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WWII 'Deserters': Stories Of Men Who Left The Front Lines

In his new book, journalist Charles Glass explores the little-known history of thousands of American and British soldiers who deserted during World War II. Glass describes how the strain of war can push a soldier to the breaking point -- and how the line between courage and cowardice is never simple.


Other segments from the episode on June 17, 2013

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 17, 2013: Interview with Charles Glass; Review of Colum McCann's novel "TransAtlantic."


June 17, 2013

Guest: Charles Glass

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off today. Few citizens are more honored than military veterans, and we have a special reverence for those who fought in World War II and defeated the Nazis. Our guest, journalist Charles Glass, has written about the largely untold story of the nearly 50,000 American soldiers who deserted the front lines during the Second World War.

Few deserters were cowards, Glass writes. Most fought bravely before finally reaching their breaking points under the strain of constant battle. A few resorted to crime and formed gangs that stole military goods and sold them on the black market. Desertion reached troubling rates among GIs in combat infantry units, Glass writes, and allied commanders struggled with what to do to stem the tide.

Charles Glass has spent years in international reporting, much of it in the Middle East. He was wounded by artillery fire in Lebanon in 1976 and was later kidnapped and held captive for two months. He's the author of four previous books and now writes for several publications, including the New York Review of Books and The Spectator. His new book is called "The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II." Well, Charles Glass, welcome to FRESH AIR. Do we know how many American and British servicemen deserted in World War II?

CHARLES GLASS: Well, the rough best guess is about 150,000 - 100,000 British and 50,000 Americans. There may have been more, but those are pretty much in accord with court martial statistics and the number of people who didn't turn up. There were a lot more than that who were merely AWOL, and AWOL meant that you disappeared, but you didn't necessarily have the intention never to return. Deserters had the intention not to return.

DAVIES: These were, I assume, pretty much all in Europe?

GLASS: Almost all. First in North Africa - mainly with the British - then Italy and then France. Those were the three major centers. In the Japanese theater of war, it was almost impossible to desert because on the Pacific islands, there was simply nowhere to desert to.

DAVIES: Right. Now 150,000, in relation to all of the servicemen serving in the British and American Armed Forces is not a large percentage, but it was a much higher percentage among those who were combat infantrymen, right?

GLASS: Well, when you see how the war was fought, you realize that in the American Army, only about 10 percent of the soldiers in uniform actually saw combat. And they were very rarely rotated out of the front. So in most of the people who deserted were those who broke down in battle, and that means that that figure, 50,000 Americans, was extremely high given the number of men who were actually at the front.

And so there were times when there would be holes in the line, very dangerous holes in the line because men had simply withdrawn and refused to fight.

DAVIES: As many as 10 percent of combat...

GLASS: Up to about 10 percent at critical phases of the war.

DAVIES: And it's interesting that we don't know this. It's not a story anybody wanted to tell, right?

GLASS: Well, when I was first asked about it, I didn't know anything about it, and I looked into it, and I was surprised in the first instance that there were so many, 150,000, and then I was surprised that there was no literature on it at all. And I went to the Library of Congress and looked at something called the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, and from the years 1941 to 1952, there was no mention of deserter or desertion.

It wasn't until after 1952 when the subject came up in relation to the Korean War.

DAVIES: And for obvious reasons, I mean, the allied command didn't want to give people the idea that they could desert. And that kind of leads to the question of how do you discourage it? And I, you know, we think of treason and desertion as being punishable by death. I mean, you tell us that this happened in only a single case in World War II, right?

GLASS: In the American Army, only one soldier out of the 50,000 was actually executed. More than 40 were sentenced to death, but their sentences were commuted. And the one who was executed was a man called Private Eddie Slovik, who was - had been in his youth a very small-time criminal, had spent some time in prison, but was out of prison, had married, got a job and was putting his life together when he was drafted.

And then he just simply couldn't fight. He didn't - he was never in a battle. He simply couldn't fight. But he happened to desert just at the time of the very heavy fighting of his division in the Hurtgen Forest, and then he - when he was sentenced to death, he made his appeal during the Battle of the Bulge, which was again very bad timing.

And Eisenhower and the other military commanders who discussed his case did not want to be seen as letting a man off when thousands of soldiers were either deserting or shooting themselves in the foot or otherwise avoiding service at that time when the American forces were being pushed back by the German army.

DAVIES: So there as documents that tell us that the commanders needed to make an example?

