The making of Infantry Soldier
By GEORGE NEILL
(Editor's Note: The following article reports the highlights of George Neill's presentation about the joys, frustrations, and heartaches in writing his book, "Infantry Soldier: Holding the Line at the Battle of the Bulge." He made the presentation at the annual convention of the 99th Infantry Division at Biloxi MS, and at the May 25-28 Western regional meeting at Monterey CA. After the war, Neill served as an editor for the Pasadena Star News, a copy editor for the Los Angeles Times, and a copy editor for Stars and Stripes, European Edition.)
After hearing of the deaths of two friends on the night of Dec. 13, 1944, I was in a despondent mood. Trying to sleep in the bottom of my frozen foxhole on the front line near Hofen, Germany, I muttered quietly to myself, "The American public needs to know what this is like. If I ever get out alive, I will tell our story to as many people as possible — but only after the war is over." This declaration marked the beginning of my idea to write a book. I wanted to tell the public how the 99th beat back the Germans, and at the same time tried to survive below-freezing weather with inadequate clothing and footwear. That called for a tell-all book — warts and all.
Unfortunately, when the war ended my late-night fantasy of a book faded into a deep recess of my mind — forgotten in a whirl of immediate priorities — school, marriage, job, and children.
Forty-five years later my interest in the war revived when I learned about the existence of the 99th Infantry Division Association from long-lost Army friend, Bob Mitsch. When Mitsch gave me a subscription to the Checkerboard I became reconnected to my Army past. I wanted to learn more and more about what happened to my friends. Mitsch started urging me to write a book on our war experiences when he learned I was a journalist.
Lt. Col. Mac Butler, my battalion comander (3rd Battalion, 395th), spotted an article I wrote for the Checkerboard in 1989, and called me. He said he liked my writing and wondered if I would be interested in writing a book about the 3rd Battalion. "I'll help you," he added. I told him I would think about it because I was very busy at the time. A week later, he called again. He wanted me to join him on a 99th tour of Ardennes battlegrounds. That interested me. I agreed to join him. The trip, which took place in 1990, was a big emotional experience for me. I was hooked. I decided to write the book, but it would be my book, not Butler's. It would cover the entire division, not just the 3rd Battalion. I vowed that I would tell our story so starkly that the reader would feel the cold and misery we suffered.
I started to read most of the best books on World War II and World War I, taking notes as I read. I wanted to know what had been written on both wars. I wanted to know if a book had been written by one who lived the front line life — a book that focused almost entirely on what happened to the men in the rifle companies and their rifle platoons. I knew these men suffered the most and took most of the casualties. The reading took me more than a year.
When I finished reading, I concluded that the nitty-gritty — how we lived, ate, slept, fought, and died — got barely reported. As a result, the public and most of the military didn't have the slightest idea of life on the front line. They knew it was dangerous, but not how dangerous. Almost all World War II and World War I books concentrated on grand strategy, smart and dumb things the top generals did, and their petty jealousies — the big picture, the view from the top. I wanted to tell the small picture — the view from the bottom. That's where one finds out what war is really like.
The reading and note-taking chore was the beginning of an exhaustive research effort. My wife Shirley and I searched for unpublished personal accounts written by members of the 99th, for photographs illustrating the book's stories, and for people to interview on tape. The annual conventions provided a great source for interesting interviews. I attended five — San Francisco, Denver, Kansas City, Nashville, and Philadelphia. My wife and I found revealing information in libraries in Sacramento, Dorchester, and LeHavre. Travel included four trips to Hofen/Monschau, Germany; two to Krinkelt, Belgium; one to England, and one to France. The National Archives near Washington, D.C., proved invaluable, especially for photos.
The many letters I sent home, thoughtfully saved by my parents, proved absolutely essential. They gave me accurate dates of events, revealed secret censorship of our letters months before we left Camp Maxey, and reminded me of many events I had forgotten. Without them there would have been no book.
