Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2012-046
16 August 2012
Review article by Eyal Ben-Ari, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Fighting Forces and Soldiers' Experiences in World War II and Korea
Descriptors: Volume 2012, 20th Century, World War II, Korean War Print Version
The Lions of Carentan: Fallschirmjäger Regiment 6, 1943–1945
By Volker Griesser
Philadelphia: Casement, 2011. Trans. Mara Taylor. Pp. 272. ISBN 978–1–61200–006–0.
Give Me Tomorrow: The Korean War’s Greatest Untold Story—The Epic Stand of the Marines of George Company
By Patrick K. O’Donnell
Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2010. Pp. xii, 261. ISBN 978–0–306–81801–1.
Last Man Standing: The 1st Marine Regiment on Peleliu, September 15–21, 1944
By Dick Camp
Minneapolis: Zenith Press, 2009. Pp. xi, 308. ISBN 978–0–7603–3493–5.

The conventional wars of the twentieth century continue to grip the imagination. The experience of troops on the ground, in particular infantry soldiers, is central to this fascination. The three books reviewed here represent diverse ways of portraying and explaining the experience of battle. Two of them concern respectively German airborne units and American Marines during World War II; the third is about a US Marine unit during the "forgotten war" in Korea.

Last Man Standing, by historian and Marine Corps veteran Dick Camp, is the most sophisticated of the three books reviewed here. Its subject is the Corps's very bloody Operation Stalemate on Peleliu. The invasion of the island was actually irrelevant to US victory in the Pacific (American forces had virtually eliminated Japanese airpower and the airfield on Peleliu could not service Japanese planes). But the extremely heavy casualty rates on both sides make this one of the iconic battles of US military history. In a critical and fair assessment of the battle, Camp skillfully analyzes the complex geopolitical context, the relevant operational and tactical moves, the status of American firepower, competition between senior commanders, and the experiences of ground troops. His writing features multiple perspectives and the voices of both American and, where possible, Japanese participants, drawing on personal interviews, oral histories, official reports, photographic collections, and a variety of other sources (some hitherto unpublished). Useful maps and diagrams clarify the challenges the Marines faced on Peleliu. As in his other books, Camp uses boxed inserts to accentuate such related material as the grounds for awarding citations, short biographies of officers, and details of local conditions on the island.

Framed by an introduction and a postscript, the volume's eighteen chapters proceed from the broad background of the Pacific campaign to the specific stages of the Peleliu operation and finally to the sad musings of senior Marine officers about the island's insignificance to the greater war effort. The well-written narrative follows the general contours of the battle, but also the movements of discrete units and the actions of individual soldiers and officers. We learn of the careful preparations of the Japanese forces (digging deep into the coral mountains, creating bunkers, and designing killing fields) and the lack of intelligence that led to an underestimation of their strength. The book mostly covers the landing on the beaches and the slow slog of the Marines over the first six days of the battle, until they were replaced by an army regiment.

The strength of the volume is its blend of matter-of-fact accounts, the more emotional reflections of soldiers, and striking passage like the following on the sights and sounds of nighttime combat:

A radio operator made a frenzied call and flares suddenly blossomed over no man's land. All along the line, tense scared men peered into the greenish-tinged landscape. Shadows played on their imaginations—a bush appeared to be a crouching enemy soldier; a boulder took on a human form. Gunfire erupted and explosions quickly followed as the defenders' nerves reached the breaking point. Flashes outlined the front lines as rifle and machine gun fire lashed out into the darkness. Gradually, officers and NCOs restored order. The firing died down and then stopped. (189–90)

Elsewhere, Camp's rehearsal of "dry" facts has a powerful and harrowing effect:

Dead Marines floated lifelessly in the water, the suction of the passing LVT [Landing Vehicle Tracked] drawing them in their wake. There was no stopping to pick them up. Many of the dead drifted out into the sea and were never recovered. They were listed as missing in action. Other remains were not identified and buried as Unknowns. Specifically trained graves-registration teams had to wait until after the fighting moved inland to gather the dead. Theirs was a grisly task—decomposition, ghastly wounds and traumatic amputations complicated the job of identifying remains. As an example, one of Bruce Watkins' men stepped on a bomb. "He completely disappeared, the only trace of him being a long piece of scalp, recognizable by his very black hair." (158)

A particularly effective aspect of Last Man Standing is its judicious analysis of the leadership before and during the Peleliu operation. Not content with the customary romantic depiction of the "legendary" Col. Lewis "Chesty" Puller, Camp carefully explains his failure to recognize that the attrition his units were suffering was sapping their operational effectiveness. He also notes Puller's limited mobility (owing to a troubling wound received at Guadalcanal), his stubborn reliance on full-frontal assaults with their appalling human cost, and his refusal to let another regiment replace his own decimated force. Though Puller was later promoted and cited for his actions (including those in Korea), Camp has in fact painted a more accurate portrait of the man than those found in more laudatory accounts. He also sharply criticizes division commander Gen. William H. Rupertus for refusing to allow an army division to replace his battered marines (battalions had to be cut down to the size of companies), out of some misplaced pride in the Marine Corps. Such criticisms make Camp's book more compelling and convincing than O'Donnell's.

