When I read the blurb on this book I knew I’d like it. This was my Grandfather’s war for the most part. He, too, was put with a National Guard Unit at the beginning–from Louisiana though he was a Hoosier who, at the time, had never left Central Indiana.
But this book is about an officer named Felix Sparks. Though he, too, was under General Mark “Wayne” Clark, he was a lot higher up the food chain than Grandpa in his truck. This is also the story of his unit–of ordinary soliders almost all of whom today would be diagnosed with PTSD. Then they got famously slapped by General Patton for cowardice. (Well, two did–the others got better, if primitive treatment.)
Felix Spark’s story is typical of the so-called “Greatest Generation.” The Depression changed everything and the depression also made him a leader. Like many today, he needed money for an education so he joined the army. Then the war reached America and he was in the thick of it up Italy and all the way to the end of the war in Europe.
The experiences that haunt me include, obviously, the arrival at Dachau–no film can capture the horror of that moment. The “chicken shit’ antics of a higher-up defy belief, but only for a minute. Only until we remember that this is still a bureaucracy. Someone has to get a medal, a headline, a promotion.
Dachau is beyond the ken of anyone who didn’t liberate it. To a lesser extent, so too is the stress and cold the men endured. The noise. The terror. The psychological destruction of good men–the parts old history books leave out. These images haunt me, too.
Then there’s the “cognitive dissonance” of trying to tally the behavior that made this the “Greatest Generation,” with the absolutely staggering v.d. and gonorrhea levels of our troops.Where were those stolid, strong, quiet men who made the world safe and then went home to their wives and girlfriends to raise families? It wasn’t just the single 19 year-olds who were chasing every skirt available. A wife who was unfaithful was revieled and could expect instant divorce in most cases (not all), but from the beginning of time wives have been expected to overlook sexual antics committed by soldiers of all ranks. From the public humiliation of Dwight Eishenhower’s nearly estranged wife, Mamie, to the teenage wife of a 19 year old G.I., all were supposed to smile and go on and pretend it hadn’t happened. Such is war.
Alex Kershaw is an author who can truly spin a story. I’ve enjoyed two other books of his: The Bedford Boys and The Longest Winter–both on other soldiers in World War II. This is well researched, well written history. His books read like good novels, but pack the punch of a Sherman Tank.
Liberator by Alex Kershaw.