Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Beyond the Book - Q & A with Eric Hammel, author of "Islands of Hell"

Acclaimed military historian and author Eric Hammel has spent decades researching the U.S. Marine Corps role in the Pacific during World War II. The result are a handful of comprehensive and authoritative illustrated histories—the most complete resources ever produced on the U.S. Marine Corps’ combat during World War II.

His most recent book, Islands of Hell: The U.S. Marines in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945, follows the U.S. Marines through the latter portion of the war in the Pacific, including momentous battles at Tinian, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

In the following interview, Hammel talks about the Pacfic War, the brave men who fought it, and what researching and writing each of his books has meant to him.

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ZENITH PRESS: With dozens of books covering the history of the U.S. Marine Corps to your credit, it is clear that you hold a deep respect and admiration for the men and women who wear the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor. What first drew you to writing about the USMC and its history? 

ERIC HAMMEL: It really was a combination of reasons. I was born right after the end of World War II. My father and most of the fathers of friends served. I have always been aware of the war. I was allowed to take adult books out of the Free Library of Philadelphia local branch when I was in third grade. For some reason, my first pick was Guadalcanal Diary by Richard Tregaskis. That kind of set the pace; it drew me to the Pacific War, in which my father had served (as a U.S. Army front-line medic). Somehow, I was imprinted by all of that on the Marines.

ZP: Each of the photographic histories you’ve published in recent years contains hundreds upon hundreds of photographs, many having never been published prior. How did you go about the daunting task of tracking down and selecting from such a considerable number of photos housed in your books?

EH: It's easy if you know where to look. I figured out where all the photos were and I spent a week in each of three years scanning them. The fun part was the process of selecting and captioning the several thousand photo scans I brought home.

ZP: In many ways, the war in the Pacific has been overshadowed by the war against Hitler’s Germany in Europe. With HBO’s new mini-series airing in March, this could soon be changing. In your opinion, what about the Pacific War set it apart from the combat that took place half a world away in Europe?

EH: The Pacific War was the last old-fashioned colonial war. It had more moving parts than the war in Europe, more aspects--air, naval, and ground operations--to master and interact with. When I started my first book--in tenth grade--there was less analysis available than on the BIG war in Europe, so the Pacific War seemed to me to be more of a challenge, a topic on which I could leave my own mark.

ZP: Setting aside your role as an author and historian for a moment and letting the history junkie truly come out, is there one particular battle from the war in the Pacific that has always interested you more than any other? Care to explain?

EH: Guadalcanal. As I learned from an early age, it had important air, naval, and ground aspects that whose tight interplay fascinated me, made we work hard, forced me to think in three dimensions.

ZP: For those unfamiliar with the events covered in your books and the upcoming HBO mini-series, what do you think will surprise, shock, or inspire them the most about what this country’s Marines experienced almost 70 years ago?

EH: We tend to view wars as antiseptic and easy: no one on TV news is ever seen dying and the "good guys always win." The candid photographic record of war as it really takes place tells a far different story, a story of inner struggle by men who are as afraid of death and injury as any TV viewer would be. The surprise and inspiration in the photographic record is that mere mortals get up and advance when they are told to do so. Resistance shows in body language in every photo, but there they go, forward, to contact with the enemy.

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