US European War memoirs

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Larso
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Re: Rankings/recommendations for US ETO memoirs

Post by Larso » 06 Oct 2012 14:08

Fighting with the Fiftly Thirteen by Jack Womer

Co-author Stephen C. Devito. Casemate, 2012. Hardcover 312 pages.

Womer was drafted prior to America’s entry to the war. He was assigned to the 29th Infantry Division and went to England with it in 1942. While there, he volunteered for, and passed, the grueling training to become a Ranger with the 29th Provisional Ranger Battalion. Upon the disbandment of this unit, Womer gained entry to the 101st Airborne Division. He became a demolitionist with the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment and fought in Normandy, Holland, the Ardennes and Germany.

Womer is certainly in combat. His description of the flight and jump into Normandy is compelling. So too is the confusion on the ground. Units are terribly mixed up and operating in unfamiliar territory in the dark led to many costly clashes with the Germans. Womer’s exploits are quite extraordinary and he puts his survival down to his intense Ranger training at the hands of battle-hardened British Commandoes. Strangely, the level of description here is not repeated for the latter battle of Carentan, or for the campaigns that followed. Womer does write of those battles and personal stories are certainly provided but not to the same level. The awful cost and nature of war is very evident though. Womer is tough too.

The book’s title makes reference to the Filthy Thirteen, which was a section in the 506th’s demolition platoon. Their job was to operate specialist equipment like flame-throwers and also to use explosives to attack and clear enemy emplacements. Being part of the 506th’s HQ, they were assigned to the regiments battalions as needed. The Filthy Thirteen was notorious for its hard living and fighting ways and was apparently an inspiration for the film the Dirty Dozen. There were however many casualties and replacements through the four campaigns it fought in, with only Jack Womer himself serving from start to finish. So while Womer served in a section of some note, it changed personal so much that I didn’t gain a great sense of it as a unit. While other members are mentioned, this is very much Womer’s story.

Womer is an intriguing man. He resented being drafted and hated the army. Bizarrely, he volunteered for the Rangers principally to get better food but found his calling in enduring the extremely tough training and he joined the airborne to continue serving with elite soldiers. He didn’t like the English (girlfriends excepted) and was generally a cynical character. He was also strong minded and gets into conflict with others, including some in the Filthy Thirteen. Indeed, he contradicts his former section leader’s account of things at times. So while it’s a memoir from the famous 506th PIR, it’s not another Band of Brothers. It’s starker and I think, a very valuable testament about what it was like to go to war.

It is pertinent to know that the book was actually written by Stephen Devito, an amateur historian. He interviewed Womer extensively and then put Womer’s stories into a first person narrative. It was all signed off on by Womer and his family and I have to say, it sounded very like a man of his generation recounting the deeds of his youth. The text was also proof-read by a historian of the 101st Airborne, so while a few stories stretch the imagination, I’m confident it has been vetted as fully authentic. All up, there is much to like. The story clips along at a good pace and truly keeps the readers interest.

Larso
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Re: Rankings/recommendations for US ETO memoirs

Post by Larso » 10 Nov 2012 10:28

One More Hill by Franklyn A. Johnson

Bantam, 1983 (1st published 1949). Paperback, 177 pages.

Johnson is an officer of an anti-tank platoon of the 1st Infantry Division, specifically the 18th Infantry Regiment. His account begins with his 1942 voyage to England, where he conducts training before seeing combat in Tunisia, Sicily and Normandy, where he is wounded and temporarily captured.

The author’s perspective as a commander of a section of 57mm anti-tank guns is an interesting one. His service occurred at a time when the Germans were very capable of contesting events in a powerful way and there are a number of occasions where his unit is obliged to fight off attacking tanks, including Tigers. For the most part though, he writes fairly generally of these actions and doesn’t go into much detail on what he does personally. At other times, there is much more, particularly in Sicily and to a degree, in Tunisia. The difficulties caused by German airpower are also covered. As are the problems of using mules to transport munitions! Strangely, he writes next to nothing of his D-day landing on Omaha. There is a little on fighting in the hedgerows and then a fairly clear account of his incarceration. All up he had quite a varied war.

Johnson has a crisp delivery. He also has a good turn of phrase and a wry wit. It does though seem to share with other memoirs written straight after the war, a slightly more distant perspective when compared with more recently written examples. It’s a little hard to describe but though you learn of the man’s exploits, you don’t quite feel you get to know the man. Perhaps it reflects the times and style of the day. This said, the author is very clear on the cost of combat, especially on losing dear friends.

