This book should interest anyone exploring American attitudes toward participation in the Second World War. The GI letters of Frank Dietrich describe the usual travels and travails of service in various parts of the U.S., followed by his faithful wife, as well as perceptive comments on the Philippines in 1945, after the Japanese withdrawal and preceding Hiroshima. Frank served in the Army Air Corps but his justifications for serving lack the interest of Albert Dietrich’s for not serving. Among other things, the letters of his conscientious objector brother Albert offer a first hand glimpse of the difficulties in achieving CO status and, once status was granted, his existence as a CO.
Born in 1914 into a middle-class Pittsburgh family, the identical twins arrived at different perspectives on the war, probably because Frank visited a pen pal in Nazi Germany in the 1930s where, among other things, he attended a speech by the vicious hater Julius Streicher. Frank saw WWII as a “good war,” whereas to Albert it was just another useless armed conflict. The brothers graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with degrees in social work and had barely embarked on their careers by the time of Pearl Harbor. Their English mother had inculcated in them a love of classical music and the “finer things of life” and their letters show the difficulties of nurturing those interests in army and CO camps. From February 1942 until April 1945, Frank served at various bases in the U.S., mostly as an instructor in radio repair. In May 1943, he married a young woman he met while serving in Gallup, New Mexico, and there followed the need to find places to live and eventual absentee parenthood. Although seldom able to see each other, the brothers maintained a lively correspondence with Frank, who provided a strong endorsement of his brother’s pacifist views in a letter to the Selective Service Appeals Board that may very well have decided matters in Albert’s favor.
Albert’s letter of 11 June 1942, written when his status remained uncertain and prison loomed, sums up his objection to serving in the armed forces: ”I know that no good whatsoever will come out of this war. It is mass murder of the very worst kind and it is unthinkable for me as an intelligent human being to participate in it . . .I am positive that my going to prison is a far greater humanitarian act than were I to go out to the Pacific somewhere and murder one or a dozen Japanese young men.”
Albert endured the disapproval of his family but also found support in surprising places. He was hardly immune to the irrational patriotism of wartime; at one point writing that he would volunteer as a parachute fire fighter to show he was not a coward. Frank, on he other hand, safely in uniform, and in a job basically remote from danger, never entertained such thoughts. His introduction to the horrors of war came in Luzon. “Now about Manila. Honestly, the devastation and destruction is positively staggering. I don’t think I saw a single downtown building intact except the Cathedral. In the residential districts, home after home is in shambles.” (Frank to his wife, Chris, May 1945.) Unlike many of his fellow GIs, Frank made friends with local Filipinos on their own terms, fishing in streams and accepting their hospitality.
It’s sad now to revisit the mindset of those who experienced FDR and his New Deal. Albert, who appears more hardheaded than his brother, wrote this in June 1940, when France was defeated. Listening to the Republican National Convention (which nominated Wendell Willkie), he wrote: “We are in for a reaction and it will come both from the Democrats and the Republicans. It will take a world leader to gather the world out of the chaos in which it spins.”
The book is dedicated: “For Frank, Christine, Albert and Mary – the Dietrich branch of the “greatest generation” who fought for freedom and democracy on the home front and overseas.” Tom Brokaw, a TV commentator invented the appellation “greatest generation.” I find it nauseating. The “greatest generation” put off their uniforms and did what every generation has done before them, leaving the world as wicked and uncaring as before.