US European War memoirs

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Larso
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Post by Larso » 07 Oct 2007 03:24

‘Fighting with the Screaming Eagles’ by Robert Bowen

Subtitled ‘With the 101st Airborne from Normandy to Bastogne’. P/back, 256pgs, Greenhill Books, 2004.

The author served with the usually rarely mentioned 401st Glider Regt (formerly a Bn of the 327th). Somewhat ironically though, his unit entered Normandy across the beachhead and not by air. Bowen’s Normandy is somewhat short lived but his descriptions are some of the best I have ever read. He could see bodies floating beneath the water and some of the sights on land, particularly the destroyed German column are very vivid and quite awful.

The unit suffers many casualties to the point that Bowen writes it was never the same again. Bowen does not shy away from describing these. Some are the results of mistakes and foolishness. Regardless, few veterans have addressed this aspect of the war so graphically. Bowen often writes of a fellow soldier, giving a personal connection, perhaps recounting a conversation or some shared moment, before describing their eventual terrible fate on the battlefield. This device serves to both emphasize the humanity of each and the tragedy of their death, often after suffering horrific wounds and sometimes being abandoned screaming on the field. Some of this is delivered very bluntly, almost brutally. Bowen is the first of the veterans on this thread to reveal how the war changed him. His wounds and subsequent treatment left him with health concerns for his whole life. He suffered personality problems, which is a confronting and stark admission.

As for combat, aside from Normandy, Bowen fights in Holland (on The Island) and outside Bastogne. He sees futile deaths, some through souvenir hunting and poor field craft. He writes a fair bit about being in combat but it is mostly of what he directs and observes, without revealing too much about his personal deeds. He does write briefly about wounding one German soldier though. He sees quite a bit of combat all together.

Bowen’s style is very readable. He has an interesting turn of phrase and he is very good at describing what he sees. This brings home very graphically, aside from combat, his awful sea trip to England and the hellish conditions of his time as a POW. It also reveals his fascination with wartime England and his observations on this are very interesting. He is honest about his fears and doesn’t try to gloss things over. He is critical of events and his fellow soldiers at times. His recounting of his experiences as an injured POW and repatriation and ongoing treatment is very eye opening. Overall, this is a good combat memoir. Recommended.

My rating 3/4/4/3

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Post by Larso » 24 Oct 2007 08:25

‘Descending from the Clouds’ by Spencer F. Wurst & Gayle Wurst

Subtitled ‘A Memoir of Combat in the 505th Parachute Inf Regt, 82nd Airborne Div’. Published by Casemate, 2007 (paperback), 266 pages (9x6 inch format).

And a memoir of combat it is! Spencer served with F Company, 2nd Battalion, making three combat jumps. It is very much his story, everything is written as he saw it, the co-author (his niece I think) helped with the editing and together they have produced a very readable account of Spencer’s war service.

Spencer had it rough prior to the war. The Depression and family breakdown meant he had to make do with very little and in the end he left school and joined the National Guard – at the age of 15! His time with the 112th Regt of the 28th Division is quite interesting. The archaic practices and weapons of the pre war army are almost laughable but to his credit he made the most of his peacetime soldiering, always seeking to learn from his mistakes and often showing up his superiors as a result. The whole process toughens him up, enabling him to adapt well to the demanding training he encounters when he joins the airborne. There is a lot of good description on his experiences here, including some excellent stuff on his weaponry and equipment.

Spencer first finds combat in Italy, after being assigned to the 505th. He jumps at Salerno and sees combat on the drive to Naples. He has quite a few close calls. Next he jumps into Normandy and fights in Ste. Mere-Eglise. Then, in what is almost a first for this thread, he writes extensively on his experiences in the hedgerow country. Interestingly, they offer quite a bit of assistance at times and reveal that these were difficult conditions for the Germans too. The detail here is very good. Spencer writes about shooting Germans for the first time and again, in another first, how nightmares affected him for the rest of his life. There is also some blunt recounting of very black GI humour. Spencer is very forthright. There are a few jarring notes here!

Next up is Market Garden and Spencer’s fighting in Nijmegen is for me the books highlight. He is a senior NCO and the attack to capture the South end of the Highway Bridge is just a corker! This is gripping stuff. The SS (9th Recon he writes) put up very strenuous resistance and Spencer’s actions are pivotal (he is awarded the Silver Star). He shoots a lot, leads attacks, directs fire from a tank and again experiences very close calls. This is one of the most intense battles described by any of the authors on this thread.

Following this operation, Spencer is rushed to the Ardennes where he again is in the front line. It is here that his sniping abilities are put to deadly use and his thoughts on the killing of these Germans, is reminiscent of Gantter. There is something about the crisp description of the acts that is very confronting. Spencer writes about how this came up in later life too and this is very revealing. This is never gratuitous or boastful, it is stark and honest. Indeed, there is an element of confession here I think.