I recommend this book to those with an interest in the operations of the 1st Infantry Division in the Mediterranean. There was certainly room for more specific details on some of the combat actions but it is a useful source given the author’s anti-tank role, something which is quite rare to encounter. I do consider that there are other, fuller memoirs that rank ahead of it though. 3 stars

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Re: Rankings/recommendations for US ETO memoirs

Post by Larso » 08 Dec 2012 07:17

'Unless You have been there' by Paul Andert

Published by the author, 2006. Paperback, 184 pages.

Andert enlisted at seventeen in 1940. He went through the usual training difficulties but emerged a strong and independent man. By the time the US was ready to fight in WW2, Andert was a Sgt in B Co of the 41st Armored Infantry Regt, of the 2nd Armored Division. He fights in North Africa, Sicily, Normandy, the Bulge and in the drive through Germany. He has a hard war but with many medals to show for it.

Andert’s experiences in Tunisia and Sicily are quite varied. From using his trench knife on his first patrol, to being shelled and bombed, he is very much in the front line. While his role was to operate from half-tracks in support of tanks, most of his fighting is done the same as any other infantryman. There are some very interesting passages indeed about his time in the Mediterranean theatre. For instance it was commonplace to list those who died accidentially (Andert witnesses several examples) as ‘Killed in Action’.

Normandy is also a time of high intensity. Andert writes quite a bit about operating in the hedgerows and the unpredictable combat that occurs there. He is wounded too but in the process contributes to a significant success in combat. Interestingly, he twice returns to combat from hospital early and essentially deserts to rejoin his own unit and avoid being posted elsewhere. Andert has some biting things to say about the US replacement system and the officials who ran it. He also has quite a few criticisms of US officership in general and his experiences at the front substantiate these. Worst of all, failures by command caused needless deaths.

To my mind the most powerful section of Andert’s account is the drive through Germany. There are several powerful stories of fanatical resistance, war-crimes and war-weariness. There were stories here that I have not come across the like before. It is also astonishing that so few men had so much asked of them. This offsets the skimming over of Andert’s involvement at the tip of the Bulge, where his division destroys the 2nd Panzer. It would have been very informative to read more on the realities of two powerful armoured forces clashing head on.

The author is a remarkable man and leader of men. He is forthright in writing of war horror and killing the enemy. It is a raw account, told as if the man was speaking. As such, some things are glossed over but his delivery, while featuring a few typos and repetition is suited to his subject. Yes, some other memoirs are more eloquent but Andert’s has a powerful direct punch. Having read five accounts by US armoured infantry men, I can say that Paul Andert’s is the most far ranging and revealing of what it was like to be a combat soldier in this role.

Recommended 3.5 stars

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Re: Rankings/recommendations for US ETO memoirs

Post by Larso » 11 Jan 2013 12:14

A lieutenant’s Story by Stephen F. Slaughter

Apollo Press, Florida, 2000. Paperback, 268 pages.

Slaughter was from an army family and initially was with the 16th Armored Division before being sent as a replacement to the 2nd Armored Division in Normandy in early August 1944. Despite having no training in recon, he is assigned to command the 2nd platoon of the 67th Armored Regt’s Recon Sqn. He then leads this formation in the drive across France and the initial attacks on Germany. Following recovery from a wound he leads a HQ recon section and finishes his story with his experiences in occupation in Berlin, which have some remarkable elements!

Slaughter reaches the front under farcical conditions. On a whim, Patton orders brand new specialized tanks to the front and Slaughter is sent as a minder to the vehicles and their drivers. These tanks though cannot be made combat ready at the front, that had been set to happen in England! It is a debacle and points to what mistakes head-strong commanders can make. In any case Slaughter is assigned to the 2nd Armored and begins his recon duties promptly. After learning the ropes and surviving some close calls, Slaughter utilizes the speed of his vehicles to great effect and there is a great deal of combat. I found his descriptions of the various vehicles and his methods of using them to be fascinating. There is also the setting up of defences each night and operating with the division’s tanks and infantry. As a recon unit, they often encounter the enemy and there are some fascinating stories. The toll of battle has an impact of course, including for the author, a growing hatred of the Germans.

The author’s father had been forced to retire from the army with health issues and the author sent very detailed letters home largely to help keep his father informed of the fighting (and much else). These formed the basis of Slaughter’s account and it is a very detailed one, including regarding many conversations. The author writes that he is pleased to be able to reproduce dialogue so accurately but to me it was almost a weakness. It tended to be repetitive and is somewhat melodramatic in tone. Even so, it reveals the operations between a front-line commander and the various ranks under him. And to be fair, some of it is interesting. In a wider sense, the author also writes a lot on the politics involved with decorations and promotions. Several of his commanders fail to measure up in other ways too.