GLASS: Yes, the - Eisenhower and the other generals wrote to one another specifically about his case, and it was a very troubling case because he had no service record to speak of. He wasn't a bad soldier; he just simply - he was just afraid. He was simply afraid. But one of the things that emerged is while they said that they had to make an example of Slovik, they executed him in secret, and they didn't tell anybody about it, and they didn't even tell his wife that he had been executed. They just said that he had died in Europe.

It wasn't until a journalist named William Bradford Huie looked into the case and wrote about it, wrote a very good book about it in the mid-1950s, that it became public knowledge.

DAVIES: And the other interesting thing about Eddie Slovik is that he didn't flee, right. He simply said I'll take prison rather than combat.

GLASS: Yes, he told his commanding officer that he just could not fight, and rather - and this happened in other cases, by the way. And often, commanding officers would simply say to the soldier: All right, we'll send you to the rear until you are able to fight.

DAVIES: And so there was a lot of discretion, a lot of field decisions made in circumstances like this?

GLASS: Yes. I mean, the most decorated soldier in the American Armed Forces in World War II was a man called Audie Murphy, who came from Texas and fought very bravely in three theaters of war. And Murphy worked his way up through the ranks, became an officer, and when he was an officer, because he had known the fear of normal combat infantrymen, he describes in his book "To Hell and Back," confronting one of the men in his unit who was shaking so much he simply could not go into battle.

And rather than court martial him, which is what some officers who had very little combat experience would do, he said you just, you go to the rear, and you see the doctor, and we'll talk about it.

DAVIES: Did the Army do any psychological screening? I mean, there were, you know, hundreds of thousands of draftees coming in. Were people screened to see if they were, you know, psychologically capable of dealing with combat?

GLASS: Doctors on the draft boards screened everyone who went into the armed forces, and 1.75 million were turned down for mental reasons. There was a belief at the time that certain psychological tests could tell you which men were likely to break down and which men were not. The tests were obviously flawed because many men did break down, and it's very hard to know which ones will and which ones won't.

And the men themselves going into battle didn't always know. Some of those who were extremely gung-ho in training were the very first ones to break down in combat.

DAVIES: And you tell us that lot of the desertions came among people who had had a lot of combat experience, fought bravely, earned medals in some cases.

GLASS: Well, say Steve Weiss, for example, of the 36th Texas Infantry Division, had fought in Italy and all the way through Southern France and then fought with the French resistance before he finally cracked down. One of the problems was that those soldiers who fought continuously and were never rotated out of the front lines simply were under so much pressure for so long that they cracked.

DAVIES: Right. You note that the policy of rotation and replacement really maximized the stress and peril there.

GLASS: Yes, it was terrible for group cohesion and group morale. So what happens, in the First World War, when a division lost a certain number of men, it would be withdrawn in its entirety to the rear, retrained, replacements brought in and retrained with the old - with the veterans, who got to know one another, and they got to know their officers, and then they would be sent as a unit back to the front.

In World War II, General Marshall decided, for very sound logistical reasons, that this was not a good way of doing it. It was inefficient. It was better just to replace individual soldiers as they were killed or wounded or captured and send one man at a time in to replace them.

But that meant that that man was not known to his fellows. His officers didn't know his name. And the life expectancy of an infantry replacement on the front line after the battle - after the D-Day landings in Normandy - was about six weeks.

DAVIES: And of course those who were lucky enough not to be killed or wounded just stayed there day after day, month after month, on the front lines.

GLASS: Well, the vast majority did do that. What's interesting is that they were the ones who thought about getting out of it dishonorably, either by deserting or shooting themselves in the foot, and it was very rare for those veterans to turn in a fellow from their unit who deserted. They often saw them deserting from the front lines, but they didn't say a word.

The ones who turned them in were the rear-echelon troops. So when they went back to Paris or Lyons or somewhere where there was no battle, and a cook or a clerk at a desk would see that someone was a deserter, he would turn it in. But the frontline soldiers very rarely turned in their fellow frontline soldiers.

DAVIES: Because they felt such empathy? They could see it happening to themselves?

GLASS: Because they felt - exactly. They felt there but for the grace of God go I.

DAVIES: Now you write that in 1943, I mean, the military command observed that desertion was an increasing problem and they assigned Brigadier General Elliot Cooke to study desertions and its relation to what they called nervous disorders and try and reach some conclusions. What - how did he go about his work? What did he discover?