At this point I completed an outline of a book with 17 chapters.
We separated all our accumulated notes, tape transcriptions, maps, book citations, battalion morning reports, etc. into manila folders, each labeled for a different chapter. This simple procedure brought order out of chaos. We were now ready to move ahead. I started writing in 1991 at age 69. I expected to finish the project in three years. It actually took more than eight.
In 1996, I completed the first of several drafts. It totaled 225,000 words in approximately 600 pages of manuscript. We sent out 20 copies of this first draft, mostly to 99ers who contributed to the book. We asked them to correct errors, point out weaknesses and strengths, and suggest places to cut. Their feedback, once plugged in, vastly improved the book and prevented embarrassing errors.
Now we could seek a book agent, an essential ingredient in obtaining a reputable book publisher. I found our agent at a California authors' conference at Monterey in 1998. Since he turns down 90 percent of the authors who seek his services, he required us to send him a copy of our manuscript and a four-page book proposal that would sell the book to a publisher.
We worked a week, rewriting, and polishing the proposal. "Not good enough," he said. "Try again." Our second try succeeded. We had an agent! We had jumped a major hurdle. Without an agent, a publisher usually won't bother to look at a manuscript.
Another hurdle now loomed ahead. Our agent sent three chapters and our book proposal to 10 publishers. We got three bites. They wanted to see all 17 chapters. One dropped out, leaving two still interested. We dropped one because it wanted to cut too much. That left the University of Oklahoma Press. But it (University of Oklahoma Press) had more hurdles for us to jump before we had a deal.
The first hurdle came when an editor at the University Press sent copies of the manuscript to two top-ranking World War II military experts to grade our work. If both gave it high grades, we passed. If either gave it a weak grade we would be rejected. The first expert reacted with a rave review. He called the book "an exceptionally gripping memoir." H added: "We really meet the freezing, hungry, dirty combat soldier here, more vividly than anywhere else I know." We learned months later that this reviewer was Russell F. Weigley, distinguished professor emeritus at Temple University and noted military author. He is considered "the dean of American military historians," according to the late Stephen Ambrose.
With this very positive reaction, the university then sent the manuscript to the second expert, Martin Blumenson, a highly rated military writer who had just completed two volumes on General Patton's wartime papers. He also gave my manuscript a very favorable review and called it "a grim and sobering story, but not a depressing one." He called it "extremely important as a human record at the lowest echelon of the war."
With the two military experts giving us the green light, we then had to pass two more hurdles. They were the university's editorial board and its faculty board. The editorial board gave us a quick OK. On May 20, 1999, we received a congratulatory e-mail stating that the faculty board approved "Infantry Soldier" for publication. But that was still not the end.
We worked feverishly with the editor of University of Oklahoma Press, back and forth using e-mail, mainly trimming the book by 150 pages. We had to sacrifice much copy that we wanted to keep, but we had no choice.
The University Press produced the book by drawing on contractors in five states: Georgia, Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, and North Carolina.
Finally, on April 6, 2000, almost nine years after I started the project, we received our first copy of the finished book.
Within two weeks after the book reached book stores and Amazon.com we began to hear from readers. Their responses were 98 percent highly positive. They came by telephone calls, by regular mail, and by e-mail.
We also had some negative responses — only five that I know of. That's amazing to me, considering the number of responses we have received over the last four years. Here they are:
1. You don't have enough sex in it to get strong sales.
2. Who cares about how the men on the front lived, how they fought, and what they thought?
3. You used too many ASTP people as your sources of information.
4. You cut much too much from the first draft. (This criticism came from a friend who read both the first draft and the final book.)
5. You used too much space on state-side training.
Fortunately, these reactions represented less than one percent of the feedback we received. Here are a few samples from the positive reviews:
* Lt. Col. Mac Butler, the commander of my 3rd Battalion: "Infantry Soldier," he said, "is amazingly accurate, and the amount of information is astonishing."
