Back in my school days, many of the men I knew were veterans of World War II. My dad had served as an infantry sergeant with the 88th Division in Northern Italy. Our minister was a navigator on a B-17. My dad’s good friend had served in the Navy in the Pacific. One of my Boy Scout leaders in high school had parachuted into Normandy, and a graduate school professor at Wake Forest University flew some sort of bombing mission on the heavy water plants in Norway. “Get me drunk enough someday,” this cultured gentleman told our class, “and maybe I’ll talk about it.” A college professor who became a good friend spent part of the war in prison as a conscientious objector.
‘The Rifle 2’A Marine Corps combat veteran in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr. Biggio bought a 1945 M1 Garand rifle to honor a great-uncle who died in Italy during World War II. Showing this classic weapon to veterans of that war sparked memories of their time in service, which Mr. Biggio recorded. He also asked them to sign their names on the walnut-stained weapon. This stories and their reminiscences appeared in Mr. Biggio’s 2021 bestseller, “The Rifle.”
The CombatantsVincent “Tag” Tagliamonte entered the Army the day after his high school graduation, trained for a few months, and was thrown into combat in February 1945. He entered Germany with the 80th Infantry Division, helped liberate the concentration camp at Buchenwald, and was stationed in Germany after the war’s end, where he witnessed part of the Nuremberg Trials. He then returned home and married his girlfriend, Connie, a union that lasted more than six decades until her death.
Soon after Pearl Harbor, Emilio Magliacane enlisted in the Marines, fought the Japanese in the bloody fighting on Peleliu, and took part in the Battle of Okinawa. Unlike so many other Pacific veterans interviewed by Mr. Biggio, Emilio had no residual hatred for the Japanese. “I may be an exception,” he said, “but I would, and I do forgive them. ... They were just soldiers, like me.”
Charles Ketcham of Massachusetts signed Mr. Biggio’s rifle, but he refused to pick it up although many other veterans had done so. “I vowed I would never pick up a gun again,” said the 95-year-old veteran of the chaotic and sometimes brutal fighting in Germany near the war’s end. In the brutal battle for the German town of Crailsheim, the teenager was running ammo belts to his squad when he heard someone yell, “Here! Here!” Ketcham followed the cries and found a German soldier no older than himself whose “stomach was blown open entirely.” The teen gestured to Ketcham to put him out of his misery. “‘Perhaps if I was older, I would have pulled the trigger. ... Instead I just cried with him,’ Charlie recalled.”
As Mr. Biggio later notes, “Charlie’s experience was another example of the lack of unalloyed glory in war. When the teen soldier died that day, both he and Charlie lost something. Both of these soldiers, American and German, were robbed of their youths.”
A Liar and a MurdererFor “Rifle,” Mr. Biggio “chose stories of valor.” In “Rifle 2,” we find similar accounts, but in this book he also has “purposely mixed in the poor, the criminals, and the liars for balance.” Here, as he explicitly says, he is writing for those veterans of more recent wars who are not perfect, who “have fallen through the cracks, made mistakes, or suffered mentally.”
Jay Raboin—Mr. Biggio uses pseudonyms for some of his subjects, and presumably did here—worked for the Mob even while in the Navy. His combat record on a destroyer escort in the Atlantic was satisfactory, but he was otherwise a rule-breaker aboard ship. Given shore duty in Boston while his shipmates headed for the Pacific, he entered into his life of organized crime. He spent many of his years as a civilian in prison, first for murdering a 70-year-old businessman and then, elderly himself, for trafficking in drugs. When Mr. Biggio found him dying in a nursing home, Raboin remained unrepentant about his crimes. “Jay was a felon, convict, and murderer,” Mr. Biggio writes, “yet he still played his part in World War II. He was added to the rifle to show that sometimes the Greatest Generation wasn’t always so great.”
Like me, some readers may think “stolen valor,” the false claims by an individual to have served in combat in places like Vietnam, is a contemporary phenomenon. Unfortunately, some World War II veterans indulged in these same narcissistic fantasies. Mr. Biggio’s Melvin B. Harris signs the rifle, shares realistic stories of fighting with the 101st Airborne in France and at Bastogne with a medical company, and even accompanies Mr. Biggio and some other veterans to Normandy. It was in France, finally, that Mel’s lies became apparent, first by his failure to recognize at all the site of his first field hospital in a largely unchanged chateau, and then by the arrival of an email from the Massachusetts Veterans’ Service revealing that he had never set foot in the 101st.
In MemoriamMany books have spotlighted the American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and medical personnel who fought against fascism. Stephen Ambrose’s “Band of Brothers,” James Fenelon’s “Angels Against the Sun,” and “With the Old Breed” by Eugene Sledge, which is mentioned by Mr. Biggio, are just a sample of the literature written about these warriors.
Addendum in Black“The Rifle 2” is told and written from the gut. The stories of these men—all of them, even the miscreants—can tug at the heart, bringing laughter and tears.
"This book is dedicated to the thirteen U.S. service members who gave their lives on August 26, 2021, at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. Their bravery, dedication, and discipline in the face of chaos will never be forgotten. Semper Fi.