Wettig on Bakken, 'Fighting Hoosiers: Indiana in Two World Wars'

Dawn Bakken, ed.
Terry Wettig

Dawn Bakken, ed. Fighting Hoosiers: Indiana in Two World Wars. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2021. Illustrations. 200 pp. $26.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-253-05684-9; $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-253-05683-2; $25.99 (e-book), ISBN 978-0-253-05686-3.

Reviewed by Terry Wettig (AF Air University Global College) Published on H-War (May, 2022) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57521

Through the stories of several Indiana citizens—nicknamed Hoosiers—Fighting Hoosiers highlights and typifies American participation in the two world wars. Their stories are part of our broader American history, told through their words as the war was seen through their eyes. These Hoosiers, along with the millions of Americans who fought next to them or who came before and after were ordinary citizens whose duty was their calling to help save the world from the tyrannies of their time. From her vantage point as associate editor of the Indiana Magazine of History, Dawn Bakken did well to piece together this tapestry of humanity and warfare, all from the state of Indiana. They came from myriad walks of life and, prior to the outbreak of hostilities and the ensuing American participation, likely had no lifelong ambition of military service. Rather, these ordinary citizens heeded the call to duty and were effectively transformed into radio operators, military communications experts, battlefield/trauma nurses, and an artillery expert credited with firing the first American shot of World War I.

At 188 pages, Fighting Hoosiers is not a big read, yet its stories are big, are real, and are compelling to what our “boys over there” lived through. It would be a useful resource for military enthusiasts or historians particularly when juxtaposing today’s warfighting apparatus to those of yesteryear. The book compiles a combination of primary and secondary sources written as individual chapters by historians, a dean of Georgetown University School of Nursing, and the veterans themselves through their diaries. The highlighted Hoosiers' reflections on their service depict similar perspectives. These perspectives are succinctly captured by Bernard Rice, a World War II combat medic from the Indiana town of Mishawaka whose story is highlighted in the book, “Looking back, it seems as though I am watching a young man I used to know go off to war. I had no idea when I left home that I would share experiences that would last a lifetime” (p. 138).

In addition to a set of comprehensive references and notes, one strength of this collection of wartime thumbnail histories, captured mostly from first-person writings from diaries and scribed notes, is that the reader is easily transported back to the early twentieth century and the beginning of the Great War. Through active descriptions, the reader sees, feels, and hears the cacophony of battlefield sounds, and knows the rain, mud, snow, and ice the soldiers walked and crawled through. Even as the horrors of war are presented in oftentimes accurate details, so too, their words encapsulate the humor and light-heartedness of those telling the stories. Through humorous accounts of stories and clichés like the “hurry up and wait” nature of the military or the reasons why typically it was only those with last names starting with A, B, or C who were chosen for undesirable “details” and extra duties, one can easily see that some things in the military have not changed over the past one hundred years. One moment that helps to illustrate how a big war reduces to a small world is when medic Fred Santoro jumps into a ditch after being wounded only to discover being next to an old high school acquaintance: “Joe, what in the world are you doing here?” is all he could say (p. 126). Military readers can all see a little bit of themselves in the accounts depicted throughout Fighting Hoosiers. Non-military readers can easily relate to the stories as they have sons, daughters, spouses, and distant relatives who have joined up, participated in, and endured some level of America at war.

Bakken also helps the reader to understand that, although separated by over one hundred years, recent wars are not so different from what warriors today may see as primitive operations and tactics. Readers can compare two seemingly different worlds separated by time and technology unimaginable in the early twentieth century. We quickly see the resulting by-product and horrors of war—the senseless casualties, physical, emotional, and psychological—and the long-term impact to families, which remains essentially unchanged. Bridging the gap of these two worlds, true then as today, is the indominable spirit of Americans, military and civilian alike. Highlighted by author and former dean of Georgetown University School of Nursing and Health Studies, Alma S. Woolley, this patriotic spirit is perfectly articulated by Maude Essig, a Red Cross nurse at a hospital in France. From her perspective, “Despite the dangers that Essig must have realized were involved in wartime nursing, she records in her diary no period of hesitation, no qualms, no obstacles to her decision to accept Florence Martin’s invitation to join the staff of Base Hospital 32. She considered it an honor” (p. 47). Following the war and seeing the Statue of Liberty as the troop carrier ship was approaching New York, Essig summed up what is likely to be the sentiment shared by every returning American war veteran when seeing the Statue of Liberty and thinking “all so wonderful.... What an experience for little M. E.” (p. 62).

Fighting Hoosiers is chock full of footnotes and supporting pictures to help illustrate the realities of the war scene, both good and bad. One interesting reality, uncommon in today’s world, is the impact of Hoosier cities and corporations on the war effort. The city of Indianapolis provided scores of doctors and nurses, as well as support, and corporations such as Eli Lilly and Company provided much-needed funding. Simultaneously, the book is a stark reminder that, while all Americans were contributing to the war effort, back in the United States, America was still a divided nation whose segregation policies, regarding gender and race, were in full force. America’s involvement in the war effort exploded the job market as scores of ammunition plants were built around the country. These greatly expanded the numbers of African Americans in the workforce. Yet while the operation of these near-urban areas was easier to staff, those in more rural areas, such as Kingston, Indiana, proved more challenging. Though prewar steel industry had already drawn scores of African Americans to the North, discrimination prevented many African Americans from obtaining employment as they “encountered resistant whites who enforced segregation in education, employment, and public facilities” (p. 158). This resistance was heard by the president’s Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC), a federal agency established to review complaints of racial discrimination in wartime industries. Ignoring pleas by African American women willing to work, such as one letter written to the FEPC by Maime Johnson who said “I am a citizen of the United States [,] been here all my life [,] pays taxes [and] am a widow. I wants to work,” the FEPC was often unsympathetic to the plight of these patriotic African Americans who wanted not only meaningful employment but also to contribute their effort to the growing war cause (p. 156, square brackets in original). The rationale was that there were already people of color working in the factory and thus hard to prove racial discrimination. For those who were fortunate enough to find employment, a primary challenge of African Americans working in rural factories like Kingston is their proximity and access to acceptable housing and schooling for their families, resulting in long commutes of forty or more miles from the cities.

Fighting Hoosiers brings the reader into the worlds of ordinary citizens who suddenly found themselves fighting far from home under difficult conditions. An amazing element of Fighting Hoosiers is not only the completeness of the diaries researched but the memories, such as that of Kenneth Baker of Rochester, Indiana, who, sixty-six years after serving in two world wars, was able to place his experiences on a yellow notepad from memory, which eventually found its way into print for posterity. This is a story of ordinary citizens making extraordinary contributions and a lasting impact on themselves, the lives of their families, and the country they loved both during the war and decades after.

Terry Wettig, the reviewer, himself a Fighting Hoosier, is a twenty-one-year air force veteran who attended and graduated from Richmond High School, in Richmond, Indiana, in 1976. His tenure found him serving in such countries as South Korea, Spain, Germany, England, and Italy. He had several uncles who were actively involved in the distant fighting of both world wars.

Citation: Terry Wettig. Review of Bakken, Dawn, ed., Fighting Hoosiers: Indiana in Two World Wars. H-War, H-Net Reviews. May, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57521

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.