Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Book R & R: The Sword of St. Michael

This Book Review and Recommendation is on "The Sword of St. Michael: The 82nd Airborne Division in World War II" by Guy LoFaro.

There are books that cover all airborne operations in WWII like "Paratrooper!" by Gerard Devlin. There are books that cover airborne operations in the European Theater of the Second World War like "Ridgway's Paratroopers" by Clay Blair. Additionally there are multiple unit histories of the parachute infantry regiments and battalions that were part of the 82nd Airborne. But until "The Sword of St. Michael" was released in 2011 (practically on the same day that we published "The Boldest Plan"), there was a real scarcity of books that were devoted strictly to the All American Division's WWII combat history. (Contrary to what the book description for "The Sword of St. Michael" claims, it is not the only history of the 82nd Airborne in WWII. Most notably, Phil Nordyke's "All American, All the Way" from 2005 comes to mind, also with very positive reviews.)

Author Guy LoFaro is a West Point graduate with a Ph.D. who served several tours with the 82nd Airborne Division. He has written a comprehensive (and I do mean comprehensive, coming in at 784 pages) history in an engaging style that will hold the reader's attention.  I found it interesting how LoFaro treats the points where the history the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion intersect with that of the 82nd Airborne Division. Since there is not much more that I can add to the twenty 5-star reviews (at the time of this writing) of the book on Amazon.com, I thought I might share those points with you here.

Of course LoFaro covers the history of airborne from da Vinci to the Test Platoon. That's pretty much obligatory for a book on the early days of the airborne. Though I was disappointed that the author did not mention the deployments of the 509th PIB (then as the 2/503rd PIR), or the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment as preceding that of the All-American Division. However, the book is about the 82nd Airborne Division, so I have to concede that in the long view that information was not germane to the unit's history.

The first mention of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion is when the units came together in Oudja (p.70). LoFaro talks about the attachment of the Geronimos and is very forthright in explaining General Matthew Ridgway's dislike of Edson Raff. He also explains the tiff between Ridgway and British General Browning. The author confesses that because of these situations, for the 509th PIB, "it meant banishment to Ridgway's doghouse."

"The Sword of St. Michael" discusses the Geronimos' Avellino jump in conjunction with the 82nd Airborne's jump on the Salerno beachhead (pp. 142-144). In my opinion, the author took the view that the 509th PIB's Avellino operation had no affect on the battle for Salerno. In fact, he says that the drop was "a disaster," which is not untrue. However, he further submits that the Geronimos' operations behind the lines were only "a minor nuisance" to the Germans. LoFaro quotes General James Gavin when he said that "it is doubtful that it had any decisive bearing on the outcome of the Battle of Salerno." But the author chose not to include any quotes of those who felt the Avellino jump was necessary and paid dividends. Like General Mark Clark, the Fifth Army commander, for example.

The only other point where the Gingerbread Men appear in "The Sword of St. Michael" is when the author mentions that the 82nd received replacements from the 509th and the 551st PIBs (p. 526). He states simply that those units were disbanded because of such heavy combat losses.

Overall "The Sword of St. Michael" is an outstanding history of the All American Division. It is, however, a very pro-82nd Airborne book and my only other criticism is that I would have liked to hear more from the veterans of the Division describing their experiences in their own voices. Nevertheless, if you are only going to read one book about the 82nd Airborne Division during WWII, "The Sword of St. Michael" would be a good choice.

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