A recon trooper can have quite a raft of experiences in mechanized warfare and this book is the proof. There is a lot to read about in terms of combat with the German army and operations in the US army. For the great part this is an interesting memoir of combat. A few elements may rub with some readers but the author has produced one of the more exciting accounts of armored warfare in the ETO. 3 ½ stars

Larso
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Re: US European War memoirs

Post by Larso » 10 Aug 2013 13:59

'Yank' by Ted Ellsworth

Paperback, 357 pages.

Ellsworth was an idealist who saw the Nazi threat as so serious that he joined the British army to counter it. It transpired there was an arrangement that the British 60th Regiment, the Kings Royal Rifles Corps, (originally the Royal Americans, raised in 1755 from colonists), accept a dozen Americans for officer training. Ellsworth and a friend make the cut and following various trials arrive in London and training in the British army. It was a remarkable thing for him to do given he was very newly married.

The author is assigned to the regiments 2nd battalion in Tunisia, where it was the mechanized infantry battalion of the 4th (Independent) Armoured Bde. He is given command of the anti-tank platoon and does this in the early stages of the Italian campaign. He doesn’t write at all of encountering German tanks but they do various jobs under fire and his is a very interesting look at the British army and of the early Italian campaign.

Ellsworth then transfers to the American army and has the exceedingly rare opportunity to return to the states for a month. He reconnects with his wife and joins the 69th Division, though he volunteers to be a replacement officer and is assigned to the 317th RCT of the 80th Infantry Division in France. Initially he is an intelligence officer but he is given command of G Company following its crossing of the Moselle. The fighting he sees is surprisingly extensive. They receive counterattacks and suffer terribly. Ellsworth writes that G company had been decimated several times before he was assigned to it. In the two actions he led it in, it was shredded again. He is captured on the second occasion and becomes a POW in Poland. There are then some remarkable chapters on this experience, including the extraordinary barbarism of German conduct in the East and the harsh nature of the Russian response.

The author has only a short time in action in an American uniform but is quite descriptive of what he sees and hears. There’s material here I haven’t encountered before. There are German paratroopers using surrender flags to change firing positions, the murder of prisoners (both sides, the 80th was even reprimanded for it), cowardly conduct, heroic conduct and the host of levels in between, bad luck, amazing luck, quick deaths and long painful ones. There is a very strong sense of the scale of casualties that even relatively minor actions could generate (some of it remarkably in the trenches of 1918). How a 200 man company could be destroyed in no time and have it happen over and over again. Ellsworth criticizes the failure in planning that saw a constant stream of poorly trained replacements. Yet the scale of casualties would have bedeviled any plan, the 317th lost more than 3,000 men in September alone.

This is a very full account of battle by a man who had an almost unique experience. He is very literate and his observations of Britain and its soldiery are fascinating. It’s all done at great length too but never in a ponderous manner. If you’re looking for a blood and guts account, best to look elsewhere but if you want a real flavor of these astonishing times, especially the experience of being in England, this book delivers in spades. Highly recommended overall but three stars for the actual combat element.

Larso
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Re: US European War memoirs

Post by Larso » 05 Oct 2013 12:08

'Recon Scout' by Fred H. Salter

Ballantine Books, New York, 1994. Paperback, 351 pages inc index.

Salter was a Pennsylvanian lad who entered the pre-war cavalry to live out the adventures of his idols, the scouts and Indians of Frontier days. He had done a lot of hunting as a lad (indeed he was still a lad as he entered the army under-age), armed with a Civil War pistol and a muzzle-loading rifle! These experiences served him very well in action in Tunisia, Sicily and Italy with the 91st Cavalry Squadron.

Salter was one of the last men to receive a cavalryman’s training. He learned to shoot from horse-back, charge at the gallop and all the other drills of a formed group of horsemen. There was also lots on horse care and the usual trials of army training. Indeed, there were some cracking stories about this long lost life. As America’s entry to the war neared, Salter is assigned to the 91st and operates from a jeep, initially as a mortar-man but then extensively as a scout.

The 91st is an orphan unit, one never part of a division. This means it got a lot of unusual duties as well as its full share of combat assignments. Salter sees an extensive amount of combat. There is quite a bit of variety to it too. There are frontal attacks, ambushes and extensive patrolling, much of it at night. While all of this is fascinating, this last element is sometimes astonishing. Salter is one of the few men to write about face-to-face fighting and killing. His youth learned hunting skills keep him alive when he otherwise would surely have been killed. He goes into extensive detail on his thoughts and practices. He truly does emulate his heroes in what he does, with several harrowing encounters. Unlike with those men though, we also read about the price Salter paid in terms of his mental health. It was sobering indeed to read about his fraught nerves and the guilt that stayed with him long after he was fortunately reprieved from active service.