Honesty is a trait of the author. His writing style is very readable and just right for the revelations he makes. Aside from combat, Spencer also goes further than any here about the less savoury aspects of a soldier’s life. There is a lot on drinking and the pursuit of female company. This is not sordid but not too coy either. Spencer writes that he wrote this book for his children and grandchildren, and all I can say is, that if they read between the lines there’d been a fair bit of blushing when next they all met!

Mercifully there is little combat for Spencer after the Bulge but interestingly his most awful experiences occur when taking over the line in the Huertgen forest. Here he finds hundreds of dead US troops, including many from his old unit, the 112th. A lot of what he wrote here was new to me. The carnage was the worst that Spencer saw in the war.

Spencer has managed to describe the harsh reality of his war with just the right balance. His book is not a sordid or blood thirsty read. It is though just the thing to answer the questions that most readers would have about the complete experience of a World War 2 soldier. Spencer writes very well, if not quite to the very high standard of the top flight college boys above – indeed he is probably more accessible as a result. I was very impressed in every way. I rate this book just under Foley’s and Gantters – Highly recommended!

Ranking - 4/5/5/4

PS - I think this book compliments Bowen’s account perfectly. The two of them would be a great addition to any library. In paperback they look good and are excellent value.

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Post by Larso » 08 Nov 2007 12:15

‘Strike and Hold’ by T. Moffatt Burriss

Subtitled: ‘A Memoir of the 82nd Airborne in World War II’. Published by Brasseys, 2000. Paperback. 215 pages (9x6 inch format)

Burriss is assigned to the 3rd Battalion of the 504th Para Regt as platoon and later company commander. He reveals a lot about his early days in training and his concurrent marriage. There is also a reasonable bit about being based in Africa prior to Sicily. His unit suffers quite a lot during their first jump. They encounter heavy flak, his pilot panics and he and his men are badly scattered. He actively seeks combat due to a fury at being absent when his baby died. He ambushes some Italians with grenades and joins up with a British unit to continue the battle. What he sees of British practices though does not impress him. This theme is returned to at Anzio and during Market Garden.

Following Sicily he is brought in at Salerno and more interestingly at Anzio. This was new to me. In both cases he reveals a few of his personal experiences. At one point a Tiger tank took pot shots at him as he tried to take a crap! He has several other close calls too. To me though he doesn’t reveal enough, instead including accounts of others who were with him - some of which admittedly are quite dramatic. Again he has problems with the British (they run away) and his unit is forced to fight very hard to hold the line. Due to their involvement here, they are spared Normandy. Burriss’ next battle is the capture of the Grave Bridge during Market Garden. This goes well but he is then part of the epic crossing of the Waal to capture the North end of the Nijmegen Bridge and it is here that Burriss really lets go! The destruction caused by 20mm cannon fire is incredible. Their success though is wasted when the British tanks that subsequently cross refuse to continue on to Arnhem. Burriss really has a go at their commander and even draws his weapon on him! I think this is a fairly famous event and the other accounts mention it in awed tones. It makes no difference though. Finally Burriss spends time in the Ardennes and later the advance towards Berlin. It is quite a journey.

Burriss is clearly a fighter. I am fairly sure he killed more enemy than anyone else on this list. Yet he is a bit coy on details. It is almost out of character when he reveals he threw a gammon bomb into a house and killed all twelve Germans within. Fifty years later he has his picture taken beside the long since repaired house, which struck me as a little odd. Later though, in his lengthy epilogue, he does briefly address his feelings on having killed (Italians specifically here) - he writes he never felt guilt or distress about it. He was a soldier and he did what he had to do. So, fair enough I suppose.

The device of including other soldiers account left me with mixed feelings. Some were quite lengthy and had some very interesting passages. At times though their inclusion really did serve to break up the narrative and leave me adrift. I suppose to people who are looking for first hand accounts they are in themselves useful source material. I do think some editing was warranted as, for instance, the four or five other accounts of the Waal crossing, all include the same thing about only 11 of the 26 boats being able to make the return crossing. At times these additional accounts contradict what Burriss recalls. This is not surprising given the nature of battle and Burriss discusses this. It does though detract from the integrity of the central story – Burriss’. This said, it is his book and he is entitled to put his friend’s stories in if he wants to. In some places though, it reads more like a unit history. To summarise, sometimes these third party accounts enhance the story, at other times they have a discordant affect. All these though well reveal the fighting nature of the airborne. Quite a number of times outnumbered paratroopers defeat superior German forces. It says something about the quality of some German troops of course but it says more about the spirit of the paratroopers. The revealing of this is a strength of the book.

