Piehler on Coyne, 'Marching Home: To War and Back with the Men of One American Town'

Kevin Coyne
G. Kurt Piehler

Kevin Coyne. Marching Home: To War and Back with the Men of One American Town. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. viii + 406 pp. $15.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-14-200386-2.

Reviewed by G. Kurt Piehler (Center for the Study of War and Society, University of Tennessee) Published on H-New-Jersey (April, 2006)

Six Men, One Community: The World War II Generation in War and Peace

On a warm spring day in 1995, I met Kevin Coyne at the Monmouth County Library in Freehold, New Jersey after we both heard a lecture by Stephen Ambrose. During our brief conversation after Ambrose's talk, Coyne introduced himself and described how he intended to write a case study of what happened to World War II veterans from Freehold. Coyne's project intrigued me since I had recently started recording the life stories of Second World War veterans as the founding Director of the Rutgers Oral History Archives of World War II (1994-1998). I have been wondering since what happened to his project, and was delighted to see his book appear in print.

Freehold, New Jersey had much in common with countless communities across the nation that sent men and women off to war in 1941. Founded by Dutch Protestants in the seventeenth century, Freehold was, prior to Pearl Harbor, a remarkably diverse community, and contained both a large Roman Catholic Church and a synagogue. A small African-American community sent their children to a segregated elementary school, and black students could only enter the predominately white high school by passing an examination. The county seat of Monmouth County, Freehold in the 1940s had a vibrant commercial core, a major industrial employer, and a number of farms.

Coyne's focus is on six men from Freehold and uses their life stories to cover a significant portion of U.S. history in the twentieth century. After a brief introduction to Freehold in 1941, he describes at length the varied wartime experiences of these six. Stu Bunton served aboard the USS Santa Fe as a radioman and his vessel saw combat in the Mediterranean and Pacific. Two men served with the Army Air Force in Europe--Bill Lopatin as a waist gunner in a heavy bomber and Jim Higgins as an intelligence sergeant charged with plotting bombing missions. Warren Errickson served as an army radio intercept operator stationed first in Australia and later in New Guinea. Segregation forced Bigerton Lewis into an all-black Army engineer general service regiment assigned to Europe. Walter Denise, a Christian Scientist was initially placed in the medical corps but eventually managed to get a transfer to the infantry and fought in the closing months of the war in Europe as an enlisted man and later an officer.

Although Marching Home does briefly mention the wartime experiences of other men and women from Freehold, one of the strengths of this study is Coyne's ability to avoid clichés in telling the stories of these six GIs. For instance, we learn about Warren Errickson's successful courtship of a young Australian woman and bringing her to Freehold to start a new life together. Coyne does not gloss over Bigerton Lewis's anger at the discrimination he encountered in the U.S. Army. Having interviewed Walter Denise for the Rutgers Oral History Archives of World War II, I can report that Coyne did an excellent job capturing this soldier's ambivalence toward the army and the war.[1]

Of course, by only choosing six individuals, there are many stories not told. For instance, there is no U.S. Marine represented among these six men nor are the experiences of those who served in the Coast Guard or Merchant Marine considered. There is no discussion of the land campaigns in North Africa, Italy, the Pacific, or China-Burma-India. No woman veteran's story is featured nor does Coyne consider the stories of those who worked in essential war industries. None of the veterans interviewed developed a physical or mental disability that prevented them from holding down a job or leading a "normal" life.

One of the great strengths of the book is Coyne's efforts to tell what happened to the six men from Freehold when they came home. He traces their postwar experiences to examine the transformation of Freehold and the United States during the postwar years. Coyne manages to tackle some big political, economic, social, and cultural changes engulfing America. For instance, he records the postwar prosperity that greeted many, but not all returning veterans. He recalls how Warren Errickson's career blossomed in the immediate postwar years as orders poured into Karagheusian Rug Mill. For a small builder, Bill Lopatin, business prospered as Freehold increasingly attracted suburbanites looking for single family homes. Jimmy Higgins's patience, dedication, and hard work allowed him to build a successful funeral home. But in the case of Bigerton Lewis racial prejudices continued to limit his career aspirations and discouraged him from joining the local police department.

Coyne's narrative is not always upbeat. Although a familiar theme to historians of postwar America, Marching Home portrays how the automobile and suburbanization reshaped the landscape and community life of Freehold. Some of the best sections of the book focus on the deindustrialization that hit Freehold like so many other communities in the Northeast and Midwest beginning in the 1950s. He does an excellent job portraying the decline and closure of Karagheusian Rug Mill and the impact it had on both Errickson and the entire community. The six men who marched off to war came from a community where essentially most residents could walk to work and do their shopping in a thriving downtown. Slowly, farms gave way to shopping centers and housing developments. Like communities across the nation, the automobile and suburbanization contributed to the decline of Freehold's downtown. A devastating fire in 1962 that engulfed several buildings on Main Street further accelerated the downtown's decline. Freehold would be more fortunate than many other town centers, and in the 1980s the downtown revived as restaurants, galleries, and law offices were established.

Although New Jersey has been deemed a "blue state" by political pundits since the 1990s, Coyne describes controversies that suggest this drift toward great political and cultural liberalism did not come easily. For instance, many residents of Freehold did not want to abandon compulsory school prayer in the postwar period. Coyne describes the deep generational divide between the World War II generation and many of their children who embraced the counterculture and opposed the war in Vietnam. For younger readers born after 1970 Marching Home will be a revelation regarding the stark racial divisions and violence that engulfed Freehold and countless communities across America. Although Freehold did not suffer the same degree of destruction as Asbury Park, Plainfield, and Newark, it did not fully escape it either.

Despite its many strengths, there are some important gaps in Coyne's account. One of the biggest disappointments of this book is the author's almost complete failure to examine questions of gender. Rosie the Riveter is absent from this story as is the flowering of the women's movement in the 1970s. Despite the clear gender division of labor at the Karagheusian Rug Mill, Coyne only comments on this in passing. Even more disappointing is Coyne's decision not to tell the story of a young woman who went off to war from Freehold. I wondered how the narrative of Freehold's postwar history might have changed if Coyne had followed the life of Warren Erickson's sister who served as an army nurse in the Pacific instead of offering only occasional mention in the text.

Coyne seeks to understand the perspective of the middle class who went off to war and came home. In reading his account of Walter Denise's travails with the family farm I wondered how Freehold's history looked from the perspective of those migrants who made up the seasonal work force of the orchard. In describing the race violence that afflicted Freehold in the turbulent 1960s, Coyne does an excellent job of telling the story from the perspective of Stu Bunton, a police lieutenant with the police department and Bigerton Lewis, a building foreman for the Monmouth County Courthouse. But I wish Coyne considered the stories of the black youth from Freehold who vented their anger and frustration by taking to the streets.

The author has done a prodigious amount of research for this book, but I regret he did not use citations to indicate how he used them in the text. In many places, the dialogue cited in the text clearly came from newspaper reports, town minutes, or other sources. In other cases, conversations must have been reconstructed based on oral history interviews. Although the general reader will be untroubled by the lack of citations, this does limit the value of Marching Home for scholars. This is unfortunate. With these caveats aside, I highly recommend this book, especially for historians interested in understanding the postwar experiences of World War II veterans. For those who specialize in New Jersey, this book will be invaluable addition to their bookshelf.


[1]. See http://history.rutgers.edu.

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Citation: G. Kurt Piehler. Review of Coyne, Kevin, Marching Home: To War and Back with the Men of One American Town. H-New-Jersey, H-Net Reviews. April, 2006. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=11653

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