Thursday, August 20, 2015

Southern History Book of the Month: Forth to the Mighty Conflict: Alabama and World War II

Forth to the Mighty Conflict: Alabama and World War II
Allen Cronenberg

This month marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Forth to the Mighty Conflict is an in-depth look at the role of Alabamians in the war which, according to Cronenberg, began as an essay that grew into a book:
Initially, it was conceived as an extended essay to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Alabama’s role in World War II . . . As the project matured, however, it became clear that the subject of Alabama’s role in World War II deserved more than a brief essay.
More, indeed. As I read through the table of contents, I was amazed at how many topics the author was able to cover about Alabamians in the war and how the war affected this state. Sample chapters include a look at Alabama’s military training facilities, prisoner of war camps such as the one in Aliceville, how the war affected the state’s industrial output, and Alabamians in the European and the Pacific campaigns. Any one of these chapters could have been the subject of a full-length book, yet Mighty Conflict is less than 200 pages long. It could easily be read in a day or two, but it is also a book that invites browsing. I had to smile a little over the passage reporting that "the single greatest complaint from POWs was Alabama’s climate, the humidity of which was even more debilitating than the heat."

How well we know. But this was one of only a few humorous moments in the book for me: other incidents like the story of Bert Bank, Tuscaloosa native and survivor of the Bataan Death March, are hideous examples of man’s inhumanity to man:
To supplement their meager allowances of rice and pig weed soup, the desperate prisoners ate dogs, cats, lizards, frogs, and virtually any other animal that had the misfortune of falling into their grasp . . . Bert Bank was one of the lucky ones. Death liberated nearly 300 Alabama prisoners from their ordeals.
Or there’s the story of Henry “Red” Irwin of Adamsville, who was on a mission over Tokyo when things went horribly wrong:  ". . . a phosphorous bomb . . . accidentally detonated inside the plane. Sergeant Irwin picked up the burning explosive and, although seriously injured and nearly blinded by the blast, managed to toss the device from the plane."

Irwin was badly burned and required numerous operations and skin grafts, but survived—and received the Congressional Medal of Honor.

World War II had what Cronenberg described as a “globalizing and educating effect on Alabamians,” as hundreds of men and women traveled around the nation and the world; in many ways it was another chorus of a song from the previous World War: “How Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree)?” The exposure to other cultures and the educational opportunities available through the GI Bill brought about sweeping changes to the state, yet there were other forces at work that would not reach their full expression until the 1960s: "Increased opportunities in higher education had the most dramatic impact on black Alabamians. By 1950 there had been a 90 percent increase in the number of African Americans in the state with at least one year of college education."

Any survey of war’s effects on a population is certain to include stories of horror and heroism, and Forth to the Mighty Conflict has its share of both, but I think what I will carry away from this book is the memory of how many Alabamians worked and served well and honorably in that conflict.
For more on this topic:

World War II ended in 'wild reign of joy' at Birmingham V-J Day street party

Birmingham Rewound: This Month in History, August 1945

Mary Anne Ellis
Southern History Department
Central Library

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