• Last modified 5952 days ago (Dec. 28, 2007)
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Humphrey's book provides realistic pictures


Outside reviewer, Oklahoma University Press

I have finished reading Robert E. Humphrey's manuscript, "Once Upon a Time in War: Combat Soldiers of the 99th Infantry Division."

This is an excellent piece of work. I would be most surprised if the outside readers did not pronounce it either ready or near ready for publication. Drawing on extensive oral histories, as well as other primary sources, Humphrey provides a graphic portrait of this division's training and experiences in the European Theater of Operations (mainly Belgium and Germany). He provides a realistic picture of the American soldier in combat and as a prisoner of war. Humphrey is also sensitive enough to realize that war does not occur in a vacuum. Armies don't just batter each other, but the civilians that get caught between and behind the lines. I found Humphrey's treatment of the 99th Division's experiences as a liberating and occupying force to be quite penetrating and memorable.

"Once Upon a Time in War" is extremely well written. It reads as well as anything that Stephen Ambrose did on the American GI during World War II, which is high praise. Unlike Ambrose, however, Humphrey does not pander to the American yearning for feel-good history by softening his story with sentimentality and patriotic rhetoric. He tells a much more honest story than Ambrose and the other eulogists for the so-called "Greatest Generation." There is much to be learned from this book about the hardening effects that war has on everyone it touches. At the same time, Humphrey does not take cheap shots at the young Americans who found themselves so changed by the horrors of war. "Once Upon a Time in War" is also highly entertaining. There were sections that brought tears to my eyes and others than made me laugh out loud. I think we have a classic on our hands.

I have no doubt that this book belongs in the Campaigns and Commanders Series. Humphrey succeeds in telling the 99th Division's story from the bottom up. This is the war as remembered by the division's enlisted men and junior officers. In that sense, it fits quite well with the books Alan Gaff wrote for the series on Anthony Wayne's Legion of the United States and the Lost Battalion of World War I. Some critics may feel that Humphrey's book is overly harsh on the 99th Division's senior leadership, but this is how the common GI viewed them, and he is entitled to have his say.

Although Humphrey focuses his attention on a single division, his book is really representative of all American infantrymen who fought their way into Germany in 1944-45. The press needs to make that point when it markets this title. This book would make a wonderful collateral text in a class devoted to World War II or U.S. military history. If our outside readers do not love this work as much as I do, I would recommend never using them again.