February/March 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 1
by Charles R. Cawthon; University Press of Colorado; 180 pages.
In 1941 Charles R. Cawthon joined the 116th Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division. The 116th was the Stonewall Brigade, and Cawthon, raised on Civil War lore, was very proud of his connection with “what may well have been the most deadly single formation of infantry that this country—North or South—has produced.” At the same time, though, the young recruit had trouble “relating my fumbling efforts and those of the largely bored soldiers around me to the legendary fierce gray ghosts of the Army of Northern Virginia.”
But in the end they turned out to be made of the same stuff, and it is the transition from boys to soldiers to veterans that Cawthon chronicles in his wise, calm, beautifully written memoir. The events he shows us are anything but calm: He went in with the second wave on D-day, fought his way through the terrible hedgerows that led to Saint-Lô, and was wounded near the German border.
Cawthon looks back on an incandescent time partly through the eyes of the boy who survived it and partly through the lens of the fifty years of living that followed. He is unerring in selecting details that give conviction and texture to events long past and particularly effective in expressing battle not just as a ghastly anomaly but as a place where the soldier must spend part of his working life. Everything rings true. Here he is trying to rejoin his outfit on the afternoon of their scalding reception on Omaha Beach: “Next I recall standing beside a small, rural hotel and the bodies of three Americans who had met final appointments there. The corporal of a live squad of the 16th Regiment deployed around the hotel told me that the dead had been there when he had arrived; he did not know their outfit. When I inquired if he had seen any units of the 116th, the corporal assumed that look of the soldier who is asked a question to which he does not have to know the answer: it involves a trace of piety and also questions the sanity of the asker. The ability to achieve this look was acquired in that war early in basic training; it is probably still practiced.
“In tones matching his expression, he inquired of the squad, ‘Any of you seen anything of the—what is it, sir?—the 116th?’ They all assumed the same look.
“‘We ain’t seen them,’ he summarized.
“In the meantime, a lanky private had started firing at, and missing, the insulators on a utility pole. Everyone ducked, and, to the corporal’s profane question, he said that these might be telephone lines that German observers were using. The corporal said simply that if he did not stop, he would shoot him.”
As this passage suggests, Cawthon’s narrative is informed throughout with humor and crisp observation. The author also brings to it a sense of history—and not only the relatively recent history made by him and the others who struggled up from the beach at his side. Remembering sinking down to sleep after finally being reunited with his unit at the end of D-day, Cawthon thinks of his regiment’s fearsome patron saint: “Assuredly, that night I did not speculate on whether the shade of Old Jack might be drawn from the shadows to this battle-swept place on the coast of France, where the current bearers of the name of his famous command were in deep travail. History indicates that he would not have countenanced stopping but would have given his usual abrupt order: ‘Close up, press on.’ I cannot imagine disputing that awesome individual in person. But from this safe distance, I can quote another less-known pronouncement he made at the end of a hard and confused day at White Oak Swamp in the Seven Days’ Battles before Richmond, when he told his commanders, ‘Now, gentlemen, let us at once to bed and see if tomorrow we cannot do something.’”
At the book’s end Cawthon thinks of his old comrades: “These may be generally classified as ordinary men: if so, they make of ordinary an ornament, and humankind more acceptable.”
No bands sent Captain Cawthon off to his war; no girls waved handkerchiefs at him from the pier while aerial armadas thundered overhead. All he got by way of a sendoff as he boarded ship for the short ride across the Channel was a tough old dock worker who looked up and grunted, “Have a good go at it, mates.” In fact, very little happens on a heroic scale in this memoir, yet one emerges from it with the strong sense of having spent time in the company of heroes.