Book review: From Campus to Combat

From Campus to Combat - James Alter

James Alter — Chicagoan, Industrialist, father of Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter — was a sophmore at Purdue when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the US joined World War II. Rather than wait to be drafted, he joined the Army Air Corp and ended up as a bombardier stationed in Italy.

From Campus to Combat (Garrett County Press) is his memoir of those years of his life. And it’s a pleasant, fast read. He spent 20 months in training before ever reaching Italy, so over half of the book deals with Alter learning to be a soldier, pilot, navigator, and finally bombardier.

There’s a lot of detail of the training, but it’s leavened with anecdotes. For example, at one training posting, all of the soldiers are required to go to a religious ceremony on Sunday mornings. Although he is Jewish, Alter realizes that the Catholic service is much shorter than the Jewish or Protestant ones and begins attending that one to have more free time. And when he and his company do finally get to Italy there’s some interesting accounts of the unofficial residences they constructed and the incredibly dangerous open-flame gasoline heaters they constructed to warm them.

And while in Italy he does go on bombing missions over Germany — 31 of them, chasing an ever-increasing number of runs to reach his defined tour of duty. Despite their height over the enemy, bombing was no safe job — in late 1943, the average life of a bomber and it’s crew was 15 runs.

There is a stereotypical reticence of the WWII generation to talk about their experiences and Alter doesn’t shake that stereotype much — he tells us plenty about what he did, but little about how he felt about it. He references Catch 22 several times, but seems to absorb little of novel’s dark outlook. There are a scant two pages where he talks about his “formless and ubiquitous” fear. In the end, this book seems to answer the question “Grandpa, what did you do in World War II?” but never delves much deeper into the nature of that, or any other, war.

Chicago Public Radio interviewed Alter in 2004, though the audio link seems to be broken at the moment.

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