This is an incredible war story. Salter was so very young but what he experienced and reveals so bluntly here is beyond what is normally encountered. Salter might only be an adequate writer but what he has to say is very informative, extremely powerful and sometimes searing! Strongly recommended. 4 ¾ stars

Larso
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Re: US European War memoirs

Post by Larso » 07 Dec 2013 13:23

The Spearheaders by James Altieri

Popular Library, 1961. Paperback, 271 pages.

Altieri was a member of the 1st Armoured Division’s artillery but volunteered for the newly forming Rangers. He was interested in the notion of small groups fighting with initiative and daring but looking for excitement was part of it too. He then survived the relentless training regime that their British Commando instructors put the Rangers through. Following this he fought in Africa, Sicily and Italy, finishing as a company commander.

The key part of the first half of the book is the training. It is incredibly grueling. It starts in Scotland in one of the British Commando camps and involves very demanding marches and mountain work. There is a focus on beach assaults and live ammunition is used. Many prospective rangers fall out and those that remain, including Altieri, are extremely capable soldiers when they are committed to battle. This involves a night assault on French manned guns in Algeria. It goes like clock-work and helps establish a bridgehead for the 1st Infantry Division. In the lull that follows, there is more intense mountain training, to the point that moral slips and men begin to leave. Finally, Major Darby, the legendary commander of the Rangers, is able to show what his force can do in an attack on Sened Station, on the Tunisian front.

This action is astonishing. The long march in, the perfectly timed night attack and the brutal violence showed the full capability of the Rangers. Altieri is right in the thick of it and writes extremely vividly of his actions. There is some harrowing content here. There is then a painful march out and air attacks. It is the most powerful part of the book. This includes detailed Altieri’s reflections on killing. It is remarkable and if Altieri had written of his later actions in the same detail, I feel this book would be in the very top flight of war memoirs. As it is he proceeds to write mostly about the Rangers as a whole. This includes more action in Tunisia, landing under fire at Gela, Sicily, Salerno and finally the virtual destruction of the Ranger force at Anzio. There is interest in all of this but given Altieri was wounded twice and earned two Bronze Stars, there was clearly a lot more that he could have said for himself.

Altieri’s point in writing seems to be to detail the process of becoming a ranger and the techniques they utilized to be so effective. It is also a tribute to those he served with, particularly with regard to Darby who he idolized. There is some great description, aided by suitable dialogue and some of the characters of the force are revealed. It is in total a very informative and often exciting book. Following his actions at Sened and to a degree at Gela, I would have loved to read more of Altieri’s personal deeds. Perhaps he felt he had delivered enough of this with those first actions and shifted his focus to the Ranger force to give a broader picture. Regardless, I found this an absorbing read. 4.5 stars

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Re: US European War memoirs

Post by Larso » 04 Jan 2014 13:03

Glider Infantryman by Donald Rich

With Kevin Brooks. Texas A & M University Press, 2012. Paperback, 272 pages.

Donald did not join the army voluntarily but after basic training, did express an interest in the glider infantry. It was not a role you could nominate for but Don did end up with G Company, 327th Gilder Infantry Regt of the 101st Airborne Division. With this formation he participated in the battles of Normandy, Holland and Bastogne.

The author gets straight into his war service. He trains and then departs for England. Don is an observant man and he has much that is interesting to say about transport and other day-to-day activities. He is a decent man and he had some lovely interactions with British families prior to D-day. Despite their glider training, their entry to Normandy is by boat. They then advance to find the Germans and there is excellent detail on this. The roads, hedges and waterways make it very complicated and the enormous confusion of their first action is very well described. Don is wounded and evacuated. Again, there is much to learn about the process here.

Don did enter combat by glider in Holland, as part of Market Garden. This was exceptionally interesting. There was significant flak and there are some remarkable stories. While the companies early operations were basically clearing German positions, the ensuing campaign to establish themselves and hold ‘The Island’ was extensive. They faced ferocious German attacks and it is astonishing that the line was held. They were at all times subject to German shelling and the conditions were awful. There are heavy casualties and some distressing events take place.

The Bastogne battle is also very fierce. Don is stationed in Marvie which is subjected to some strong attacks. The line is very fluid and confusion, on both sides, is rife. The Germans have some powerful forces here, including tanks. On this, for the bulk of his combat time, Don is a bazooka man. In my reading this is a bit of a first, so his actions operating this weapon were quite interesting. Following their relief they participate in the counter-offensive and after a brief break, the advance into Germany and ultimately occupation of Berchtesgaden.

