The last days of WWII in Europe as seen—deftly, and not without its measure of absurdity—from inside a Sherman tank, by its gunner.
The Battle of the Bulge created a need for personnel in the Allied armies, and Irwin was one of those who helped fill that need. Armored warfare was his destiny, and he was put in charge of the tank’s cannon. He might have been a bad boy—one of his joys in enlisting was that he didn’t have to finish high school—but he has a native intelligence that makes the kind of storyteller who keeps the pace and tone just right, embroidered but not to the point of Irish lace, one who is able to let spring from his words, seemingly unbidden, intelligent reflections on the nature of combatants versus enemies or comrades versus friends. He can also make plain and clear what it was like to drive a tank through the last months of war, through the Rhineland and against the last unyielding remnants of German resistance, through Marburg, Paderborn, Haarbruck, and Dessau; how it felt to kill children as they approached his tank with bombs; how it felt to venture into a slave labor camp after a battle. What Irwin excels at is giving a sense of the mayhem and constant insecurity of warfare, the never knowing where you’re going to be sent, what you’re going to run up against, how you’re going to react—in, for example, the strange face-to-face encounters with the German soldiers in combat, not hand to hand but human to human. Irwin, for instance, shakes a captured German tank gunner’s hand for an act of uncommon bravery against Irwin’s own tank, simply because he knew what it was like to have done it. The rest of Irwin’s tank crew understood just as well.
An ace of a wartime narrative: rawboned, terrible, and possessing its own strange kind of humor.