The best books on World War II according to my students

Who am I?

In 1974 I started my full-time teaching career at a small liberal arts college and realized how much I love teaching and discussing historical events with students. With Russian and Soviet history as my areas of specialization, expanding my course offerings to include World War II was a natural addition. My World War II class became extremely popular and led to demands that I take students to Europe to visit many of the places we discussed in class. Every summer for about ten years I led study-abroad trips to England, France, and Germany. Watching student reactions to Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery made every trip worthwhile.

I wrote...

D-Day in the Pacific: The Battle of Saipan

By Harold J. Goldberg,

Book cover of D-Day in the Pacific: The Battle of Saipan

What is my book about?

When I started teaching about World War II, I discovered a gap in the literature related to the Battle of Saipan. Sandwiched between the landing in France in 1944 and the bloody battle of Iwo Jima in 1945, Saipan did not receive the attention it deserved. While many texts mentioned the Mariana Islands, they skipped details about the battle and the larger significance of Saipan and Tinian. I hoped to fill in the missing story, and discovered that the 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions, as well as the 27th Army Division, the three major American divisions involved in combat on Saipan, all held annual reunions. I was welcomed at those reunions where I interviewed several hundred veterans of the battle. Their personal stories made all the difference.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945

Harold J. Goldberg Why did I love this book?

Merridale uses archival material and interviews with Soviet war veterans to personalize the war on the Eastern Front. This work moves beyond the number of combatants and tanks to focus on real life at the frontlines. She talks about issues that help the reader “feel” the war: what did soldiers eat given the well-known shortages and privations throughout the USSR; how did soldiers get warm clothes and boots; how did they obtain ammunition and artillery shells and new guns despite the long supply lines; was stealing accepted in the army; what behaviors were tolerated and which ones were punished; how did hierarchy allow officers to get first choice of captured enemy equipment. She reveals how officers might not report all the dead in their unit so they would not lose the lost soldier’s food ration. While Alexander Werth’s Russia at War provides a sweeping view of Soviet organization, suffering, and battles, Merridale provides a texture rarely found in books on war. 

By Catherine Merridale,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Ivan's War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A powerful, groundbreaking narrative of the ordinary Russian soldier's experience of the worst war in history, based on newly revealed sources.

Of the thirty million who fought in the eastern front of World War II, eight million died, driven forward in suicidal charges, shattered by German shells and tanks. They were the men and women of the Red Army, a ragtag mass of soldiers who confronted Europe's most lethal fighting force and by 1945 had defeated it. Sixty years have passed since their epic triumph, but the heart and mind of Ivan -- as the ordinary Russian soldier was called…

Book cover of The Complete Maus: A Survivor's Tale

Harold J. Goldberg Why did I love this book?

Year after year, students declared Maus their favorite book in my course. Spiegelman’s brilliance is his ability to personalize the story of the Holocaust. It is impossible to identify with a number such as six million, but Maus relates the experiences of one family trapped by Nazi racism and the ensuing horror. The use of cats and mice, as well as other allegorical portrayals, effectively establishes predators and victims immediately. Spiegelman explores the difficult relationship between himself and his father with honesty, making his family history more compelling than an idealized or sanitized version would have allowed. For students, the Holocaust becomes personal, individual, and real.

By Art Spiegelman,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Complete Maus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The first and only graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize, MAUS is a brutally moving work of art about a Holocaust survivor -- and the son who survives him

'The first masterpiece in comic book history' The New Yorker

Maus tells the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor of Hitler's Europe, and his son, a cartoonist coming to terms with his father's story. Approaching the unspeakable through the diminutive (the Nazis are cats, the Jews mice), Vladek's harrowing story of survival is woven into the author's account of his tortured relationship with his aging father.

Against the backdrop…

Book cover of With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

Harold J. Goldberg Why did I love this book?

