'The Jersey Brothers' Highlights The Enduring Legacy Of World War II

May 29, 2017
Originally published on May 29, 2017 6:13 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

World War II ended more than 70 years ago, but the stories of those who fought in it continue to fascinate us. If you search on Amazon for books about World War II, you'll find over 600 books published just this year. This Memorial Day, NPR's Glen Weldon looks back at one book out this month that sheds light on the enduring legacy of that war. It's called "The Jersey Brothers."

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: To tell the story of the war's impact on her family, author Sally Mott Freeman consulted hundreds of sources, but she kept the focus very personal. In fact, the book begins with an early memory of visiting her grandmother in New Jersey. She was outside playing with her cousins. It was early evening when the bats come out, and the adults were drinking cocktails on the porch.

SALLY MOTT FREEMAN: And we could hear voices rise. We could hear a glass break. And my mother was crying and, you know, we were doing our best to eavesdrop to find out what the problem was. And we did hear the name Barton and what happened to him and why.

WELDON: Barton Cross was Freeman's uncle. As for what happened to him...

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Nipponese planes began bombing Manila in early December.

WELDON: The family found out later that Barton was injured in the early days of the war when the Japanese attacked Cavite Navy base in the Philippines. He was loading supplies onto a submarine when planes reduced the dock he'd been standing on to flaming splinters.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The air attacks continued as the invading ground forces grew closer to the Philippine capital.

WELDON: The family got news he became a prisoner of war after the Japanese seized the hospital he was being treated in. But Barton's name never showed up on any prisoner manifests, and he never came home. His ultimate fate remained a mystery, one that would spark that cocktail hour argument years later and fuel endless debate among the cousins.

FREEMAN: We continued to talk about this as teenagers, young adults and so forth. It was sort of a parlor game we played. What did happen to him? Well, dad said - well, but my cousin said - well, Aunt Rosemary always said that - and it never came to a satisfactory resolution.

WELDON: Many decades later, Freeman got that resolution. She pored over her father's wartime correspondence, her grandmother's diaries. She combed the National Archives. She even went to the Philippines to look for medical records. They told a grim story. Barton and thousands of other Allied prisoners had been packed into a succession of Japanese transport ships and moved from prison camp to prison camp.

FREEMAN: You cram them in the hull of a ship where there is no light and there's no air. And they sit there, sometimes for weeks on end without food or water. I think many of them became their basest selves.

WELDON: Norman Matthews was a survivor of what came to be known as the hell ships. He spoke to The Virginian-Pilot newspaper in 2008 about that truly horrifying experience.

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NORMAN MATTHEWS: Some of them went crazy - killing each other, eating each other's blood.

WELDON: And then, somehow things got even worse.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Ship after ship is pounded by explosive shells, poured into them in fiery streams of destruction.

WELDON: The Japanese Navy didn't mark these ships as prisoner transports, so they often came under attack by Allied bombers and battleships.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: A transport gets a direct hit.

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WELDON: More than 20,000 Allied prisoners of war died on the hell ships, and like Barton, every one of them had a story. And the only reason we know Barton's story is that his niece, Sally Mott Freeman, spent nearly 10 years researching it - a process of fits and starts.

FREEMAN: As my research grew - and it wasn't anything but linear - I would find somebody who led me to another person who led me to an archive or a cache of letters or a set of diaries.

WELDON: She's got some advice for anyone who, like her, is obsessed with preserving these stories for future generations. Your search might take you far away to chase down some key document or government record, but your most important resource is probably a lot closer.

FREEMAN: Collect every single archive that you've got under roof now. If these relatives are living or if those who spent a lot of time with people who fought in World War II, get it down either in audio or on paper because it starts at home.

WELDON: Glen Weldon, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.