Herman J. Obermayer’s Soldiering for Freedom: A GI’s Account of World War II is a fascinating look at the life of an average American GI in World War II. Although many of us are used to reading about the accounts of combat veterans in the war, Obermayer gives a no-holds-barred view of the war in Europe from the perspective of a rear echelon soldier.
The book follows a simple format in recounting Obermayer’s Army experiences. Each chapter is filled with Obermayer’s letters to his “folks” explaining his daily experiences and opinions on Army life and a brief explanation putting his letters into the context of the war.
As evidenced by the Eisenhower Center for American Studies’ enthusiastic acceptance of his letters, Obermayer’s book covers an area that few have written about – life in the Army behind the frontlines. He writes about his time in the Army Specialized Training Program at the College of William and Mary, his training as an army combat engineer and then as a medic, and his time in Europe.
Obermayer brings a fresh perspective on the views of a drafted, educated man. He pulls no punches in his letters when he talks about his disdain for the Army’s different treatment of officers and enlisted men. For example, he was furious when he learned that while the enlisted men were crammed in troop ships like sardines, forced to eat standing up, and given little time in the fresh air – their officers, on the same ship, were served their meals by waiters at tables and were allowed to freely roam for as long they wanted on the ship.
In his letters, he often criticizes the Army’s censorship policy regarding letters soldiers wrote home. He frequently rails against the violation of his rights. However, he cleverly creates a way to get around this censorship by establishing a secret code with his parents to tell them where he was in Europe.
Obermayer also brings a soldier’s perspective on all types of issues. Many men, including Obermayer, were drafted into the different armed forces. Like many of these men, he hated the draft and complained about being forced to live the Army life. He epitomized many of the men who served our country so well – they wanted to defeat the enemy as soon as possible and get back home quickly.
Obermayer discusses other issues that during the war were ignored. For example, he explains that relations between the American soldiers and the French citizens were not as rosy as the American press made them out to be. He describes how the French hurt the war effort by sabotaging rail lines and siphoning off gasoline from the American pipeline that ran through France to the frontlines. For example, he infers that an American troop train was sabotaged and rammed through a French train terminal, killing close to 200 American soldiers. Censorship prevented the news from reaching the American public in the United States. In addition, he writes about seeing French peasants stealing gasoline from the pipeline that fed the American advance to Germany. He rightly criticizes the French for possibly lengthening the war due to lack of fuel supplies at the front.
Furthermore, he provides an unfettered account of racism in the Army -how African Americans were relegated to the bottom of troop ships, the worst place to be, on the Trans-Atlantic trip to France. Also, the various verbal jibes about Jews he heard from fellow Americans. His take as a Jewish soldier on the Nuremberg Trials is fascinating – he had the unique opportunity to view part of the trial and see Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, and other Nazi leaders.
In short, the book is a compelling story that puts a face to the millions of Americans who served behind the frontlines.