- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 7, 2004

If you write about war, it doesn’t hurt to have an intimate knowledge of the battlefield. Charles P. Roland, professor of history emeritus at the University of Kentucky and one of the country’s foremost scholars of the Civil War, fought as a front-line infantry officer in Europe in World War II. What he learned on the battlefield and how his experiences helped him to become an admired historian form the basis of his charming, often funny, and well-written book, My Odyssey through History: Memoirs of War and Academe (Louisiana State University Press, $29.95, 132 pages, illus.).

The phrase “the greatest generation” has by now become hackneyed through overuse, so it is good to be reminded what young Americans endured in fighting the Axis powers. On December 7, 1941, Charles Roland, a 1938 graduate of Vanderbilt, was working in Washington, D.C., as a National Park Service historian. Three years later, as a member of the 99th Infantry Division, Captain Roland was in the Ardennes region of Belgium, “an area of rugged hills and steep ravines … a favorite vacation resort spot for the [pre-war] Belgian population.”

The division, which had never been in combat, was sent there because, according to high command, “it was a quiet part of the line and deemed an ideal location for a green division to get a feeling for the front line without being heavily engaged.” The soldiers of the 99th were told “we faced only a handful of defeated and demoralized German troops, and that they were supported by only two batteries of horse-drawn artillery.”

On December 16, 1944, Captain Roland and his division discovered that the reports of the demise of the German army’s fighting spirit and capabilities had been wrong. Sweeping across the thinly-held line, with the blitzkrieg rapidity and shock tactics that characterized the German army at its most formidable, panzer columns outflanked the 99th. The last great German breakout of the war, soon to be known as “The Battle of the Bulge” had begun.

The author’s spare, detailed, and often heart-breaking account of how the 99th was decimated, pushed back, but finally held its ground, is riveting in its understated intensity. Mr. Roland saw many of his best friends killed, but he survived and eventually crossed the captured bridge at Remagen to enter what was left of the dying Third Reich.

After such an ordeal, it might seem that anything that happened to the author after the war might be anti-climactic. But his account of how he learned and then perfected the historian’s craft at Tulane University and the University of Kentucky is in its own way as compelling as that of his war experiences.

From initial “publish or perish” worries to eventual acceptance and praise by his academic peers, from intra-faculty feuds to invitations to lecture at West Point and other military schools, Charles Roland has had a full and satisfying life in academe, and a story-book marriage as well.

But in 1944 and 1945 he was one of those young warriors who performed superbly amidst the kind of horror most Americans could never imagine. He calls his book an “odyssey,” but in less than a year he endured more, and won more glory, than Odysseus ever did in all those years fighting on the windy plains of Troy or sailing on the wine-dark sea.

• • •

For more than 30 years it has been my privilege to have as a friend a man who survived as a Japanese POW in World War II. Beaten, starved, treated worse than an animal, my friend somehow managed to stay alive through the four years of his horrific ordeal. So far as I know, he has never forgiven (and cannot forget) what his sadistic captors did to him and his helpless fellow slaves.

I thought of him as I read Long Way Back to the River Kwai: Memories of World War II by Loet Velmans (Arcade Publishing, $24.95, 240 pages, illus.). The 1957 movie “Bridge over the River Kwai” told a melodramatic, if sanitized, version of the suffering of the slave laborers forced by the Japanese to build a railroad through the Thailand-Burma jungle. As Mr. Velmans reminds us, what happened to him and his companions was so terrible that it could never be truly portrayed in a movie.

When the Nazis invaded Holland in 1940, Loet Velmans was a bright, self-confident, somewhat arrogant (and spoiled) Jewish teenager living in comfort, if not luxury, with his parents. In less than two years he escaped the Nazis, fled to England, and moved to the Dutch East Indies, confident he would be safe for the rest of the war. But in 1941 the Japanese invaded the Dutch colonies and young Mr. Velmans, by then in the Dutch army, began a gradual but inexorable journey into darkness.

After spending time at the overcrowded but, relatively speaking, humane Changi prison in Singapore, he was “sent north” to work on the railroad the Japanese were building in order to invade India.

At Spring Camp, the labor prison in the the jungle, the slaves were subjected to daily brutal beatings, festering wounds, systematic starvation, exhaustion, dysentery, malaria, beri-beri, and hopelessness. It is estimated that more than 200,000 slaves (most of them Asian civilians) died building the railroad, which was rendered useless by Allied bombing almost immediately after it had been finished.

Nineteen-year-old Loet Velmans survived because of youthful resilience, some good luck, thoughts of ultimate revenge, and his ability to concentrate his dwindling physical and mental energies on problems of survival: “… each man needed every precious free moment to look after his own body and his own state of mind. Each man remained wrapped in his own solitude. Exhaustion carried its own reward. Sick as we might be, at night we crept deep inside our own skins and sank into bottomless sleep …[w]e were much too numb to consider suicide.”

After the war, he learned of the Holocaust and realized that despite what he had endured at the hands of the Japanese, his decision to leave Holland had saved him from certain murder by the Nazis. In the years that followed he became a successful public relations expert and, eventually, CEO of the communications company Hill and Knowlton. Sixty years after his ordeal, he revisited Spring Camp: “Standing there, in that pristine spot in the middle of nowhere, calm and lovely and empty, I felt no emotion. So this is it, I thought, And that’s all there is to it.”

He has waited for the Japanese to demonstrate “frankness and repentance” for the atrocities committed by the imperial Japanese government in World War II. He is still waiting.

• • •

A personal note: Since 1997 I have been writing the monthly biography reviews for these pages. I am now going to pursue other writing goals, so this is my last column. It has been an honor (and a lot of fun) to be published in the best book-review section, page for page, in American journalism. It is good to know the column will continue in the capable hands of two fine writers and scholars, John and Priscilla Taylor.

William F. Gavin lives in McLean, Va., and is the author of “One Hell of a Candidate: A Novel of Politics.”

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