OK guys, I think we’ve found it. This is the book that I will pass on to my grandchildren.
It’s “Once Upon a Time in War,” and if you’re a 99th Division veteran, you will find your story reflected in its pages. California State University professor Robert E. Humphrey tracked down 350 of us for the interviews which give life and passion to his account of our division.
He visited our battlefields, where every few years the remains of one of our “missing in action” buddies is uncovered. He has come to our reunions, written essays for the Checkerboard. More than five years of research went into this honest and very readable book. It tells, probably as well as can be told, the story of our 99th Infantry Division and the thousands of men who wore its Checkerboard shoulder patch in World War II.
We have had people in our own ranks who have published gripping personal accounts of their time in combat. There is George Neill’s “Infantry Soldier” and, my personal favorite, Sam Lombardo’s very moving “O’er the Land of the Free.” Professional historian and author Alex Kershaw gave us the definitive account of the 394th Regiment’s famed I&R Platoon. And I have long admired “Dauntless,” a large and wonderfully detailed “coffee-table” history of our division. Its appendix includes the honor roll of the 1,181 of us who died during our seven months in combat. I have used it from time to time to refresh my memory of half-forgotten names and, regretfully, mostly forgotten faces.
Having said all this, I will buy each of my grandchildren a copy of Humphrey’s book with the hope and expectation that they will make it part of their family history and pass it on to their children and grandchildren.
It is not a sanitized account. We lived in foxholes in the ground, saw friends killed or horribly wounded. There were times when we kept going simply because the guys around us kept going and we would have been ashamed to do less. Our grandchildren should know that real war is not parades and medals.
Yes, this is what the Battle of the Bulge was like to the guys on the ground. After all these years, we still can feel the ground shake under an artillery barrage, hear again the rumble of tanks, and for many endure the forced marches, starvation and misery of Germany’s prisoner-of-war camps.
This is the hasty and scary crossing of the Rhine, the unexpected hazards of the Danube, and the gut fear as the war wound down that you might be one of the last casualties. Most of us greeted the war’s end more with relief than celebration.
There are segments of the book that do not mirror my own recollections. That’s not surprising. Our experiences may have been similar but they were not identical.
I don’t doubt that some of the veterans Humphrey interviewed told him of a wide gulf between those who had served in the division since it was activated at the dismal Mississippi swamp that was Camp Van Dorn and the “college kids” who joined the division at Camp Maxey, when the Army closed down its ASTP program.
Sure, there probably were some wise-ass kids who looked down on the non-coms trying to shape them into infantry soldiers. But I don’t think the gap was as wide as Humphrey concludes. I was a Depression kid who went to work at the age of 17 and took some college courses at night. I certainly didn’t consider myself superior to a sergeant who could fieldstrip an M-1 in half the time it took me and was able to follow a map, or to the Pfc. who carried and set up our squad’s heavy BAR. But obviously, other people’s experiences and memories differ.
Those of us who remain are in our 80s and 90s now. We will find our words and experiences echoed in the pages of this book. So thanks, Bob Humphrey, for your labor of love. I hope my grandchildren find it as compelling an account as I have.