Saturday, January 28, 2012

Amazing stories

When it comes to books about World War II, it seems like most stories are either "Untold" or "True." "Epic," "Heroic," "Extraordinary," and even "Most Incredible" are other adjectives that are tossed around frequently. It makes me wonder if it's the authors or their publishers who come up with these hyperbolic titles or if there's a rule somewhere that WWII books must contain one of those words in the title. Please know that I'm not disputing these descriptions... it's just one of those things I wonder about sometimes.

In December of 1944 the days of the Third Reich were numbered. That didn't mean Hitler and his Nazi thugs were ready to roll over, however. With the Allies making inroads in many parts of Europe, Hitler decided to throw all he had at them in one surprise thrust. The massive Ardennes offensive called on old men and young teenagers under the direction of some of Hitler's best generals to punch through the Allied lines in an effort to split their forces. And with embarrassing failures in Allied Intelligence it came pretty close to working.

The intelligence and reconnaissance platoon of the 394th Infantry Regiment, 99th Infantry Division was vastly outnumbered but was told to hold their position "at all costs." Throughout the day of December 16th they killed hundreds of German soldiers, but when they finally ran out of ammunition 18 of their men were taken prisoners. They didn't know it but they had held off the infamous General Joachim Pieper's SS battle group long enough to halt the offensive and give the Allies time to regroup.

In The Longest Winter: The Battle of the Bulge and the Epic Story of World War II's Most Decorated Platoon, Alex Kershaw tells the story of the men of the 99th from their boot camp training to the battlefield, from the time spent as POWs to their reunions with loved ones at home, and even to the belated recognition they received decades after the war. This is what I think of as narrative history - it's written with a novelistic flair and includes a lot of information largely peripheral to the story but which adds an element of interest as well as placing it into context. Hardcore history buffs take issue with this style and hunt for (and then itemize) the (usually small) factual errors, but it's what makes it readable for the rest of us (I actually listened to the audio book, which was read very well). And it helps to awaken a renewed sense of patriotism as we contemplate the kind of courage such men demonstrated for their country. I think we would do well not to forget it.

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