GLASS: Well Cooke, who was a decorated soldier from the First World War, he was a career officer, was assigned by General Marshall to do this study. And he went first to Fort Blanding, where Steve Weiss trained with the 36th Division, to see the men in the hospital wards there who had claimed that they were sick. This is before they ever saw battle.

And he found malingerers, but he also found people who just under the strain of being away from home, worried about their wives having babies and bills at home, just couldn't cope. And there were thousands of people deserting in the States at that time, and they were trying to figure out what to do about it.

He then went to North Africa and spoke to soldiers at the front there, some of whom had lost men in their units to deserters, and it was one 19-year-old soldier who told him that whenever he saw a man in his unit who really couldn't take it anymore he would send him off to get ammunition or something, give him a break for a day or two so that he could collect himself to be able to come back and be useful, rather than report him and to be court-martialed.

DAVIES: Right, and did Cooke and the military command reach any conclusions? I mean, where there things to do other than coercion?

GLASS: Well, Cooke felt treatment was the solution, and in fact partly because of him and because of other - because of some medical officers in the Army, they installed psychiatric units in every forward medical station at the front so that it was recognized that you were as likely to be taken out of battle by a mental as a physical wound. And so they had psychiatrists there to treat those mental wounds, and once they were treated, then they would go back to the front.

DAVIES: But in practice, a lot of soldiers didn't get help, right?

GLASS: A lot didn't get help. A lot didn't know about the fact that they could get help. A lot of the officers wouldn't send them back for help. And you remember, they were fighting a war, and a lot of those officers were more - and understandably - more concerned about day-to-day battlefield conditions than the mental problems of one or two soldiers.

Some officers were empathetic and would realize that this was also a command problem and a decision that had to be made - was very important, - and that they could deal with it in a rational way. Some just didn't focus on it and let those men slip through the cracks.

DAVIES: You know, you tell us one story in the book of a commander, I think it was a first lieutenant, who reached a point where he said he simply couldn't command, couldn't lead, couldn't fight.

GLASS: That's right. After Lieutenant Colonel David Fraser went to the front lines with his commanding officer, Colonel Adams, he and Adams were riding back in a Jeep, and Adams saw that he was - he had fallen asleep in the Jeep. He wasn't listening to him. And he said that Frazier was one of the finest men and one of the best battalion commanders anybody could have, and when Frazier woke up, he said it's time for me to quit because I'm in no shape to command this battalion.

Now if an enlisted man had said that, he would have been court-martialed. But Adams just simply made Frazier, who was a good soldier, his executive officer. And a lot of enlisted men felt a great injustice that officers were treated better than enlisted men when it came to this issue.

When in North Africa, one of the other deserters I wrote about, a British soldier called John Bain was side by side with a major during the Battle of El Alamein, and the major deserted, he saw him disappear, and had an enlisted man done that, he would have been court-martialed and sent to prison. The major was promoted to colonel.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Charles Glass. His new book is "The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is journalist Charles Glass. He's spent a lot of years covering years and doing foreign reporting. He has a new book called "The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II."

Let's talk about Steve Weiss. A lot of the book is - are essentially profiles of three deserters and their experience in World War II. Steve Weiss is a man that you met. Tell us about that.

GLASS: Yes, I did. I was - I had already begun researching the book when my previous book was coming out. So I was at a place called the Frontline Club in London, which is a war correspondents club, and I was promoting the book there, giving a speech about the Americans who stayed in Paris under the German occupation, the American civilians who were living there.

And a man - at the end, people ask questions, and a very distinguished-looking elder gentleman, with a little red rosette in his lapel got up and asked some questions. And I could see that - well, the red rosette meant he was a member of the Legion of Honor of France, and by his age he was probably a veteran, and by his questions I could see he knew a lot about the subject.

So we agreed to meet about a week later near - he lived in London. We agreed to meet about a week later, and we were talking about his time in the French resistance and his experience with the French resistance and so forth. And then he asked me. What's your new book about? And I said: Well, I'm writing a book about American and British deserters in World War II. Do you know anything about it?

And Steve said: I was a deserter. And then this opened up a whole other door of experience for me because I hadn't spoken to living deserters. Most of the ones I had come across had died long before.

DAVIES: Well, I want to talk a little bit about Steve Weiss' story, but first just a little bit about his background. That's kind of interesting. Describe his family background and how he got into the military.

