'Home Front to Battlefront' Recounts the War Fought by the Kids, Not the Generals

Mar 20, 2017

The book "Home Front to Battlefront" began with capturing a piece of family history and finding a box of hundreds of letters in a furnace room.

The former U.S. ambassador to Singapore, Frank Lavin, has published a new book about a Canton G.I. coming to grips with the violence and vagaries of World War II. It’s his dad’s story, crafted from old letters, memories and research – but Lavin says it’s actually a story shared by millions of kids who came of age during war. WKSU’s M.L. Schultze spoke with Lavin about the book, “Home Front to Battlefront, An Ohio Teenager in World War II.”

Frank Lavin’s dad, Carl, was a kid when he headed off to war – a foot soldier like millions of others.

“They show courage, they show discipline, they show cohesion and it is pretty impressive that they get it. They get what’s at stake and they show their stuff. At the same time, they’re still teenagers.”

So, Lavin says, some take shortcuts, some cut in for double rations. “But boy there’s an incredible sense of performance and duty among that generation.”

Training in Texas

Lavin says what stood out to his dad -- as captured in the box of letters pulled out from a furnace room a half-century after the war ended – was the juxtaposition. He remembers a day when a leader sent his squad out to track a German patrol, an assignment likely to end with 50 percent U.S. casualties. No one balked. But when a medical officer showed up later that day to remind the soldiers they were behind on their measles vaccinations, they lied about whether they already had them.

“Every day somebody is trying to kill you and you’re trying to kill someone else, the most serious undertaking a person can perform -- juxtaposed against superficial or silly things.”

Carl Lavin was nearly killed four times during the war.

Friendly fire and a near escape

He also recognized the special horror that was the backdrop of World War II. He was Jewish.

'They are kids. They're motivated, they've got a rifle. And it's how they perform that ultimately decides the outcome of a war.'

Overall, Frank Lavin says, Carl’s letters reflect a “detached view.”

“It’s not an emotional view; ‘I hate Hitler: I hate the Nazis.’ It’s we’re doing our job and our job is to beat these guys.’”

The younger Lavin says his father maintained that attitude even after the war, when he interacted with German combatants.    

But there was another part of his reaction. After it was liberated, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower visited Buchenwald, and insisted the horrors of the death camp be documented by Gens. Patton and Omar Bradley, journalists and others. He also extended an invitation to Jewish G.I.s to witness what had happened at the camps.

Carl Lavin declined.

“He’d seen nothing for months but people getting killed, people wounded, and just terrible parts of war and he just had no appetite for seeing something arguably even more terrible. He just didn’t have the stomach for it.”

Later, his son says, Carl said he should have gone as a witness to that history, “but he just didn’t have the mind set to prepare himself for how low humanity could go.”

An homage to Steinbeck

For even those with no connection to World War II, Frank Lavin says he hopes his book resonates on several levels.

'Every day somebody is trying to kill you and you're trying to kill someone else, the most serious undertaking a person can perform -- juxtaposed against superficial or silly things.'

“Our world today is still defined by World War II. It was World War II that we, as a nation, first decided we needed to have peace-time allies. We needed to have overseas deployment. So our global posture -- for good or wrong -- all came out of that.”

And Lavin says there’s perhaps a more crucial lesson.

“History is sometimes a very top-down history. What was Eisenhower doing? What was Churchill doing? What did Truman decide to do?”

While Frank Lavin says that all is important, “the ultimate success … is because of the million or 2 million G.I.s. They are kids. They’re motivated, they’ve got a rifle. And it’s how they perform that ultimately decides the outcome of a war. And these are the folks that pay an ultimate price.

“So I would tell anybody in senior policy positions, yeah you need to think of grand strategy … but you also need to think of the G.I. and the price that that families paying and the price that individual’s paying when you make a decision to put these people into war.”

Frank Lavin says that over the decades until his death in 2014, Carl Lavin described himself as lucky. Frank remembers Carl as a serene man who led “an active and optimistic life.”

More about Frank Lavin:

Frank Lavin was ambassador to Singapore and undersecretary of commerce in administration of President George W. Bush.
Credit VOX

Frank Lavin was ambassador to Singapore and served in the Reagan and Bush administrations and now runs a company in Singapore specializing in Chinese imports of U.S. goods. Here are some of his thoughts on trade, China and President Trump.

As part of the Stark County District Library's "Local Authors" series, Lavin will speak tonight at the Palace Theatre in Canton at 6:30 p.m.