*Library Journal (the Bible of the nation's librarians): "Neill is not afraid to criticize those in command for everything from tactics to the lack of proper winter clothing. He speaks the truth directly from the heart. For all that has been written about this segment of the war, Neill has given us a welcome addition."
Based on this review, librarians from coast to coast in the U.S. and Canada responded by adding "Infantry Soldier" to their library shelves.
* Publishers Weekly (the Bible of book publishers and book editors): "Neill's detailed eyewitness perspective includes earthy explanations of hardships and remarks on leaders who were variously inspired, inept, or uninformed, and usually invisible. Vignettes of heroic virtues, youthful innocence, formative experiences, fateful chance happenings, and indiscriminate slaughter are credible and compelling." The reviewer added that the 99th Division distinguished itself by anchoring the vital northern flank during the last German counter offensive."
* Louis Pedrotti, professor emeritus of Russian at University of California, Riverside, wrote a review for AMAZON.com. He told readers: "If there is just one book that you read about the Battle of the Bulge, make sure it's George Neill's book, 'Infantry Soldier: Holding the Line at the Battle of the Bulge'." Pedrotti continued: "It was absolutely eerie for me, a buddy of George's in L Company, 395th Regiment, to have such long-dormant memories so poignantly revived. His book is a loving and fitting tribute to all those who suffered there and to our many close friends who gave their lives during the massive assault made in December by troops of the German Wehrmacht. On reading his story," Pedrotti said, "I felt myself reliving those absurd day-to-day experiences, the incredible cold and freezing wetness of that miserable winter and the fantastic haphazardness of war that some of us somehow survived."
Pedrotti continued: "Neill is at his best when he describes his own remarkable trials, and he pulls no punches in decrying the irregularities in the supply lines that left us on the front lines without proper clothing and equipment. (I, myself, arrived at the front with no rockets for my bazooka and with no snow boots — hence my evacuation because of my avoidable affliction with frozen feet.) My own outrage and anger," Pedrotti asserted. "match Neill's, when I recall having later seen so many well-shod and well-clothed support troops behind the lines." Pedrotti concluded: "For anyone who has witnessed the inanities of warfare this book will serve to revive the joys, frustrations, suffering, and anger of infantry life in battle. For those who have been spared these unreal experiences this book is a 'must' for insuring that such needless, even criminal, waste of life is never forgotten — and, hopefully, never repeated."
* Leonard M. Passano, Company D, 394th, who now lives on Chebeague Island ME: I have just finished reading your book. It is a major contribution to the literature on WWII from the point of view of the ordinary GI. I found it direct and to the point, honest and open; a clear expression of what men experienced in the circumstances that you describe vividly and correctly. Since my own experiences closely paralleled yours, I found myself thinking of many occasions that you were speaking of my experiences and emotions rather than your own. I am full of admiration for the care you have taken to reconstruct our lives of those distant times.
As you well know, I had the usual mixture of frightening and comical adventures. I realize that until you wrote about the sheer discomfort of the Battle of the Bulge that I have suppressed a great deal of the horror, the terror, and the agony of that existence. But I don't think that you exaggerated it at all. What is too bad is that you missed the excitement and exhilaration of the final weeks of the war when we experienced all that we had been fighting for come to pass. When we became more mobile, we did see more of our officers than you (and I) experienced on the static front in the Ardennes.
I remember vividly one day as we were waiting for the engineers to make a pontoon bridge over a river in South Germany or Austria. General Lauer came up in his jeep and was talking in an agitated manner to our ramrod straight Colonel Douglas about the holdup. Suddenly another staff car arrived and it was Laurer's turn to be chewed out. And by none other than General Patton! It was, needless to say, the only time I saw a four-star general. We, lying in the grass, enjoyed the show very much.
