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  • Small Town America in World War II: War Stories from Wrightsville, Pennsylvania by Ronald E. Marcello
  • Donald A. Ritchie
Small Town America in World War II: War Stories from Wrightsville, Pennsylvania. By Ronald E. Marcello. Denton, Texas: University of North Texas Press, 2014. 452 pp. Hardcover, $24.95.

As a global event, the Second World War wreaked havoc on a massive scale, costing millions of lives and devastating cities throughout Europe and Asia. While less cataclysmic in the United States, the war’s impact was still felt everywhere, down to the smallest communities. Yet the stories of those communities tend to be overlooked in the grand sweep of history. Ronald E. Marcello, a historian who has interviewed hundreds of World War II veterans for his scholarly studies of the attack on Pearl Harbor and of the plight of American prisoners of war, has applied his oral history skills to determining how the war affected his own hometown of Wrightsville, Pennsylvania. The result is a model case study of a wartime community.

From a population of 2,200 in 1940, Wrightsville sent 330 men and women into military service during World War II. Ten of them died during the war, and two were taken as prisoners. Many more citizens played roles on the home front. This is a story of the town’s “shared sacrifice” during a period of almost total mobilization. Marcello concludes that the war changed individuals more than it changed the town. Young men and women who went into uniform returned with a more mature view of the world from their personal experiences. Civilians reaped the rewards of wartime prosperity. As in many towns, military contracts pumped up factory work. Combined with the draft, that ended the unemployment of the Depression decade. Women in particular gained new work opportunities. But while the town’s factories and foundries flourished, they did not attract a large migration of job-seekers, which in turn neither expanded residential patterns nor strained the town’s infrastructure.

The Wrightsville that veterans came back to after the war very much resembled the one they had left. Instead it was the postwar era that most reshaped the town. Wartime prosperity dissolved with the cancellations of military contracts, factories began to close, and townspeople either moved or commuted elsewhere for work, a process that turned Wrightsville into a “bedroom town” that was no longer self-contained.

Being an insider who had once lived in the community and had family there gave Marcello special access to and rapport with his interviewees. He could identify them by their nicknames as well as their formal names, so they are introduced as “Red,” “Ebs,” “Skip,” “Bo,” “Bud,” “Tarp,” “Sis,” and “Son.” Between 1996 and 2000 he returned regularly to interview them, and since then, most have died. Even in a small town interviewing has to be selective, but Marcello managed to collect an array of experiences that included the owner of the local foundry, foundry workers, soldiers and sailors who served in Africa, Europe, and [End Page 387] Asia, teenagers who participated in air raid drills and scrap metal drives, women who took wartime jobs or joined the military, and even a war bride from Germany.

Those on the home front recalled consumer shortages and rationing, while soldiers and sailors talked about training and combat. Perhaps the most harrowing account was offered by a sailor whose ship sank. He managed to survive for days at sea until his rescue. This interview is followed with one with his sister, who anxiously monitored his fate from her post in the Navy Department. Even noncombatants experienced their share of anguish. Mervin “Merv” Garver told of being rejected from military service because of a medical condition. Although he put in long hours at the foundry doing war work, he bore the stigma of not being in uniform and long after the war still felt intimidated by Memorial Day ceremonies.

Marcello sets the scene for each of these interviews with contextual introductions, notes, and biographical information. He helpfully parses military jargon. He also considers the importance that the image of “home” played for those who were abruptly removed from familiar surroundings and shipped off...