GLASS: Well, Steve grew up in Brooklyn. His father was a World War I veteran. His father had been wounded very badly in the First World War. He was traumatized by the experience of the war and by his wounds and was a very aloof figure in Steve's life. I mean, he very rarely talked to him. Every year on Armistice Day, the day that commemorated the end of the First World War, he would go up to his room and just sit alone for an hour or two, wouldn't talk to the family.

Steve grew up in this rather heavy atmosphere, but he wanted to understand war. There was a curtain between him and war. He thought that understanding war would help him to understand his father. And so when - as soon as America entered the Second World War, he wanted in, and he volunteered.

He was underage, and his father refused to sign for him, but Steve blackmailed him and said he would go and lie about his age and get in anyway. So the father did sign for him, and he did go into the military, and then he did discover what was on the other side of that curtain.

DAVIES: Yeah, you want to describe some of the action that he saw in Italy.

GLASS: Steve arrived as a replacement in the 36th Division, the Texas division, which at that time in Italy was called the Hard Luck Division because they had already lost, killed, wounded or captured more than half of the men who originally landed in Salerno in September 1943.

And he was put straight into the front line. They fought their way from Rome north up to Grosseto and all the way up to Sienna when they were pulled back for retraining to prepare for the second D-Day landings in the south of France.

DAVIES: And I mean, there was just some terrible, terrible fighting. There were moments when they were on exposed beaches enduring artillery fire. I mean, it's...

GLASS: Well, the thing that struck him most was on a beachhead, which the allies had secured six months earlier, there was still nowhere that was safe. The Germans still were able to bomb that, shell it regularly. And so he lost a lot of his friends who were just sleeping on the beachhead.

There were also, interestingly enough, hundreds of deserters also on that beachhead who were living in the woods, living rough, within striking distance of their fellows who had not deserted.

DAVIES: Now, he ends up going to France after the D-Day invasion, or I guess as part of it. Describe the circumstances under which he got separated from his unit and then ended up taken in by the French resistance?

GLASS: Well, the 36th Division had been ordered to take a town called Valence about halfway up the Rhone Valley. And the battle began that night. Quite a few of Steve's friends were killed in the battle for Valence. What they didn't realize were two things: One, that it was much better defended than they'd been told. And some people in French intelligence had informed the high command of the American forces, but no one had got the word down to the commanders in the field.

And the second thing was that orders came late in the night, halfway through the battle, that in fact the 36th was needed further south for a battle that was about to begin at Montelimar. So they were withdrawn. But no one told Charlie Company. So these eight men, Steve and seven of his fellows, were dug in in an irrigation ditch, and they woke up in the morning, and the 36th Division had gone, and no one told them, and they were completely surrounded by the Germans.

DAVIES: So they end up in a barn of a farmer and taken in by the French resistance. And he spends quite some time with them. What did he do with those folks?

GLASS: One, he developed a great rapport with his commanding - the French commanding officer, a man called Francois Binoche, who became a friend of his then and stayed a friend long after the war. Binoche took him on operations. They blew up bridges, they attacked Germans. And Steve liked the commando life. He preferred it to the life of a combat infantryman.

For one thing, he could always go back at night after an operation and sleep in a bed and have a hot dinner, which combat infantrymen never got.

DAVIES: And how did he get back to the U.S. Army?

GLASS: From the French resistance, he was succumded(ph) by OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, which was running American underground operations with the French resistance at that time. And so he fought with the OSS for a time. And then the 36th Division demanded him and his fellows back to the 36th Division. Steve wanted to stay with the OSS, and the OSS wanted him to stay, but the 36th prevailed because they had lost so many men that they needed every experienced veteran.

And Steve was an experienced veteran. He'd been promoted to corporal. And he'd also won some medals. So they needed him, and they wanted him back, and they sent him. He was 19 years old, and he had to hitchhike back up to the front lines. And he gets to the command post, where his captain, Captain Simmons, didn't even say hello to him or welcome him back.

DAVIES: Yeah, you mentioned Captain Simmons, and you note in the book that poor field leadership contributed to desertion a lot.

GLASS: Well, it seems that, you know, some units had much higher rates than others. The 36th, in the battles in France, had the highest rate of any division in the American Army. And it can't be accidental that there were junior officers like that who were not interested in their men and not talking to their men and not looking after their men.

