No Ordinary Joes
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Review Date: 25 Jun 2011
Full Title: No Ordinary Joes: The Extraordinary True Story of Four Submariners in War and Love and Life
Critically damaged by a Japanese attack, Commander John Fitzgerald of USS Grenadier had no choice but to scuttle her, and the 76 men aboard were subsequently captured. For more than two years, they would be at the mercy of the Japanese in prisoners of war camps, and many would not survive to the end of the war. In No Ordinary Joes, author Larry Colton told the story of four of these men, Gordon Cox, Tim McCoy, Bob Palmer, and Chuck Vervalin, who stood witness of humanity at both its best and worst.
The book began far before the United States' involvement in the war. The four men, boys at the time, were truly ordinary kids from America's poor class. They delivered newspapers to earn money, they fought other boys in school, and they were just being kids. In war, they rapidly matured physically as men, but deep down they were still boys. In port, many drank, some visited whore houses. Knowing the dangers of submarine duty, they lived day to day to the fullest, even if they later admitted to the author that they clearly knew that they were challenging the moral codes that they had been taught. The date was 22 Apr 1943 when they found themselves floating in the warm tropical waters, watching their submarine sinking below the surface. They saw their commanding officer water boarded and they were beaten. They worked in factories and mines and they were starved. The four men told the author haunting details of the torture, which would probably be the parts of the book that would linger in my mind for months to come. Returning home, most tried to become normal members of society; some were successful, some less so. Though knowing that the readers likely had picked up the book to learn about their experiences in the prisoner of war camps, the author continued on with telling the remainder of the four men's lives, completing the book as the story of their lives rather than merely their war experiences. The love story between Bob and Barbara Palmer touched me the most; they loved, lost, and loved again decades later, a story that probably could have made a good script for a movie.
A probably under-appreciated success achieved by Larry Colton with this book was his frankness with the shortcomings of the four main characters. Knowing what they had endured, and knowing that some of them even risked their own safety in order to help their comrades in the camps, it would have been easy for Colton to present them as one-dimensional heroes who deserved our unquestioning worship as Tom Brokaw did in The Greatest Generation. Instead, Colton presented them as ordinary men each with their own faults. While they generously saved what little rice they had to give to their prison camp mates, some of them were also despicable misogynists. While they lived and preached the ideals of their religion, some remained utter bigots who viewed people with different skin colors with disdain. Though many of these character traits disgusted me, the author successfully painted these men as real people. They were far from "greatest", as Brokaw would describe them, but the fact that they were far from perfect made these characters more dear to heart, for that we all had our faults and could identify with those who did as well.
I had reviewed this title in its audio book format. The narrator, Robert Fass, did a wonderful job with the reading. His accents, among many of the talents he employed, whether Australian or Texan, were not always perfect, but they added a depth to the audio book experience. His pace and pronunciation were top notch as well.
No Ordinary Joes was a great read, and I found it to be near the top of my list of books on experiences in prisoner of war camps. The book complemented historical studies with this work, all the while adding the right amount of human emotion, whether love or hate, to broaden the scope.
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Winston Churchill, 1935