Book touted a 'fascinating read'
This review of "Once Upon a Time in War: Combat Soldiers of the 99th Infantry Division," by Robert Humphrey, was sent by a reviewer with the University of Missouri Press.
I highly recommend that the University publish this book. Humphrey has done a magnificent job of tracking down first hand accounts from a large number of men who served in the 99th Infantry Division. His blend of interviews, e-mail correspondence, letters, memoirs and diaries is highly impressive. Very few World War II unit histories feature this many soldier accounts. Humphrey's book stands out as unique in this regard. He writes beautifully, cogently and analytically. He takes the reader into the world of 99th Division combat soldiers. He does not shrink from describing the awful realities of the war and its toll on the men who fought it. His monograph is definitely an original contribution to the study of America in World War II. My feeling is that this book will sell well. It will bring favorable attention to UM Press, and it will settle into long term print as a paperback favorite. A reasonable comparison is George Neill's fine book "Infantry Soldier," published by Oklahoma Press or perhaps Flint Whitlock's "The Fighting First," published by Westview.
The greatest strength of Humphrey's book is that it brings these men to life. Through vivid prose, good writing and ample quotes, Humphrey paints the picture of the soldiers and their experiences. He explores their background, how they ended up in the 99th Division, and their combat experience. He does this through a steady chronological narrative that starts with training and ends with the survivor's homecoming. The reader comes away with a firm understanding of what the war was really like for the front line soldiers of the 99th Division. Humphrey demonstrates a strong knowledge of American combat soldiers in World War II.
Throughout the book, he includes thoughtful discussions of many important topics. His description of the tension between the youthful, educated members of the Army Specialized Training Program and their ill-educated 99th Division noncoms is superb. He illustrates the shocking effect that the World War II Army's crass culture had on young recruits. He doles out plenty of deserved criticism of the 99th Division's officers since that unit was not particularly well led, especially at the senior level. Along the way, he includes many thoughtful passages on combat leadership. He also vividly relates so many important aspects of the combat soldier's existence — bad food, frozen feet, constant exposure to the elements, acute fear, debilitating fatigue, constant danger, filth, degradation, and brotherhood too. He also expertly relates combat soldier attitudes about the Germans, small unit leaders, and even race. His chapter on the 99th's Remagen bridge crossing is the best single description of that event I have ever read. In short, this book is a fascinating read and an important one too.