Croswell Bowen, a successful magazine and book photographer, signed up to take photographs for the American Field Service in 1941, before the United States entered World War II.

He was assigned to a unit serving alongside British forces in North Africa. By the time he reached Cairo, the United States had entered the war, although there were few Americans in Egypt.

He wrote a memoir of that time, focusing on his journey to north Africa, his duty in the desert war and his bout with polio. Bowen never found a publisher for it, but he went on to have a successful career writing for magazines and other books.

Bowen’s daughter, Betsy Connor Bowen, found the manuscript and some photo negatives after his death in 1971. With some editing — in some cases restoring parts that had been edited out — she arranged to bring out the memoir. The result is “Back from Tobruk” (221 pages, $29.95) by Potomac Books. 

Q: Why does this book resonate 70 years after it was written?

A: My father was a good writer and a good perceiver of the realities around him. At that point in his life, he had had some journalism experience and come to terms with the fact that he wasn’t the spoiled little brat he was brought up to be. The years of that North Africa campaign, he was primed to have them be a turning point in his life, and then the terrible polio thing happened. With an act of fate, he got taken into a story.

I hope to show that in the biography coming out this year. If the writer is good enough to get you to identify with him, he can take you through pieces of his life. 

Q: I know your father tried to get this published in the 1940s, but did he try during Korea or Vietnam, when his anti-war sentiments might have been better received?

A: At that time, he was into other stories. Korea made him have a nervous breakdown in 1949, and he spent the ’50s under a cloud. He thought McCarthy had taken civil rights away, and he thought he was the subject of an FBI investigation, and he was right. It was not a good time to take an anti-war stand.

During Vietnam, he’d had serious disruptions in his life. He was a National Book Award finalist for his Eugene O’Neill book. (Editor’s note: O’Neill was a Nobel laureate in literature and a playwright.) He did take it out and showed it to a friend, and she made some horrible changes — she just didn’t get it. 

Q: Given his feelings about war, is it surprising that he gave talks as part of the Victory Speaker’s Bureau?

A: He would have done that out of patriotism. At that point, he wanted the U.S. to win the war. One interesting point, though, is that the job he got as soon as he was able to move around was as a foreign news monitor for NBC. In 1944, he quit, because he said NBC was transmitting as news items from a news source that he knew to be a U.S. propagandist. He was a very principled journalist. After NBC, he went to PM, which was a highly principled, liberal magazine that accepted no advertising. 

Q: The writing seems to be very matter of fact about death: Most of the men he sailed with went on to Singapore “four days before the fall of the fortress. All of the friends we made on the long voyage to the East were either killed or became prisoners of war.” No further mention of them, or of how Singapore fell.

A: I think that came from a number of places. It might have come from Hemingway. My father certainly did not talk that much about this, and was not one to discuss his feelings from that time. The book does end on this patriotic note, very idealistic, that he wanted this to be the war to end all wars. And too, he was a “show, don’t tell” kind of guy. 

Q: Your father’s worries that his back and leg pains were all in his mind were interesting. Do you think he really worried that he somehow wasn’t brave enough to stay in battle?

A: I think two parts of him came out of that experience with war. He noticed that the British were very quick to diagnose symptoms as shell shock. They used to shoot people who had a negative reaction in battle. Once they saw it was physical, that it was polio, they treated him as a good patient. During the bombing, he looked to his boss, Jimmy King, who actually glowed at this time, and there my father was, cowering with the Tommies in a dugout, questioning whether he should have been there at all. He learned that he didn’t have what it took to be a good warrior. 

Q: Although he ate and socialized with British officers, his book shows a lot more sympathy for the Tommies — enlisted men in U.S. military parlance — than the officer class. Can you discuss that?

A: He was on the fence there. He was a bon vivant, and he went to his share of debutante parties, but he rejected their ideas of social justice, which were simply nonexistent. He was ready to take the part of the common man. He spent the ’30s in Greenwich Village thinking about communism and undergoing a change. He took the part of a the common man for the rest of his career. 

Q: The relationship he developed with the German prisoner on the way back to Cairo also showed sympathy for the little guy, friend or foe. At the same time, he was on the side of the nurses who refused to serve a German who said “Heil Hitler” whenever he wanted anything.

A: “Bedpan, Heil Hitler!” (Laughs).

I think he was just a very astute observer of different kinds of people. The prisoner was just a 19-year-old kid who got pulled into something that he did not understand. And then there are others, like the other German, who are whatever they are. 

Q: Your father in this book considered himself a photographer first, although he had done some writing before he went to Africa. After that, he said, with his limp, he couldn’t do that anymore. Did he ever talk about missing that part of his career?

A: I think he was a realist enough to know the book he wanted to do on the African desert, and what he did with the Hudson River book before the war, he physically couldn’t do again. PM was a publication where reporters were allowed to take their own pictures, and he took a lot of shots of us that were really wonderful, professional shots, with 13 girls on a couch and such. He would do wonderful things to make us laugh. But I think he was a man who felt he needed to make a contribution, and writing was the way he would do it. 

Q: How did you end up in Maine, and did your father ever come here?

A: Oh, Maine was in my stars. My husband and I started coming up here in the mid-1980s, and we finally moved up to stay in 2003 or 2004. I have a wonderful life here as a writer. And I have a wonderful hometown: Wayne, Maine, where people are rooting for me with this book. And they look out for me. I have serious mobility issues from a spinal cord injury.

And with my father, one of his first true loves took him to the midcoast. They traveled with a lobsterman and stayed on Squirrel Island. And then he did the biography of Eugene O’Neill — O’Neill spent time in the Lakes District, so my father came there. 

Q: And now you’re doing a biography of your father?

A: Yes. That is coming from the same publisher in 2013. I try to tell his life story through his own eyes. That is not as difficult as it might have been if he had not written so much.

I want to let the readers watch him and see a life, see how big forces of life really tossed him around. And this is now happening to the rest of us, with the war and depression. I want to show both his strengths and his weaknesses — and there certainly were some of those — and get a feeling of how a person lives a life.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living in Cape Elizabeth.  He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

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