Steve Weiss felt that his captain always led from behind, was never at the front lines. You could never find him. They couldn't confide in him. They couldn't ask him for anything. And they felt they got a raw deal from him.

DAVIES: Charles Glass' book is called "The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with journalist Charles Glass whose new book, "The Deserters," focuses on the largely untold story of nearly 150,000 Americans and British soldiers who abandoned their units during World War II. Glass writes that most who deserted served long months or years in combat units before reaching their breaking point. One was a decorated soldier from Brooklyn named Steve Weiss, who fought in Italy and France - and when separated from his unit, served with the French resistance. He was eventually returned to the U.S. Army's 36th Infantry Division.

Tell us about the fighting that led to Steve Weiss' desertion.

GLASS: Well, Steve Weiss, when he got back, he was sent to the front lines, he found out that almost every man in his platoon had been killed or so severely wounded that he'd been taken - sent back to the states. So he was pretty much on his own with only a couple of friends that he knew from before. They made them a sergeant and tried to put him in charge of a platoon, which he didn't want. He didn't feel capable of because he was a 19-year-old kid. And he found that there were 30-year-old newcomers, replacements, who were looking up to him as the old man and asking him his advice, and he had really no advice to give. He'd been scared the whole time. It was a very hard thing for him, and as the lines became static before a town called Briel, they were dug in there for weeks, the Germans were counterattacking and shelling them frequently and also occasionally getting planes and to bomb their positions and killing the men. Under that severe strain, one night in the middle of the night, he wandered off in a daze. And other deserters also said this, that they didn't make a conscious decision, but they just found their bodies leading them away from the front. And he wandered into the woods, found a barn and slept for a couple of days, put himself together, and then reported again for duty. So that was clearly not a conscious desertion.

But about a week later, he and two others did walk off the line and they made a decision to go, that they couldn't take it anymore. They knew they would be that they were going to be killed and they didn't trust their commanding officer not to get them killed, and they wandered off to Leon but they didn't much of a plan. They went to Leon, they hid out on an American air base, and then two of them turned themselves into medical officers to try and get psychiatric treatment and Steve turned himself into the military police.

DAVIES: And he ended up back in front of the captain, right, Captain Simmons.

GLASS: He ended up in front of Captain Simmons who immediately sent him for court- martial. He was then given a psychiatric assessment to see if he could stand trial. The psychiatrist, after a very cursory 30-minute interview, in the midst of a medical post that was taking in hundreds of wounded Japanese-American soldiers who had just been very badly decimated by the Germans, with all of that chaos going around, this man wrote a report saying this man is fit to stand trial. Steve then had about another half an hour with his defense lawyer and then he - the next morning he was court-martialed and convicted.

DAVIES: And what was his sentence?

GLASS: He was 19 years old when he was given life at hard labor.

DAVIES: And then sent to a detention unit, which was not yet built. He and the other prisoners were then supposed to build their own prison, right?

GLASS: That's right. They were sent to a field outside Limoges, to the west of Paris, and they had to dig the fence posts and put up the barbwire and create the whole - and build the guard towers from which they would be shot if they tried to escape, all the while under a very, very brutal regime of MPs who had never seen action, beating them and starving them and making their lives absolute hell.

DAVIES: I wanted to talk about Al Whitehead, a different kind of deserter in a way. I mean he was a young man from Tennessee. Well, just tell us a little bit about him.

GLASS: Alfred Whitehead was a barefoot Tennessee boy who never went to school, more or less illiterate, volunteered for the Army, trained in the States, was wild, heavy drinker, heavy gambler, a real braggart, went to Britain for Northern Ireland and Britain for training and waiting for the D-Day landings. He landed on D-Day. He fought. He won a Bronze Star, a Silver Star, fought very bravely across Normandy, but very ruthlessly, you might say. But he had a good service record. And I've spoken to some of the men who were in his unit. He was not popular in his unit, possibly because of his bragging. But he then got appendicitis and he was sent to Paris for medical treatment. And when he was released, he was told he couldn't go back to his division, the 2nd Division, that he would have to become a replacement in some other infantry division. He didn't know which one, and he didn't want to be a replacement so he deserted from the replacement depot outside Paris and then went to Paris, hooked up with a waitress in a cafe in Paris and joined the black market, the black market in Paris, in London, in Naples, in Rome at that time were all run by deserters, who could steal military supplies and sell them.

