For decades, the dramatic stories of World War II soldiers have been the stuff of memoirs, interviews, novels, documentaries, and feature films. Yet the men and women who served in less visible roles, never engaging in physical combat, have received scant attention.
Convinced that their depiction as pencil pushers, grease monkeys, or cowards was far from the truth, Rona Simmons embarked on a quest to discover the real story from the non-combat veterans themselves. She sat across from 19 veterans or their children, read their letters and journals, looked at photos, and touched their mementos: pieces of shrapnel, a Japanese sword, a porcelain tea set, a pair of wooden shoes, a marquisette wedding gown.
Compiling these veterans’ stories, Simmons follows them as they report for service, complete their training, and often ship out to stations thousands of miles from home. She shares their dreams to see combat and disappointment at receiving noncombat positions, as well as their selflessness and yearning for home. Ultimately, Simmons finds the noncombat veterans had far more in common with the front line soldiers than differences.
Simmons’s extensive research gives us a more complete picture of the war effort, bringing long-overdue appreciation for the men and women whose everyday tasks, unexpected acts of sacrifice, and faith and humor contributed mightily to the ultimate outcome of World War II.
Congrats on your new book The Other Veterans of World War II. Can you tell me a little about it?
The Other Veterans of World War II: Stories from Behind the Front Lines illuminates a little-understood and often ignored side of World War II—that of noncombat soldiers. These men and women who served in all branches of the military often miles from the front lines in Europe, North Africa and the Pacific, like their combat brothers, have remarkable stories to tell, yet have often been ignored. But more than just a collection of stories, the book is also the war in a nutshell, packed with details of the enormity of the global operation. The facts, figures, and asides gathered during months of research bring the human-sized stories to life, replete with the veterans’ sacrifices, their faith and their humor.
How has writing helped you personally? And changed the way you think?
I have “put words on paper” throughout my years in school and my business career—whether writing book reports, term papers, memos, or articles. I’ll call that writing from the left side of my brain, using very sterile, stylized language. After retiring from thirty years in corporate America, I decided to awaken my more creative side, and so decided to try my hand at writing a novel, and then another, and then a couple of works of nonfiction.
By writing, really, really, writing, not just covering pages with words, I gained a far better appreciation for language and a writer’s potential to communicate, provided the writer pays close attention to their choice of words, the structure of their sentences and paragraphs, and perhaps most importantly the story itself. Humans throughout time have told, captured, and passed on their thoughts and hopes and their histories by telling stories.
Just as people dream in images, I think in stories and, regardless of the form my writing takes, I invent the story and then infuse it with the richest language I can conceive.
Was there an experience that caused you to see a need for “The Other Veterans Of WWII”?
It was a long road, but I can trace its roots to the interview I did with my father in 1995 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Second World War, capturing his recollections for my siblings and family generations to come. Years later, I spoke to a few of his friends, all octogenarians, about their lives. Some had served in the war, but others had not. They all had much to say and reveled in the telling. Then in 2016, I befriended another WWII veteran, the artist Jack Smith. Within minutes of our meeting we were collaborating on Images from World War II: The Art of Jack Smith. By then, the ball was rolling. And, despite my earlier commitment to historical fiction, I decided to give nonfiction a go. In time, I met a few people who would lend their support. They include Jonathan Jordan, author of American Warlords, who was immensely helpful—not only in setting the standard for writing about WWII but also in guiding my early efforts. Winston Groom was another. I got to know him through an interview during which he provided many valuable insights.
Is there one short story from your book you would like to share?
Everyone asks this question. I struggle with the answer, comparing it with Sophie who is asked to choose between her children in William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice. Each of the veterans tell such wonderful tales, it is truly difficult, or impossible for me to pick. I imagine the reader, however, will favor the one with which they identify most strongly—that is the story of the veteran who wanted to fly, or the one who was a prisoner of war, or the one who became a nurse, if their father like Joe Kennedy became flight instructor, or like Frank Cone survived the Bataan Death March to become a prisoner of war, or their mother like Josephine Davis sailed both the Atlantic and Pacific aboard a hospital ship.
