the story or try to keep track of all the people he meets in his travels.

Bowen tells so many fascinating stories in Back From Tobruk, and he effortlessly moves between these stories and his observations and deep thoughts about the war.  He writes about how he tagged along with a British MP on a brothel inspection, the intricacies of a soldier’s love life (which women will date which soldiers), the animosity between the American and British officers, and the many ways booby traps can surprise and kill.  Bowen also puts a face on the enemy in detailing his conversations with a 19-year-old German soldier who had been injured, showing that just like the Allied soldiers, they were all scared and missing their families back home.  I was touched by his tales of a wounded man worried about returning to his wife, the fear Bowen felt during his first bombing raid at the front, and how the woman he had been seeing before he went to Tobruk couldn’t possibly understand him afterward.

Back From Tobruk is different from other memoirs I’ve read about World War II because it was written when the war was fresh in the author’s mind.  His observations about war and what it does to the people who fight or even just witness it firsthand have both a sense of urgency and hope, and one must remember that the war ended for Bowen just as it was beginning for many American men.  How wonderful for his daughter to have been able to rescue this amazing story and share it with the world.  As World War II moves further and further into the past, it is important that stories like these are preserved for future generations.

Disclosure: I received Back From Tobruk from Blue Dot Literary and Potomac Books for review.

© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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