Edwin Cole Bearss
U.S. Marine in World War II, Chief Historian, Emeritus, National Park Service, Arlington, VA, USA
Robert Irving Desourdis
Master Solution Architect, Desourdis Collaboration, LLC, Olympia, Washington, USA
Series: Homeland Security and Safety
Edwin Cole Bearss, born in 1923, is an American World War II wounded warrior of the Greatest Generation. As a U.S. Marine, he was shot four times by the Japanese in the South Pacific, but despite his wounds rose to become a giant among American historians as Chief Historian of the National Park Service and the leading published Civil War Historian as shown in the Ken Burns Civil War series. Today, at 96, he is an eminent history tour guide.
In this first book of his memoir, he traces his ancestors, including a relative who was involved in the underground railroad to save Americans from slavery. We see him grow up on a Montana ranch, survive with his family through the Great Depression, and ride a horse to a one-room schoolhouse in below-zero temperatures. When he was ten years old, he would go to Chicago to see Babe Ruth hit a home run in the first All Star Game in 1933.
Early in life, his beloved maternal grandmother Sara played Sacajawea with her two Bearss grandchildren as Lewis and Clark. His father, a Montana rancher and U.S. Marine, read Civil War history to him and his brother. These experiences at an early age seeded Ed’s love of history, particularly military history, and he would go on to map the progress of armies in the 1935 Italo-Ethiopian War, the 1937 Spanish Civil War, and then track Hitler’s conquests of Austria and Czechoslovakia and finally Hitler’s attack on Poland.
He joined the U.S. Marines as soon as possible after Pearl Harbor, following the example of his father and third cousin “Hiking Hiram” Bearss, a Medal-of-Honor awardee and noted World War I Colonel. Ed describes his efforts to join the Marines, though underage at 17. We follow his path to a string of Pacific Islands, where he and his comrades are strafed by Japanese warplanes and succumbing to malaria and yellow jaundice. We ride with him in a Higgins boat to the Yellow 1 invasion beach on New Britain Island and move with him on point through the jungle terrain. We are with him as hidden Japanese pillboxes open fire on him and his buddies, as he sees them get hit one by one. We hear his thoughts and actions as he saved himself from certain death, and the moment when a few inches of dirt saved his life, his first lesson about the importance of terrain in battle. He describes his buddy’s silent deaths, whose voices were forever stilled, that would motivate him to speak for them in later life.
We experience his recovery in several hospitals, his return to Montana as a fishing tour guide, college, first jobs and taking his first Civil War tours. Finally, we walk the ground with him at the Shiloh Battlefield, launching his devotion to walking the ground in the National Park Service.
He is an example for all Wounded Warriors to never give up.