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.

Whether because of Sobel or in spite of him, the men of Easy Company coalesced into a crack outfit. They scored so high on a physical-fitness test that the suspicious Department of the Army insisted they take it again—only to find they’d done still better the second time—and they came to be so good at carrying out orders in darkness, one man recalled, that “I could see a silhouette at night and tell you who it was by the way the helmet sat on his head.”

For those of us profoundly grateful never to have been in action, the courage routinely displayed by the 506th perpetually astonishes.

Still, their first jump into combat over the coastal town of Ste.-Mère-Eglise on the night before D-day, might well have been their last. The planes from which they leaped were barely five hundred feet above the ground so that the men landed just seconds after their parachutes opened. In his diary a few days later, Lieutenant Winters tried to remember what the jump had been like: “We’re going 150 MPH. O.K. Let’s go. G-D, there goes my leg pack and every bit of equipment I have. Watch it boy! Watch it! J-C, they’re trying to pick me up with those machineguns. Slip, slip, try and keep close to that leg pack. There it lands beside that hedge. G-D that machine gun. There’s a road, trees—hope I don’t hit them. Thump . . .”

They landed hard, but running. A unit of 50 elite German paratroops had trained a battery of four 105-mm cannon on Utah Beach. Easy Company was ordered to take them out. It was the soldiers’ first taste of combat, but the training Sobel had insisted on paid off. One by one, Winters and his men coolly took the guns. “We fought as a team without standout stars,” a sergeant recalled. “We didn’t have anyone who leaped up and charged a machine gun. We had learned that heroics was the way to be killed without getting the job done.” Easy Company lost four dead and two wounded, but it had silenced an entire battery, killed fifteen Germans, taken twelve prisoner, and wounded or driven off the rest.

Winters and two others were decorated for their actions that day, and in the coming weeks there would be plenty more opportunities for valor. Easy Company led the assault on Carentan, which lay astride the all important highway from Cherbourg to Caen to St.-Lô. When a German machine gun opened up, every man rolled into the ditch, everyone except the normally quiet Winters, who stood up in the middle of the road as bullets flew around him and bellowed as loud as he could, “Come on! Move out! Now!” His men did as they were told. “It was so out of character,” one remembered, “we moved out as one man.”

Later Easy Company would hold the perimeter at Bastogne, lead the counteroffensive in the Battle of the Bulge, battle across the Rhineland, liberate a Nazi slave labor camp, and finally join the race for Berchtesgaden, from which the Allied command feared Hitler might direct a guerrilla war.

Band of Brothers is filled with stories of combat, but it is the tiny details of life between battles that remain with me: The man wounded so early in the fighting that he was a novelty in his London hospital ward and was solemnly awarded not one but three Purple Hearts; the sergeant who could not stop from singing “I’ll Be Seeing You” over and over again to fill the snowy silence between shellings at Bastogne; the German soldier, also at Bastogne, who stumbled out of the forest and into Easy Company’s line of fire, dropped his pants, and was allowed to finish relieving himself before Winters shouted for him to surrender. The men of Easy Company were unabashed about the looting they did during the war’s final weeks. Having done what they did, seen what they had seen, they felt—and still feel—that they were entitled to all the Lugers and watches they could “liberate,” and it is hard to argue with them.

The Army Air Force beat Easy Company to the Eagle’s Nest. But there was still plenty of loot to be had. One man took home two of Hitler’s photo albums. Two more made off with the Führer’s flatware. Another commandeered Hermann Göring’s Mercedes-Benz and, when ordered to turn it over to the top brass, made sure all the windows were shot out first.

Then, on May 7, 1945—the day Ted Peck scooped up this gift for my grandfather—word came that the Germans had at last surrendered to Dwight Eisenhower. The war in Europe was over.

Easy Company celebrated with champagne from Göring’s cellars, and Ambrose’s book includes a memorable Signal Corps snap shot of a sergeant, surrounded by empties, doing his rueful best to get up the next morning.

Band of Brothers is a vivid reminder of what ordinary Americans can do in extraordinary circumstances, but it also helped me see my battlefield souvenir in a new and more reassuring light, not as a memento of the evil man who once owned it but as a reminder of the men who obliterated the evil.