(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The Bushmasters took their name from a deadly snake common to the jungles of Panama, where they trained from late 1941 to January, 1943. Five thousand men, twenty-five hundred of whom were drawn from the Arizona National Guard, were thrown into merciless jungle combat in New Guinea. The regiment was unusual for its racial and social mix: American Indians, Mexican-Americans, men from New Jersey, Kentucky, Ohio, and Arkansas had been melded into a tough fighting team. Cultural differences had given way to a military comradeship strong enough to see the Bushmasters through several grueling campaigns.

In New Guinea, on Wakde-Sarmi and Noemfoor, and finally in the Philippines, the Bushmasters contributed mightily to General Douglas MacArthur’s grand strategy of combined air, sea, and land attack. In addition to clarifying the military campaigns, Anthony Arthur’s account is filled with vignettes drawn from interviews of Bushmaster veterans. These are poignant, often comical, and always human. Reading a soldier’s recollection of a Japanese bayonet plunging wildly through the tarp over his foxhole or letters recounting the deaths of buddies, one finds that the enlisted men and officers of the 158th have become as close as family.

Indeed, it is the larger family that the Bushmasters represent--the American democracy--that lingers in the reader’s memory. To both celebrate and strengthen this awareness, Arthur closes his book with a brilliantly observed Bushmaster reunion in Arizona in the summer of 1986. As veterans reminisce, the reader gets a sense of how loyalty to the regiment fostered a sense of national identity that not only crossed social and racial barriers but also finally leaped across time itself to create an epic memory--the kind of story in which a nation can recognize itself.