In some ways this book is difficult to measure against the other memoirs here. It is well written and engaging enough. The prologue about Burriss’ trip to Europe revisiting his old battlefields with his son is quite moving and it really had me looking forward to reading the rest of his story. (He also goes back for the 50th anniversary and re-enacts his combat jump at the age of 74!) His account of his pre-war life is quite interesting and gives a good picture of the man he is. But following Sicily it becomes less his story and more the stories of his comrades. This was clearly Burriss’ intention. He valued his fellow soldiers highly and is at pains to ensure they are given due credit. However to me this was done at the cost of his own story. I note that Mark Bando wrote, “A book like this has long been hoped for by Airborne history buffs…” and it does have a lot to offer in this general sense. Yet as a memoir it is not quite what it could have been – and that is a shame. This guy had a sensational story to tell and where he does so things are quite good (his crossing of the Waal is gripping!) Here though he shares the spotlight. This is worthy of course but he had a heck of a solo in him and it would’ve been great to see him really let go! Still, a fair read. Recommended.

Rating: 3/4/4/3

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Post by Larso » 08 Dec 2007 02:31

‘All the way to Berlin’ by James Megellas

Subtitled : ‘A Paratrooper at War in Europe’ & noted ‘The 82nd Airborne’s Most Decorated Officer’, Ballantine, 2003, Standard P/back, 361 pages.

Up front I have to say that this book was extraordinary in one incredible respect, Megellas relished killing Germans! As I’ve said before, many veterans are coy on this topic for a host of legitimate reasons. Megellas’ account stands out due to his clear exception on this. I have avoided using quotes on this thread to keep the reviews light but a couple are very illustrative here. He writes, “Our ‘Military Occupational Speciality’ (MOS) became clear: kill our enemy, the German soldier; the alternative was to be killed by our enemy. To become successful in our MOS, we had to develop a profound hatred for certain other human beings”. (pg 345) He also includes what he submitted to Cornelius Ryan (for his book ‘A Bridge too Far’), “We recognised that a job had to be done”, by this he meant a very grim one of course, a view he felt typified the airborne, before continuing with, “I found the business of killing and destruction an agreeable accomplishment”. Later he regrets that the war in the Pacific ends, as he doesn’t get to kill any Japanese! Given the general thread tone on this issue, it was astounding to read such forthright statements. So no doubts about it – this is a combat memoir indeed.

Like Burriss, Megellas is a member of the 3rd Bn of the 504th Para Inf Regt. Like Burriss, his war starts in Italy. He covers a few of the same themes, including the failure of British forces and his company being cut off, yet holding off large numbers of Germans. Megellas writes from his role as an officer, directing fire and breaking up attacks. It was all a bit general, until he mentioned writing to his brother, remarking that he’d personally killed at least 10 Germans! (He also wrote this to his sister!). This came out of the blue, no one else had written such a thing. Yet there was more to come.

The 504th, after being rested during Normandy, was involved in Market Garden and Megellas crossed the Waal in that epic action. Like Burriss, there are quite a few recollections from others but shorter (though some from the same source) and this section does read like a unit history rather than a memoir. There are some interesting differences between the two men’s accounts but overall their accounts compliment each other. It must’ve been one hell of a day.

His strongest stuff here though is during the later defensive phase. There is quite a bit on close quarter fighting (killing) and some hair raising night patrols. Indeed, there is some very good stuff on the mechanics of planning and conducting patrols from the point of view of an officer. Again Megellas writes of killing a number of Germans. The most astonishing story though concerns his involvement in the capture of Heeresbach following (during?) the Bulge. It seems his column of two companies was marching in, just as two German columns came marching out – essentially either side of the Americans. Rather than consider themselves surrounded (or outnumbered), the paratroopers attack in all directions at once and completely rout the Germans! The town is captured and 500 enemy are accounted for – with no American loss! It is an incredible action for which Megellas wins the Silver Star.

The stunning part of this was that later he corrects an error on his citation by pointing out he personally killed 25 of them! Another trooper recalls Megellas running about counting out loud! It is scintillating stuff! Megellas is not boasting though. There is no long winded, blow by blow listing, but it is still one hell of a battle. The other really intriguing thing that was revealed, was Megellas’ note that he thought that this now made him the leading ‘living’ killer of enemy soldiers in his regiment. Implying that some sort of semi-official tally was being kept – something quite new to me. I know I’ve focused on the issue of killing here but the emphasis was just so different in this book compared to the others. Killing is Megellas’ business. At times he is quite brutal in how he expresses this. There is no reflecting on the humanity of the enemy or poignant descriptions of how their bodies came to lie. He keeps count but he doesn’t mull over it. He just gets the job done and moves on. In mind, as well as body.

As I said above, like Burriss, Megellas also includes a lot of accounts from comrades. These are much shorter than those in Burriss’ book and don’t interrupt the flow of the story as much. They still have the affect of shifting attention away from what Megellas is doing himself though. Again though, the inclusion of all these stories speaks loudly of the camaraderie that existed in the airborne. There is also the point that these men are actually carrying out Megellas’ orders, so they do inform the reader of things that Megellas is closely involved in. Overall, these inclusions, usually just paragraphs and passages don’t disrupt the flow of Megellas own narrative – indeed in the way he has used them, they mostly enhance it.

