Cranking Up A Fine War
by Van R. Mayhall
Published by Byrenlee Press
256 pages, 1999
Buy it online
Cranked and Ready
Reviewed by Janice A. Farringer
The author of Cranking Up A Fine War was a young man from Louisiana when World War II broke out. He joined LSU's R.O.T.C. program first, then enlisted and trained across a good deal of the American South. England and France and Germany followed. This was a war with a noble purpose and the only way home was victory. Now in his 80s, Van Mayhall has dug out his letters and diary to give us a glimpse of the times and what happens when armies move and boys become men.
We marched, we walked, we crouched, we crawled, we slid across the fields, the woods, the mud holes, crossed the streams in daytime, nighttime, and in the rain. All this was in the name of becoming confident in one's own self, so that we would be able to outmaneuver our opponents, able to kill without being killed.
He went on to training maneuvers in Louisiana, North Carolina and Texas. He found out that sometimes the enemy is not the one you expect.
While one man was sleeping a truck backed over his head. Fortunately, the soil was sandy and the truck pushed his head into the sand, and nothing happened that an aspirin wouldn't cure. I would think that there was a certain amount of panic when this soldier woke up with a truck wheel on his head....
Or more tragically:
We had been shouting the normal insults at the West Virginia outfit. We had orders to move up to the bayou and stop and wait for more orders. The West Virginia outfit decided they would cross the bayou.... With the packs on their backs and rifles around their necks it was the beginning of a mass drowning three yards from the bank.
During this trekking back and forth, Mayhall married his sweetheart while on leave. A day later, he reported for more duty in Texas. The Army had been taking care of Mayhall for so long the groom had neglected to arrange a place for his bride.
...A nice lady took pity on our situation as we wandered around asking about places to stay.
It is a young soldier's story. A coming-of-age story. A story of war with death as well as good times, camaraderie and adventure, razor sharp attention and long periods of boredom. Probably no soldier knows what war has done to them until it's all long over.
Six engineers were there standing around the half-full trailer when one of them dropped a mine. The mine must have had a defective firing device -- it exploded. All the mines exploded. They blew a hole in the ground big enough to drop a 2 1/2 -ton truck into. A dog ran through the area later on; I saw him pick up a string of flash.
One had two pistols that he had been keeping, one German P-38, one American .45 automatic. When he reached the top of the slag pile, he took his pistols, one in each hand, and started running around the top edge of the slag pile shooting the Germans dug in just below the crest. How many he killed I don't know, but at the opposite end of the pile a German sniper in the town killed him. The second man was a Sergeant who had been in so long that he didn't believe anything could happen to him. He... took a German bullet through the chest.
Van Mayhall writes without inserting a history lesson or adding window dressing. Every soldier's war is different from all others. This is Mayhall's war: his overseas duty, his service as a General's aide, his Silver Star (a very big deal in the Army, though Mayhall, like a true hero, seemed surprised to be honored), his discharge and return home. He was scared all the time: he tells you that. But he never apologizes and he does not regret those years.
This is a wonderful book that vividly brings to life a time and a patriotic past that is slowly vanishing from our cultural memory. It may not have been a simpler time: it was a different one. War had a purpose, public support and a willing pool of recruits. It extracted its price, but those who came home seemed to heal and go on. In this book you can take the journey back with a regular guy who was doing his job and became a hero along the way. All these years later, he has also become a very good writer.
Nearly five years of working, learning, teaching military concepts, and serving in an all-out war for my country had made me a much better person. However, what I had learned did not serve me too well when I hung up my beloved uniform. My personal civilian war had just started.
I hope Van Mayhall writes that story for us, too. | May 2000
Janice A. Farringer is a writer and creative writing teacher living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.