SALT LAKE CITY — The 10-day trip was a dream for a guy like Jerry Borrowman.
Last month, while the world was looking forward to Thursday's 75th anniversary of the Allied Forces's D-Day invasion, the author and military history enthusiast was a host with a European tour of various World War II sites.
While in London they visited the Churchill Museum with its Cabinet War Rooms, along with the Imperial War Museum. The group then took a ferry across the English Channel to the Normandy Beaches of Northern France where Allied soldiers landed on June 6, 1944. They walked along the beaches and visited the American cemetery lined with white crosses.
Next came stops in Paris and Germany as the tour essentially followed the route used by the Allied Expeditionary Force to liberate Europe.
"It was humbling to follow in the tracks of the American, Canadian, British and other Allies in the Allied Expeditionary Force as it fought its way to the liberation of modern Europe," Borrowman said. "It was chilling to visit the sites where the Nazi government executed the war that led to the deaths of more than 75 million military and civilians. But it was also inspiring to see how Germany rebuilt their cities and political structures to become a bastion of freedom in Europe and one of the world’s most stable democracies. From the ashes rose a new generation that has preserved the peace for 75 years.”
One place Borrowman greatly appreciated seeing was Point du Hoc, the center of Omaha Beach in northern France, where American Rangers scaled 75-foot cliffs with the Germans firing down.
"It was the hottest part of the war on D-Day, and it's just so sobering to think of those men unloading from their transports under heavy fire, figuring out how to get across the beach, and then having the courage to scale those walls," Borrowman said. "That was probably the highlight."
Now home from his trip, Borrowman is promoting his new book, which also focuses on the same topic — "Invisible Heroes of World War II: Extraordinary Wartime Stories of Ordinary People."
The book features 10 largely untold stories, including the first-hand account of Robert "Pat" Patton, a survivor of the Bataan Death March and a Japanese prisoner of war, along with the story of Latter-day Saint and Ogden native Joseph Anderson, who went missing in action during World War II, as told by his family. The book also offers stories about women in the war, Japanese-Americans, African-Americans and Navajo Code Talkers.
Borrowman recently spoke about his book and other World War II topics in an interview with the Deseret News.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: Did you have any family members that served in World War II?
Jerry Borrowman: My father, Reed Borrowman, served in the U.S. Navy during WWII. He was on the USS Lake Champlain, an aircraft carrier. I also had many uncles who served.
DN: Do you have a favorite military author you like to read, or a favorite war movie you like to watch from time to time?
JB: My favorite author is Winston Churchill. Most people don't know this, but he was an extremely successful author, between World War I and World War II, sometimes making upward of a million dollars a year from his writing. He wrote a 7-volume history of World War II. It is sort of definitive because he had access to all of the memorandums he sent out, all the telegraphs, so he was able to give a detailed, point-by-point account.
Stephen Ambrose, of course, is awesome. His book on D-Day, I think, is now considered the definitive account. The reason is it's easy to look at the statistics — 165,000 men were landed on D-Day, 4,000 were killed. What Ambrose did better than anyone has done is to tell individuals stories of what it was like to come in under fire.
I watched "Patton" with George C. Scott when I was in high school. That, probably as much as anything, sparked my interest in studying the wars. "Patton" is a great one.
"The Darkest Hour" is about how Churchill got the country to go to war instead of sue for peace with Germany. The tension is just so high. You think, "How did he pull that off?" That's a great one.
DN: What sets your new book, "Invisible Heroes," apart from other military books you've published?
JB: It's 10 true stories out of World War II and it's about people you wouldn't usually read about unless you're an historian who digs into it.
There's Joseph Hyalmar Anderson, a young man from Ogden who was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He went to Seattle and while on a training mission, the weather moved in and the plane got lost and crash landed on a northern point of Vancouver Island that was very remote. It was wartime and they did a cursory search. When they finally found the wreckage six months later, Joseph had buried five of his crew mates. Some of them had lived through the crash and he had cared for them. The part that makes the story so poignant was he could see the lights of a Canadian city across the bay. He wandered off to see if he could make his way and they never found him. He was officially listed as missing in action. For a family, that's the worst thing you can hear, that your loved one is missing, not yet declared dead. After a year they declared him dead but he died all alone.
There are stories about women. One is about Nancy Wake, who was called the "White Mouse of the French Resistance" by the Germans because they couldn't find her. This is a woman who started a resistance movement in southern France helping American GIs escape. When the Nazis closed in, she escaped to Spain. She eventually commanded more than 1,000 French Resistance fighters. She was a tough lady who really damaged the Nazis and served the war cause.
There's a wonderful story about what was called the "Purple Heart Battalion," which were Japanese Americans. The United States sent many Japanese people to internment camps, but a group was formed and went to Europe. An American group got surrounded by Nazis in the mountains of northern Italy. The Purple Heart Battalion went in to rescue them. It took a week and it had the highest casualty rate of any unit ever to serve in the war, and these were Japanese-Americans who, you know, the country wasn't being nice to their families. Yet they served with real distinction and valor.
The one that touched me the most — and people have heard about it — was the Navajo Code Talkers. This is a group that because their language was spoken and not written, were able to creat a very fast translation system to send encrypted messages. But the part that surprised me that I didn't know that I think makes my book unique is the culture of the Navajos was rich and they were kind people. You don't expect that about the Native Americans. But they were very, very gentle spirits. One of the things that was really touching was in Navajo society, they have a real aversion to dead bodies. When a person dies, only the immediate family moves to have them buried. They have a ceremony offsite because they're afraid that if you come in contact with the body, that the evil parts of that person will attach themselves to you. So we send them into the South Pacific to go in on the first wave of any invasion of the islands. The ocean is literally full of dead bodies. Because they were patriotic, they endured that. I thought that is a huge sacrifice to do the right thing for the country.
DN: How can these stories about World War II heroes help readers to better appreciate and honor our servicemen and women today?
JB: A really good book causes the reader to step into the story. And the reader, at some point in the story, will ask this question, "What would I do if I was there?" "Would I have had the courage to do what they did?" "How would I have responded?" I think that's the first thing.1 comment on this story
What a book like this can do, written out of history, is help people better understand the sacrifices and the strain that our current service people endure, to serve. Their life is filled with uncertainty.
I have a nephew who is in the Special Forces. He's a medic for the Army. He goes off on these super-secret missions where he can't tell his family where he is. The family is left at home never knowing if he's going to come back. He gets on the plane and leaves not knowing if he'll return or if he'll be wounded or disabled. That's a lot to ask people to carry.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated D-Day occurred on June 6, 1945. It occurred on June 6, 1944.