John C. McManus reviewed Robert E. Humphrey’s book, “Once Upon a Time in War: The 99th Infantry Division in World War II,” for the Journal of Military History.
The 99th Infantry Division traveled a long and bloody road in World War II. Comprised of an interesting mix of men from hardscrabble and well-educated backgrounds, the unit entered the front line in the Ardennes a month before the Battle of the Bulge. Nicknamed “Battle Babies” by their division commander, the soldiers of this unit held the northern shoulder of the Bulge at Elsenborn Ridge. Later in the war, they were among the first American soldiers across the Remagen Bridge. They played a significant part in closing the Ruhr Pocket and they subsequently advanced deep into Germany, finishing up their war on the Danube River.
In this elegantly written, perceptive volume, Robert Humphrey does a superb job of telling the 99th’s story from the average soldier’s perspective. Based on a diverse array of personal interviews, unpublished memoirs, letters, diaries and personal correspondence, the book traces the experiences of the “Battle Babies” from induction and training, through the Battle of the Bulge, the Remagen battle, and the end of the war. Humphrey also sandwiches chapters about life on the front line and the prisoner of war experience into the chronological narrative of the division’s war in Europe. He deftly intersperses moving quotes from veterans’ firsthand accounts with his scholarly analysis. He conveys the exhaustion, fear, and sheer misery that were such a standard part of the infantryman’s world. Indeed, he never shrinks from describing the awful realities of the war and its toll on the men who fought it. Moreover, he does a nice job of illustrating the soldiers’ attitudes about their officers, the war in general, race, and their reasons for fighting. What emerges is a rich portrait of the American citizen soldier in the war – well trained, sardonic in his outlook, determined to do his job, motivated to fight not for any abstract ideas about patriotism or hatred of Nazism, but for his comrades. Humphrey demonstrates a strong understanding of combat soldier culture and mindset. His prose is authoritative and intelligent.
Another interesting wrinkle in the book is Humphrey’s examination of the socioeconomic makeup of the 99th Division. When the unit first deployed to Europe, it was primarily comprised of two groups. The first was a group of ill-educated, but long serving professional soldiers, many of whom hailed from the South, and most of whom were NCOs. The second group consisted of very young men who had been in the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) before the Army abolished it in 1944. The ASTP program had afforded many of these 19- and 20-year-olds the opportunity to attend college, if only for a year or two. These soldiers were bright, upwardly mobile, and rather cocky. At first, they had a difficult time meshing with their less educated comrades, many of whom deeply resented the “college boys” in their midst. Predictably, combat broke down these barriers and molded a strong brotherhood among the men, regardless of background.
The only significant shortcoming of the book is that it is based almost entirely on veterans’ recollections. This is no problem in the chapters that cover only the soldier’s experience, but most of the chapters narrate the division’s battle history. The soldier’s accounts bring these battles to life. They are vital sources. But their recollections can sometimes be flawed, especially decades after the fact. As such, Humphrey should have melded these first person remembrances with the 99th Division’s after action reports, diaries, journals and combat interviews, all of which are available in impressive quantity at the National Archives. Without these sources, the book leans a bit more to the side of an oral history rather than an authoritative unit history. Even so, I believe that Once Upon a Time in War will endure for many years as a classic study of the American combat soldier in World War II. Humphrey has made an important contribution to our understanding of the dogface soldier. I only wish there was a volume like this on every division in the World War II U.S. Army.
John C. McManus
Missouri University of Science and Technology
John McManus is wrong. I spent a week pouring over After Action Reports at the National Archives. Except for a single quote from Gen. Lauer, I found nothing of use for my particular study.