Battlefield Souvenir

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It has been a disquieting presence on my bookshelf for twenty-six years now, in four houses and four apartments, a large, handsome volume, bound in white leather and stamped in gold. Its title, also in gold, is in Italian: Leonardo da Vinci S’ul Volo degli Ucelli (Leonardo Da Vinci on the Flight of Birds). It is copy number 152 of a limited edition of 300, and inside, on rich, creamy paper, Leonardo’s drawings and notes are beautifully reproduced and meticulously annotated.

I inherited the book in 1967 from my grandfather, who had been the head of the art department at Oberlin College. He had had it as a gift from one of his former students serving in the World War II Army. A handwritten note, Scotch-taped onto the frontispiece, gives its eerie provenance: “Picked up on the evening of May 7, 1945 from the floor of the hallway adjoining Martin Bormann’s library and office at Obersalzburg, Berchtesgaden, Germany Ted Peck.”

Turn to the next page, and things get still more creepy. In oversized type it reads “ A Adolfo Hitler ” (To Adolf Hitler), and below that, “ Gennaio [January] 1942,” followed by “XX,” which I take to mean the twentieth year of the fascist era in Italy.

I suspect the book was a gift to Hitler from Mussolini.

I have never much liked having in my home something Hitler may once have enjoyed, have always felt distinctly odd showing it to guests, and over the years friends have suggested that if I really feel that way, I should put it up for auction. I’m sure most of those in the market for Nazi memorabilia are simply World War II buffs. But there are also among them those who cling to the notion that Hitler was merely misunderstood, that the Holocaust never happened, and I’d just as soon not brighten their day by providing a new relic on which to bid. So here the book still sits.

 

The news Hitler was getting in January 1942, the month when my volume evidently reached him, was distinctly mixed. Manila fell to his Japanese allies that month; the British were forced to withdraw from Borneo, and the Dutch East Indies were under siege. In North Africa, Erwin Rommel was driving the British eastward. And at Wannsee near Berlin, high-level Nazi officials began the conference that, as Reinhard Heydrich, head of the SS intelligence, delicately explained, was intended to bring “clarity” to the “Final Solution of the European Jewish Question.”

But Operation Barbarossa was frozen in the Russian snows, the Wannsee conference had been delayed for nearly three weeks because of America’s entry into the war, and on the last day of the month word came that the first token force of U.S. troops had landed in Northern Ireland to help defend the British Isles. Hitler’s public statements still breathed confidence, but one foreign reporter noticed that for the first time since he had assumed power, his face “now seemed ravaged and his manner uncertain.”

His uncertainty was understandable: His armies would soon be faced with soldiers like those described in Stephen A. Ambrose’s recent unit history Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, Wist Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle Nest (Simon & Schuster, $25). Few American rifle companies in Europe can have fought more or fought harder than Easy Company during its eleven months of action, and the story told to Ambrose by its proud survivors has the makings of a fine, old-fashioned war movie made all the more vivid because all of it is true. For those of us profoundly grateful never to have heard a shot fired in even mild irritation, the courage routinely displayed by men in combat perpetually astonishes.

The 140 men and 7 officers of E Company did not begin to assemble at Camp Toccoa, Georgia, until the summer of 1942. Only one man had served in the Regular Army; all the rest were citizen-soldiers who volunteered to become paratroopers because of the jump pay (fifty dollars for enlisted men; one hundred dollars for officers) and a wish to be among the Army’s elite. “The desire to be better than the other guy took hold,” one veteran remembered.

They were a diverse group: rich and poor, well and barely educated, from every corner of the country and every level of white society. Just two things seemed to unite them: Their determination to excel and their loathing for the man who relentlessly drove them to do just that, Lt. Herbert Sobel.

Lieutenant Sobel seems to have been the landlocked counterpart of Herman Wouk’s Captain Queeg: friendless, suspicious, envious of anyone else’s success, obsequious with superiors and cruel to subordinates. “Until I landed in France,” one soldier remembered, ”. . . my war was with this man.” No one wanted to risk combat under his capricious command, and as D-day approached, there was a good deal of loose talk about how to do away with him once the shooting started.

In the end—and before anyone could do anything rash—he was replaced in the field by his polar opposite, Lt. Richard Winters, a coolheaded, soft-spoken Pennsylvanian whom Sobel had once tried to courtmartial and who went on to win the Distinguished Service Cross.