Griesser, O'Donnell, and Camp all state that personal experiences motivated them to write their books. In Greisser's case, it was his time in the post-World War II Bundeswehr and his desire to document the experiences of Wehrmacht paratroopers. His research entailed many interactions with Fallschirmjäger Regiment veterans. O'Donnell met some men of George Company when they came to welcome Marines returning from Iraq. He himself was just returning from a stint as a war correspondent in Iraq.[2] For his part, Camp became interested in the battle of Peleliu when he was aide-de-camp for Maj. Gen. Ray Davis, a Marine battalion commander under Chesty Puller. Personal connection to their subjects helps explain the power of these authors' narratives and their deep respect for the combatants whose stories they tell. The triumphal tone of O'Donnell's book in particular led me, an external observer of US society, to see such works, quite apart from their historical value, as typifying the American commitment to "our boys (and latterly girls) over there" in foreign deployments.

The three books prompt us to contemplate similarities and differences between the fighting forces of various nations, especially in the context of conventional or symmetric warfare. All three attest to close parallels between individual experiences and unit dynamics across militaries on opposing sides. Time and again one is struck by common personal motivations (concern for comrades, simple patriotism, or sheer survival), small group dynamics (the importance of junior and more senior commanders, the emergence of informal leaders in combat situations, and the value of social support), and drills (hand signals and voice commands, training and exercises, and weapons handling).

The resemblance between the US Marines and Wehrmacht soldiers also extended to a readiness to improvise in specific situations, as soldiers or their leaders came up with solutions to tactical problems. Similarities are also evident in the informal life of the barracks, characterized by the boredom endemic to military existence as well as by such practices as scrounging and "swap outs" and inventive forms of stealing for the good of the unit. For example, one leader in George Company encouraged his troops to exchange their weapons for superior rifles belonging to another unit, while Greisser recounts the German paratroopers' "requisitioning" of vehicles in Rome. Further, the dynamic of unit disintegration and rebuilding in and around battles was common on both sides; I refer not to the withdrawal of a unit to re-form and train incoming troops, but to the integration of additional soldiers (often support personnel like clerks or kitchen staff) into the line units, even during firefights. Finally, there were the more mundane commonalities of life in industrial warfare: the sights and smells, the sounds and feel of weapons, the physical and emotional exhaustion, and the unique language of combat forces.

Yet, for all this, the overarching political and cultural situations of the units were not at all alike. Greisser reports this eyewitness account by a soldier describing a comrade's request for leave to get married:

A Feldwebel [senior sergeant] came to us in the business office and filed a request to be married. Before our company chief, Leutenant Emil Preikschat, could grant this, proof of Aryan descent had to be solicited. When the documents were finally present, I called the Feldwebel in and showed him the papers. His grandfather had been identified as a Jew. If this information had landed in the wrong hands, he could have been released from service and sent to a concentration camp. The Feldwebel stood before me, with his Crete cuff title and his chest fully decorated. A real warhorse and an experienced soldier form the front, and cried. I threw the piece of paper in the oven, where it burned right away. I wrote him a replacement certificate: "The original not able to be located, grandfather probably Catholic." Now the Feldwebel could marry and everything was well. (74)

In the American case, O'Donnell stresses the wider ideology of expected acculturation of ethnic groups[3] in his account of Native-American soldiers and of troops from both the north and the south of the United States fighting side by side in George Company

Conspicuous, too, was the underlying racism of many American troops toward Asian foes such as the Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese,[4] who were routinely called "Gooks" or "Geeks." In this regard, the experiences of World War II, Korea, and later Vietnam may best be understood in light of the American experience of conquering their frontiers while defeating alien "others" thanks to a mighty industrial advantage. The markedly different attitudes held toward the German enemy on one hand and Japanese and Koreans on the other should caution us against propounding any all-encompassing, universal model of combat or the behavior of combatants.

To be clear, I do not suggest an equivalence between the ideologies of National Socialist Germany and democratic America. Far from it. Rather, I want to stress that combat units themselves are always anchored in a wider context of cultural and political forces and beliefs. Deeply held assumptions about ourselves and our adversaries dictate how enemy soldiers are "handled"—understood and acted upon—in battle situations.

A fitting end to this review is Greisser's account of a local understanding that testifies to the mutual respect and professionalism of American and German forces fighting in Europe.

The Fallschirmjäger opened fire on three Americans, but realized shortly afterwards that they were dealing with army chaplains, who had slipped into the combat zone unarmed and unnoticed. A Protestant pastor, a Catholic priest and a preacher from the Salvation Army were searching for wounded survivors among the corpses strewn through the river meadow, which was open to constant fire from both sides' heavy machine guns. Disregarding the fact that what was occurring was an act of humanity, American fighter-bombers attacked in a low level flight, covering the field with fire. When the airplanes turned away, some American medics arrived to help the army chaplains and Major von der Heydte (the German unit's commander) ordered that his Fallschirmjäger should help them recover their wounded; he offered the Americans a three-hour ceasefire. In return, the Americans sent over wounded Fallschirmjäger from the 11th company, who had been taken into captivity the day before during the advance of the 358th Infantry Regiment. During the ceasefire both sides recovered their wounded and fallen without danger. (135)

[1] See Clay Blair, The Forgotten War: America in Korea, 1950–1953 (1987; rpt. Annapolis, MD: Naval Inst Pr, 2003).

[2] Which resulted in his book, We Were One: Shoulder to Shoulder with the Marines Who Took Fallujah (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2006).

[3] See Richard Slotkin, "Unit Pride: Ethnic Platoons and the Myths of American Nationality," American Literary History 13 (2001) 469–98.

[4] See Thomas Schrijvers, The GI War against Japan: American Soldiers in Asia and the Pacific during World War II (NY: NYU Pr, 2002).

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