DAVIES: This is a fascinating part of the story. I mean there were significant numbers of deserters - I mean a minority to be sure - but who in effect became criminal gangs, robbing, you know, truckloads - and sometimes train carloads - full of military goods.

GLASS: Some of them stole so much that - for example - the gasoline supplies that Patton needed for his advance on The Saar were not there because the deserters had stolen them and sold them on the black market in Paris. And it's clear Patton, understandably, wanted them all shot.

DAVIES: Al Whitehead actually writes a memoir, right or in cooperation with somebody at some point...

GLASS: Well, no, Whitehead after the war, after he served his prison sentence, became a barber and then he became a barber in Tennessee and then he moved to Cape Cod. And in his barbershop in Cape Cod, he had a kind of mimeographed memoir that he had written together with his wife, which he used to give to his customers.


GLASS: And one of his customers gave me a copy of this. And he wasn't ashamed at all about these black market activities or his desertion. In fact, he used to apparently talk about it to his customers.

DAVIES: Well, and it wasn't just stealing military goods - at least as he tells it, right? I mean he...


GLASS: Well, he...

DAVIES: He was robbing the good citizens of Paris regularly.

GLASS: Well, he and many others. I mean the Paris press was writing about it a lot of the time. They said they were Chicago-style vandalism and gangsterism in the streets of Paris, and that the American military had to do something about it. I mean, there were shootouts between the Paris police and the MP - American and British MPs on one side and the deserters on the other side. They would rob banks. They would rob cafes. They would stop people on the street and steal women's jewelry. They were gangs of real hard-core outlaws - and they were armed and they were armed and trained.

DAVIES: So how would these gangs get military goods? I mean, with a sneak up to a warehouse? Would they hijack trucks?

GLASS: They would do all of these things. Because they had uniforms and because they had identity, they could go onto the base and they could simply pilfer from the base. Because they had weapons, they could overpower the truck drivers from the services' supply who were taking the supplies from Cherbourg Harbor to the front lines and they would simply rob them like train robbers in the Old West. There were any number of ways for them to do that.

DAVIES: You tell a great story - or I guess Al Whitehead tells a great story - of his initiation into one of these gangs. He was given the task. Do you remember this?

GLASS: He was told to go out and steal a truck. They would let him into the gang if he could steal a truck. So he went out immediately, pulled out a .45, put it to the temple of the truck driver, told him to disappear and then drove back to the gang with the truck and all the supplies in it, and then he was allowed in.

DAVIES: So, he lives the high life in Paris as a deserter and a criminal. Then what happens? Did he get caught? Did he turn himself in?

GLASS: Well, the war ended and he decided he couldn't go - he missed his wife - that he couldn't go back to the States unless he turned himself in. So he decided he would go back to his unit, which by then was in Czechoslovakia, and he didn't quite make it that far, but he did turn himself in. He was put into a military jail to await transfer back to Paris and court-martial and then he escaped, because he decided he didn't want to turn himself in. And he went back to his French girlfriend, he walked into the apartment, found her in bed with another American soldier and got very angry and ultimately turned himself in again.

DAVIES: Wow. Sometimes. So what kind of punishment he get?

GLASS: He got, Whitehead was only charged with desertion. He didn't, they didn't know about his crimes on the black market or his robberies and possible murders in Paris. What they did try him for was the desertion from the replacement depot and for his escape. So he was given 25 years at hard labor. He served a couple of years in France and then was sent to federal penitentiary in New York and was released after 10 years.

DAVIES: Most of these men did not serve these long prison terms that they got. What changed?

GLASS: Well, attitudes changed, first of all. Second, because the war was over, there was no real reason, there was no real reason to hang onto them in prison any longer but to integrate them back into civilian life. It made much more sense, so they did. The British went one step further, because for Britain it was a more domestic problem because many of the deserters were living in Britain and were living on the black market in Britain. At that time, an immediate postwar period in Britain, you couldn't get a job without an identity card, you couldn't get food without ration coupons and if you were a deserter, you couldn't get those things and that meant you stole to survive. So to put an end to this huge black market, in 1953, Churchill gave a general amnesty to all the deserters and then the ones who were in jail were let out and the ones with not been court-martialed were then given discharges and could be integrated back into society.

DAVIES: There were something like 10,000 deserters in London at the time?

GLASS: At least 10,000 in London alone. The police used to do sweeps through the West End pubs and say there would be 50 or 60 men at any given pub, five or six would be deserters and they'd take them off.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Charles Glass. His book is called "The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II." And we'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR and our guest is journalist Charles Glass. His new book is called "The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II."

