A beautiful book about friendships and a study of human behaviour under fire.
Book Title: DEAR CAPTAIN, ET AL: The Agonies and the Ecstasies of War and Memory, a Memoir from World War II
Author: Allan Wilford Howerton
This book was written by one of my very best friends, but I’ll try to be objective here.
“Dear Captain, et al” is a witty, cracking good novel from a modest author who uses amazing factual details such as war records, friends’ notes, and his personal notes and memory that have been diligently and scrupulously researched for accuracy 50 years later. I’d bought “Dear Captain, et al” over a year ago, but only had the chance to read it in May 2013. I wish I’d read it much earlier.
Young Allan Howerton hoped to avoid the conscription for WW II. In 1943 he was studying at Drexel University under the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), which aimed to produce civil engineers and pencil pushers ostensibly to occupy and rebuild Europe after the war was won. On weekends Allan visited his first love sweet Mary in a nearby town, planning that when he would become a lieutenant upon his graduation, to marry her and to whisk her away to live in Europe where he would be commissioned to carry out civil work. Alas, his dreams were dashed when the Army aborted the ASTP in 1944. The compulsory military recruitment age had been lowered, and the deeply disappointed, mad-as-hell ASTP boys were sent to the Army’s training barracks in Claiborne, where none of them wanted to be. Here, brute and merciless officers shaped the unfortunate bunch to become combat soldiers. Several months later, as Company K, they were packed into a train to a destination they knew not, ended up being shipped to the war fronts at the border of Belgium and Germany, clawing in the mud, hiding in miserable foxholes, fighting in the extreme cold, shooting and being shot, most of the time not knowing what was happening or where they would be next, and always, they ended up in a war zone with worse miseries than the previous.
In Company K, circumstances bonded the men together as a troop, and friendships developed between individuals. In the beginning Allan was very interested in the officers’ antics, and later on his focus shifted to friends and their group effort to survive. A very keen observer, he scrutinized various personalities and noted their views and their habits. Allan, who was the loudest snorer, complained when one night his close friend Ceroni kept talking aloud preventing sleep; only to be heartbroken when it turned out to be this friend’s final night alive. Even after 50 years his agony is palpable in his narration. His friends and leaders were important to Allan, yet one by one they became war casualties. His was a gentle soul that hurt inside, even while jokingly referring to the soldiers’ injuries, followed by evacuation to hospitals which freed them from front-lines’ horrors, as their million-dollar wounds.
Since this is a war memoir ~ otherwise known as a series of unfortunate events ~ perhaps it was bad form of me to chuckle from time to time. Yet Allan has a fine sense of humor. Even during the war he rarely failed to notice the funny bits or the bright side of people, places or circumstances, even while grumbling, worrying, commiserating, sympathizing, or shaking in fear. I found myself glued to the pages in interest, engrossed in following detailed day-to-day conditions of the endless war, the actions, Company K’s hard-luck movement, and what actually befell Allan’s comrades. Many brilliant young lives met sickness or untimely end in horrendous ways. Many courageous souls developed amazing personalities, toughness, and various skills to support and to lead their own proficiently. Allan was later promoted to be Company K’s communication sergeant, working close to its commanders in exciting actions, and eventually assisted the last one with his considerable staff knowledge from people-watching.
This is a beautiful book about friendships, a behavioral study of how humans react and cope under fire, and firsthand’s account of how a group of cynical college boys journeyed to become a crack military team.
Allan Howerton is almost 90, one of my favorite people, and is the most remarkable and inspiring oldie I know. I’ve been telling whining young authors to pull their acts together, to stop complaining about having to learn new things, and to copy savvy Allan who is undeterred by changes, adapts accordingly, and never loses his infectious smile. I wish so much that no-one had had to experience or see what Company K had been through, but Dear Captain, et al shows me many elements that had helped to shape my beautiful friend’s ever-advancing mind, his dynamic strides in keeping up with changes, his smiles and his caring attitude towards others. The beginning is always the hardest, but tough times don’t last. You are what you have overcome. Be grateful and kind, everyone you meet may be fighting a psychological battle. Definitely, we, whining younger generations, can learn a thing or two.
ABOUT ALLAN WILFORD HOWERTON
After the war Allan attended the University of Denver earning a B.A. degree in international relations and a M.A. in education plus graduate study in economics. He had a long career as a federal civil servant with the U.S. Civil Service Commission. Later, Allan became a general manager of a cable television channel. He lives with his wife Joan, a Registered Nurse, in Alexandria, Virginia.
Books by Allan:
– “DEAR CAPTAIN, ET AL.: the Agonies and the Ecstasies of War and Memory, a Memoir from World War II” — an authentic day-to-day account of infantry combat written from original source records over a period of several years. Many readers have called it one of the best books of its type to come out of World War II or any war.
