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After a haunting overview of the Second World War, an epoch of killing that engulfed the world from 1939 to 1945 and cost at least 50 million lives, the inhabitants of four towns — Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento, California; Waterbury, Connecticut; and Luverne, Minnesota — recall their communities on the eve of the conflict. For them, and for most Americans finally beginning to recover from the Great Depression, the events overseas seem impossibly far away. Their tranquil lives are shattered by the shock of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and America is thrust into the greatest cataclysm in history. Along with millions of other young men, Sid Phillips and Willie Rushton of Mobile, Ray Leopold of Waterbury and Walter Thompson and Burnett Miller of Sacramento enter the armed forces and begin to train for war.
In the Philippines, two Americans thousands of miles from home, Corporal Glenn Frazier and Sascha Weinzheimer (who was 8 years old in 1941), are caught up in the Japanese onslaught there, as American and Filipino forces retreat onto Bataan while thousands of civilians are rounded up and imprisoned in Manila.
Meanwhile, back home, 110,000 Japanese Americans all along the West Coast, including some 7,000 from Sacramento and the surrounding valley, are forced by the government to abandon their homes and businesses and are relocated to inland internment camps. On the East Coast, German U-boats menace Allied shipping just offshore, sending hundreds of ships and millions of tons of materiel to the bottom of the sea. The United States seems utterly unprepared for this kind of total war. Witnessing all of this is Katharine Phillips of Mobile, who remembers sightings of U-boats just outside Mobile Bay, and Al McIntosh, the editor of the Rock County Star Herald in Luverne, who chronicles the travails of every family in town.
In June 1942, the Navy manages an improbable victory over the Japanese at the Battle of Midway. In August, American land forces, including Sid Phillips of Mobile, face the vaunted Japanese army for the first time at Guadalcanal, armed with bolt-action rifles and just 10 days worth of ammunition. Abandoned by their fleet with no support from the sea or the air, the men are strafed or bombed daily and under constant attack from enemy troops hidden in the jungle. After six long months the Americans finally prevail and, in the process, stop Japan’s expansion in the Pacific.
At the end of America’s first year of war, more than 35,000 Americans in uniform have died. Before the war can end, 10 times that many will lose their lives.