This is one heck of a war book. Megellas’ openness about killing really makes it stand out from the pack. It is well written and engaging and though it lacks the sensitive contemplation of Gantter for instance, there is a different emphasis and tone, it is an utterly compelling memoir of battle. And you are left in no doubt, that if you were a German soldier occupying your part in the line, the last person you would want coming for you, would be James Megellas! Highly recommended.

My rating : 5 / 5 / 4 / 3


PS – His Silver Star award for Heeresbach was apparently based on incomplete documentation – amongst other things omitted, was the Mk IV he knocked out! (along with it’s crew with grenades). Two moves to get it upgraded to a Medal of Honor have failed but a third is in motion this year. More fascinating, Megellas paid a visit to the modern 504th while it was on duty in Afghanistan last year. He was 88 or so and he went out on a patrol! This guy is a legend!

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Post by Larso » 26 Dec 2007 13:47

‘Those Devils in Baggy Pants’ by Ross S. Carter

Claymore Publishing Corp, 1988. P/back, 260 pages, First published 1951.

Carter served with C Co, 1st battalion, 504th PIR from Africa and into Germany. He wrote his account straight after the war, though his brother completed the editing due to Carters death from cancer in April 1947. This is not a memoir in the same sense as most of the other books here, it is more of a novel, though Carter writes in the first person. It is also primarily the story of his platoon too, rather than his own story.

Carter jumps into Sicily, his unit being the one which was heavily fired upon by allied ships. There is a little combat but most is in Italy, starting with Salerno and ending with Anzio. Two thirds of the book are about his time here. Following Italy he participates in Market Garden and the Bulge where he is wounded. His account stops here but his brother adds that he returned to his unit before the end, coming home to the US in June 1945 (he’d have had a lot of points!).

As I’ve said above, this is not the standard memoir. There is virtually nothing about Carters background, training or his personal thoughts. It is essentially a platoon’s story as seen through the eyes of the men. Carter refers to most by nickname and I felt that this had the affect of limiting my connection with them. Some of this was to disguise identities, some characters being amalgams of several men too. Much of what is written is about non-combat antics. There’s lots of fist fighting each other, stealing booze or being bizarre in some way. It seemed caricatured to me. I found it hard to recognise these soldiers. They seemed so different to those in the other memoirs above. There is a lot of slang which is Ok but many printing errors, random numbers etc, which is not. In fact it was strange to find a book with so many errors.

Choosing to write in this style is problematic for me. The combat is distant and impersonal. Carter barely writes about his own actions. For much of the book I thought he was a medic. Almost everything is told through the actions of the others. He won the Silver and Bronze Stars but never mentions what he did to earn these. Others have done the same of course but here we know so little of Carter to start with. Indeed, the most revealing material is provided by his brother in the epilogue. I suspect, like others, he has primarily written to commemorate his comrades. There is the flavour of combat, attitudes to ‘Krautheads’ and sadness at comrades lost but it is somewhat removed and didn’t have the same clarity and impact as most books here have. This said, there is a real emotional punch in the last few chapters.

Carter was a well educated man and a fair writer and he clearly deliberately chose to portray his story in this particular way. It’s an angle that doesn’t really appeal to me but given the author’s experiences and his prompt recording of them, it must reflect the nature of small group combat in an accurate way. I think his intention was to convey the rough atmosphere of a combat platoon as he had seen it. If so, he does this well enough but I’m not sure it will work for all modern readers. Though there are many battles described, the exchanges between the men seemed to dominate the text. Some of the combat stories recounted seemed a bit like urban legends but perhaps this only appeared so because Carter wrote so very little about his own actions that he seemed more observer than participant. My recommendation – Of some interest.

Ranking – 1 / 3 / 3 / 3

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Re: Rankings/recommendations for US ETO memoirs

Post by Larso » 11 Apr 2008 13:28

‘Parachute Infantry: An American paratrooper’s memoir of D-Day and the fall of the Third Reich’ by David Kenyon Webster.

Delta Books, New York, 2002. Paperback 379 pages. First published 1961.

Love that title – well the ‘Parachute Infantry’ part and I quite liked the book as well. It took me a little while to get into Webster’s style or at least the point of view he takes but then I found it a very interesting read indeed. In fact the full reproductions of a number of Webster’s amazingly detailed letters in the appendix were a real treat.

Webster was with the 506th Para Regt of the 101st Airborne. After a bit of bouncing around he ends up with ‘E’ company and it was fascinating reading his take on the ‘Band of Brothers’ exploits. Obviously his account was written a few decades before Ambrose and the subsequent TV series and it is quite evident that this was a primary source for those efforts. Note though, not all of the TV ‘Webster’ is faithful to what is revealed in this book. If the series is of interest to you, there is much here to flesh out some of the stories and characters. I enjoyed making the connections.

