The best novels that show World War II as it was

Why am I passionate about this?

An unusual thing about me when it comes to historical fiction is that I write it but rarely read it. So, why should anyone care about my recommendations for historical fiction books? Perhaps because of what I do read, which is mainly non-fiction. On my bedside table right now, insistently beckoning me away from my laptop, is With The Old Breed, a harrowing memoir about the veteran Marines the author, E.B. Sledge, got to know while fighting the battles of Peleliu and Okinawa during World War II. My bookcase is filled with histories, memoirs, war diaries, and biographies. Only a few novels are present, and what sets them apart is their historical accuracy and realism. 


I wrote...

As Good As Can Be

By William A. Glass,

Book cover of As Good As Can Be

What is my book about?

As Good As Can Be is a sprawling family saga that plays out during the 1950s and 60s. The story centers on Dave Knight, the rebellious son of Colonel Knight, an alcoholic army officer. As Knight's career progresses, he drags his wife and five children from one army base to another. He has no use for his oldest son, Dave, who is thought to be retarded. As a child, Dave is bullied by his siblings and classmates. He learns to read at an early age and escapes into a world of books. In high school, he becomes the class clown and finds acceptance from other delinquents. Their reckless behavior provides much of the comic relief in the story.

Later, Dave is drafted into the army and gets into more trouble. Now it's touch and go if he will receive a dishonorable discharge.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Sharks and Little Fish: A Novel of German Submarine Warfare

William A. Glass Why did I love this book?

“War is hell,” said General William T. Sherman, and thanks to modern inventions, hell can be found in the air, on and under the ground, and in the depths of the ocean. I love Wolfgang Ott’s book because it presents a realistic picture of the latter. Too many World War II submarine books focus on the hunt, the chase, and the escape. All these elements are present in Sharks and Little Fish. However, the novel’s primary focus is on four German Navy cadets and their journey to manhood under the most grueling conditions imaginable.

Ott conveys the stench created by 80 unbathed men, crammed into a metal tube, along with their rotting food and too few toilets. The flickering lights, pinprick high-pressure leaks, groaning hull, and terrified faces under depth charge attack. The hopelessness of crewmembers as allied technological advances spell doom for one U-Boat after another. This novel struck a chord because it humanizes German boys and presents a rarely told side of the story.

By Wolfgang Ott, Ralph Manheim (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Sharks and Little Fish as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This raw, brawling novel, first published in 1957, is a fiercely realistic account of naval combat during World War II--in particular, the hell that was Nazi submarine warfare. "A German counterpart to The Caine Mutiny" (Frederic Morton), SHARKS AND LITTLE FISH is based on the author's own experiences as a young submariner. "It is as uncompromising, vivid, and unfalsified an account of war-time naval life as has appeared." (Times Literary Supplement)


Book cover of War of the Rats

William A. Glass Why did I love this book?

It is said that the history of warfare is about battlefields becoming such fraught places that soldiers have been forced to move underground. At Stalingrad, war moved into the cellars, sewers, trenches, and bomb craters as soldiers sought safety and respite from the brutal Russian winter. Because of snipers, safety was illusory, however, and the soldier’s hiding places often became their graves. Robbins spares no details about the horrendous conditions at Stalingrad, but that’s not the focus of his book. 

Instead, he dramatically tells the true story of a one against one battle between two snipers, each their country’s best.  It’s a gripping tale, one that held me at the edge of my seat long past time when I should have but couldn’t bring myself to go to bed.

By David L. Robbins,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked War of the Rats as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Stalingrad in 1942 is a city in ruins, its Russian defenders fighting to the last man to repel the invading German army. One of their most potent weapons is the crack sniper school developed by Vasily Zaitsev. Its members can pick off the enemy at long range, and their daring tactics - hiding for hours in no man's land until a brief opportunity presents itself - mean that no German, and particularly no German officer, can ever feel safe. This part of the battle is as much psychological as anything, and to counter the continuing threat to German morale, the…


Book cover of King Rat

William A. Glass Why did I love this book?

Another book with rat in the title. This one realistically depicts the drastic conditions faced by allied soldiers in Japanese prisoner of war camps. According to the Japanese military code of honor, soldiers never, under any circumstances, surrender. This meant that the Japanese considered allied prisoners to be a subhuman species. They were kept barely alive only to do heavy labor for their captors. In the camps, prisoners were given little or nothing to eat, no clothing, or medical care. Work parties comprised of skeletal men, covered with sores and clad in rags, left camp every morning. Upon return, several were always missing their bodies left to be scavenged by jungle animals. 

King Rat tells the story of a prisoner who does quite well for himself in the camp. It has a plot with many intriguing twists and turns. I loved the book because every time I thought I had sorted out the good guys from the bad, it turned out I was wrong.  