This is a very interesting story. The key element is the sometimes extraordinary detail that Don gives, virtually day to day and blow by blow. I found it absorbing! It seems that co-writer Brooks put most of it together but it is strongly based on Rich’s vivid first hand recollections as well as excellent research (there is an impressive index and chapter notes) that gives useful context to the operations. While the battles are extremely well conveyed there is also much else of interest. Don’s connection to his comrades is clear and then there are the many frustrating things about an army; poor supply and planning, excessive demands on combat soldiers, unfairly allocated rewards etc. The war impacted Don’s post-war life considerably and he writes how his new-found religious faith saw him through. This was a powerful passage for me. I have reviewed many US airborne accounts now and I found this book to be in the top echelon. The detail is of an impressive level and Don has an amazing story to tell. Very highly recommended. 4 ½ stars

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Re: US European War memoirs

Post by Le Page » 29 Mar 2014 05:58

In Combat with the Blackhawks:

http://www.amazon.com/In-Combat-With-Bl ... 093911643X

Apparently it is co-written with his wife or daughter; don't know.

Larso
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Re: US European War memoirs

Post by Larso » 29 Mar 2014 12:53

I'm pretty sure I have that one on my list? It's probably time I posted my lists again as there's been a few additions. I'll have some time in a week or so to get myself organised.

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Re: US European War memoirs

Post by Larso » 03 May 2014 11:44

Intact by John C. Raaen

Raaen was HQ Company commander of 5th Ranger Battalion in the D-day invasion of Normandy. His story covers his landing and the subsequent few days as they seek to take their objectives. The book also contains many passages by fellow Rangers detailing their experiences.

Raaen is fortunate not to land on a worse part of Omaha beach. They still have their difficulties and casualties but their training and prompts from General Cota get them going. There is a lot of confusion though and the mixed up units have to go about completing their missions as best they can. There are see-saw firefights with German defenders and a very daring attack on a major German artillery network. While Raaen is involved in much of this, his personal story is not told in an exciting manner. Indeed, it is all a bit sterile. It is also too compressed. I’d have loved to have read about Raaen’s entry to the Rangers and his experiences before and after D-day.

This is more of a unit history and a brief one at that, with the main text ending at page 109. There are then reprints of after-action reports that give a fairly detailed summary of the actions of the Rangers in this phase. These may be very useful to those researching Ranger actions but the book overall has limited appeal. If Ranger action appeals, I recommend instead, The Spearheaders by James Altieri.

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Re:

Post by B Hellqvist » 20 May 2014 20:33

Larso wrote:'Company Commander' by Charles B. MacDonald

A couple of you spoke highly of this book and now that I've read it, I can only agree. It is a good read.

The author served as a commany commander in the 23rd Infantry Regt (2nd Inf Div) from just before the Bulge to the end of the war in Czechoslovakia. Unlike many of the other memoirs I have read, MacDonald wrote his account straight after the war, his book being first published in 1947. He was therefore able to recall a lot of the dialogue that happened around the events he experienced and as an army historian he obviously 'kept his hand in' with military life in general. We have then a fairly detailed account of his combat experiences, which include a dramatic day at the start of the Bulge and somewhat more unique, working (fighting) his way through the big flak gun batteries near the industrial areas of Germany. These are honest and graphic - to a degree. He reveals his own fears, for himself and for his men and while casualties are suffered and inflicted, the book has less of the gore that more recent memoirs seem to have. I think this reflects the time it was written. Things were more genteel then. Another trait of the times is MacDonalds practice of giving his men their full name, home town and state - something which to me is quaintly American - but reflective of the importance these men had to him and obviously, it also helps to involve the reader in their stories.

Happily for MacDonald his war was not as horrendous as some of the others - Wilson's for example. His commands are spared the truly high casualties. Sometimes by good luck, other times because experienced NCOs and platoon officers stayed alive and kept their men alive with them. This said there is still a lot of being pushed time and again at German defences, without rest and food. You truly feel for MacDonald and his soldiers. The authors own involvement in direct combat is limited but his job was to command others and he certainly shared the hardships they did.

As for my list, I rate this book on a par with Wilson's "If you Survive'. They have different feels/strengths/emphasis but I feel they compliment each other nicely. For some reason I kept on wishing I'd found this book when I was 15. I suspect I would have loved it then. As it is I like it. It is engaging and interesting. I recommend it as a 'good' read.
I've just read it, and found it to be quite interesting. As you said, it was published just a couple of years after the war, and one has to remember that the author was just about 24 years old by then. It should be of interest to junior officers and those who want to know how it could be to be responsible for 150+ men. MacDonald refers to the shooting of prisoners a couple of times, which isn't that common in memoirs, especially not that close to the war's end. Also, the story how he almost came to accept the surrender of Leipzig is a pretty unique story in itself, and is an interesting insight into the chaotic situation during the last days of the war. Like you, I rank it on par with Wilson's book, and is one of the must reads for anyone interested in the US Army in Europe 1944-45, the difficulties of command, or just the view of someone in the very frontline.