Webster’s account starts with the waiting for D-Day. He spends quite a bit of time being frustrated and stuffed around. It is very clear early on that Webster is a great cynic about military life. His attitude is ironic given his decision to volunteer. He recognises this and writes about the contradictions. His views are very interesting. He was a highly literate and thoughtful man and it is fascinating at times to read his thoughts on everything. Anyone who can write, “The night was a collie that barked and whirled around us, and we were the sheep, pushing together for warmth and courage” will do me. He makes routine things, like ratting through houses fascinating. The last quarter of the book, regarding the occupation, is surprisingly good value.

There is lots of combat, including some great stuff in the air prior to his two jumps. His D-Day revelations seem a bit short at first but he later reflects back on various events. The encounter and destruction of a battalion of 6th FJ is particularly eye opening. There is a lot more detail regarding his time in Holland, including his involvement (initially) with the fight on the Island. Webster has a great eye for detail and his descriptions are very vivid. Dialogue is sharp and the pages just flew. He only writes once about shooting a German soldier. Interestingly he doesn’t dwell on this. Given his anti-army stance it is also intriguing that he shows no reluctance to kill. The incident with the wounded German on the river bank who they tried to kill with grenades is also quite revealing - Webster had planned to swim across and bayonet him! So good combat accounts, but only a few where Webster himself is pulling the trigger, he claims though to have been known as the worst shot in the company.

There is a lot to be fascinated by here. His cynicism towards the army stands out but he really shines when writing of his return to ‘E’ Co after recovering from wounds. He is overjoyed to be back but jarred to learn of all the deaths in the Ardennes. No other author has captured the camaraderie and resultant pain so well. Webster’s war was not as horrific as others here but he was very much a combat soldier. I enjoyed this book, even so, I’ll hedge slightly and on balance, describe it as - ‘Quite highly recommended’

And as for my rating – 3 / 3 / 5 / 4

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Re: Rankings/recommendations for US ETO memoirs

Post by B Hellqvist » 15 May 2008 23:02

Have you read Truman Smith's "The Wrong Stuff"? He was a B-17 pilot, and his book is a highly personal account of his time in the USAAF and the 35 missions he flew. It's all there: the terror, the stress, the unnecessary accidents, the drive not to let down the rest of the crew, men on (or over) the brink of insanity, friends being snuffed out in seconds, how to be a horny 20-year old who could brave flak, but chickening out when he was about to lose his virginity. Smith's style is personal, honest, amusing and a testament that war is indeed hell. He covers his post-war life in the final chapter, and how he came to love Germany and marry a German woman. Highly recommended.

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Re: Rankings/recommendations for US ETO memoirs

Post by Larso » 17 May 2008 00:45

No I haven't read this one but I saw it on Amazon and it looked good. Life for me has moved along and I'm getting married in late June, which is great, except it comes with a huge mortgage! So sadly my big book buying days are coming to an end for a few years. The good news is that I made a pre-emptive strike a few weeks ago - I got Burgetts account of his Holland battles (I've just read his 'Seven Roads to Hell', I'll post the review soon), as well as Winter's book as it's now out in paperback, before my Visa card statement becomes available for inspection. Actually this new bunch of five still gives me 20 or so US European memoirs still to get through - all ground forces. I've seen a couple of other air-force ones I'd have loved too but that genre was just a bridge too far. There are just hundreds of memoirs by US men of all services. At some point I'll list all the ones I've identified. Probably with page numbers, availability and so on. Even now new ones keep coming out, including three more from 'Easy' Co Band of Brothers veterans (one is a joint effort). So a ways to go on my project yet - I'll try to get through a few on my Honeymoon!

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Re: Rankings/recommendations for US ETO memoirs

Post by Larso » 24 May 2008 03:45

‘Seven Roads to Hell: A Screaming Eagle at Bastogne’, by Donald R. Burgett

Dell Publishing, 1999, mass paperback, 271 pages.

This is a cracker of a read! Burgett is with ‘A’ Co, 506th PIR, 101st Airborne and this is his account of his Bulge (his experiences in the 101st’s other three campaigns being recounted in separate books). Things start with the relief of being withdrawn from the fighting in Holland, only to be flung straight back into the fray following the Ardennes attack. Despite being poorly equipped and with no time to integrate replacements, Burgett’s unit finds itself at Norville, directly in the path of the 5th Panzer Army. No other author on this thread experienced tank attacks like these! Burgett reveals the battles in a multitude of detail. He takes the reader everywhere, massed combined arms attacks, artillery barrages, counterattacks and he doesn’t spare the gore. From defence to the breakout back to Bastogne, it’s unrelenting.

