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Review: Remarkable and controversial

104 N. Water St., Chestertown MD 21620

Robert E. Humphrey’s “Once Upon a Time in War: The 99th Division in World War II,” (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman OK 2008) is a remarkable piece of journalism that has stirred up controversy among some 99th vets.

The author interviewed, or otherwise communicated with, 350 veterans of the 99th who served in the division in World War II. Notable is the large number of men he reached and obtained stories from. Notable also is the apparent fact all but about five percent of them served in the nine infantry battalions of the 99th.

The author is a professor of communications studies (i.e. journalism) in the California university system. It shows. Unlike many college professors, Humphrey is superb at making clear and highly readable large masses of journalism. This includes what was told to him and what he thought about it in the context of war and peace.

He is not one to spend much space on the strategies for winning the war in Western Europe in 1944-45, the difficult problems facing higher commanders, the geopolitical setting, or the performance of arms other than the frontline infantry.

His story is a composite of the hundreds of stories told to him by ex-riflemen of the 99th, with a few machine gunners, mortarmen and battalion HQ men included for good measure.

Humphrey’s book strikes hard and often, revealing the rifleman’s world to be what it was in WWII: dangerous in the extreme, awful to endure, filled with countless incidents of death, suffering and despair.

In fact, “Once Upon a Time in War,” is certainly among the most unvarnished, unadorned and unforgiving accounts this reviewer has read of what war is like for the men who bear most of its burdens, the upfront infantry.

The book also is consciously anti-military and seriously skeptical of putting men through hell to settle any dispute, no matter the alternative. Hence, the controversy.

Humphrey, the reader can only assume, is of the post-Vietnam school of historians: The combat soldier may be a hero who faces incomparable dangers and endures unspeakable outrages to body and mind right enough. But he is also a victim of uncaring politicians, bumbling generals and incompetent leaders more often than not.

“These new government-issued soldiers (in World War II),” he writes, “were not eager warriors but young guys who believed it their duty to serve their country.” “The Army exploited their youth, innocence and energy.” (pages 194, 195; parenthetical item added).

Humphrey devotes an unusual amount of attention to the experiences of the 3,000 or so Army Specialized Training Program soldiers who were literally dumped on the 99th at Camp Maxey TX, early in 1944. Few other WWII histories pay attention to the importance and impact of the 150,000 or so former ASTPers who filled up the ranks and plugged the holes of divisions such as the 99th preparing to ship out for the big battles that would soon boil up in Western Europe.

As some of the author’s interviewees make clear, it was not pleasant or easy for the ex-college boys of the ASTP to find themselves abruptly on the harsh training grounds of the infantry at the mercy of tough and unsympathetic noncoms and offices. Nor was it easy or pleasant for the latter to work the college boys into formations that would engage in some of the most murderous and wearisome combat in all of WWII. And do it quickly.

The late Col. Carlo Biggio, well known to many 99th vets, was highly critical of Humphrey’s telling of the ASTP-99th Division experience and the author’s often harsh opinion of some of the division’s officers based on what he was told. So have been some ex-ASTPers. Snobs and whiners on one side; tyrants and abusers on the other is an image that comes through reading a few, but by no means all reminiscences.

Well, there was some of that. But in the end, it didn’t matter. Both kinds of 99th soldiers bled and died together: both develop lasting respect for the other.

In sum, thanks to the remarkable capacities of ex-99ers to recall awful events, startling happenings and the characters and heroism of fellow soldiers (and themselves, too, although in muted tones of denial), Humphrey’s “Once Upon a Time in War” transcends the narrow experience of one U.S. fighting division. The book tells it like it was for all of the frontline infantry in the war.

This reviewer hopes it gets the attention it (and they) deserve.

Last modified May 19, 2009

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