Some of the officers that we had were outstanding. I have never had the honor of knowing a better leader than Lt. Col. Robert Douglas, who led the 1st Battalion, 394th Infantry. I owe my survival to him in the hectic early days of the Battle of the Bulge that won our battalion its unit citation. I have succeeded in pushing these adventures I had between 18 and 21 years of age into the background of my mind, but I realize on reading your book that they are still there. I have never had any urge to do anything with guns. I realize often how lucky and comfortable my life has been. But you are right: I remain proud of my company, my battalion, my regiment and our division. I have my Combat Infantryman's Badge displayed in a sterling frame on a pale blue field. I also think that you are exactly correct when you emphasize the major role that riflemen played in the fighting.
There is not a great deal that connects me with this other life that I once led, but there are still connections that you have demonstrated for me, and I want to thank you for doing this for this reader. I hope that my appreciation and the appreciation of many others who read "Infantry Soldier" will make your labor seem worthwhile. It should give any intelligent reader a much clearer understanding of the horror of war, and at the same time, the bravery, and camaraderie of an Army unit.
* Robert Crist, a senior judge in Shelbina MO.: For a person who has somewhat suppressed his memory of World War II, your book had quite an effect. I was at Tarleton University (ASTP) with you, then to I Company, 3rd Battalion, 395th Infantry, on to Hofen, and eventually to a hospital in Paris. My five children have been after me to write about my war experiences. Now, I do not have to do so. Each can read your excellent book and follow my experiences from Tarleton to the Paris hospital. I am the one mentioned in your book who was captured and escaped on Dec. 16 with Bob Craft. Bob Craft is alive and well. Thank you for writing in such vivid detail of a part of my life, much of which I had forgotten. Your research was very thorough. May God Bless!
* Philip E. Thompson, Huntington Beach CA: "My Dad was Eugene E. Thompson, platoon sergeant, 2nd Platoon, L Company, 395th (author's platoon). He did not talk about his role in war, so we knew nothing of what he did and experienced.
"I spoke to you on the phone a few months back and talked to you about him. I would love to talk to you more about him sometime if you wouldn't mind. I've read your book twice and am planning to travel with my son and revisit the journey that your platoon took through England and then over to Europe.
"I truly thank you for taking the time to write your book. Thanks to you, I've been allowed to see a side of my dad and others of your generation that I never would have been aware of. I have purchased copies for my sister and both of my children so that they can also appreciate what was sacrificed and accomplished."
Thompson senior died more than 20 years ago.
Arnold A. Rogow, New York City: "It seems to me that the chow line photo that appears on your book's dust jacket perfectly captures what infantrymen experienced during that bitter winter of 1944-1945. It is a scene of painful accuracy depicting exhaustion and despair, the inadequate clothing and footwear, the food, perhaps warm to start with, being indifferently sloshed into ice-cold mess kits, and the youth of some of those faces suggesting that at least a few of the soldiers are not long out of high school.
"The photo is one of those rare ones, more evocative than words could ever be. I am eager to obtain a copy that I can frame. It will remind me and convey to my grandchildren some feeling of what it was like."
Important revelations in the book
Like no other book, "Infantry Soldier" focuses on the horrendous life lived by the men in the combat infantry rifle platoons of World War II. In doing so, it drives home their overwhelming contribution to the war effort. They lived under the worst conditions and suffered by far the most casualties. Yet there is little recognition for their efforts. The public calls them "grunts," a demeaning term if there ever was one.
"Infantry Soldier" reveals for the first time just how much of the burden of war the combat infantrymen carried.
The following dramatic fact tells the big story in a nutshell: During 1944 and 1945 in Western Europe infantry rifle platoons comprised only six percent of American military personnel, but they suffered approximately 75 percent of all casualties.
Unfortunately, the hugeness of the infantrymen's contribution to winning World War II remains mostly unknown. Only by understanding their predicament can one appreciate the human effort involved in the largest and most costly of all wars. That is the message of "Infantry Soldier."