This continues in ‘The Woods fight’, an astonishing account of fast and furious combat. Again, Burgett is honest about the blood and particularly notably, his own contribution to making it flow! This is one of the very few times that an author has been so explicit about killing his enemies. While artillery may have killed over half of the World War dead, men like Burgett took care of the other half! It is gripping and even shocking. Especially so regarding the various outcomes for wounded Germans. There is stuff here that stays with you.

This is combat at its rawest. Brutal and blunt and blow by blow. It is pulsating stuff, very vivid and fast paced. There are a few hyperbolic passages but these fitted Ok and worked for me. Burgett names names too. His actions are verifiable and his comrades identified by their full names. Both Ambrose and Bando write glowingly of Burgett and his accounts have been used widely as primary material. Burgett really reveals the tough nature of the airborne soldiers. As well as revealing the extremely difficult position that they found themselves in. The frustration of being committed with no chance to reorganise and re-equip and be properly supplied is very evident. Yet, the camaraderie and fighting spirit prevails despite everything. It is humbling stuff.

Burgett’s book is top shelf. It is a very exciting read and in terms of actual face to face combat, it is unmatched on this list. It is as intense as Foley but less blurred and absolutely verifiable. (Though there is a recount of an atrocity that I’ve never heard of before, an attack on a hospital, including the throat cutting of wounded Americans). There is a different tone and scope compared to Gantter but the action is more intense. It is perhaps a little like the ‘pulp’ war books, with the distinguishing difference, that it’s all real. In many respects it is the best combat memoir here. Burgett is a gruff, grim and fearsome soldier and he is only 19. A stunning read.

My rating – 5 / 5 / 4 / 4 Very Highly Recommended


Incidentally Foley has given an interview here - http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/vhp-storie ... 001.03149/

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Re: Rankings/recommendations for US ETO memoirs

Post by Marc Rikmenspoel » 24 May 2008 06:09

Thanks for your continued reviews! About Burgette, his work was helped by the fact that he wrote his books many years before they were published. He could only get a publisher for Curahee! (aka As Eagles Screamed), the others had to wait until interest built up in American Airborne accounts around the time of the 50th anniversary of D-Day and VE-Day (I believe the Ambrose book Band of Brothers was part of the stimulus for this).

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Re: Rankings/recommendations for US ETO memoirs

Post by Larso » 15 Jun 2008 12:27

“Currahee : We Stand Alone” by Donald Burgett. Arrow Books 1968, 190 pages.

I’d meant to skip this one, thinking that ‘Seven Roads’ might stand as representative of all Burgett’s books but then my mum found this for me at a church fete, so here it is after all. I’m glad too as this is a war account in every respect. A lot of men die and Burgett is very lucky to avoid death in training and in battle. I think of it like this. If you have a thousand men, split into groups of ten, each of whom draw straws to select a winner. Then you take all the winners, regroup them and put them through the same process and then put the new winners through again, you get a sense of how Burgett survived. Also as fantasy writer David Gemmell wrote, among all warriors there are princes (in terms of their skill/luck etc), and then amongst the princes there are kings. To me men like Burgett were a bit like this. Men who were lucky but who also made there own luck by being quicker and more deadly than their enemies. He himself is astonished at how he continued to survive when so many others died.

As Marc has written above, this is Burgett’s first book and it covers his training as well as his fighting in Normandy. Maybe it’s partly to do with the 1960s layout but at times this seemed more like a lurid fictional work than a memoir, something like a Commando comic or an episode of ‘Combat’. Again authenticity doesn’t seem in question. Perhaps it’s because this book was published in the 60s, it reflects the war writing styles of the day. I recall reading that Webster’s book was knocked back by many publishers as they were seeking more sensational, fictional type war accounts. Perhaps these influenced Burgett, Marc’s comments seem instructive here. Perhaps it’s also to do with the fact that Burgett simply killed a lot of Germans. He was in an especially target rich environment but no one else has written of so many specific instances. Indeed, taking into account an episode where he is temporary on a machine gun, I think he surpasses Megallas in total ‘kills’- and that’s just in this one battle!. He doesn’t reflect too much on this though. He really is a hard man in this respect. His training and hunting experience simply makes him a very deadly soldier indeed.

There are quite a few jaw-drop moments too. The one where he sought, though ultimately was dissuaded by intense machine gun fire, a unique and particularly ghoulish souvenir was almost unbelievable. There is another, where several dozen prisoners are forced to march up a road to discourage German machine gunners from firing is also very jarring. For several reasons, I’d almost be inclined not to believe it, except Burgett has seeming established his bona-fides. Aside from his ongoing naming of the others who were with him, several of his experiences have been quoted in other books on the battle, for instance, the one with the two Germans horribly injured by artillery fire. On this, there are several very graphic descriptions of battle injuries that are quite astonishing. These are the sort of things people want to forget but as Burgett himself writes - how could you? Burgett has an eye for such things and his descriptions are vivid and blunt and not for the faint hearted.

