You know how friends relish a book they’ve just read, and then they pick you out to be the next to read it.  It usually has been a good thing across my lifetime.  I typically suspend reading the book(s) I am on and get theirs read and returned.

Probably it was because I came from Iowa that prompted retired Tempe dentist Dr. Jim Yount  to suggest I read “G.I. Blue: An MP’s Journey Through WWII” by William R. Lewis of Tempe.   Jim asked me whether I had ever heard of “Lewis Springs” on a farm near Osceola, Iowa. I hadn’t heard of the  swimming area the family developed on  their  farm. Jim told me his longtime friend, Bill Lewis, has done a book about his experiences in the U.S. Army during World War II.  So I borrowed the book and finished the 230-page work today.

Like Bill Lewis, I was born in central Iowa — Des Moines — and lived there and nearby Polk City for my first eight years. We both had similar farm experiences and would both serve in the Army, albeit nearly three decades apart.  And we both ended up in Tempe  more than three decades apart.  Bill earned a Bronze Star during his time in uniform, September 1942 to September 1945.  He went on to earn a fine arts degree from Drake University in Des Moines and a master’s degree in art education from Arizona State College (University).  From 1954 until his retirement in 1987, he was an art teacher and department head at South Mountain High School in Phoenix.

As an artist, his speciality was water color landscapes that have won many awards, and his works have been featured in art shows across the U.S.  Bill helped establish the Arizona Watercolor Association. He wrote that retired U.S. Supreme Justice Sandra Day O’Connor received a Bill Lewis painting from a lawyer in Nashville, Tenn., after she saw it and admired the work.  Later the justice contact Lewis, visited his home and bought three more of his paintings.

But “G.I. Blue” is a richly told journey of a kid almost right off the farm going off to war at the age of 22.  That came 296 days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Bill, who was married and had worked in a grocery story and for the FBI in Washington, D.C., reported for induction at Camp Dodge, just north of Des Moines — the same place where I went as a Boys State delegate for a week in June 1963 and to report to the Army after I was drafted in May 1969.  I doubt those facilities had changed much in the 27 years separating our own dates of induction.

Lewis presents himself as self-respecting, well-behaved young man not about to be drawn into soldier mischief.  As fate would have it, he was trained for the military police at Fort Riley, Kan., and then made his way on a ship bound for North Africa. He would spend most of his time moving  with troops up the boot of Italy as the fascist regime of Bernito Mussolini buckled and fell.   For most of the book, Bill Lewis describes his specialized assignment of patrols, guarding troops who got out of line,  dealing with AWOLs, helping scope out towns for troublespots, and transporting top level Army personnel from site to site.

Any World War II buff would enjoy his stories of first-hand encounters with notable people, including  General George C. Marshall  and comedian Danny Thomas, plus several film stars.  He told of being in a group that met Pope Pius XII in the Vatican in the fall of 1944.  The pope allowed the soldiers to kiss his ring, but he was called off to other business just before Bill’s time came.   Bill also saw a show featuring the famed war entertainers, the Andrew Sisters, and another where composer Irving Berlin, in his musical show, “This Is the Army,”  sang his clever number, “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.”

Lewis writes of the anguish of war, the stench of dead soldiers and civilians, the miracle moments when his life was spared in perilous encounters, the ingenuity of pitching tents in the Italian winter, the comaraderie with other soldiers, C-rations,  the letters he wrote to his parents who had moved to Prescott and how his visit to the art museums in Florence ignited his interest in the arts and thus led to his career.   A poignant moment comes when he arrived back home to Des Moines and found the apartment where his wife was living, only to be told immediately that she didn’t love him anymore. She had fallen in love with an Air Force pilot and was even pregnant with his child. She had not felt compelled to write a “Dear John letter” to Bill.  He later writes about meeting  Jody Lutz in Des Moines, taking her to a Spike Jones comedy show, marrying her, honeymooning in Arizona and spending the next  more than 60 years together.  “She gave me back my life, something the war took away,” Bill wrote.

In the final chapters, Bill talks about how Arizona’s own U.S. Senator Ernest McFarland sponsored the legislation that became the “G.I. Bill” and provided the wherewithal for returning military service men and women to buy homes and get college educations.  (Like Bill, I used my G.I. Bill benefits for a master’s degree and two home purchases.)  Certainly, as our “Greatest Generation” diminishes with the toll of age and time, the first-hand stories of World War II become only what have been preserved in books and other media. 

Tempe’s 90-year-old William R. Lewis has chosen to tell the  story of the 202nd Military Police Company, for whom he dedicated the book. It is a readable and informative account.  The watercolor artist and educator has painted a rich picture of what war was like 70 years ago when the likes of Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito sought to take control of civilization.  Bill and his buddies go down as true heroes who helped save the world for the generations to follow.

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