- Gary Toyn
Book review: God Isn't Here, by Richard Overton
Updated: Oct 12, 2022
While in the throes of researching my book, The Quiet Hero: The Untold Medal of Honor Story of George E. Wahlen at the Battle for Iwo Jima, I had heard from several Iwo Jima vets that Richard Overton had written an incredible memoir about his experience as a corpsman on Iwo Jima. Dick had trained with George Wahlen in corpsmen school, so I figured it would be a good idea to interview him. Interestingly, Dick lived near my home in Utah, so I approached him for an interview and he agreed. During the course of that interview I asked about his book, and that I was interested in reading it. At first he was hesitant, and put me off. A week or so later, I asked again, and he put me off again. I think he hoped that I would go away. As I persisted, and I promised not to copy it or share it with anyone, he reluctantly agreed let me read it.
The manuscript was printed from an old dot-matrix printer and was falling apart from having been manhandled. Before handing it to me, Dick warned me that I would not be the same once I finished reading it. I didn’t roll my eyes in front of him, but I dismissed his warning, I was up for the challenge to prove him wrong.
While researching my book in the months prior, I read just about everything I could find about Iwo Jima. Over time, many books began repeating the same stories and themes. But as soon as I began reading Dick's manuscript, I knew his story was unique. It was raw. brutal. terrifying. gritty. I couldn’t sleep after reading it. I would stare out my window in daze, replaying scenes in my head. I really was overwhelmed by it.
After finishing it, I knew why Iwo Jima veterans were recommending that I read this story. His was the brutal and grinding story only a combat veteran could tell. For once, I began to get a sense for the type of warfare waged on Iwo Jima, and how it affected those who were forced to endure it. I was indeed a changed man. The book was well written, which surprised me. Dick had spent many years as a police detective, having developed his writing skills on the job, writing detailed narratives about his investigations. He obviously had some writing chops, but what was the most puzzling to me was the incredible amount of detail. I had to know how he was able to include so many incredible and unique details. Dick explained that shortly after he left Iwo Jima, he began writing notes about his day-by-day experiences on the battlefield. He recognized the battle would be a major milestone in his life, and he also understood the historical significance of what he had witnessed. He was determined to record his experiences for posterity, and he spent considerable time compiling day to day notes, as best as he could remember them. Most of these notes were penned during the long, tedious days when the 5th Marine Division was stationed in Sasebo, as part of the occupation of Japan. Upon returning to civilian life, these notes were among his most prized possessions. On one occasion he found his notes in the garbage where his well-intentioned mother had discarded them. She believed getting rid of these notes would help her son cope with the painful memories that were troubling him. Fortunately, Dick retrieved them before the garbage man carted them off, and he safeguarded them for decades.
Why was the book so good? His experience could only be described as traumatic. While he tries to tell a linear story, his mind became so jumbled that after a few days of sleep deprivation, hand-to-hand combat, seeing his friends disemboweled and blown to pieces, he began to lose touch with reality. The book purposefully becomes jumbled, and you feel the disconnect to reality, just as he experienced it. His ability to explain his muddled thinking was unique.
While his job as a corpsman was to attend to the wounded, he was among the walking wounded, unable to function. Back then they called it combat fatigue, today we know it as PTSD. His was a classic case, and it took years for him to get his mind in a place where he could finally begin writing the story of his experience. It was an exercise in therapy. He never intended for his manuscript to be published. It was written for his family and a few friends. But it was so compelling, his family and friends began copying it and sharing it around.
After I got my hands on it, I knew it needed to be published. It was such a unique perspective that it needed to be told, so I worked with him to get it published.
In getting the manuscript ready for print, Dick decided to pare down the manuscript, fearing that some stories would be too graphic or otherwise offend some readers. Dick’s manuscript became a 330-page memoir titled God Isn't Here: A Young American's Entry into World War II and His Participation in the Battle for Iwo Jima. It was sold on Amazon and went into a limited release in 2005. The response was immediate. Veterans began calling Dick at all hours of the night, many in tears, thanking him for writing his book. With virtually no marketing but word-of-mouth, orders from around the world convinced Dick that his book had struck a chord. With the success of the book came Dick's desire to tell the entire, uncensored story. The updated, revised and expanded version includes all the unvarnished and descriptive details that were edited from the original version. The new version was 432 pages long, but it's a more intimate and powerful work that I believe is among the most compelling and heart wrenching biographies I’ve ever read. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but I’m not alone in that opinion.
The book became an instant hit. Veterans groups were raving about it, and reviewers praised it as one of the best combat biographies of World War II. But sadly, this popularity took a toll on Dick.
The frequent calls, and letters of gratitude became too much for Dick and he didn’t want to deal with it any more. While he never said so, I suspected he was suffering from some type of PTSD flashbacks from having to talk about his book so often. Consequently he wanted the book to go out of print, which it did in 2010.
Once it had gone out of print, the demand sent the price skyrocketing. I saw copies selling on Ebay and Amazon for $500 to $1000. The demand was crazy. After almost of decade of being out of print, I still see people selling their used, beat-up copies for $150-$300.
I know where there are a few, never read signed copies. But they’re not cheap. So don’t say I didn’t warn you. But I would highly recommend it. Everyone who has read it upon my recommendation has thanked me. If you can handle the gritty and gruesome details of combat. Get a copy of it somehow... you can't be helped but be changed for doing so.
Finally, I also want to give you a little teaser for my upcoming novel, For Malice and Mercy, that will be released on September 15, 2021. While I don’t want to give you any spoilers, but I can divulge that Dick Overton’s masterpiece “God Isn’t Here,” was a significant inspiration.
I’ll leave it at that.