This unvarnished look at battle allows the reader to identify with one person and see the war through an individualized lens. Slowly throughout the battle, the reader experiences the war with Sledge as he comprehends the futility and brutality of war. The invasion of Peleliu has always been controversial, and the slow realization by historians that it was not necessary matches Sledge’s own growing antipathy to the slaughter on both sides. The carnage at Peleliu was surpassed by the battle for Okinawa, although the military necessity for the latter battle is rarely questioned. Nevertheless, the body counts were horrific in both encounters.

By E.B. Sledge,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked With the Old Breed as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The inspiration behind the HBO series THE PACIFIC

This was a brutish, primitive hatred, as characteristic of the horror of war in the Pacific as the palm trees and the islands...

Landing on the beach at Peleliu in 1944 as a twenty-year-old new recruit to the US Marines, Eugene Sledge can only try desperately to survive. At Peleliu and Okinawa - two of the fiercest and filthiest Pacific battles of WWII - he witnesses the dehumanising brutality displayed by both sides and the animal hatred that each soldier has for his enemy.

During temporary lapses in the fighting, conditions on…

Book cover of Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest

Harold J. Goldberg Why did I love this book?

My students always identify with the story of E Company and its march across northern France and into Germany. As part of the 101st Airborne Division, the members of E Company parachuted into France as part of the D-Day invasion and then participated in a failed attempt to cross quickly into Germany in Operation Market Garden. At the end of 1944, Germany attempted to break through allied lines in the Battle of the Bulge, with E Company engaged in the crucial battle for Bastogne. Finally, inside Germany, E Company helped in the assault on Hitler’s alpine retreat called Eagle’s Nest. Throughout these battle stories, Ambrose focuses on one character in each chapter, allowing students to identify with individual struggles that create an emotional attachment between the reader and members of E Company.

By Stephen E. Ambrose,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Band of Brothers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

They fought on Utah Beach, in Arnhem, Bastogne, the Bulge; they spearheaded the Rhine offensive and took possession of Hitler's Eagle's Nest in Berchtesgaden. Easy Company, 506th Airborne Division, U.S. Army, was as good a rifle company as any in the world. From their rigorous training in Georgia in 1942 to D-Day and victory, Ambrose tells the story of this remarkable company, which kept getting the tough assignments. Easy Company was responsible for everything from parachuting into France early D-Day morning to the capture of Hitler's Eagle's Nest at Berchtesgaden. BAND OF BROTHERS is the account of the men of…

Book cover of War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War

Harold J. Goldberg Why did I love this book?

Dower’s landmark book exposes propaganda as a weapon of war. He describes American and Japanese propaganda, demonstrating how both countries used pre-existing stereotypes to demonize the other. For the Japanese, Americans were giant brutes like gorillas or monsters. Americans used the stereotype of insects such as ants blindly following the leader in a never-ending swarm of invasion. The portrayal of a Japanese soldier with glasses and buck teeth clenching a blond woman in his grasp was intended to frighten and motivate Americans to fight to the end. While everyone knows and expects propaganda to be part of a war, Dower exposed a racist component to the Pacific War that was not as vicious in terms of Germany and the European war.

By John W. Dower,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked War Without Mercy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD • AN AMERICAN BOOK AWARD FINALIST • A monumental history that has been hailed by The New York Times as “one of the most original and important books to be written about the war between Japan and the United States.”

In this monumental history, Professor John Dower reveals a hidden, explosive dimension of the Pacific War—race—while writing what John Toland has called “a landmark book ... a powerful, moving, and evenhanded history that is sorely needed in both America and Japan.”
Drawing on American and Japanese songs, slogans, cartoons, propaganda films, secret…

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By F.X. Holden,

Book cover of Aggressor

F.X. Holden

New book alert!

What is my book about?

It is April 1st, 2038. Day 60 of China's blockade of the rebel island of Taiwan. The US government has agreed to provide Taiwan with a weapons system so advanced, it can disrupt the balance of power in the region. But what pilot would be crazy enough to run the Chinese blockade to deliver it?

Aggressor is the first novel in a gripping action series about a future war in the Pacific, seen through the eyes of soldiers, sailors, civilians, and aviators on all sides. Featuring technologies that are on the drawing board today and could be fielded in the near future, Aggressor is the page-turning military technothriller you have been waiting for!

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