Whether you are looking for some new reading material, or frantically searching for a last minute gift for a person in your life who is interested in World War II, here are my top ten recommendations (plus some extras).
The list below is focused on the American perspective because that is my area of interest, and prioritizes titles that are currently in print or have multiple editions so that they can be easily found and, more importantly, cheaply purchased.
For the young adult or college student
- Up Front by Bill Mauldin, ISBN: 978-0393050318. Mauldin is best known for his wartime cartoons and their iconic characters, "Willie and Joe," but his memoir Up Front is simply one of the best for understanding the average American soldier, especially the infantryman. Concisely written and packed full of Mauldin's artwork, Up Front is a short but good read. Mauldin's book on the immediate postwar era, Back Home (ISBN: 978-0891908562) is also excellent.
- Currahee: A Screaming Eagle at Normandy by Donald R. Burgett, ISBN: 978-0440236306. Currahee was my gateway into World War II memoirs, I remember being completely immersed in Burgett's book over one weekend in 2002. The descriptions of the rigors of paratroop training and the choatic days of combat in Normandy are spellbinding. Burgett's other wartime experiences in Holland (The Road to Arnhem), the Battle of the Bulge (Seven Roads to Hell), and the close of the war (Beyond the Rhine) have also been widely published.
- With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by Eugene B. Sledge, ISBN: 978-0891419068. With the Old Breed is rightfully considered one the best accounts by a World War II infantryman, and was featured in HBO's miniseries "The Pacific". For further reading, check out Sledge's memoirs of his postwar duties in China and return to the United States in China Marine: An Infantryman's Life after World War II.
- Serenade to the Big Bird by Bert Stiles, ISBN: 978-0764313967. Serenade to the Big Bird is a great account of a B-17 bomber pilot in the Eighth Air Force. Originally published by Stiles' mother in 1947, it has enjoyed wide readership and was featured in the History Channel series "World War II in HD."
- Bedpan Commando: The Story of a Combat Nurse During World War II by June Wandrey, ISBN: 978-0962555503. Written using Wandrey's wartime diary and letters to her family, Bedpan Commando gives insight into the long hours and emotionally draining work of the Army Nurse Corps. Like Bert Stiles, June Wandrey was also profiled in the History Channel series "World War II in HD."
For the "Armchair General"
- World War II by James Jones, ISBN: 978-0448118963. James Jones is best known for his fictional works, From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line, but World War II is a personal and compelling overview of the Second World War by a talented writer and infantry veteran.
- The G.I. Offensive in Europe: The Triumph of American Infantry Divisions, 1941-1945 by Peter R. Mansoor, ISBN: 978-0700609581. The G.I. Offensive, along with books like Closing with the Enemy by Michael Doubler (ISBN: 978-0700607440), take on the responsibility of refuting the notion put forward by some historians that the American Army only bested their German counterparts due to materiel and numerical superiority. The G.I. Offensive argues compellingly that the American Army, and the individual American soldier, was not just as good as their enemy but better.
- Masters of the Air: America's Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany by Donald L. Miller, ISBN: 978-0743235457. Masters of the Air is likely the best book on the American air campaign in Europe. Well written and thoroughly researched, it is extremely compelling despite its page count. It is also the subject of an upcoming Apple TV+ miniseries.
For the Baby Boomer
- Soldier From The War Returning: The Greatest Generation's Troubled Homecoming from World War II by Thomas Childers, ISBN: 978-0547336923. Soldier From the War Returning is without a doubt the book I have recommended the most, especially to my parents' friends and other children of World War II veterans. Childers skillfully examines the postwar lives of several veterans and confronts the "Greatest Generation" myth. In my opinion, Soldier From the War Returning is the most important book on the Second World War to be published in last several decades. For further reading on the subject, check out My Father's War by Julia Collins (ISBN: 978-1568582603) and for more general knowledge on understanding the structure of the American Army, see Finding Your Father's War: A Practical Guide to Researching and Understanding Service in the World War II U.S. Army by Jonathan Gawne (ISBN: 978-1932033144).
For a more global perspective
- Quartered Safe Out Here: A Harrowing Tale of World War II by George MacDonald Fraser, ISBN: 978-1602391901. Quarteered Safe Out Here recalls the experience of George MacDonald Fraser in the British Army during the campaign to retake Burma from the Japanese. MacDonald Fraser was a very successful novelist and screenwriter, and not surprisingly, Quartered Safe Out Here is one of the best written memoirs I have ever read. Further, his defense on the use of the Atomic bombs is one of the best perspectives on the subject. Another excellent account by a British soldier is With the Jocks: A Soldier's Struggle for Europe 1944-45 by Peter White (ISBN: 978-0750927215), who fought in Northwest Europe as an infantry officer.