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All at Sea

Coming of Age in World War II

By Harlan, Louis R.
2002, Univ of Illinois Pr (Pro Ref)
ISBN 0252070720
Paperback, 240 pages

Descripton: Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Harlan (for Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1984) looks at his own life in this personable memoir of WWII. Harlan served as an ensign aboard an amphibious troop carrier during the invasion of Normandy and, later, on the Marshall Islands. Like so many other American troops, he rarely saw combat. The bulk of his narrative, then, concerns how he negotiated the minefield of Navy hierarchy, acted like a red-blooded male while on shore leave and pined for his girl back home. Intermixed is more provocative fare: the author's recollections of his ambiguous, even "racist," feelings toward blacks. These admissions, and Harlan's gentle awakening to more progressive ideas, are of particular interest given his later contribution to African American historical scholarship. In a thoughtful preface, the author considers the differences between biography and autobiography, noting that "selective memory unconsciously retains what advances the story." To offer a fuller, more truthful account, he draws on interviews, a superior's diary and, most crucially, the wartime letters he wrote to his girlfriend. Even so, lacking the derring-do of so many war memoirs, this one, though frank and good-natured, slides at times into mundaneness and repetition. But it still reminds us that, finally, history is the sum of many stories, each of which is a personal affair. Illustrations not seen by PW.