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Dwight D. Eisenhower’sCrusade in Europe (1948) or Winston Churchill’s six-volume opus The Second World War (1948-1953) outdated and hard to get into.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.