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Re: US European War memoirs

Post by fourtoe » 22 Jun 2014 01:11

No Better Place to Die

2 stars. Not too much was spent on the author's personal experience.

This is a battle history/memoir focusing on the actions of Bob Murphy's unit in the 505th PIR, 82nd Airborne during three days of relentless combat behind enemy lines after D-Day, June 6th 1944. Murphy intermixes history about the battle at St.-Mere-Eglise, first hand accounts from fellow paratroopers, other soldiers (from both the Axis and Allies) and French civilians with a few anecdotes of his own personal recollections on the action to deliver this informative though lacking account.

Before jumping into the drawbacks, I should first point out the many pros offered in this work. This is a battle with a clouded background (certain parts were sensationalized in THE LONGEST DAY and by other troopers, much to the chagrin of Murphy and others he interviewed) and the 82nd's part in the D-Day invasion is usually overshadowed by the experiences of paratroopers in the 101st (due in part to BAND OF BROTHERS). So such a tight focus on a particular bridgehead and the role of the 82nd made for an intriguing battle history to read for the first section of the book.

The remaining sections were comprised of introductory passages written by Murphy and several first-hand accounts from paratroopers, glidermen, German soldiers and even civilians. I have yet to find a memoir on the Normandy invasion from the German enlisted-man's POV (I recently purchased WN62 but it is rather short and embellished) so the German accounts and the French civilian accounts were especially informative.

In the introduction he states that this book is a history of the battle and part memoir and unfortunately, that latter part is very, very scant. Only here and there are fleeting snippets of personal experiences given by the author. Just when we think he'll dive in a bit more and explain what he did specifically during the battle, we're jolted back to the big picture or to one of the several primary sources from officers who fought in the battle.

This was such a missed opportunity because Murphy was a combat veteran before jumping on D-Day. We find out that he made at least two jumps prior and made the D-Day jump as a pathfinder! It's that latter fact that pushed me to buy the book: I have read a lot of combat memoirs and there has yet to be a single one written by a pathfinder during WW2 (there is a very excellent Vietnam memoir called PATHFINDER by Richard R. Burns, though). We are only given brief bits of information on that role in the invasion, which is frustrating considering the author was a pathfinder.

One of the sections features a few pages written by Spencer Wurst, another 82nd paratrooper and I highly recommend you check out his memoir that covers his entire combat tenure entitled, Descending From The Clouds: A Memoir of Combat in the 505 Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82d Airborne Division. I am fairly certain the part Wurst wrote is a passage taken from his memoir. This brings me to another drawback in this book: much of it was quite repetitive. Wurst's contribution, along with several others, describes almost exactly the same pre-Invasion experience and a lot of exposition provided by the different sources kept sounding redundant. Some had different experiences that Murphy was right to leave in (such as those of the glidermen) but the same points are belabored over and over again that it dragged down the pacing.

Despite these drawbacks, several of the accounts were riveting and novel enough to award this book 2 stars, though I wish the author had added more of a personal touch to the narrative considering what a true hero he certainly was.

The audiobook is fine, narrator and all, though nothing special. I would recommend reading this one, because it's harder to follow a story that jumps between general history and quotes and you can easily skip over the repeated info dumps.

ETA: I give this book a 3 star rating on Amazon but think that wrt the subject of this thread it deserves 2 stars. Nothing against the author, personally, though.

AND

A FOOT SOLDIER FOR PATTON: The Story of a "Red Diamond" Infantryman with the U.S. Third Army

4½ stars. Bilder runs the gamut of combat experiences starting with the bitter fighting across France all the way to Czechoslovakia.

Michael Bilder served in 5th Infantry Div., 2d Rgt. 2d Battalion and spends a lengthy interval on Iceland, then in the UK and enters combat at Normandy in July 1944 (a little over a quarter into the book). His pre-combat chapters tend to drag and you get the sense that Bilder definitely has a high opinion of himself but he is very intelligent and recites interesting anecdotes. His narrative really picks up once he crosses the channel to aid in the fight against Nazi Germany, too.

His combat experience is quite nuanced for several reasons. First, Bilder speaks German and is often called upon as interpreter for officers and finds himself in a series of differing roles varying from interrogating POWs to essentially pimping for a junior officer around the Battle of the Bulge. This also allows him to regale us with stories of mingling with civilians, a facet of his account that makes it stand out amongst others.

Bilder was also a “messenger for the American Red Cross,” a role requiring him to deliver messages throughout differing units and, for logistical reasons, he often became an acting member of a given unit until he could reasonably return to his own. This meant that he’d face front line combat with a company, even when his company was in reserve. He ultimately concludes that this mostly worked out in his favor because he managed to miss the more costly engagements his own company fought in as a result.

