Armed with camera and notebook, war was an assignment Croswell Bowen could finally sink his teeth into — until the bombs dropped and the story began.
Croswell Bowen, Betsy Connor Bowen’s father, began writing and taking photographs for Back from Tobruk in 1941 while en route with his unit of American Field Service volunteer ambulance drivers to serve alongside the British Eighth Army in North Africa.
His message took shape not on the front lines of battle but rather in the field dressing stations and hospital ships among the wounded and dying on “war’s reverse supply lines.”
A Catholic pacifist at heart, Bowen found himself united in shared suffering even with his former battlefield enemies. He had seen the sick and wounded from all over the globe treat one another with respect and compassion. “Here, perhaps, lies the hope of the world of tomorrow,” he wrote.
Steaming past the Statue of Liberty back into New York City’s harbor, he felt a new pride in America’s conceptions of freedom and respect for the dignity of man.
“When the great leaders sit down at the peace table,” he wrote of his fellow servicemen, “they might take a lesson from those men.”
But the times were not right for the message between the covers. Bowen talked about peacemaking in a country that was hungry for victory. He advocated world federation when patriotism was at a fever pitch. He had lived and witnessed war’s suffering, but the country did not want to hear about it. Despite the breadth of experience he packed into his memoir, it would go largely unread for some sixty-five years. The times were not right. The rejection letters were unequivocal. No publisher bought the book.
The typescript and his negatives lay for decades in the ancient, moss-roofed Connecticut barn where he put them. I would come upon them from time to time, growing increasingly moldy. Eventually, the barn was sold and the negatives disappeared.
“Growing up,” says daughter Bowen, “my father at times wistfully mentioned his war book.” But fortunately, through the efforts of her sister Lucey, the manuscript had been transferred to the archive Bowen had donated it to, and thirty five years later, she could read through it for the first time and see that it still had something to say. “It’s about the brutality of war, the compassion that springs from shared suffering, and how the vision of world peace through international government might give that suffering meaning.”
But there was more. Croswell Bowen was a writer. He left a copious paper trail. She dove into his reporting, his books, her family papers. What emerged was the shape of a life; its keystone, appreciation for the “common man” whose nobility and resilience he’d seen in those ambulances and field hospitals. Advocating for liberal causes became his mission as a writer. The shape of a biography emerged: Truth Teller, coming out from Potomac in 2013.
If you had asking me 5-10 years ago to read a non-fiction book I would have looked at you like you had 2 heads! Non-fiction was not my cup of tea…but as I get older I do like some non-fiction especially if it is written like fiction, where there is a story that flows well. Back from Tobruk falls into that category. The recounting of Croswell’s stint as a photographer during WWII helped me see what things were like during that time for the men fighting the war and for those in the countries being attacked. There are even some of the photos he took during that time in the book. Photography has come a long way but it is fascinating to see this bit of history.
I give it 4 paws and if you like history, especially tied to war, I think you’ll like this book!
Praise for Back from Tobruk
“I found Back from Tobruk fascinating. A sensitive young American journalist watching the British at war and play in the Middle East does some of his best reporting when he becomes a stretcher case and is evacuated through various field hospitals, fraternizing with the wounded of both sides. By rescuing her father’s unpublished memoir from undeserved oblivion, writer Betsy Connor Bowen has done us all a favor.”
“As World War II recedes in human memory, we are left largely with statistics, battles, generals, destruction. Back from Tobruk, Croswell Bowen’s memoir of the war in the desert in the summer of 1942—published, at last, more than forty years after his death—tells what the war was like for an American attempting to do his part as ambulance driver and photographer. It is a cultural gem, recording Bowen’s personal awakening to war’s reality at the most human, individual level. Deeply moving.”
Win the book that the publisher sent to me to review! Open to US residents only and ends April 30th.