By James Clavell,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked King Rat as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Set in Changi, the most notorious prisoner of war camp in Asia, King Rat is an heroic story of survival told by a master story-teller who lived through those years as a young soldier. Only one man in fifteen had the strength, the luck, and the cleverness simply to survive Changi. And then there was King.


Book cover of The Caine Mutiny: A Novel of World War II

William A. Glass Why did I love this book?

It’s hard to believe that this realistic portrayal of life in the U.S. Navy during World War II was written by the same author who wrote the vainglorious Winds of War! Still, I have to include The Caine Mutiny on this list because it realistically depicts the everyday tedium endured by crews aboard fourth-class navy ships during the long, drawn-out Pacific war. Wouk served on such a ship, and that inspired this story about mediocrity, cowardice, and mendacity. Like the other books on this list, The Caine Mutiny is ultimately a character study. It focuses on the officers of an obsolete mine-sweeper, plying the backwaters of the war under the directions of an incompetent captain.

A series of incidents puts severe pressure on the ship’s crew and their response creates a dramatic but believable climax to the story. This novel has stuck with me because I served in the military and ran into many second-rate officers like the ones in this book.

By Herman Wouk,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Caine Mutiny as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a perennial favorite of readers young and old, Herman Wouk's masterful World War II drama set aboard a U.S. Navy warship in the Pacific is "a novel of brilliant virtuosity" (Times Literary Supplement).

Herman Wouk's boldly dramatic, brilliantly entertaining novel of life--and mutiny--on a Navy warship in the Pacific theater was immediately embraced, upon its original publication in 1951, as one of the first serious works of American fiction to grapple with the moral complexities and the human consequences of World War II.

In the intervening half century, The Caine Mutiny has sold millions…


Book cover of The Thin Red Line

William A. Glass Why did I love this book?

You cannot make a list of realistic World War II novels without including The Thin Red Line. While it’s not popular to admit that Americans commit atrocities in war, James Jones goes there. Imagine that you are a Japanese soldier who has just been eviscerated by flying shrapnel. You see flies buzzing around your entrails now looped obscenely in the dirt but are too weak to shoo them away. A shadow falls across your face, and you look up to see a U.S. Marine holding a combat knife.  He uses it to pry open your mouth, then clinches pliers around one of your teeth and yanks. Mercifully darkness closes in, and you see no more.

Yes, American’s collected gold teeth from dead and dying Japanese. Why? Well, seeing what the Japanese did to captured Americans – they left the mutilated bodies to be found by advancing GIs – created a depth of hatred for the enemy hard for anyone to understand who wasn’t there. This novel’s brutal realism rubs your face in the horror of war, and that’s why I think it’s a must-read for anyone who tries to understand human nature. I read it while waiting to be drafted into the army during Vietnam and have never forgotten many of the scenes depicted in the book.

By James Jones,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Thin Red Line as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

It is 1942. An American rifle company is sent to the island of Guadalcanal as the Japanese mount a desperate offensive aimed at establishing their superiority in the South-West Pacific. James Jones's story of C-for-Charlie Company is told with graphic and unsparing realism. Every man fights his own war.


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Book cover of Leora's Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During World War II

Joy Neal Kidney Author Of What Leora Never Knew: A Granddaughter's Quest for Answers

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I'm the oldest granddaughter of Leora, who lost three sons during WWII. To learn what happened to them, I studied casualty and missing aircraft reports, missions reports, and read unit histories. I’ve corresponded with veterans who knew one of the brothers, who witnessed the bomber hit the water off New Guinea, and who accompanied one brother’s body home. I’m still in contact with the family members of two crew members on the bomber. The companion book, Leora’s Letters, is the family story of the five Wilson brothers who served, but only two came home.

Joy's book list on research of World War II casualties

What is my book about?

The day the second atomic bomb was dropped, Clabe and Leora Wilson’s postman brought a telegram to their acreage near Perry, Iowa. One son was already in the U.S. Navy before Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Four more sons worked with their father, tenant farmers near Minburn until, one by one; all five sons were serving their country in the military–two in the Navy and three as Army Air Force pilots.

Only two sons came home.

Leora’s Letters is the compelling true account of a woman whose most tender hopes were disrupted by great losses. Yet she lived out four…

By Joy Neal Kidney, Robin Grunder,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Leora's Letters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The day the second atomic bomb was dropped, Clabe and Leora Wilson’s postman brought a telegram to their acreage near Perry, Iowa. One son was already in the U.S. Navy before Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Four more sons worked with their father, tenant farmers near Minburn until, one by one, all five sons were serving their country in the military. The oldest son re-enlisted in the Navy. The younger three became U.S. Army Air Force pilots. As the family optimist, Leora wrote hundreds of letters, among all her regular chores, dispensing news and keeping up the morale of the…


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