But this didn’t mean Bilder was always out of the fight. On the contrary, he is often in the thick of battle and is quite thorough about his personal combat experience. And though there are times where he is a bit coy about his own part in dispatching the enemy, there are times where he isn’t and this aspect of the memoir is delivered rather vigorously. There is thoughtfulness to his descriptions that are not always found in other war memoirs and I appreciated this aspect as well. He describes casualties from both sides and the impacts often produced by warfare that are left on soldiers, civilians and himself.

Bilder remains a PFC(?) throughout the war, eschewing promotion and again, this coupled with some of his writings makes him seem a tad self-absorbed. But this either becomes unnoticeable during the portions he is in combat or disappears altogether. It is also offset by his thoughtfulness and concern for his fellow soldiers, higher-ranking officers, civilians, Allied soldiers and even enemy soldiers. This considerate demeanor is produced consistently throughout the memoir and comes off as genuine, ultimately resulting in a likeable author to root for and care about.

Finally, Bilder gives probably the most interesting account of post-war duty (just above the soap-opera worthy social gossip delivered in the limited but interesting memoir by Ed Jackel, LUCKY INFANTRYMAN). Often, when I even enjoy a book, I find myself not reading the final chapters and for war memoirs this becomes more common when the war has ends for the writer, but this was not the case with Bilder’s account!

So because of his candid delivery of details and the extensive nature of experiences described by Bilder, I rank it as definitely one of the top ten war memoirs that I’ve read and hence the 4½-star rating. The first 80 pages tend to drag and there are a few typos throughout but these are small issues compared to how much this book offers. Highly recommended!

If you like this book or are interested in similar ones then I suggest you check out ROLL ME OVER by Raymond Gantter who also spoke German and features a detailed account of warfare. Also check out Jackel’s account I mentioned earlier, though the combat in that one isn’t nearly as extensive.

fourtoe
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Re: US European War memoirs

Post by fourtoe » 28 Jun 2014 23:27

Lucky Infantryman

Ed Jackel was a private (later sergeant) in the 90th Infantry Division, 358 Regiment, F Company, who entered combat as a replacement in the summer after the Normandy invasion, 1944. His memoir follows him through training and his fights through hedgerow country to the infamous Metz fortress and onwards.

4 stars. Recommended!

Jackel was a Jewish fitness enthusiast from New York who, instead of noting his typing abilities that might have seen him in a cushy clerical position, mentions only his athletic prowess during assignment, resulting in his joining the infantry. The writing, though not great, certainly is engaging and Jackel spares the reader little details of his war experience. About half of the book sees him in combat (roughly four months) while the remainder is split between his training, his army stint after receiving a wound and the subsequent jobs he held while in the Army of Occupation.

A highlight of Jackel’s account is the unsanitized frankness he delivers. He explicitly details his sexual frustration (discusses wet dreams) and the different romps he partook in during time on leave. I was reminded of Manchester’s interesting but highly flawed memoir GOODBYE, DARKNESS, only compared with Manchester, Jackel definitely closes the deal in several of his sexual excursions. One other frank aspect of Jackel’s account is the language. This, coupled with the aforementioned sexual descriptions, makes this no easy-going combat narrative, written for his family members or for a general audience. This is what makes Jackel’s experience stand out in terms of what he is willing to discuss and with respect to other memoirs out there, especially from WW2.

In terms of combat, Jackel is a bit jumpy in his narrative but broadly linear. He mentions town names and some of the big picture aspects of the campaign but nothing too thorough, which I don’t mind - but I know others appreciate that kind of information in their battle accounts. He is open about his own deeds in the heat of battle, is certainly in the thick of things and further undergoes a varied range of combat situations. Here and there are interesting minor details such as skirmish lines and how many clips can be shot from the M1 Garand before the barrel gets to hot - however, unlike his sexcapades, his combat experience is given in a more general manner. Though he does give us some hints as to what was going through his head in some instances. He does go into the specifics of his hand-to-hand combat but this is actually when he fought other US soldiers.

Being Jewish in the army back then meant Jackel dealt with anti-Semitism, at one point resulting in a well written description of a brawl between he and an intoxicated Southern soldier. After the fight he has few dealings with the soldier, but the man is soon transferred out of his company and his life forever.

And that seems to be a minor theme in this account: several interactions (fellow soldiers, civilians and women) are quick/brief and end abruptly, and Jackel is open about noting the fleetingness he feels about this aspect of warfare.

