Author:Jan Elvin
Publisher: AMACOM
ISBN: 978-0-8144-1049-3

Click Here To Purchase The Box from Braunau: In Search of My Father's War

Not All Quiet on the Western Front

In her preface, Jan Elvin writes how, by writing The Box from Braunau, she got back the father she had lost years ago. As the sole custodian of her family history, she recognizes herself as one of the children of the “Greatest Generation”, who have shared an inheritance of silence and hidden wounds for far too long. This war memoir gives access to the front-line experiences of Americans who fought in what might be regarded as the most soul-destroying conflict of the twentieth century.

Jan’s father, as she came to know him, was William John Elvin, Jr., more familiarly known as Bill, a newspaperman for the Washington Evening Star, and a decorated combat veteran of General George S. Patton’s Third Army, 80th Infantry Division. When Jan was ten years old, he bought the McLean Providence Journal, a weekly newspaper with which he was associated for the rest of his life.

Jan tells how her father’s passionate ambition to write for a newspaper was first given voice in his associate editorship of the University of Michigan’s highly regarded Michigan Daily. While working in the personnel office of the local Celanese plant, however, World War II broke out, leading to him volunteering for the Officer Candidate School. Jan includes excerpts from her father’s journal that he wrote up in 1945 from notes that he had kept during his first three months in combat during the previous year.    

Even when enmeshed in the trials of life at the front, Bill retained a sharp sense of humor and sound outlook on life, as when he recalls fellow infantrymen getting soaked from sleeping under the stars, having neglected to pitch a tent. However, thoughts of his family were never far from his mind, leading him to write a letter, the text of which is included in The Box from Braunau, to his son, Jay, to be read only if he died in battle. Well referenced newspaper clippings from the time help to contextualize the journal entries, which are couched in a lively, credible style, marked by its immediacy. Often poetic and ennobling in tone (such as where he describes the dawn arriving “with a gentleness and assurance that changed every man from a fearsome, groveling worm to a warm, self-respecting human being”), the power of Bill’s writing presages his later prowess as a news reporter.

Returning from the ever-present dangers of the front line to a secure life in suburbia was not easy for Bill, who never fully recovered from his wartime experiences. Jan cites his war journal description of avoidance of incoming artillery, “Tight, tight, tight, and down, down, down”, as being equally applicable to his emotions. Over vigilant regarding the safety of his family, he distanced himself emotionally from them, preferring to bury himself in his work than to busy himself with their concerns. Eventually the strain on his marriage became so dire that Jan’s mother, Jane, moved out. 

The aluminum box, referred to in the title, was given to Jan’s father by a prisoner interned in the German-run forced labor camp in Braunau, when his Division freed its inmates near the end of World War II.  When first brought home, he used it merely for personal notes and phone bills. However, when Jane moved out, he replaced its original contents with his army medals and the Bible his parents had given him as a boy.

Well illustrated with black and white photographs, and supplemented by a comprehensive index, bibliography and glossary, this part history part memoir is of importance to scholar and general reader alike. In addition to helpful guidelines on how to search for wartime personal histories, information sources and address details of support organizations relating to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among veterans are listed. The Box from Braunau: In Search of My Father’s War provides accessible and informative reading for all those interested in journalism and the social dynamics of warfare.

Click Here To Purchase The Box from Braunau: In Search of My Father's War