World War II has generated a wealth of literature. The Thin Red Line, The Naked and the Dead, The Young Lions, Battle Cry, Catch-22 and Mister Roberts top the list as the best American war novels.
The Thin Red Line (1962) by James Jones, image courtesy Charles Scribner’s Sons
The Second World War, waged from 1939-45, has inspired countless novels through the years. Some were written during the war, others in the immediate years after, and still others are being published today.
The following is a list of the ten best American WW II novels. Many of them, not surprisingly, were written by the veterans themselves, with such ex-servicemen as James Jones (U.S. Army), Norman Mailer (U.S. Army), Irwin Shaw (U.S. Army), Leon Uris (U.S. Marines), Joseph Heller (U.S. Army Air Forces), Sloan Wilson (U.S. Coast Guard) and Thomas O. Heggen (U.S. Navy) among the literary elite.
The Thin Red Line (1962) by James Jones
The 1942 Allied campaign to take Guadalcanal comes alive in this gritty tale of men at war in the jungles of the South Pacific. Jones pulls no punches in his literary account of soldiers in combat, complete with atrocities on both sides, glory-seeking officers, war souvenir trafficking and drunken benders on Imperial whiskey, Aqua Velva and jungle-made swipe.
The Naked and the Dead (1948) by Norman Mailer
An American platoon is sent on a reconnaissance mission against the Japanese, with the story alternating between the present campaign and the soldiers’ past lives. Mailer, who was famously persuaded by his publisher to use the word “fug” in place of the f-word, brilliantly explores the tensions between enlisted men and officers in the steamy jungles of the Pacific.
The Naked and the Dead (1948) by Norman Mailer
The Young Lions (1948) by Irwin Shaw
The lives of three soldiers, two American and one German, eventually cross paths in this big, sweeping novel of the Second World War. It begins on New Year’s Eve 1937, and ends at a liberated Nazi death camp in 1945.
Battle Cry (1953) by Leon Uris
A battalion of U.S. Marines endure the rigors of boot camp, eventually undergoing their baptism of fire on the bloody beaches of Tarawa and Kwajalein. Uris also paints a vivid picture of wartime New Zealand, where the marines find love among the locals.
Catch-22 (1961) by Joseph Heller
Black humor abounds in this wicked tale of U.S. Army Air Forces personnel based on an island off the coast of Italy and their seemingly endless missions against the enemy. One of the principal characters, a bombardier named Yossarian, is determined to stay alive at all costs, but the unwritten “Catch-22″ rule is standing in his way.
From Here to Eternity (1951) by James Jones
Set at Schofield Army Barracks in Hawaii in early 1941, Jones’ Army characters booze, brawl, whore and scheme in balmy paradise, not knowing that their peaceful existence will soon be shattered by the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. Jones’ characters are unforgettable and include Captain Holmes, the aloof officer who aspires to greatness; Milt Warden, the old-line sergeant who has an affair with Holmes’ wife; Robert E. Lee Prewitt, the rebellious southerner; Lorene, the Honolulu prostitute; and Fatso Judson, the sadistic, knife-wielding prison guard.
Across the River and into the Trees (1950) by Ernest Hemingway
Colonel Richard Cantwell returns to Venice to reminisce on his life and Army career, including his days in World War I and II. Hemingway partially based his character on the life of General Charles Trueman “Buck” Lanham, a West Pointer he had known during the Second World War. Hemingway directs much of his wrath at “pistol-slapping” generals and the tragic 1944 Battle of the Hurtgen Forest, which he thought totally unnecessary.
All Night Long (1942) by Erskine Caldwell
Russian partisans engage in a brutal guerrilla war against the invading Germans following the launch of Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa in 1941. Caldwell’s description of war on the Eastern Front is memorable. In one scene, partisans capture a young, crying German soldier, debating on whether to kill him lest he give their position away.
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) by Sloan Wilson
Tom Rath, a public relations man living in Connecticut with his wife and three kids, is still haunted by his days as an Army paratrooper in World War II. Wilson paints a grim portrait of combat, including one scene where Tom and another soldier knife a pair of German sentries, confiscating their warm winter coats in order to ward off the killing effects of the harsh European winter.
Mister Roberts (1946) by Thomas O. Heggen
A U.S. Navy supply ship plies the peaceful backwaters of the Pacific, with the tyrannical, by-the-book captain and the executive officer engaging in a testy battle of wills. Heggen’s hilarious story is full of wit, sarcasm and charm, with his sea-going characters among the most memorable of any WW II novel.
- Whistle (1978) by James Jones
- The Big War (1957) by Anton Myrer
- A Bell for Adano (1944) by John Hersey
- The Caine Mutiny (1951) by Herman Wouk
- The Last Convertible (1978) by Anton Myrer
- The Americanization of Emily (1959) by William Bradford Huie
- To the White Sea (1993) by James Dickey
- The War Lover (1959) by John Hersey
- Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
- Tales of the South Pacific (1947) by James Michener