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BOOK REVIEW

A microcosm of war's complex legacies

Marching Home: To War and Back With the Men of One American Town, Kevin Coyne, Viking: 406 pp., $25.95

March 07, 2003|Anthony Day | Special to The Times

After all the brassy salutes to "the greatest generation," after all the sentimental tributes to the men of World War II who are dying now, more than 2,000 a week, "Marching Home" is the real thing.

Kevin Coyne writes of six men from his hometown, Freehold, N.J., the wars they went to in Europe and the Pacific, the town they came back to, and the changes they encountered in it and their country over the next 50 years. His setting looks small, merely a slice of history. But as his book proceeds, it grows and ramifies and resonates until this nutshell contains a world.

Coyne quotes the WPA Guide to New Jersey in 1939: "Without drawing too heavily on its storied past, Freehold has individuality produced by a fusion of rural, urban and residential life. In an unobtrusive way it seems to embody America's growth .... " In Coyne's deft hands, Freehold seems to embody both the war and America's next 50 years.

Inland from Asbury Park on the Jersey shore, Freehold sits near the center of the state. It is the seat of Monmouth County and the site of Washington's battle with the British in 1778. For two centuries it was a town center in a circle of farms. Now heavily suburban -- it is only 60 miles from New York -- it is best known as the hometown of Bruce Springsteen.

Coyne's family has lived in Freehold for six generations. He is both the town historian and a published author ("A Day in the Night of America" and "Domers: A Year at Notre Dame"). To tell his story, Coyne relied on many interviews, official service records and his reading of every copy of the Freehold Transcript for the years he covers. He writes that all dialogue comes from either the participants' memories or published documents.

Coyne's six characters are Stu Bunton, radioman on the Navy cruiser Santa Fe; Walter Denise, rifleman; Jake Errickson, radio intercept operator; Jim Higgins, intelligence sergeant in bomber group; Bigerton "Buddy" Lewis, a private in a "colored" engineer regiment; and Bill Lopatin, waist gunner in a bomber group. Their assignments ranged from Europe and the Mediterranean to Australia and the Pacific.

None would have been remembered beyond Freehold and their families but for this book. Yet each was unique, and each, in his ordinariness, reflected what the men in a nation at war encountered and endured. There were moments of terror; there were moments of bravery; for all, there were also long bouts of boredom and tedium.

Slightly more than half the book is about their experiences in the war. Every page about the war is engrossing, for their tales have the solid ring of unembellished truth. This section is titled "A Certain War." It is followed by "An Uncertain Peace," in which the men live the rest of their lives: Bunton as a Freehold policeman; Denise in the family orchard, then in the real estate business; Errickson in the Karagheusian Rug Mill; Higgins as an undertaker; Lewis a county employee in the courthouse; Lopatin in the family construction business.

They marry and have children. They struggle to make a decent living. They cope, more or less, with the changes in Freehold and American society over the last half century. Competition moves the rug mill to the South; suburbanization eats at the edges, then the core, of Freehold; the civil rights revolution arrives, and the war in Vietnam; there is a fight over prayer in the public schools. The town is not as cohesive as when it was smaller.

There is in that realization a slight air of nostalgia, a mood that gently colors also a recurrent thread in the book, the annual Memorial Day parade. Nostalgia for a more settled time, perhaps, yet what could have been more unsettled than the Great Depression and the war? Maybe it is just wistfulness at the passage of time. In its modesty, in its refusal to be anything more than ordinary, "Marching Home" becomes a majestic work that will endure.

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