At last we have a book about World War II whose author successfully recreated, for the reader, the true life experience of the front line combat infantry soldier. No cover-up or glossing over was employed in revealing the horror, fear, and primitive living conditions of those existing on the lowest rung of the military caste system. With extraordinary sensitivity, Dr. Humphrey interviewed 350 former combat solders from the 99th Infantry Division, and thereby was able to present a graphic picture of the brutal existence that befell the front line infantry soldiers that most severe winter and those life-threatening events of December 1944 to May 1945, and the end of the war in Europe.
Dr. Humphrey uses words clear and concise, to visualize the nightmarish conditions and events that turned an inexperienced and untried group of recruits into a fighting machine that was able to stymie the best efforts of an overwhelming German force outnumbering them from three to as many as 10 times.
After the successful invasion of the Allies into Normandy in June 1944, Hitler knew he couldn’t win the war, but he did think that a surprise attack could split the Allies, cut off their access to supply by capturing Antwerp, their base, and then he could negotiate an advantageous peace treaty, leaving Russia as his only functioning opponent. He, therefore, against the advice of his generals planned just such a surprise attack, in the greatest secrecy, assembling a huge strike force that was to hit the thinly defended Ardennes sometime in December 1944.
It so happened that the 99th Infantry Division was placed in the exact spot where the German attack was planned. The secret was kept and the attack was a complete surprise to the American and British generals who reacted very slowly, not realizing what was happening, so the 99th and 2nd divisions were all alone with the situation. They fought well and managed to disrupt the timetable that was necessary for the German success. The attack and repulse by the Allies became known as “The Battle of the Bulge” and as such will go into history by that name. That battle was the largest engagement of the European phase of WWII and resulted in 200,000 killed, wounded, missing, as well as victims of frostbite, trench foot and other illnesses. That battle resulted in the expenditure of the last reserves of German manpower and materiel and eventually forced Germany to surrender.
That winter of 1944 was the most severe in 50 years with much snow, temperatures below freezing much of the time, with cloudy and foggy weather which kept the Allied air force grounded until Dec. 23, to the huge advantage of the German effort. The ground became frozen rock hard, making digging foxholes an exhausting strain, and often due to time constraints, left the infantry only partially protected from artillery.
Another serious problem was the inadequate supply of warm clothing and proper footwear. It seems as though the supplies for front line troops had to go through hands of the rear echelon supply troops, who wantonly absconded with the necessities for the front line that either appealed to them personally or were excellent merchandise for an extensive black market functioning behind the front lines.
Food was another severe problem for the front line infantry. Foul weather and enemy action made it extremely problematical for hot food or even any food to be delivered to the front, necessitating the use of C rations or worse, the barely adequate K rations or worst of all, the D bar chocolate. All of these deficiencies demonstrated to the infantry soldiers the fact that they were considered expendable, a fact confirmed by the statistic that they suffered the highest percentage of all casualties in combat. In many cases the number of men who started from the U.S. in a 50-man platoon and survived to the war’s end was between one and four.
This book covers the entire history of the 99th from inception in Louisiana in 1942 to disbandment in 1945, with the emphasis on the overseas experiences involving the Battle of the Bulge, crossing the Rhine on the Remagen Bridge, encirclement of the Ruhr Pocket, and crossing the Danube River. It is written in a very vivid and readable style and once started was very difficult to put down. Due to Dr. Humphrey’s skill as an interviewer, reporter, and writer, the reader feels as though he himself is a participant rather than a spectator in the events depicted. In contrast to many other books on the same war, which I’ve read, the reader is not overwhelmed with statistics and elaborate battle plans. It presents the life and thoughts of the front line soldier, his fears, his homesickness, his reaction and often horror to the act of killing, and in many cases the realization that the enemy is simply the same as him, a young man doing his duty. Sometimes he felt he had more in common with his enemy counterpart than the avaricious rear echelon thieving slacker. Finally the underlying message revealed by the book is that war is nasty, ugly and wasteful of a country’s finest youth and treasure.