For most baby boomers, reading The Last Good War: The Faces and Voices of World War II will be a bittersweet experience, filled with memories of loved ones. For younger readers it will serve as an important addendum to their high-school or college history courses, a needed documentation of the humility and selflessness of the average Joes and Janes who were college-age themselves when war demanded sacrifice. Those who participated in the greatest human conflict are swiftly dying out, and photographer Thomas Sanders, working with oral historian and native Nashvillian Veronica Kavass, set out to document and preserve what will soon be removed from living memory, to remain only as pictures and text.
The Last Good War is a remarkable photo essay, filled with full-page images of the men and women whose stories still amaze, frighten, and inspire. It features 124 veterans from all walks of life and military branches, each pictured either in uniform or holding some special memento. Corporal Robert Smallwood holds a key between his teeth, a key he took from Hitler’s home at Berchtesgaden. Machinist’s Mate Second Class (and Nashville resident) E.L. Tolbert, witness to over a hundred kamikaze attacks, wears his cap at a jaunty angle. Captain Edna Davis, the first woman certified as a pilot of a B-26, proudly displays her wings. They are a distinguished group.
In his introduction to the book, historian and Memphis native Hampton Sides writes, “For every line and liver spot, for every hard-earned wrinkle, there is a story to tell.” And what stories. Only a heartless reader could fail to be moved by Second Lieutenant Morton Gollin’s account of his deliverance from Stalag VIIA on April 29, 1945, and how, years later, he met one of his liberators by chance on a street in Palm Springs. Heads will rightly shake in disbelief at the tale of First Lieutenant Ted Lumpkin of the Tuskegee Airmen, who describes the hostility of some bomber crews upon discovering that the famed “Red Tail Angels” were black pilots. And a smile is certainly in order when reading the story of Nurse Edith Shain, whose photograph, as she was being kissed by a sailor on V-J Day, became one of the iconic images of the twentieth century. In Sanders’s photo, she’s still smiling, sixty-five years after that famous smooch.
Readers born in the 1940s, ‘50s, and early ‘60s will see in these deeply lined faces and hear in these stories their mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, who told their own stories, often heavily edited to preserve their sanity, of wartime adventures. The men and women in The Last Good War will call those memories and those loved ones forward, where they need to be kept and held dear. Looking into the eyes of these vets reconnected me with the late Captain Robert B. Scott, U.S. Army Air Force, who spent more than two years overseas. That’s a long time to go without seeing home and loved ones, especially not knowing whether there would be a happy ending. I know Dad would have appreciated what this book represents: a hearty “thank you” to the millions who served. We won’t forget you.