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“I Learn a Lot from the Veterans”
Reminiscences of World War II’s European Theater add up to considerably more than a bunch of good war stories
November 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 7
Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army From the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944-May 7, 1945. It quickly bounced onto bestseller lists across the country, and the reason this happened is suggested in the rich and moving correspondence it had the power to generate among its readers. Stephen Ambrose fashioned these letters into the essay that follows, which runs as an afterword in Touchstone’s new paperbound edition of Citizen Soldiers.Last fall the author published his book
“So thank you for writing a book about my war. I think that in a way it gave me a feeling of a certain kind of peacefulness, as if something has been put to rest by the telling.”
In a handwritten letter, a former private, James Howley, recalled, “I am one of the soldiers you wrote about.” He was drafted in 1943, trained in Texas, shipped over to Scotland in the spring of 1944, across the English Channel on D-day plus ten and assigned to the 9th Infantry Division. “I was trained as a wire man and sent over as a rifleman with no infantry training, then put on an antitank gun that I never had seen until then. My job became digging holes. We crossed the Rhine at night before the bridge collapsed and got a half track full of Schnapps—about eight or ten cases. For a few days we didn’t care whether it rained or snowed. One of the guys we called ‘mole’ because he could always find a hole to jump into at the slightest sound. After we got that Schnapps he went out on a .50 caliber MG when a Jerry plane came over and fired up at it. The plane turned on him and in its strafing run killed him and a radio man.”
The letters contain a fair amount of complaints, a principal one being that I left out this or that division, which is fair enough, but I can’t do anything about it now, and anyway the book was not intended to be a comprehensive history. One veteran’s criticism was that I made only a single mention of the National Guard. Guilty. My only excuse is that I just figured everyone knows that the 29th Division (242 days in combat, 204 percent turnover), which plays a major role in my account, was a National Guard division (the “Blue and Gray,” from Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware) and one of the best outfits in the Army.
“In many, if not all, cases, enlisted men knew better what to do in actual combat than their officers,” one wrote.
On a more positive note, a good number of veterans have written that the book caused them to reflect on what they had learned in the Army, especially responsibility. Private Berger concluded his letter, “I have known for a long time that my life was changed by that experience, and maybe I understand it a little better now.”
Many veterans have written of how the Army made it possible for them to know far more about their fellow citizens. Cpl. William Schaufele described his experience. He turned eighteen on December 7, 1941. He was a student at Yale and managed to finish the year, then went into the 10th Armored Division and was in Bastogne for the Battle of the Bulge. He wrote: “One impression I took away from combat was that, in many, if not all, cases enlisted men knew better what to do in actual combat than their officers. Heterogeneity didn’t seem to play a role. I served with people who had no high school education, worked at menial jobs, came from small rural villages or working-class neighborhoods, and many were better soldiers than I. Some were promoted to sergeant and busted two or three times in training, but, by the time we entered combat, they were back as tank commanders—and rightly so.”
I get a lot of specific stories or anecdotes that are frustrating, because if I had known them, they would certainly have been in the book. Sometimes they confirm another guy’s story. For example, a tale about a forward observer who saw a moving haystack and called in artillery fire on it prompted one of the gunners on the 105s that did the shooting to write. He said the gun crew thought it was all a joke, and for the remainder of the war and at postwar reunions they would get a laugh from remembering the time they shot at a moving haystack. Only to discover, fifty-three years later, there really was a target and they had knocked out a German tank.