A Veteran’s Day weekend reading recommendation.
Alex Kershaw. The Longest Winter: The Battle of the Bulge and the Epic Story of World War II’s Most Decorated Platoon. Boston, MA: Da Capo Press, November 22nd, 2004. 344 pp.
This Fall I started reading more books on the European Theatre of World War Two and this is one that I enjoyed and I’m glad I finished this on the eve of Veteran’s Day. The book tells the story of the most decorated platoon of World War Two. It is about the Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon from the 394th Infantry Regiment of the 99th Infantry Division who fought the Germans against overwhelming odds during the Battle of the Bulge.
The author began this story going back to the formation of the platoon stateside. I loved how the author gave readers a portrait of the personalities of the platoon and the unique composition of this reconnaissance platoon. You have every day Americans but also a mixture of different ethnicities ranging from a Syrian, Serbian, someone who is Polish and German Americans. When the platoon was first formed they wanted people who knew other languages in order to scout ahead of main Army and able to gather information. The unit was also comprised of a lot of men from college from a defunct Army program to produce officers. They wanted men who were smart for the intelligence and reconnaissance role of the platoon. This interesting mix at first brought some tension but like any American unit in times of war soon was a melting pot that was dedicated to the mission and each other.
Spoiler alert: This paragraph contain spoiler so if you want you may skip to the last paragraph. The book describes the battle the platoon faced when the Germans began their counter-offense. The platoon ended up essentially surrounded but the officer and his men continued their mission of resisting the German even though units adjacent to them have fled and retreated. It is incredible to read about the intensity of the fight. I couldn’t believe how many Germans they were able to kill. They eventually were overrunned by the German paratroopers attacking them. Even though the platoon was overwhelmed by the enemy their effort was not in vain as they were able to slowed the German advances and contributed strategically enough with the resistance. It also made the Germans more cautious as they thought the elements they were facing was a much more larger unit than it was. I expected stories of combat but what I didn’t expected was the story of the platoon as prisoners of war which made up the bulk of the book. The book also mentioned atrocities that the Germans committed against American prisoners of war, the most notorious in the book was the mention of the largest massacre of American GIs in the European front. At the same time the author didn’t unnecessarily demonize the Germans, even mentioning German guards who opposed fanatical SS units who wanted to eliminate the prisoners. As with other books of prisoners of war, one can’t wait to read about them being liberated. I also like how the book continued with the lives of the men after the war, how they moved on but eventually came back together with a reunion.
Readers will appreciate the men of this platoon and their service and sacrifice in serving their country. Those who have never served would get a deeper insight into what men undergo in serving our country during war. Veterans of another generation would also appreciate the veterans of World War Two as well. I say this as a Marine veteran of Iraq. One of the thing that I was constantly overwhelmed with throughout the book was the scale of the European front. For instance the Battle of the Bulge involved 600,000 American service members. The amount of divisions the Germans threw against the Allies was equally impressive; frightening, really. Readers will learn that hundreds of thousands of Allies were contained in POW camps that was originally meant to house tens of thousands of POWs. It was such a horrific war. I think the author’s effort to describe the conflict was well done; he even describes the conflict from the perspective of a German commander leading the attack with his command. Insightful. I recommend this.