Saturday, December 15, 2012

Company Commander by Charles B. MacDonald (Book Review)

Although I like to read different types of books about the Second World War, I don’t usually read memoirs written by the participants because (a) most of them are written by generals or politicians, (b) they can be tedious to read and/or (c) the authors have axes to grind or are trying to twist history in order to enhance their reputation at the expense of the truth.  (In other words, they can often be self-serving and even misleading.) 

There are other reasons why memoirs don’t attract my attention as a reader in the same fashion as books like Cornelius Ryan’s A Bridge Too Far or Stephen E. Ambrose’s Band of Brothers do; as historian Ronald H. Spector (Eagle Against the Sun)  puts it, “Memoirs of wars and politics usually become less interesting with the passage of time.”  Readers who were born a generation after V-E or V-J Day find such works as Dwight D. Eisenhower’sCrusade in Europe (1948) or Winston Churchill’s six-volume opus The Second World War (1948-1953) outdated and hard to get into. 

Of course, sometimes one does find a wartime memoir that is worth reading, and happily for me, Charles B. MacDonald’s Company Commander is definitely one of those rare gems. 

MacDonald was still in his 20s when Company Commander was published just two years after the end of World War II, so his memories about his stint as an infantry captain in the 23rd  Infantry Regiment, 2nd  Infantry Division during the campaign in Northwest Europe were still fresh in his mind when he started writing the book.  The success of the book, which is still used at West Point as a text for young Army officers in training, led to MacDonald’s career as an official Army historian.  He wrote the final book in the Army’s history – the so-called Green Books series – of World War II (The Last Offensive) and retired in 1979 as Deputy Chief Historian and a colonel in the Army Reserve. 

Unlike most memoirs written by World War II veterans, Company Commander does not begin with MacDonald’s account of life before World War II.  There are no introductory chapters dealing with his childhood or family background, nor does the author describe his years at Presbyterian College in South Carolina or his commissioning as an officer after going through ROTC training. 

Instead, MacDonald transports the reader straight into the post-D-Day battlefronts of Europe as the then-21-year-old captain and his command, I (Item) Company, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division (“Indian Head”), get off a military train in France and proceed to march to the front lines near the Belgian border with Germany. 

Like many officers and men in the 2nd Infantry Division, MacDonald is a replacement fresh from the States tasked to take the place of a GI who was killed or wounded in the battles of Normandy and the liberation of France during the summer of 1944.  Though he projects an outward aura of calm and competence, the young captain is in awe of the veterans in his outfit and wonders if he will be a competent commander once the company is back on the front lines. 

Company Commander chronicles MacDonald’s experiences as the leader of 130 combat infantrymen, first as the commander of I Company from October of 1944 to January 1945, then, after recovering from wounds he suffered at the tail end of the Battle of the Bulge, G Company of the 23rd  Infantry Regiment from March of 1945 to the end of the war. 

Unlike his later works as an Army historian and the author of such popular history books as A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge and The Mighty Endeavor: The American War in Europe, this book focuses on the limited point of view of a small-unit commander.  In its two parts and 26 chapters, MacDonald tells “a personal story, an authentic story.   And to make a story of war authentic, you must see a war – not a hasty taste of war but the dread, gnawing daily diet of war, the horrors and fears that are the first blunt testimony that you are a novice and then later become so much a part of you that only another veteran, through some sixth sense, may know that those same horrors and fears are there.”

In vividly descriptive prose, MacDonald writes about the daily experiences of GIs during the climactic battles on the western front as the Allies liberated France, Belgium and Luxembourg and prepared to invade Adolf Hitler’s battered Third Reich itself.  He describes the miseries suffered by all the fighting men in Northwest Europe in late 1944 and early 1945 – making long forced marches in cold, rainy weather, having to live in the same clothes for months on end without a chance to shower or change uniforms, eating cold rations because cooking over fire would invite enemy mortar or artillery bombardment, and the horrors of facing German Tiger tanks with little or no armored support during the Battle of the Bulge.

Lest I give you the impression that Company Commander is a dark and depressing account of World War II from one veteran’s viewpoint, I must say that MacDonald balances the tone of the book by including some lighthearted moments.  Most of these occur, as you might expect, during his stint as the commander of G (George) Company in the spring of 1945.

For instance, when a captured German major tells a Co. G patrol that the military commander of Leipzig (Germany) wants to surrender to American forces – but only to an officer, mind you, MacDonald leads two jeeps and a small squad of soldiers to parley with the German general.

I told Harms to come with me as interpreter and Wesmiller to carry the radio. I had to tell the majority of the men that they would be left behind.  The jeeps were too crowded.  Lieutenant Whitman and Lieutenant Reed came with me, and the German Oberleutnant took a seat in full view on the right front fender of the lead jeep.

We debated whether we should carry a white flag, then decided that would look as if we were surrendering, which we most certainly were not.

I took my place and signaled for the other jeep to follow. The men from the other rifle platoons waved and cheered as we passed.

I was not afraid, but I was tremendously excited.  I was about to accept the surrender of Germany’s fifth largest city and one of the most important prizes left to American forces in Europe. I was staggered with the import of our mission.

Pardon me, Herr General, but even now the forces of Company G lay siege to your fortress city. Would you care to surrender, please?

Although Company Commander is – as of this writing – over 65 years old, it has been in more-or-less continuous publication, a rarity for wartime memoirs of the era. It is a truly eye-opening look at war as experienced by a field-grade officer, which is narrower in point of view than that of a general or a politician but far more interesting for  readers of the postwar generation.  MacDonald, after all, is not trying to buttress his reputation or to justify his decisions like generals and politicians are wont to do in their memoirs.  He is trying to tell his “authentic” war story as honestly and completely as his memories will allow. In so doing, MacDonald is also paying tribute to the men who lived – and sometimes died – in the battlefields of the Hurtgen Forest, the Ardennes, and on both sides of the Rhine River…and beyond.