One drawback is the existence of long durations of dialogue, which aren’t anachronistic (and therefore reeks of inauthenticity like THE DENNIS OLSON STORY, another cheaply offered kindle book) but seem to have been created for exposition purposes. I don’t even see this as a bad thing at times, some of my favorite memoirs feature detailed bouts of 'fake'* dialogue (most notably Fraser’s QUARTERED SAFE OUT HERE) but Jackel just has too much of it which bogs down the pacing.

The dialogue and rather terse prose also reminded me of ETCHED IN PURPLE by Irgang, only the difference being Irgang was more melodramatic with his description of combat and had a dated feel, whereas Jackel sticks with the main motif of his account’s title: he was pretty lucky! Jackel has no delusions about how, despite the drawbacks he complains about, he was lucky to undergo the experience he underwent – not just in terms of near misses in combat but in terms of deployment and human interaction. He even notes how lucky he was to receive the wounds that ultimately took him out of combat.

So there is much to enjoy about this account and though general on describing his combat experience (sans Jackel’s final description of combat involving how he earned the Silver Star) Jackel gives us an original narrative I would recommend to anyone interested in WW2 combat memoirs. Thus, LUCKY INFANTRYMAN gets a 4 star rating from me.

As I mentioned, if you like this account then you might like the more gripping ETCHED IN PURPLE or the more fleshed-out account offered by Michael Bilder in A FOOT SOLDIER FOR PATTON, which features a lot of interaction with civilians, though there isn’t much on wet dreams! I have a bunch of lists of combat memoirs if you’re interested in finding more to read!

*Fake has a negative connotation but I don't mean for it to have one in this instance. Fraser, in his preface, gives what I think is a legitimate justification for why he featured instances of made-up dialogue in his memoir and it worked really well with the narrative and story he was trying to tell.

AND

If You Survive: From Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge to the End of World War II, One American Officer's Riveting True Story
by George Wilson

3¾ stars - Wilson delivers a comprehensive though mechanical account of the harrowing trials US junior officers underwent in the European Theater of Operations (ETO).

George Wilson was in his early twenties when he joins the army eventually becoming a 2nd Lt in G Company as a part of the 4th Infantry Division. His account starts with his introduction into combat, skipping basic training and any pre-war exposition on his background. Wilson starts his time in combat in July(?) 1944 after the famous Normandy invasion and from that point on he is exhaustive in relaying his experiences as a junior officer in a hard-fighting infantry unit.

The first half of the book is especially interesting in the relentlessness of Wilson's account. He is continuously in combat and plays an active role, taking part in fire-fights with his men and dealing with the poor conditions in an almost synonymous fashion despite being a commissioned officer. Wilson also keeps a tally of all the men he is in charge of who become casualties and the numbers are unnerving at times.

Through the hedgerows of France, into the little-known Hurtgen Forest Battle and into the Battle of the Bulge, Wilson is there and soberly tells us his experiences. He briefly describes his own actions but this becomes less and less the main point of his account as the casualties and hectic environment he finds himself in requires him to take more of a commanding role as an officer. This means that the book becomes rather grueling or repetitive as it goes on because Wilson becomes more of a spectator, describing others' actions and larger military movements and problems.

Overall though it is still well-paced - Wilson's story has a structure that complements his calculated delivery which results in a great combat memoir, if not as compelling or revealing as others that I have written (see my other reviews and listmanias). Wilson demonstrates himself to be the ideal officer, one that is competent and dependable in the most disconcerting of situations - this and because of the things mentioned earlier result in my rating this account as 3¾ stars.

If you like this account I suggest reading other memoirs written by officers like COMBAT OFFICER or ALL THE WAY TO BERLIN which are a bit more thrilling, for lack of a better word. For great memoirs that feature combatants fighting in the same battles as Wilson, check out A FOOT SOLDIER FOR PATTON and ESPECIALLY check out NORMANDY 1944.

Concerning the audiobook: WARNING: maybe you shouldn't read this part because you might not be bothered by it unless someone points it out to you BUT...Keeler does a fine job reading, if a bit subdued. The issue I had is that the editing seemed poor - often times you would hear Keeler inhale before starting a passage, a lot more than normal and it got a bit annoying...I dunno, maybe I was listening to it too loudly or something but it bugged me. It gets better in the last third of the book though.

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B Hellqvist
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Re: US European War memoirs

Post by B Hellqvist » 29 Jun 2014 15:51

Concering Wilson's memoir: IIRC, he arrived to Normandy one almost exactly one month after D-Day. One of the parts I remember is his account of the fighting in the Hürtgen Forest, and the terrible losses his unit sustained. Also, how after months on K rations, his stomach gives him trouble when he got a proper meal... You didn't mention MacDonald's "Company Commander" in your list above, but that's a really good account by another junior officer, also with some fighting in the Hürtgen Forest, albeit not as harrowing as that Wilson experienced.

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