New book depicts Baltimore’s home front

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Carol Sorgen

In 2006, Gil Sandler found himself in the library of the Baltimore Sun, doing research for his weekly editorial page column, “Baltimore Glimpses.” Coming across the issue dated June 20, 1944, Sandler read of the battle of Saipan, known as Operation Forager, designed to take control of the Mariana Islands.

Sandler himself had been engaged in that operation, serving aboard the USS Leonis. He and his fellow soldiers helped land as many as 20,000 troops in less than three weeks. Before the  operation ended, more than 3,000 Americans had died in battle.

Flash forward to the recent publication of Sandler’s engaging book, Home Front Baltimore: An Album of Stories from World War II

In its preface, he writes how he felt that day in the library: “Reading through the Baltimore Sun… it struck me that during those same weeks the Orioles were moving into and out of first place in the International League that it was a heady time in the town.

“I could picture the standing-room-only crowds, and the cheering and the fans munching peanuts and popcorn and sipping soft drinks….I thought about the contrasts — over here, over there,” Sandler said.

Two worlds

Though Sandler has had a long career as a journalist, public relations executive, author and radio host, he is most comfortable describing himself as a storyteller. So he asserts in the preface, “This book is not a history.”

What it is, is the result of countless hours of research in newspaper archives and interviews with those who lived in Baltimore during the days when Sandler was serving in the United States Navy as a navigator in the South and Central Pacific. For his efforts, Sandler was awarded two battle stars, for the battles of Saipan and Pelleliu.

In Home Front Baltimore, Gilbert tries to make sense of these two worlds — the one in which he served, and the one he called his hometown, thousands of miles apart.

His objective is to give readers a perhaps previously unexamined look at what Baltimore was really like during the war — from the privileged, who considered the war little more than an inconvenience, to the families of black soldiers who, despite the brave service of their loved ones, faced prejudice at home.

Sandler interweaves newspaper reports with personal interviews, combining them with seldom-seen photographs from the archives of the Baltimore Sun, the News-American, and the Afro-American.

A Baltimore boy

As a documenter and raconteur of Baltimore’s history, Sandler is well-suited to the task at hand. Born and raised here, he attended public schools (P.S. #59, Garrison Junior High, Baltimore City College, Class of 1941) and then served in the Navy. After his return to the States, he completed his college education at the University of Pennsylvania (Class of 1949). 

But once he returned to Baltimore, he was here for good, settling in for a lifetime of listening to and relating the stories of his fellow Baltimoreans. He wrote features for The Sun, The Evening Sunand The Sunday Sun(remember when there were three editions of The Sun?). In the 1970s he began writing his weekly “Baltimore Glimpses” column, which continued for 31 years.

Along with his freelance newspaper work, Sandler owned a public relations firm. He sold it in 1988, then took a position as communications officer with the Abell Foundation, a role he still holds.

When not serving in that capacity, Sandler does what he does best: tells stories. In addition to Home Front, he has written four other books: The Neighborhood: The Story of Baltimore’s Little Italy; Baltimore Glimpses Revisited; Small Town Baltimore: An Album of Memories;and Jewish Baltimore: A Family Album. He also hosts the popular “Baltimore Stories” series on WYPR, the local National Public Radio Affiliate.

Whether you served in World War II and left loved ones at home, or lived in Baltimore during the war years with your loved ones far away, or even are too young to have had any connection to the war and how it affected the people who lived here, you will still find Sandler’s book a fascinating and nostalgic look at that time in our city, our country, and the world’s history.

It’s akin to looking through a family album (even if it isn’t your family, you may well recognize the names and faces of many of those pictured or interviewed) or having a fireside chat with a favorite uncle.

Sandler himself calls the book a “history by contrasts — over here with over there, and within and among the home fronts in Baltimore during World War II.

“I like to think that this technique of telling the story provides a deeper understanding of it and a closer-to-home and hearth history of a very special, transformative, and long-ago time and place,” he wrote.

In a review of an earlier work, one writer referred to Sandler as “our great rememberer.” Home Front Baltimore only further enhances that reputation.

Home Front Baltimore, which costs $29.95, is available at local bookstores and from online retailers.