By-the-numbers saga of a bruised and bullet-riddled combat unit in WWII.
Embracing only some 3,000 inhabitants, the little Blue Ridge town of Bedford, Virginia, offered few jobs for young men in the last years of the Depression. One source of work was the local National Guard detachment, which, writes journalist Kershaw, “was more akin to a social club than a military unit” and paid only a dollar a day. Still, most of the Bedford boys signed up, and when America entered WWII, they were shipped off to fight as part of the unlucky 116th Infantry, which saw hard combat in Europe. The regiment got chewed up at the Normandy landing, losing 375 men—including 19 of the young men from Bedford, bringing untold suffering to the town, now the site of a national D-Day memorial, for years to come. Kershaw does a reasonably good job of detailing the lives and deaths of these unfortunates, and of gathering the recollections of survivors and kin. Still, the enterprise seems a second-tier offering in the face of the Ambrose/Brokaw industry—and one drenched in clumsy sentimentality at that (“it is not so much in Bedford that the spirits of its lost sons are most palpable, but rather a few hundred yards from the beach where they died, in the American cemetery overlooking Omaha”). Though he has his strong moments, Kershaw misses or underplays a couple of big questions about the experience of fighting a war in the company of neighbors—common enough in the Civil War, but not so common in WWII. And in all events, he knows only two moods: a sepia-toned prewar nostalgia in which the young Guardsmen reveled on beaches “where city girls wore revealing woolen bathing costumes and the Bedford boys would sweet-talk them as they jitter-bugged the night away”—and a scarlet breathlessness evoking scenes of detached eyeballs and “a body with legs off, sometimes just a leg, mangled parts.”
For war buffs who can’t get enough of Saving Private Ryan.