You know, you described the court-martial panels that decided the fates of the men that you profile. And you note that they didn't generally include enlisted men who had been through what these deserters had experienced.

GLASS: Well, under the Articles of War, which then governed military law at the time, only officers could serve on court-martial panels, no enlisted men. That was all changed after the war. Now you have the university - the Universal Code of Military Justice. But then, only officers, and most of those officers have had no combat themselves, who didn't really know what they were dealing with. And a lot of the soldiers felt that was unfair.

DAVIES: And it seemed like the trials themselves were pretty, you know, preemptory kind of proceedings and, you know, and the accused were generally not in a position to talk very, you know, very deeply about what they were going through. You know, and yet in some way I wonder if it's not hard to feel some sympathy for those who must sit in judgment because they, you know, it is a healthy emotional psychological response to want to flee the kind of, you know, savagery that war brings, and yet those folks have to try and distinguish between those who simply can't go on and those who, for maybe some good reasons, are fed up and just don't want to.

GLASS: Well, that was the added problem in the 36th Division, which was - and this came out later just after the war when many of the officers testified against their commanding officer, General Dahlquist, that Dahlquist was putting heavy pressure on the members of the court, all of whom were officers in his division, to bring in guilty verdicts and harsh sentences. And that is, I mean that is clearly unjust and should never have been allowed.

DAVIES: You mean he was exercising undue influence. I mean, going...

GLASS: Dahlquist was calling officers into his office and saying, I want a guilty verdict. And that's, some of the officers testified to this about at the end of the war. And they felt what they had done to people like Steve Weiss was not what they would've done if they had been allowed to make their own decision.

DAVIES: So after the war there were, you know, these tens of thousands of former soldiers who had deserted, and most did not suffer long sentences and were re-integrated into civilian life. Did the nation ever hear about them?

GLASS: No. It's been a closed subject. I was surprised how little literature there was on it. And also, some of the soldiers who deserted never did come home. I came across a man named Wayne Powers who was a truck driver who was delivering supplies from Normandy to Belgium, from just after D-Day until the Battle of the Bulge. And one day his truck was hijacked, probably by deserters, and he was wandering around and decided to go back to a village where he had met a young woman that he rather liked. And he went back to Mondorney(ph) - the village - and this woman put him up and took him in and hid him. And they then had five children, and he hid in the house, he never came out.

And one day there was a car accident in front of the house. He happened to open the curtains and the police, who were taking information about the car accident, saw him and they went in to question him, realized he was an American, probably a deserter. They called the MPs from the nearby American base, who arrested him. He was taken off to the base to be held for court-martial. This got to the French newspapers and within two days, 60,000 letters arrived from French people writing to the American Embassy saying, please let him off. He did it for love. So he was court-martialed. He was sentenced. His sentence was commuted, and he went back to her, they had another child and got married.

DAVIES: You tell us that among the most sympathetic to the deserters were other people who were on the front lines of combat. And, you know, after the war there were, you know, American Legion posts and VFW posts and places where veterans would come to, you know, congregate and remember each other and share stories. Did deserters ever participate in any of these things? Were they ever welcomed? Do you know?

GLASS: I know that Al Whitehead and his son tried to go to one of the reunions of the 2nd Division and they were basically asked to leave, partly because he was a deserter, but partly because he had been a criminal and they felt hard done by that he did not represent them and what they were fighting for and what they stood for. And I think that was the only attempt he'd ever made to go to one of those reunions.

DAVIES: And, as you said, he was not a popular guy, kind of a braggart and a fighter.


DAVIES: You know, soldiers today, my sense is that they're much better supported by the military and by the government. I mean, there's more sophisticated medical treatment. There's a recognition of, you know, post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. The military has acknowledged that suicides are an issue that they want to deal with. I wonder if you think if this experience that we saw in World War II would ever be replicated or if we now have a military that understands the psychological damage that, you know, the troops can go through.

GLASS: Well, no system of large numbers of people is ever going to be perfect. I was on a panel recently in London with an ex-British soldier called Jake Woods who's written a book about his brain trauma, both physical and mental trauma, from Iraq and Afghanistan. And he had - it took him a long time and he had to fight for proper medical and psychiatric treatment from the British military who at first didn't want to give it to him.

