America's Elite Troops
in World War II
Converted for the Web from "Beyond Valor: World War II's Ranger and Airborne Veterans Reveal the Heart of Combat" by Patrick K. O'Donnell
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
-- Laurence Binyon, "For the Fallen"
In 1939, just twenty-one years after the end of a war more destructive than anything humanity had dreamed possible, Europe began a war that proved even more horrific and more widespread, bringing all the intervening technological advances to bear against civilians and soldiers alike. In December 1941, the United States joined a battle in which the stakes were enormous and the outcome by no means certain. But the story of war is familiar. Less familiar is the very personal and human side of war, a side often purposely hidden from easy view: war as seen, heard, smelled, and felt in the day-to-day front-line experience of the combat soldier. This book tells that hidden story, through the oral and e-mail histories of America's elite infantry troops who fought in World War II's European theater -- paratroopers, glidermen, Rangers, and the 1st Special Service Force.
Throughout the war, America's elite troops often played a key role in the war's most important battles, leading the breakthrough off bloody Omaha Beach; fighting to help save the Sicily and Salerno beachheads; cracking the stalemate on Italy's Winter Line; spearheading the invasion of Holland; turning the tide in the Battle of the Bulge; and making the final plunge into Germany. On the home front, the little-known sacrifices of America's first African-American paratroopers were an important step toward integration of the United States armed forces.
Underlying these important victories are the countless individual experiences of the men who made them possible. Their stories go far beyond casualties taken, hills won or lost. In nine years and over six hundred interviews, I found that beneath the war of official documents and carefully composed memoirs lies a bottled-up, buried version shielded even from family members, because many of the memories are too painful to discuss.
The hidden war includes the love that these men had for one another. Friendships and bonds forged in the heat of battle are so strong that they survive today. These men were willing without hesitation to lay down their lives for the men next to them. Time and again, they describe submergence of self within the spirit and pride of these elite units. Wartime experiences, however horrific, were often the most complete and most memorable in these soldiers' lives. Not one of the six hundred men I interviewed ever complained about his war experience, though most of these men were only temporary citizen soldiers, not professional military men.
As these men delve into their recollections, three major themes emerge: their hidden war, the story of the elite units, and the broader story of World War II's Western Front, since their war is largely a reflection in miniature of the European Theater. A bit of background on these units shows how they fit into the picture of the war.
The great armies of history all had their elite units, including Rome's Praetorian Guard, Napoleon's Imperial Guard, and the Civil War's Iron Brigade. As one historian stated, "In battle they were the ultimate reserve if things went wrong, and the exploiting force if things went right." Nevertheless, America's elite ground troops in Europe in World War II -- the Rangers, airborne troops, and the 1st Special Service Force -- were different and special compared to the elites of other eras as well as to the regular troops of their own.
All of these men and units can rightfully claim to be among World War II's best, and I am humbled by the men I've had the pleasure to interview and know. Sadly, it is a generation dying at a rate of at least a thousand a day. But this book is not really for romantics or war buffs. It is for those who are unaware of these stories and of a hidden history that is quietly slipping away. My work has been that of preservation, done in gratitude for a generation that sacrificed so much.
Copyright © 2001 by Patrick K. O'Donnell. All rights reserved. Converted for the Web with the permission of Simon & Schuster.
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