The following review, first published on this site in late November of 2008 with an alternate title, remained unpublished in print until the November 5-11, 2009 issue of the Naples Florida Weekly, the editor being persuaded by the approach of Veterans’ Day and the Florida Writers Association prize announced a few days earlier. See Florida Weekly – Leon Hesser. It also appears in the November 11-17 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly.
The original version, republished below, contains material on Hesser’s earlier books not found in the print edition. The newspaper version carries information about the prize.
Young Leon Hesser was fresh off the Indiana farm when he enlisted in the Army toward the end of WWII. He had just met his great love, Florence Life, and they promised each other to tie the knot soon after Leon’s return. After basic training, teenager Hesser was shipped out to the Pacific Theater, where he saw first-hand some of the most horrendous battles of the war, serving during various battles in the Philippines. He also served with the post-war occupation forces in Japan. This author is likely to be the only person you’ll ever meet who earned both the Combat Infantry Badge and the Combat Medic Badge as a teenager. Hesser tells the story of these two years in uniform in his new book, ZigZag Pass: Love and War, a Memoir.
In creating a narrative at once personal and representative, Naples resident Hesser strikes a fine balance between presenting the authentic pulse and flow of his own experience and filling in the larger picture of U. S. forces in the Pacific. His research is sufficiently thorough without becoming overbearing or bogged down in dry fact.
Hesser is quite adept at sketching the pre-war milieu of rural Indiana and the reactions that follow upon the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when he was a sixteen year old high school junior. He traces the U. S. military build-up in the Pacific and reminds us of how farming communities met the demand for increased food for the war effort. Upon turning eighteen in the summer of 1943, Hesser registered for the draft, receiving a deferral as his services were needed for food production. By the spring of 1944, after troop quotas were increased, he was classified as 1-A. He had just met Florence, and so their courtship would be interrupted by Hesser’s time in uniform. In June, he reported to Fort Benjamin Harrison for induction processing. Although he indicated a preference for Navy duty, Hesser was taken into the Army and sent on to Camp Hood (Texas) for basic training.
After further training at other locations, Hesser finds himself aboard the “General Howze,” a Liberty ship that transports him across the ocean in time to reach the island of Leyte in the Philippines just after its retaking by Allied Forces. Hesser was among the large number of replacements needed after the casualty-heavy Battle of Leyte Gulf.
Hesser summarizes that battle, then explains the necessity of clearing ZigZag Pass as a preliminary to opening up Manila Bay. His fifth chapter, “Three Days in ZigZag Pass,” is the heart of the book. Here the narrative pace slows to allow full dramatic detail: Hesser stresses the risk from well-situated enemy defensive forces, the suffocating heat, and the extremely difficult terrain, including the “tangled growth of the jungle flora.” Here, also, Hesser is most attentive to conveying his own personal ordeal. Surrounded by casualties, Hesser joins with others to “carry litters of the dead, near-dead, and seriously wounded to awaiting ambulances and 6x6s.”
Following the ZigZag Pass ordeal, Hesser has the opportunity to train as a combat medic, and as he recounts that training, readers learn about the uses of sulfa, penicillin, and morphine as well as steps needed to prevent malaria. Stationed on Mindoro during a lull in the action, Hesser’s unit had time for recreation, which he describes with pleasure. During the two months on Mindoro, news reaches the troops of President Roosevelt’s death and that Harry S. Truman is now their president and commander in chief. Hesser’s division next sails from Mindoro to the large island of Mindanao in order to retake Davao – the Philippines second largest city — from the Japanese.
In describing his duties as a “Pill Roller,” Hesser simultaneously outlines several more battles, leading up to the plans to invade Japan. He recounts the efforts aimed at pressing the Japanese to surrender, and he reviews the background of nuclear weapon experimentation and government policy that leads to the use of the A-Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Finally, Hesser describes his experiences as part of an Army of Occupation, his discharge from service, and his homecoming.
All through the war-time narrative, Hesser keeps us in touch with his feelings for Florence. Their relationship is nourished by exchanges of letters, some of which are shared with readers. Ultimately, we see the two young people reunited and a long-awaited wedding.
Hesser’s ZigZag Pass, though brief, is a sterling addition to the literature of WWII memoir. Such additions to the cannon will grow rarer at “the greatest generation” ages and vanishes.
The longer story of the relationship between Leon and Florence is told in his 2004 book “Nurture the Heart and Feed the World: The Inspiring Life Journeys of Two Vagabonds.” Here, Leon makes the case for initiative and determination, drawing upon first-hand experience and the example of his wife. From becoming a Purdue freshman at the age of thirty to earning a Ph.D. in agricultural economics to running programs that ushered in the “green revolution” of increased food production in third world countries, Hesser has had a remarkable life story and career. Florence’s path is similar. After helping Leon get a good start on his graduate studies, she entered Purdue at the age of thirty-five and eventually earned an Ed.D. She became a professor of education at George Washington University.
Hesser’s career brought him into contact with Norman Borlaug, whose scientific achievements revolutionized world food production. Borlaug became a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, and Leon Hesser tells Borlaug’s story in the authorized biography The Man Who Fed the World (2006). This book brought Hesser much acclaim, including the Florida Writers Association First Place in Biography, Florida Publishers Association Best Nonfiction, and Best Books Award Winner by USA Book News.
Hesser’s turned author soon after he and his wife relocated to Naples in 2000. His first book is The Taming of the Wilderness: Indiana’s Transition from Indian Hunting Grounds to Hoosier Farmland: 1800-1875 (2002).
ZigZag Pass and earlier Hesser titles are available from Bavender House Press. For details, see http://www.bavenderhouse.com. The book is also available from major on-line booksellers.