458: Uncovering the spiritual lives of WWII soldiers many, many years later

Have you ever found a box of WWII-era pictures?
    Perhaps you were sorting out an aging parent’s or grandparent’s home? Perhaps you found a shoebox stuffed with pictures—like the photographs we discovered of my Grandfather posing with the Shah of Iran in the early 1940s. Perhaps the photos you found were mounted in a ’40s-era album, like the one that touched off comic artist Carol Tyler’s epic quest to rediscover the spiritual life of her father.
     Millions of us are the descendants of ’40s-era service men—and women who served the war effort in a host of roles, as well.
    Yet, as Carol Tyler writes so eloquently about her father—in huge letters on the second page of her acclaimed new graphic novel: “YOU’LL NEVER KNOW.”

(UPDATE IN 2011: Carol Tyler also published a sequel to the book covered in this article. The second volume is called: “YOU’LL NEVER KNOW: Collateral Damage.”)

    Through the decades as a newspaper senior writer, specializing in religion, I interviewed many Holocaust survivors, Holocaust rescuers, camp liberators, Japanese internees and even American GIs who played especially notable roles in WWII.
    But Carol Tyler makes such an eloquent point in her new book, “YOU’LL NEVER KNOW,” that the New York Times recently recommended it as an important landmark in graphic novels.

    Most readers have never heard of Carol Tyler, unless you’re a comics fan and follow the likes of R. Crumb and Harvey Pekar. Tyler is a veteran of this literary form. Her real-life comics on sometimes excruciatingly honest topics have been around for a while. But she never realized that perhaps the greatest story in the three living generations of her family had never been told: Her Dad’s experiences in World War II.
    I can tell you this as a journalist with more than 30 years experience of interviewing men and women: Many people who lived through the truly dramatic chapters of those war years experienced situations so far from the norm of the rest of their lives that they barely want to think about it—much less talk about it.
    That’s how I had such a Sherlock Holmes adventure, myself, trying to figure out why my own Grandfather, who never so much as mentioned WWII to me while he was alive, had a shoebox of photographs that included snapshots with Henry Ford, Will Rogers and the Iranian who eventually would become the infamous Shah. It turned out that my Grandfather was an expert in large-scale steel cranes and ran a special crew in Iran during WWII protecting supply lines to the Soviet Army.
    The results of my digging became a major story in the Detroit Free Press, along with reprints of some of my Grandfather’s snapshots.
    The results of Carol Tyler’s investigation are turning into a multi-volume graphic novel shaped roughly like a big, rectangular photo album.

    But—how about you? Have you ever found a box of WWII-era photos? Or an album?
    Have you got a special photo you’d like to share with others? I welcome hearing from you. Email us here at ReadTheSpirit.

    One final note: Why does this matter? Because the WWII generation is vanishing—and that era left an indelible mark on our world and on millions of lives right here in the U.S.
    I was already hooked on Carol’s book because of the similarities in our discoveries about our families, but then I read her description of a conversation she had with her own daughter—virtually identical to a conversation I’ve had with my son.
    Our American educational system has improved significantly in its focus on important themes during the war years, especially:  the Holocaust, the treatment of Japanese Americans and the historic effects on American women’s roles outside the home.
    Both Carol’s daughter and my own son eagerly studied these chapters of American history in high school. What was largely missing, though, was a lesson plan studying the effects of the war on America’s vast number of fighting men—our fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers.
    At one point in her comic-style memoir, Carol talks to us directly and says, “The war was never really buried under tons of mental concrete. Rather, it was an active shaper of life, affecting moods and outcomes … more than anyone ever knew.”
    This is an important and deeply spiritual contribution to American culture. Go find a copy. Buy one, if you’d like through the Amazon link with this review.

    Oh, and, remember our question: Have you got a special photo you’d like to share? I would welcome hearing from you. Email us here at ReadTheSpirit.


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    (Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)


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