Originally published in the State Hornet www.statehornet.com
War is hell. Most Americans understand that as a concept, if not a reality.
There are a small number of Americans that understand the concept well beyond the glamorized version depicted in books, films, and newspapers. Robert Humphrey, a communication studies professor at Sacramento State, interviewed 350 of these Americans to better understand what it means to serve in the infantry during a foreign war.
Humphrey started chronicling survivors who served in the United States Army’s 99th Infantry Division on the western front during World War II in 2001. He tells their unsterilized account in the recently released “Once Upon a Time in War: The 99th Division in World War II.”
“I wrote this for the general public,” Humphrey said. “I’m not a military historian. Military history is too often ‘we took this hill,’ ‘so and so was killed’, ‘we moved up here’ and ‘the Germans counterattacked’, it’s just impenetrable. I didn’t want to write that kind of book and I’m not capable of writing that kind of book. But I am capable of writing human interest.”
David Perlman is a former soldier of the 99th Division, now living in Maryland.
“I will buy each of my grandchildren a copy of Humphrey’s book,” Perlman said. “I hope that they will make it part of their family history and pass it on to their children and grandchildren.”
What started out as a few interviews and articles for the Checkerboard, the newspaper for the 99th Infantry Division Association, turned into a book published by University of Oklahoma Press.
“Originally, when I started it, I said to my wife, ‘I don’t think there is enough here for a book,’” Humphrey said. “She told me to just keep writing and see what happens.”
William Galegar is another former soldier of the 99th Division who now lives in Oklahoma City. He was injured while trying to cross the Rhine River at the Ludendorff Bridge.
“I really appreciate the tremendous amount of time and effort (Humphrey) put into the book,” Galegar said. “The public is never told what it costs to win a war, but this book does a great service in getting the message out to the public.”
After decades of relative silence about their experience, the GIs were willing to talk about the hardships during their few months of service during the winter and spring in Europe in 1944 and 1945.
“I think had I gotten them (soldiers) right after the war, which would have been interesting in a different way, they wouldn’t have talked like they did,” Humphrey said. “A lot of them told me I was the first person to ask them questions. I had people break down while talking to me.”
Jim Larkey, 84, who now lives in Florida, said most of his memories of service have, over time, become rather pleasant.
“Humphrey’s book got me thinking and reminiscing about the service on the front line,” Larkey said. “Many of us tend to idealize our time in the military over years, and it takes really remembering all the hardship to get over the idealization of the war.”
The 99th Infantry Division didn’t have any special claim to fame in the liberation of Europe. It arrived after Operation Overlord (D-Day) and the liberation of France. Soldiers in the division assumed they were in Europe to mop up after earlier divisions. They settled into their foxholes in December of 1944 to wait out the winter, assuming Germany’s surrender was imminent.
“We were told the war would end by Christmas,” Galegar said. “We were stuck in foxholes and put where there was almost no activity, with our job being to hold the position until spring.”
It took Adolf Hitler to give the 99ers a place in the war. Hitler’s plan never included surrender, and in what is often written as a desperation strategy, he moved 30 divisions to the Ardennes mountains in Belgium. Against the advice of his generals, his plan was to drive through the green 99th Division and divide the American and British forces, taking Antwerp, Belgium, and its critical ports.
There are countless books that describe the military strategy known as the Battle of the Bulge in the United States, the Ardennes Offensive in Europe. Humphrey does not try to repeat or put a different spin on what has already been written. He aims to take a fresh look at the war from the view of the grunts, the GIs on the front lines.
“There were times when we kept going simply because the guys around us kept going and we would have been ashamed to do less,” Perlman said. “Our grandchildren should know that real war is not parades and medals.”
Frank Hoffman lives in Richmond, Va., and turned 92 earlier this month. He said Humphrey did an excellent job describing the “trials and tribulations” of the 99ers over those few months.
Humphrey doesn’t get into much of the strategy or plans for either side. Small mentions of Hitler, General Dwight Eisenhower, General George Patton, President Franklin Roosevelt or Prime Minister Winston Churchill are told only in relation to how they affect the lives of the 99ers.
General Walter E. Lauer is viewed as someone whose hope for glory often ran counter to the interests of the GIs.
“The fighting man in the front line is always a cog in the machine,” Larkey said. “It has been true every war and remains true today. The infantry is considered dispensable by the strategists.”
After arriving from training in Texas, the 99th Division took its position in the Ardennes, along the German and Belgium border. The division did so with the assumption the war was going to end by Christmas.
Even before the German attack, U.S. forces faced hardships from the weather, small skirmishes and lack of winter equipment. Once the German surprise attack happened, U.S. troops would face the hardship of a concentrated attack right over their location: the Bulge.
Fred Kampmier, 84, is a former 99er who was a valuable resource for Humphrey in the book. While stationed in Czechoslovakia immediately following the war, he wrote numerous letters to his parents, letters that he shared with Humphrey.
“(Humphrey) has written an unbelievable book,” he said. “He is such a creative writer, it makes me jealous to read what he wrote and see what he did with the material I gave him.”
Oakley Honey, 85, was one of the few 99ers who made it through the entire history of the 99th Division, from training in Louisiana and Texas to return stateside in September of 1945.
“I was leery of Humphrey at first,” Honey said. “I thought it would take someone who was there to write a book like this. Someone relying on interviews would have a tendency to overlook things those of us on the front line thought were important. I was pleasantly surprised by the work he did and his excellent writing.”
Humphrey said a possible criticism of the book could be the personal level it reaches.
“I wanted to know what it was like, what they did, and how they reacted to it. That could be a criticism of the book, but I realized from the beginning I would be limited to the number of words, and wanted to be sure to include their story,” Humphrey said.
Kathleen Benson, sales manager for University of Oklahoma Press, said the response to the book has been very positive. The first printing of 3,000 copies went quickly and a second printing came out the end of February.
“We are getting many multiple orders for the book which leads us to believe it is going out to lots of family and friends,” she said. “It is also doing well with wholesale outfits.”
Many of the veterans said they have purchased multiple copies for their children and grandchildren. Kampmier said his granddaughter is still too young to appreciate the story, but he gave her a copy with the hope that she gets older, she will better understand what her grandfather did in the war.