Napoleon claimed to prefer what he termed "two o'clock in the morning courage," that reflexive habit of mind that takes over even in the dazed confusion that lies between sleep and waking.
Whatever it is and however it is defined, courage has continued to fascinate the voices of literature and history. One of the most recent voices belongs to Ronald Drez, author of the just-released Twenty-Five Yards of War. Drez is a Gentilly boy who graduated from Jesuit High and later became a Marine company commander in Vietnam.
After the war, Drez returned to New Orleans and in graduate school came to know University of New Orleans historian Stephen Ambrose. Together they began interviewing veterans of World War II and archiving these oral histories at UNO's Eisenhower Center for American Studies. Later these interviews would form the basis for several Ambrose best-sellers and an earlier Drez book, Voices of D-Day.
In his latest book, Drez helps tell the stories of 10 Americans who survived the bloodiest war in the history of the world. Those stories were culled from more than 1,400 interviews conducted over a span of a decade, and those interviews have given the author some clear and lasting opinions on the nature of heroism and memory.
Q: The name of your book is Twenty-Five Yards of War. How did you come up with that title?
A: Actually, I had nothing to do with it. My title for the book was Ten Days in a Big War, which I thought was pretty good. But the publisher (Hyperion) couldn't agree less. They found the phrase "twenty-five yards of war" in my essay that begins the book and liked it. It simply refers to the fact that no matter how global the strategy or consequences, each individual's experience of war is his own. I told the publisher it would be an OK title if I could get a thumbs-up from the pilots in the book, because I figured pilots have an experience field as wide as the sky. Well, I asked Jack Bolt of the old Black Sheep Squadron about it, and he laughed and said, "Ron, for pilots the distance was between eye and gunsight." So that's how the title got born.
Q: How do you get into the business of oral history?
A: I never thought about it until about 20 years ago. One night Ambrose asked if I liked the history of the Civil War and I said sure. He said just imagine if you could go back to the library and put on headphones and hear veterans who were there talking about Shiloh or Gettysburg or Chickamauga. And then he said just imagine the priceless stuff that's getting thrown out of attics around America every day as people die off.
Well, when he said it like that, I shuddered, and so thereafter we got to work. Plenty of academic historians look down their noses at oral history, but history is much more than just documents. These are wonderful stories and part of our national heritage.
Q: Talk a little about your methodology. How did you go about getting interviews?
A: About 15 years after I'd left Vietnam (in 1968), the Marine Corps sent me a questionnaire about a battle I'd been in. I'd kept a log and had letters to my family, yet I found then that you often ramble in answering such questions. So we devised a set of questions designed to cut down on rambling.
I'd go to veterans' reunions -- and after a while I learned not to ask permission. I'd just drop in and find the host and ask his advice on who to talk to.
Q: Were you concerned about the reliability of memories a half-century old -- or the common human leaning toward embellishment?
A: No, because everybody told their story so straightforwardly, so matter-of-factly. Like Pvt. Ken Russell, a paratrooper whose chute got snagged on a church steeple in Normandy. Later that night, he told me he lobbed a Gammon grenade into a German anti-aircraft gun pit. I waited and finally I asked him what happened next. "They stopped shooting," was all he said. It was like these guys were telling someone else's tale. As far as embellishment goes, we never used any stories that couldn't be corroborated.
Q: Did any other aspects of their stories strike you as singular?
A: Yes. There were a couple of things. One was the frequency of how often we were able to fill some of them in on the "big picture," what was going on in the battle that they didn't know about. But of course this is part of the isolation of combat and this is why ideology or patriotism usually play such a small role in individual heroism.
The other thing was an element of humor, which turns up in the grimmest conditions. Like Harold Eck, a sailor from New Orleans, who went down when the cruiser Indianapolis was sunk by a sub. Of all the stories I heard, Eck's might be the most terrifying to me personally. He spend nearly five days in the ocean, with sharks eating more than 500 of his shipmates. Yet there was one moment when someone floating by told Eck that the tag on the back of his lifejacket warned that it was good for only 48 hours. Harold turned and asked the guy, "Where can I turn this one in and get a new one?"
Q: What about your own combat experience -- how did it help you relate to your subjects?
A: There's nothing you can do to prepare yourself for what combat is like. I was just new to Vietnam and I got my company caught in an ambush. It was terrible, but you make decisions because there is nothing else to do. It took us about two hours to get out of it and when we got back to camp, there were seven dead and they put the bodies around a tree. I was just sitting there thinking of what I should have done differently, all tore up, and the gunny sergeant came over with a cup of coffee. "Hey, you didn't do so bad," he told me. "You got us out, didn't you?" That's what you learn in combat, that there's an inevitability about certain things.
There was this, too. When the guys I was interviewing learned I'd been in combat, they seemed to open up right away.
Q: Do we live in a post-heroic age or are we a nation of hero-worshippers?
A: Well, in some way we call politicians, teachers and outfielders "heroes." I think we should reserve use of the term to people whose lives are actually in jeopardy. I mean, you envision heroics in sports, you're talking about something that is ultimately predictable. Combat is the ultimate unpredictability.
Let's face it. After Vietnam, "hero" became a four-letter word in America. But heroes as role models seem to be making a comeback in this country.
Q: The World War II generation developed a reputation for being reticent to talk about their traumas.
A: Yeah, well this generation didn't start talking until about 40 years after the fact. Maybe some day in the future it will be the turn of those who fought in Vietnam and the Gulf War. Maybe it's just easier to talk about these things to your grandchildren than to your children.
Q: Out of all the people you interviewed, how did you cull that number down to 10 for your book?
A: Well, it was tough, but I really think that every one of the people in the book should not have come back alive. Like Jay Rebstock from Gulfport; he actually was in combat on Iwo Jima for 30-something days in a row. There's no way he should have survived that.
Q: Were there any other common denominators?
A: I say in the book there is an eagerness to join the battle -- not because of sure victory, but even more so in the face of long odds because it will end the torture of waiting. Like in the story of Doolittle's bomber raid on Tokyo: there were a couple of replacement crews who were offering money to be allowed to go on the raid.
The other thing in common is that they were ordinary guys who were in the wrong place at the right time.
Q: Your book ends with the aftermath of the sinking of an American cruiser by a Japanese sub near the end of the war, and it's a story of military scapegoating and cover-ups. Was this intentional on your part, to close your book about individual heroism with an account of institutional wrongdoing?
A: Yes. The brass even chose to release the story of the sinking to the media on the day that Japan surrendered. Naturally, the story was largely overlooked, so what you had was the euphoria of the war ending contrasted with the wreck of a few individual lives. We were the good guys in this war, but nobody's got a monopoly on virtue.