This is more war book than memoir if that makes any sense. Bizarrely, having been on the hunt for an account that really lets go in terms of killing, now I’ve found one, it’s left me a bit squeamish. I have only praise for the author’s candour however. In terms of explicit combat this book is on a par with Sledge’s ‘With the Old Breed’. Very highly recommended.

Rating 5+ / 5 / 5 / 4
Last edited by Larso on 16 Jun 2008 05:33, edited 1 time in total.

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B Hellqvist
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Re: Rankings/recommendations for US ETO memoirs

Post by B Hellqvist » 15 Jun 2008 23:12

Burgett's "Currahee" is visceral indded. The stories he tells are amazing at times, like the chaplain at the jump training, or the discovery of the German pay-chest in Normandy. It is interesting to note that Burgett seems to transform a bit between "Currahee" and "Seven Roads To Hell"; whereas he wasn't very particular in Normandy, he reacts pretty violently to the shooting of a German PoW in the Ardennes. Anyway, Burgett's "Currahee" gives the hero-worship of the 101st AB in the wake of "Band of Brothers" a needed reality check - combat was real cruel, and not a great adventure.

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Re: Rankings/recommendations for US ETO memoirs

Post by Larso » 30 Jul 2008 03:08

‘Trial by Combat’ by Thomas M. Rice

Subtitled : ‘A paratrooper of the 101st Airborne remembers the 1944 Battle of Normandy.’ AuthorHouse, 2004, Paperback - 203 pages.

Rice was with C company of the 501st Para Inf Regt. Much of his story concerns his training and his time in England, the flight to Normandy kicks off about page 120. There is quite a bit on his thoughts on the plane, including his motivations and the political situation. Rice very much saw himself as part of the sharp end of the sword to drive the Germans out of places they had no right to be. Once he is on the ground he joins up with others and his Normandy is then the journey to get to their D-Day objective. Along the way there are a few fights with casualties mainly inflicted on the Germans. He is a full participant but he doesn’t feature too prominently in the action. I don’t think Rice is holding back much, I just don’t think he was in the thick of things. He includes three chapters from others who were with him and this is useful enough in that it fleshes the combat out a little more. Given there are also quite a few pages of maps and photos it does mean that Rice’s own words are fewer than I’d have preferred. The book concludes with Rice stating his intention to write another volume on his later battles.

I have to say this is a gentler read compared to Burgett and some of the others. There is some interesting stuff in training and a bit more than usual on being in England but this is not a compelling read. There are also a lot of punctuation oddities like double spaces and in particular random hyphens. These don’t detract from the text but it’s odd to see, especially since Rice was a teacher after the war. There’s also some odd referencing, with the quote repeated in full at the bottom of the page. It left me confused as to whose words they were. Another more serious error was the inconsistency with naming German units. The 6th FJ is alternatively named as both a battalion and a regiment, sometimes on the same page.

One thing I did like was some of the background. I’ve always remembered Max Hastings description of a US officer giving a pre-battle speech, which concluded with the drawing of his knife and the ringing promise to drench it in German blood before the sun came up (well along those lines). Rice was there and he wrote of it in detail. It didn’t quite go off as Hastings implied, almost amusingly so, but I was pleased to read that it still had an inspirational effect on Rice all the same.

I know that Burgett did well spreading his account over four books but I think Rice would’ve been better putting everything into one volume as he just isn’t involved in enough combat here. Still, I was curious about the next volume and I wrote to Mark Bando, he advised that Rice is still alive but hasn’t attended reunions for a while and there is no word on another volume. Overall, this is a sound book, it has some reasonable passages and good background and Rice himself is clearly the real thing but it is not in the first rank by any means.

My ranking 2 / 2 / 3 / 3

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Re: Rankings/recommendations for US ETO memoirs

Post by Larso » 23 Sep 2008 07:18

‘Beyond Band of Brothers’ by Major Dick Winters with Colonel C. Kingseed

Berkley Publishing Group, New York, 2006, P/back edition 2008, 303 pages.

I got a little lucky with Winter’s book coming out in paperback just before the purse strings got pulled. The cover notes that it was on the New York Times ‘bestseller’ list and while this surely reflected his profile following the ‘Band of Brothers’ miniseries, I am pleased to say it also had a lot to do with the quality of Winter’s story as well.

As is widely known, Winters served with Easy Company of the 506th PIR of the 101st Airborne Division. He takes over the company at the outset in Normandy and finishes the war as commander of the 2nd Battalion. Throughout he is one excellent soldier, who it’s widely felt should’ve won the Medal of Honor for his action against the Brecourt battery. He writes extensively of this action and is surprisingly detailed, given the normal reticence of veterans, regarding killing his opponents. Indeed, he is quite crisp in the way he describes his actions. He also writes extensively about the battle of the Island in Holland. His perspective on how his leadership was crucial is very interesting, as is his thoughts on the absence of German leadership here.