And he's had to fight for sick benefits because it's very hard, on a mental basis, in Britain to get those benefits. Physical is much easier. And he still, despite the treatment he's had, he's still, by his own admission, more or less a nervous wreck. And he may never come together. He's written a beautiful book about it but he may never recover fully from the trauma that he suffered, partly killing people that he shouldn't have killed.

He feels very guilty about that. And the officer to whom he was closest, his captain, had his head blown off right next to him, which was another shattering experience. Plus, he suffered physical brain trauma from a bullet to his helmet himself. So while the treatment is getting better, it's never going to be good enough to put all those men back together.

DAVIES: Well, Charles Glass, I want to thank you so much for speaking with us.

GLASS: Thank you very much.

DAVIES: Charles Glass' book is called "The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II." You can read an excerpt on our website Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews "TransAtlantic," the new book by Irish novelist Colum McCann. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Colum McCann is the author of five novels and two short story collections and he's garnered a host of awards, including the National Book Award for his 2009 novel "Let the Great World Spin." Book critic Maureen Corrigan says McCann's new novel, "TransAtlantic," also has its head in the clouds.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Here we go into the wild blue yonder again, with Colum McCann. In his 2009 novel, "Let The Great World Spin," McCann swooped readers up into the air with the French aerialist Philippe Petit, who staged an illegal high-wire stunt walk between the Twin Towers of The World Trade Center in 1974. Strictly speaking, "Let The Great World Spin" was not a 9/11 novel, and yet, almost everyone rightly read it as one, since McCann's tale commemorated the Towers at the literal zenith of their history.

"TransAtlantic" is also heady and historical and, in the cheeky spirit of "Let The Great World Spin" combines an air show with a juggling act: McCann compresses three crisscrossing narratives into this novel, which spans over a century. It's a dizzying literary performance that deserves high points for technique even if the point of the whole show is a little opaque.

"TransAtlantic" begins in 1919 with the first non-stop aerial crossing of the Atlantic by two British pilots, John Alcock and Arthur Brown. The pair flew from Newfoundland to Ireland. Eight years later, Alcock and Brown would be nudged into history's shadows by Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic.

Bring your airsickness bags into this opening chapter because McCann straps readers into that open cockpit and throttles forward on his spinning and spiraling descriptions of early air travel. Alcock and Brown were both veterans of World War I and, in McCann's account of their historic flight, the men are attempting to reclaim flying as a joyous freedom rather than an instrument of death.

Freedom, as well as war and peace are the big themes running throughout the other two historically-based ocean crossings in this novel: Frederick Douglass visited Ireland in 1845 - during the Great Famine - on a lecture tour to promote his "Autobiography". And Senator George Mitchell tirelessly flew back and forth from the U.S. to Northern Ireland in order to broker the peace accord of 1998 called The Good Friday Agreement.

No doubt recognizing that all this official history is a bit boy heavy, McCann also manufactures some fictional female characters - good women, as it were, standing behind the great men. The women's private life stories silently knit together the public exploits of the gents. McCann's writing is studded with unpredictable language, sentences where the clouds part and rays of enlightenment stream forth.

Describing her first anticlimactic sexual encounter with an out-of-shape older man, one of the young female characters reminisces that: The damp white loaf of his body shuddered. When Douglass is taken on a ride through a Dublin slum, his carriage is swarmed by the starving inhabitants. We're told: The poor were so thin and white, they were almost lunar.

And George Mitchell's prolonged peace mission to Northern Ireland merits an especially striking image, inspired by the fact that the negotiations took place in Belfast whose shipyards built The Titanic. Channeling Mitchell's thoughts, our omniscient narrator comments on the vague hope of helping to turn the long blue iceberg, the deep underwater of Irish history.

It's all lovely writing, no question; but perhaps because these observations are all presented in the same elevated voice, the air of this novel gets a little thin. Maybe if McCann's language were less lovely, his lofty themes would stoop down once in a while to punch a reader in the gut. "TransAtlantic" is a book to admire, but not to lose yourself in.

It keeps demanding that you appreciate the panoramic view; the dazzle of its metaphors; the pristine cleverness of its interconnected narrative structure. And, so we do. But, for all its polish, "TransAtlantic" never makes us care anew about these events. As in those rare instances where an airplane trip is so smooth that passengers are prompted to applaud the pilot's skill upon landing, we clap and deplane and instantly forget the ride.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "TransAtlantic" by Colum McCann. You can download podcasts of our show at and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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