Top 10 Non-Fiction Books Set During World War II

Following up on our list of the Top 10 novels set during World War II, these are our favorite non-fiction works.  If you feel that we missed an important one, we invite you to walk into your local library and count how many shelves are filled by this subject.  The choices may betray our preference for pilots and air combat, which is perhaps why our first blog post covered Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.  Do not miss our other book recommendations under the Top 10 Lists tab.

10. God Is My Co-Pilot by Col. Robert L. Scott (1943)

One of the original “Flying Tigers” wrote his autobiography during the war.

9. The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw (1998)

These short biographical sketches focus on the post-war lives of servicemen and women.

8. Going Solo by Roald Dahl (1986)

An autobiography of his time as a young pilot by the author of The BFG, Matilda, and James and the Giant Peach.

7. The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II by Gregory A. Freeman (2007)

A gripping story of the daring rescue of Allied airmen stranded on the Balkan Peninsula.

6. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo by Capt. Ted W. Lawson (1943)

A first-hand account of the lead-up and aftermath of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in 1942.

5. Night by Elie Wiesel (1960)

The first in a trilogy tells the story of the author’s survival in a concentration camp.

4. Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest by Stephen E. Ambrose (1992)

Better known as a TV miniseries, a book by the author of D-Day and Citizen Soldiers.

3. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (1947)

A 20th-century classic featuring writing that still elicits fear and dread in a reader.

2. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand (2010)

This well-written biography of Louie Zamperini can be summed up in one word: unbelievable.

1. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl  (1946)

This is one of the most inspiring books ever written and it starts with the author’s experience in a concentration camp.

Honorable Mentions

Soaring to Glory: A Tuskegee Airman’s Firsthand Account of World War II by Philip Handleman and Lt. Col. Harry T. Stewart Jr. (2019)

The latest in a growing library of books written about and by Tuskegee Airmen.

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown (2013)

The events described in one of the best non-fiction books ever written culminated in Germany before the war began.

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Saratoga National Historical Park

Overview

Saratoga National Historical Park was the site of two 1777 Revolutionary War battles at Freeman’s Farm on September 19 and Bemis Heights on October 7, which together are considered the turning point in the war.  Following this decisive victory when 6,000 British soldiers surrendered, the French King officially entered the war on the side of the Americans, providing the equivalent of $1.4-billion in aid by war’s end. 

Highlights

Museum, film, Neilson Farm, Boot Monument, Bemis Heights, the Great Redoubt

Must-Do Activity

Start at the National Park Service (NPS) visitor center where displays describe the two separate battles that took place here.  The 10-mile driving tour has ten stops that provide more details.  Do not look for Saratoga, New York on maps today, it was renamed Schuylerville in honor of a Revolutionary War general.  Nonetheless, since 1883 it has been home to the 155-foot tall Saratoga Monument commemorating these battles.

Best Trail

There are a few short trails accessed along the driving tour, but you should at least plan to park and climb the stairs at Breymann Redoubt.  At the top, an unmarked monument draped with a boot commemorates the leg injury suffered in the fighting by General Benedict Arnold, whose name would go down in history synonymous with his later traitorous actions downstream at West Point. 

Instagram-worthy Photo

The American defensive location at Bemis Heights was chosen by Colonel Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a Polish engineer serving in the Continental Army, to block the British army from moving south down the Hudson River.  It still provides commanding views of the valley.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/sara/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

Not far north on Interstate 87, Moreau Lake State Park offers a campground with running water.

Explore More – Although France had not officially entered the war at the time, how many muskets had they donated to the American cause by the beginning of the Battles of Saratoga?

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Valley Forge National Historical Park

Overview

The winter of 1777-78 was actually mild by Pennsylvania standards, but for 12,000 poorly-clothed rebels it was hard enough.  Following a retreat from Philadelphia, General George Washington’s army arrived at Valley Forge on December 19 to keep British soldiers from scouring the countryside for winter provisions.  Soldiers quickly set about building log cabins and cutting firewood, establishing the fourth-largest city in the colonies. 