Winters writes at length on his training and time in England and in particular on his relationship with his company commander, Sobel. He essentially credits Sobel with creating the special bond that Easy company had - by driving everyone else together in mutual hatred of him. Winters describes many instances of petty bullying and Sobel’s inadequacies, resulting in the NCO’s ‘rebellion’ prior to Normandy. It is amazing to read. Winters is also quite free with his thoughts on other characters, the material on Dike is fascinating but there is some wonderful stuff on Lt Spiers. Winters is forthright, more so than most of the authors on this thread. He reveals much of interest, including the occasion when Spiers shot dead an NCO in Normandy for refusing to follow an order. A discussion on this incident is here – (Thanks to Peter H)

http://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=77393

Winters didn’t hold this against him. He recognised that men like Spiers were the ones required to win the war. He writes of how much he valued the ‘killers’ in E Co, the ones he went to when he really needed things to be done right - and violently. I think this particular characteristic of his was not as apparent in the mini series. On these grounds alone, I can say that this book is not just a rehash of Ambrose’s work. Winters clearly went into battle to kill and he is more detailed than most on the engagements he fought in. He tried to join the 13th Airborne to serve in the Pacific but was told he’d done enough. Amusingly, these positions were reversed for Korea.

I felt I really got to know Winters, certainly better than the other airborne officers above. His account, including his post war reflections, was many layered. For instance, he writes lovingly about the family he befriended in England, yet he also reveals he found battle exciting. So there are many dimensions to Winters and full credit to him for being so open about the extremes. In between there is lots of fascinating stuff about leadership in battle, being a soldier and about what made being in E company so special. He is also glowing in his praise of Ambrose. He updates the fates of many of his comrades and again, this is very interesting and even emotional. The special connection between these men is very evident. There is no false modesty, Winters is conscious of, and very proud of his achievements, not surprisingly the way he expresses this, is in terms that further reveal his veneration for his men.

I found it to be a very satisfying read indeed but because his story is so familiar it is fair to say it had less impact than some of the other books I have read here. This said, I think Winters (with Kingseed’s help) has done such a good job of telling his story, that it is a very worthwhile read and I think there is a wonderful pay-off for those who are interested in the topic of Easy Co. Taking everything into account, I’m going to rank it just under Burgett and level with Wurst as the most interesting of the airborne accounts on this thread.

Ratings 5 (direct combat) 5 (combat in general) 5 (army life) 4 (writing quality)

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Re: Rankings/recommendations for US ETO memoirs

Post by Larso » 31 Oct 2008 10:01

From Skies of Blue by James E. Baugh

iUniverse Inc, NY, 2003, Paperback 201 pages

Baugh was conscripted and was posted to the 82nd Infantry Division. It was converted to an Airborne unit but only the paratroopers were volunteers, and Baugh, assigned to the glider borne 80th Anti Aircraft/Tank battalion, remained a part of the division. Accordingly he is a bit different to most of the other airborne troopers above. He is not an overly enthusiastic soldier but like many, simply performed his duty.

He goes initially to Africa but sees no action there and misses being involved in Sicily. He is subjected to a risk or two in Italy but essentially sees no action there either. By Normandy he is the battalion’s transport officer and as such does not participate in the air assault, coming in over the beach on D+2. There’s a few new things in what he writes about this event. He drives a jeep around a bit between headquarters and is involved in fighting off a couple of French tanks. There is not a lot of detail here, though it was new to read about the 57mm anti-tank gun having success in battle. His major fight is Holland where he does land in a glider. Some of the stuff here was quite new in terms of preparation, including Baugh learning some aspects of flying a glider. There is quite a bit going on around him in the air and on the ground. Again though, he doesn’t give too much detail and it’s a briefer account than I wanted. Ditto for The Bulge, though here Mk IVs are dealt with by those 57s.

Most of Baugh’s memoir is spent writing about his experiences out of battle. He writes a lot about the places he is posted and the people that he meets. It seems he had a similar focus to Winters in this respect. He writes a bit about the general antics of US troops from his unit in the UK and he’s a little less coy here. There were many willing women, including many who were married. I am sure all these experiences were fascinating to him but from my point of view, he doesn’t give sufficient weight to his battle experiences. He does write a fair bit about his senior commanders and he is quite cynical about their enthusiasm for pushing their units forward for operations. His writing is generally ok but there are some odd passages and paragraphing, causing me to reread parts a couple of times. Overall, Baugh as a glider-man provides a fresh perspective, (and a different attitude to that displayed by most of the paratroopers above), but in terms of battle experiences, not a very interesting one.

My rating – Of some interest

2 (direct combat) 2 (general combat) 3 (army life) 2.5 (writing quality)

Here is a link to Megellas’ SECOND! trip to Afghanistan -
http://thetension.blogspot.com/2007/12/ ... isits.html

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