Before there were superheroes, there were these guys: the wild, wooly, and implausibly brave GIs of WWII, who here give us their version of the conflict in newcomer O’Donnell’s oral history of the war.
This is a tale told from many perspectives, made up of hundreds of recollections from men who served in the war’s elite forces: rangers, airborne troops, and the Special Service Forces. We are shown the war from the ground level, with all the chaos and snafus that were carefully edited from the newsreels here left intact. Little of it is heroic in the Hollywood sense, but it comes across as much more intense. One soldier describes how he was captured in Italy early in the war; he managed to escape and found sanctuary with the underground, only to be recaptured by German troops who summarily shot his rescuers as he was marched away. There is plenty of scary material (“When a bullet goes by you, the air current will suck by ‘whoosh, whoosh’ like that. You hear the crack. You know the ones that are on you.”), plus some chilling insights into the reality of combat technique (“Our orders were to leave no prisoners”). The recollections range from the understated (“At the time I didn’t realize it, but even with the A-10 parachute I had both kidneys dislodged from the jump”) to the macabre (“I sent my mother home some Nazi cups and egg saucers [from Hitler’s villa at Berchtesgaden] . . . very fine china”). And more than once, more than a dozen times, the words “I still don’t know how I survived that day” echo down the years. O’Donnell has grouped the comments by area of contest—Northern Africa, Normandy, Belgium, etc.—and precedes each of the men’s words with a short description of events surrounding the action.
Raw and dramatic stuff. Readers will likely experience a better-them-than-me feeling.