Highlights

Museum, film, reconstructed cabins, National Memorial Arch, Washington’s headquarters

Must-Do Activity

The Encampment Tour is a 10-mile driving route that takes you to reconstructed cabins, earthwork redoubts, and General George Washington’s headquarters which contains 80% original artifacts.  Primarily due to a lack of food and hygiene, approximately 2,500 soldiers died at Valley Forge, many from typhus, influenza, and pneumonia.  This represented about 7% of the army’s total fatalities during the Revolutionary War.  Those that survived the hardships became an elite fighting force; however, many of them would spend the remaining years of the war waiting for orders that never came to attack British-held New York City. 

Best Trail

A paved trail follows much of the driving tour route and is popular with joggers and bikers.  The Schuylkill River Trail goes all the way from Valley Forge to Philadelphia.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The National Memorial Arch was dedicated in 1917, one more reason this beautiful park is frequented by local joggers.

Peak Season

Summer.  Although it would be more authentic, you may not want to visit this park during the cold and snowy winter months.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/vafo/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

All roads paved, but freeway traffic in this Philadelphia suburb can be congested during rush hour.

Camping

French Creek State Park (next to Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site) offers a campground 25 miles northwest of Valley Forge National Historical Park.

Explore More – What was the name of the Prussian general that led the troops through months of drills?

Independence National Historical Park

Overview

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is home to Independence National Historical Park, one of the most popular units in the National Park Service (NPS) System with approximately 5-million visitors annually.  The “City of Brotherly Love” was the site of many important moments before, during, and after the American Revolution.  Independence Hall is a World Heritage Site where the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776 and the U.S. Constitution was created in 1787. 

Highlights

Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, City Tavern, Carpenters’ Hall, Ben Franklin’s grave

Must-Do Activity

We do not recommend watching the two films at the NPS visitor center, but plan to arrive early as the free timed tickets to tour Independence Hall are all claimed first thing each morning.  It is free to enter the Liberty Bell Center to see the famous cracked bell.  While waiting in the security screening line, you will be on the grounds of the house used by the country’s first two presidents, Washington and Adams.  Less busy is Carpenters’ Hall, where the First Continental Congress met in 1774.  Nearby non-NPS sites include the National Constitution Center, Benjamin Franklin Museum, and new Museum of the American Revolution, all of which charge an admission fee. 

Best Trail

Walk the streets of Philadelphia past Ben Franklin’s grave, Betsy Ross’ house, the reconstructed City Tavern (where you can grab a bite to eat), and the Todd House (the home of Dolley Madison and her first husband).

Instagram-worthy Photo

Less iconic than the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, Washington Square is a small park that contains to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/inde/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None, except for parking (there is an underground parking garage at the NPS visitor center) and visiting some museums and historic buildings (like Betsy Ross’ house).

Road Conditions

All roads paved, but street parking is limited.

Camping

None in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but there are options in its suburbs.

Explore More – When did Philadelphia serve as the nation’s capital?

Moores Creek National Battlefield

Overview

A little known Revolutionary War battle took place northwest of Wilmington, North Carolina on February 27, 1776.  It pitted American rebels with cannons against Loyalists primarily armed with broadswords.  In its aftermath, North Carolina became the first state to pre-approve its delegates to sign the Declaration of Independence, hence the “First in Freedom” motto on their license plates.  It is well worth the detour for a short history lesson on your way to the beautiful beaches of southeast North Carolina.

Highlights

Film, History Trail, Women’s Monument, Tarheel Trail

Must-Do Activity

After watching the film in the National Park Service visitor center, walk to the reconstructed bridge.  At this site, a British force of 1,600 soldiers marching towards the Atlantic Ocean was halted at a narrow bridge that had its planks removed and girders greased.  After the difficult crossing, British troops were met by entrenched patriot forces that killed 30 and wounded 40 while suffering only one casualty.  It would prove a pivotal victory in dissuading British military efforts in the Carolinas for the next two years. 

Best Trail

The 0.7-mile History Trail leads past the major points of interest, as well as reconstructed earthworks and cannons, in a beautiful forest setting.  The 0.3-mile Tarheel Trail describes the production of naval stores (tar, pitch, and turpentine).

Instagram-worthy Photo

The Women’s Monument is one of several statues at Moores Creek National Battlefield.

Peak Season

Summer, though it can get muggy and buggy.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/mocr/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

Carolina Beach State Park in Wilmington, North Carolina has a nice, forested campground a short drive inland from the beach; plus it is home to unique carnivorous plants.

Explore More – Why are North Carolinians called Tarheels?