– “WAR’S WAKE”—a novel, is a love story set on a university campus (much like the University of Denver) crowded with ex-GIs studying under the GI Bill of Rights in the aftermath of World War II. Against the background of the Communist scare and the ever-darkening shadows of the Cold War, WAR’S WAKE is an enticingly seductive romance about a time which is gone forever. Whimsical, brainy, and fun to read, WAR’S WAKE is also a serious novel about war and its repercussions, time and its mystery, love and its consequences, memory and its caprices, writing and its perils, and death and its regenerations. And there is also a bit about the Communist scare and the Cold War, the debut of the national security state, the manners and mores of the Truman era, as well as reflections about the formative years of the “Greatest Generation” myth.
– “BAPTISTS, BIBLES, AND BOURBON IN THE BARN: the Stories, the Characters, and the Haunting Places of a West (O’MG) Kentucky Childhood.” —a soon-to-be-published book together constitute a trilogy of my life experience through and beyond World War II.
Watch out for my interview with Allan around the publication of BAPTISTS, BIBLES, AND BOURBON IN THE BARN.
Some writers glorify the killing in the war while others, writers and readers, regard wars “entertaining”. Thoughts regarding this kind of death have been swirling in my head since the recent memorial day in the US as I remember some past friends.
Once upon a memory a thousand drums beat upon a massive stadium, and a friend from my marching band fell in love with an army dude who played saxophone. He proved to be really helpful and became a good friend. I moved away, and several years later I bumped into my old friend when I returned to my high-school city during a holiday. “Where’s your boyfriend?” I asked her. “Come with me,” she replied. And she drove me to a… graveyard of the fallen.
I hadn’t even known there was a war going on about 2000 miles away. The local government had made sure the media could not leak any news. Later, a few years on, I accompanied another friend to make a hospital visit. Little did I know that we were going to visit an army hospital – where the patients were the living proofs of the horrendous war. If I had not personally come into contact with these two friends, I’d never have heard of this war. Only after I’d left that country I found out the foreign media had freely broadcast the full coverage on what was happening, while the locals remained blissfully unaware.
On memorial days, which we also have in Australia, I can’t help feeling a deep sadness for the perhaps-unnecessary loss of so many lives. How had it been like out there for them? Allan Wilford Howerton, US WW2 veteran, retired federal civil servant and an active author shares his view and memories in this issue of Chapters of Life.
WARRIOR CULTURE: Killing and Its Consequences.
By Allan Wilford Howerton, WW II Era Author. (Alexandria, Virginia)
No war ever really ends for those who fight them. I write from the viewpoint of my experience as a World War II combat infantry veteran who also wrote a memoir of the war as well as a novel about the aftermath. Although the circumstances of Vietnam and Nazi Germany were substantially different in many respects, questions surrounding what it was like are virtually identical. War is war and killing is killing no matter the time, place, or situation.
After many years of thinking and writing, I have concluded that combat in war is so unique that it is impossible to describe what it is like to anyone who has not been there. Deadly combat is often unfathomable, mostly unexplainable.
Beyond these questions, to some, a book on war is a great adventure story, as a lesson about the efficacy of a far off war in a country with a vastly different culture where, in the end, it was proven that we had no vital national security interest, and as a cautionary tale about the consequences of a war waged without adequate citizen support.
I am, however, uncomfortable there is a writer who pleads for more and different training in preparation for the killing that warriors (his word, extensively employed) must perform and justify to their consciences in the interest of mental and emotional well being. Is that really possible? I doubt it. Is it even desirable? I doubt it even more. Can, for example, soldiers, be trained to deliberately kill in good conscience in the morning while returning to bases in the afternoon or evening for at-ease Internet chats with their wives and children without psychosomatic consequences? If so, is that not inhuman? I believe that it is and ought never become an objective of preparation for war. If successful, does such training not set these “warriors” even more apart from the country they defend than is already the case due to the lessening of shared responsibility that results from a professional volunteer Army?
I realize that my view may be quite controversial and outside the mainstream of American thinking about war, particularly relating to terrorism. Maybe I have not found words to express my discomfort as well as I might. Nevertheless, I am deeply troubled.
World War II, on the ground, was fought with a largely conscripted Army. Lots of killing resulted, proportionally more than in the rather different wars of today. Yet I do not recall thinking of killing, per se, as an objective in and of itself. In lectures, I recall instructions (of major interest to young soldiers) about the comparative psychological/sexual mores of American and European women but never about the psychology of killing as a purpose. We got lectures about the broad aims and purposes of the wars with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. We were trained to accomplish missions and to take and hold territory. We fought for towns in order to get out of the cold but never to kill as such. The international law of war, an antidote for its inhumanities, was emphasized. Strategies like mass bombing of cities (planned killing, obviously) stiffened resistance rather than hastening the surrender of Germany and Japan. Will today’s targeted killings, and their unavoidable collateral aspects, have any better results? It seems doubtful. I am also troubled by the term “warrior” in the context of a military culture in which deliberate killing is the intent. It is, I fear, a very slippery slope that ought to be approached, if at all, with utmost caution.
We need to give much more thought than we have to the use and implications of a volunteer military skilled in efficacious killing, whether on the ground in battle or at a faraway computer console directing a drone missile. Again, killing is killing. It happens. But when it does it lessens our humanity. No training as to conscience can, in my view, change that fact.