Book Review: “My Private Life” and World War II

Some things have a way of becoming precious, like a treasure chest filled with rare gems and metals.

Recently, I was given a self-published book as a gift. It was a delightful surprise at what it contained. This book, published in 1995, originally belonged to a friend of my family who served in the Marines with the author during World War II, specifically at the Battle of Iwo Jima, February 19 – March 26, 1945.

“My Private Life” is the autobiography-memoir of Bill Alexander from Barren County, Kentucky. Raised on a tobacco farm, he was born in 1925, and barely ventured out of the county. That is, until he joined the service.

Bill Alexander begins with his young years, remembering life on the farm, how they grew tobacco and supported themselves. A cow provided milk and butter, they had a large garden, and they raised meat, too, and the lean years of the Great Depression. There was one year when the biggest hub-bub was when the sole stop sign in town was installed, and there was a big debate on who should pay for it – the state or the county. Yes, this book is as homespun as that, and it’s a refreshing piece of work.

Alexander continues with his recollections with how the news came to his town with the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and how the older generation believed the war would end soon; soon enough that Alexander would not even be old enough to be drafted. All news was either via radios, and the newspapers would be kept at the town’s grocery store-post office, where anyone could stop and stick around to pour over the news.

But we know that the war didn’t end that fast. Alexander turned 18, enlisted in the Navy, was turned down, then was accepted several months later, and then was “volunteered” into the Marines, which he didn’t expect. Marines! He never thought he was good enough for that branch.

Alexander gives a clear telling of his trip to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. Great Lakes is in North Chicago, Illinois and is the largest military installation in Illinois. This was boot camp. Here we get a firsthand look at what boot camp was back then.

From there, Alexander recounts his orders for San Diego, California. This was his first long cross-country train trip. He was practically speechless at the sights he saw, the fellow servicemen he met, the different types of food in the dining car, and his story of the cigarettes. It seems he ran out of what he had and was resigned to the fact he would be cigarette-less for a long while, until a porter approached him with several partial packs of Chesterfields, Lucky Strikes, Marvels, Twenty Grands, and Camels. The porter’s job was to clean up the cars, including all the abandoned cigarettes. He was kind enough to give all of them to Alexander.

He was very surprised that he did not have to pay for anything on the train. All meals were paid for. In fact, he had ten dollars in his wallet and was glad he could save that – until he lost it in a penny ante poker game on board.

Alexander continues his memoir with his arrival at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, California. He quickly learned how to field strip his rifle and to only say “sir” to officers. As he would often say, being a southern boy, it was natural and ingrained in him to say “sir” and “ma’am” to everyone; however, he learned fast not to say “sir” to fellow privates.

From California, his first assignment was to Guam, then quickly to Hawaii. Here is where he was put in charge of dressing a cow that was “accidently” killed by rifle fire. The farmer was compensated for his livestock loss. Based on another incident Alexander recounts in this book, such “accidents” by the military always resulted in compensation to the farmers. Whoops. Sorry. Here’s your reimbursement.

From there, Alexander was sent to Iwo Jima, where he saw battle. He described incidents during the battle, and what life was on a hospital ship, where he was transferred when he was wounded in the battle.

Afterwards, Alexander was shipped back home via San Francisco. He related a story where he and his buddies were invited to Big Nick’s nightclub in Frisco, where he drank and dined with Big Nick himself. This appears to be an honor that Big Nick didn’t bestow on just anyone. Alexander must have been awe-struck at the seemingly endless choices of meats, desserts, and the plethora of wines– Seven! And he didn’t know there were so many types of wines!

He was making his way back home to Kentucky. When he got to Charleston, South Carolina, he discovered there was a POW (prisoner of war) camp there that kept German POWs who performed simple jobs around the base. He met one at the naval station who was buffing a newly-cleaned floor. He was surprised that the German said “Excuse me” in perfect English.

While still in Charleston, Alexander met Helen Keller, and he seemed excited about that.

I found this book compelling and completely fascinating. There is so much more packed in these 226 pages; I tried hard not to reveal too much because then I would be re-telling it all. There are about 19 pages of black and white photographs from the National Archives that show Marines in action and what Iwo Jima looked like in the mid-1940s.

This book is such a refreshing departure from the forced, flowery language of similar memoirs I have read, particularly those of the more well-known variety. Alexander wrote with such simplicity, humor, and heart that I felt with each turn of the page he was probably the type of man you could sit down with a cup of coffee and become mesmerized with all the stories and experiences he had.

This book is autographed by Bill Alexander with a dated dedication to the friend of my family.

If you can find this book, get it, and read it. Truthfully, I don’t know if this book is still available to buy; there is an address at the back of it, so if you are adventurous enough to see if it is, please let me know and I’ll provide that address. It’s a post office box, so it’s anyone’s guess if it’s still assigned to the author or his family.

There’s nothing like a primary source such as this one when researching and learning about our American history and culture. I read it in the space of about two hours. It’ll stay with me for the rest of my life.

NOTE: As an aside to my review, the chapter where Bill Alexander recounts his experiences at Great Lakes became close to my own understanding and experiences. There is where my great Uncle Tony (Grandma’s brother) was sent when he enlisted in the United States Navy in early 1919. My Uncle Ed (Grandma’s son) went there when he enlisted the Navy in early 1942. My second cousins, Cousins Stanley and Chester also were sent there in early 1942 when they enlisted. And me? Well, sometimes my girlfriends and I drove up there on a Friday here and there in the late 1970s to hobnob and dance with the sailors at the club.

Oh, you crazy kids.

©Susan Marie Molloy and all works within.

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