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A DAY FOR REMEMBERING

The Human Side of WWII

History: Veteran Leonard Zerlin's colorful collection of war songs, stories and poems focuses on people, not politics.

May 26, 1997|COLL METCALFE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

THOUSAND OAKS — When Leonard Zerlin sat down to write his version of World War II, he didn't bother with the politics of Hitler, Churchill and Roosevelt. Instead, the 73-year-old veteran wove together a collection of what he remembered best--the human side of history's greatest conflict.

Although the horrific memories are still very real to him, the retired Thousand Oaks aerospace engineer said it was the soldierly bonds and common mission that made the war years the most memorable of his life.

"It's hard for people who were born after the war to understand what that time was like," Zerlin said. "It was a remarkably sentimental time, and there was a unity, a bond, among all of us that was very unique and special."

Now Zerlin has captured that spirit in a compilation of poems, songs, stories and colorfully vulgar limericks titled "World War II Memories."

The former B-26 gunner hopes the book will give veterans a nostalgic romp through the past and provide others a glimpse into the culture shared by the 16 million American servicemen during the war.

Unlike other works in the pantheon of World War II histories that document battlefield strategies and the heroics of soldiers, Zerlin's book recalls fondly how servicemen whiled away the hours between frenzied battles and gut-wrenching missions.

"You can read about heroics just about anywhere, and I didn't want any of that," he said, thumbing through the 152-page book. "I just wanted to capture the emotions of the period and tell people . . . why the two years I spent as an airman were so special."

He began working on his book about two years ago, after his granddaughter, then 15 and studying World War II in her social studies class, asked him about the war.

"I didn't know where to start," he said. "I mean, how do you explain something that involved millions of people from around the world and played such an important part in your life?"

So Zerlin placed ads in newspapers across the country, asking veterans to recount experiences and recollections of the war.

He received more than 200 replies, including ribald ditties such as "Roll Me Over in the Clover" and "We Just Wanna Go Home," which were sung by GIs to lift the gloom and uncertainty of war.

Sandwiched between the songs and stories are also excerpts from Yank magazine, copies of morale-boosting cartoons such as "Willy and Joe" and "Sad Sack," wartime statistics and a glossary of the cryptic and sometimes vulgar vernacular used by everyone from the "mudslingers," or infantrymen, to the "slop jockeys," or mess cooks.

"My wife asked me if I really had to use some of those words," he said. "But I told her that if I didn't, the book wouldn't be real because this was the language you inherited once you got into your khakis."

Zerlin said compiling the memorabilia and spending close to $17,000 of his own money to publish 2,000 copies of the book was a labor of love motivated by the same sense of duty he had as an 18-year-old serviceman.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Zerlin said he remembers listening to Edward R. Murrow's poignant reports on the London air raids in 1940 and wanting President Roosevelt to send this country to Europe's aid.

"Even as a kid, I knew we had to do more," he said.

Without telling his parents, Zerlin enlisted in the Army Air Corps after Congress declared war on Germany and Japan in 1941, and two years later he was assigned to the 9th Air Force medium bomber group in Essex, England.

Serving as a turret gunner on a B-26--a small, six-man bomber--he flew dozens of daring low-altitude sorties over Vichy France and Germany, destroying transport lines, munitions depots and communication hubs.

Zerlin said that flying between 5,000 and 8,000 feet left the two-engine bomber particularly vulnerable to antiaircraft fire and exploding rounds of flak. Casualty rates were high.

"When I first got over there in 1943, we were having a pretty hard time and lost a lot of planes and men," he said. "When we first started flying, there was a 20% loss per mission, so the chances of surviving just five missions were pretty slim.

"There were times when I'd wake up in my bunk and both cots next to me would be empty."

But the situation got better as plane designs and tactics improved and the Allies finally gained superiority over the wieldy German Messerschmitts and punishing antiaircraft cannons.

After his discharge from the Air Corps in 1945, Zerlin entered civilian life with a changed perception of himself, the world and the delicate nature of life.

"I lost about 150 friends over there, and it made me think a lot about my life," he said. "I remember that when I came back, I told myself that nothing was ever going to frighten or discourage me from doing anything."

While he hopes "World War II Memories" will be read by future generations, he said it is mostly for veterans who shared his experience.

Because the book is so important to him, Zerlin autographs almost every copy he sells and sometimes even delivers them personally.

About four months after publication, Zerlin has sold about a hundred books, mostly through the mail.

"This means a lot to me because I put it together for them," he said. "Even though a lot of it is their memories and their experiences, in a way they're all of ours."

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