Sometimes ideas just don’t have a birthdate.
It may have been in 2012, when I stood at my uncle’s grave in Normandy. Could have been a year later, when the Toledo Board of Education approved my World War II course. Maybe it was after I’d finished the pre-research on the roughly 1,100 Toledoans killed in the Second World War for my students’ projects.
But in late 2018, after my dad died, I realized I had just about enough to write the book I wanted to use in class, but hadn’t been written yet, and one year ago this month, I finished the bulk of my research and started writing a book.
The book doesn’t have a title yet, because I’m not good at snappy names. It does, however, have a premise: The people of Toledo shaped almost every facet of American involvement in the war, and the course of the war shaped the city’s future.
It’s stunning, in many respects, how the war and Toledo intertwined: A Toledo woman was witness to the first Americans killed by Japanese action in 1937. As early as 1938, there were stunningly-detailed reports of the beginnings of the Holocaust secreted out of Austria and Germany and into the hands of Jewish Toledoans. In 1939, there were several Toledoans trapped in Poland after Hitler’s invasion began the European war.
There were nationalist, proto-fascist organizations in Toledo, and there was a prominent Toledo minister who became one of the nation’s most outspoken critics of American fascists. Toledoans served before the United States began a draft; more than a half-dozen Toledo men died at Pearl Harbor; dozens more Toledoans witnessed it.
Toledo Marines fought on Guam and Wake Island; Toledo soldiers were trapped on Bataan. Dozens of Toledoans in the Navy, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marine were killed in the Battle of the Atlantic. They served in North Africa, they invaded Italy. They fought through hell on dozens of islands near New Guinea that you and I would be hard-pressed to find on a map.
They volunteered en masse; but some Toledoans, as conscientous objectors, were subjected to medical experiments about starvation. Toledoans worked in famous war industries, like Jeep, and less-famous ones, like a machine shop in a North Toledo garage that produced special tools under Navy contract. Women led in the workplace; they volunteered for service. Black Toledoans volunteered for all braches of service, and endured mind-boggling discrimination completely at odds with their nation’s stated objectives in the war.
Toledoans gave generously in war bond and scrap drives; they bickered, traded, and cheated with ration stamps. Many businesses selflessly gave of their products to soldiers and those they left behind, some operated in the shadows to profit from black market sales.
Scores of Toledoans died over Japan and Germany in the air war; more were taken prisoner. Dozens of Toledo men landed behind the lines or stormed the beaches of Normandy on June 6.
In the push to Berlin, thousands of them served in roles from grunt to historian to division commanders.
Toledo sailors got Toledo Marines to Iwo Jima, and more of them to Okinawa. Toledo men liberated prisons in the Philippines and discovered horrors none of them had ever imagined. Toledo men wrote home letters after liberating Nazi death camps, and their letters make today’s Holocaust deniers look even more pathetic than they already are. In both theaters, men and women were changed forever by the inhumanity they saw.
Toledoans worked on every facet of the Manhattan Project, creating uranium rods, enriching the material, designing the casing, and applying the physics behind it. Toledoans were in Europe on V-E Day; Toledoans were the deck of USS Missouri when the war officially ended.
Through it all, competing groups of Toledoans developed plans for what their city would look like in the future. In many ways — good and bad — they created not just the city, but the region, as it exists today.
It’s a big story, and as of the writing of this column, the first draft of it is nearly done. That means, as I am quickly learning, that the real work is just beginning, as I prepare the book for submission and go through the editing process. The hope is that the book, published by the University of Toledo Press, will reach shelves in 2021.
This will be the last “Life, Death, History” for a few months as I prepare the book for final submission to the publisher and go through the editing process — I still haven’t figured out how to coax a few more hours out of the day. When I come back, I hope to be writing about how we’ve finally found justice for all Americans, and we’ve beaten COVID. Until then, be well — and be good.