But, when pressed, I always suggest the first story I heard (which I placed purposefully last in the book). It is the story of Francis D. “Pete” Peterson who enlisted in the army and, to his great surprise, found himself assigned to the Graves Registration Services, one of the most horrific duties anyone can imagine. I knew nothing about the GRS, but learned through Pete’s memoir, that like any of the others I interviewed he threw himself into his role, vowing to do the best he could. He called on his interests in math and engineering to create perfectly aligned rows and precise corners of several of the over 300 cemeteries that would dot the map of Europe by the war’s end. After a battle, he and his men would collect the fallen, identify the remains, and record each soldier’s place of interment so that the remains could be retrieved and returned to their families or re-interred in one of America’s permanent military cemeteries.
What is the biggest takeaway that you hope a reader will learn from The Other Veterans Of WWII?
I hope readers gain a better understanding about World War II and what drove sixteen million people to serve their country, and to understand that not everyone handled the controls of a fighter plane, looked through a B17 bombardier’s scope, or took cover in a foxhole, but that all played a role in winning the war. All are worthy of our respect and honor.
And, I will be satisfied if I have inspired one person to spend a few minutes with a veteran and ask them about their service and overjoyed if one of those encounters leads someone else to capture a veteran’s story and tell it and tell it and tell it.
What books had the most impact on you and your development?
William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich fueled my passion for history
Steven King’s On Writing explained the tools of writing
Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird provided the inspiration to write and to write well
What are you reading right now? Are there any authors (living or dead) that you would name as influences?
I try to have a fiction and a nonfiction book cracked open at all times. Two of the titles on my absurdly long “to be read” list which I’ve begun are: Taking Lottie Home, by Terry Kay (fiction) and My Fellow Soldiers by Andrew Carroll (nonfiction).
As influencers, I can point to are Terry Kay for the sound and rhythm of his prose and to Jonathan Jordan for his artistry and ability to make military history eminently and compellingly readable.
What are your favorite books to give — and get — as gifts?
To Give? Any from my “top ten” list, and as the list contains a fairly broad spectrum of genres and subject matter, the best is the one that matches a friend’s reading interest. The list includes:
Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything
Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood
John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany
Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities
To Get? A book the giver believes is a “must read,” regardless of topic.
Give us three “Good to Know” facts about you. Be creative. Tell us about your first job, the inspiration for your writing, any fun details that would enliven your page.
For my first job, a high school summer job, I was one of two female lifeguards at the US Naval Air Station in Atlanta, Georgia. What could possibly be memorable about sitting under the hot sun all day and back-washing the pool at night? There were children to supervise, swimmers to teach, of course, but often a number of young navy sailors to befriend as well. And, this “odd job” eventually worked its way into my head. Young children called me, “Ma’am” or “Miss Lifeguardess” and, later, I was promoted to Head Lifeguard. Thanks to the experience, after my third summer, I started college with the notion that I could one day be in a position of authority and earn the respect of my peers.
What is next for you and your writing projects?
It’s back to the future, or past, in my case. I am deep into another book on World War II, and another about an overlooked and under-appreciated segment of the war. So far, I’ve written the story as fiction, but it has the potential to be nonfiction or a hybrid. The process is many months long, however, so I have plenty of time to decide.
Purchase The Other Veterans of World War II Here
Rona Simmons’s first published works were novels, primarily works of historical fiction. Then, in 2017 she co-authored and published Images from World War II, celebrating the art of a local WWII veteran and artist Jack Smith.
The gratifying response and the experience of compiling Jack’s paintings into a lasting tribute rekindled Rona’s interest in World War II. She combined this passion with her love of telling stories to produce The Other Veterans of World War II: Stories from Behind the Front Lines (Kent State University Press, April 2020), featuring profiles of World War II veterans. The daughter of a World War II fighter pilot, herself, she is proud to honor veterans and their stories and to help preserve this corner of history through her work.
Rona is a frequent speaker on topics ranging from blogging, writing, editing, marketing, and publishing to choosing a second career. When not planning to write, writing, or talking about writing, Rona writes about military history and related topics on her blog “Gone for a Soldier,” women in the creative arts on “Women at Word” and local authors and bookstores on “From Acworth to Zebulon.” Her stories, articles, and interviews have been published in regional and national literary journals and online magazines.