Thursday, July 25, 2013

Book R & R: The Last of the Doughboys

Today's Book Review and Recommendation is "The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War" by Richard Rubin.

The Doughboys are what we called the soldiers and marines who fought in WWI, like calling the soldiers of the WWII era "G.I.s." The 100th anniversary of the First World War is going to be upon us very soon. I don't know as much as I'd like to about that conflict, so I thought I'd pick up a couple of titles to rectify that situation. One that caught my eye was Richard Rubin's "The Last of the Doughboys" that was just recently released (May 2013). The book's back cover said that Rubin had interviewed some of the last surviving World War I veterans. Being into applied history and oral history interviews, I thought this book would be a great place to start. Well, every once in a while I make a brilliant decision without even knowing that I'm doing it. "Last of the Doughboys" was a great book on so many levels.

I really enjoy Richard Rubin's writing style. His voice is very conversational and his pacing in this book keeps the reader engaged. I suspect that comes from Rubin's experience in writing feature articles for magazines like the Atlantic, The New Yorker, Smithsonian, and others. He has one other book out, but it is not a work of military history. You see, what I like about Richard Rubin is that not only is he an outstanding writer, but he follows through on his natural curiosity. And as a result he accomplished something that I think the rest of us who are "doin' history," whether it's academic or popular, should be a little chagrined that we didn't think of it first and then act on it.

So one day around 2003, Richard Rubin the writer hears the declaration that many of us have heard in one form or another: "We're losing up to 1,000 WWII veterans every day! We have to hurry and collect their stories while we still can!" But Rubin took the thought process one step further and asked himself if there were any veterans of WWI still alive, and was anyone scrambling to get their stories. Rubin then went about finding out. Initially, no one knew the answer. The Department of Veterans Affairs didn't have a list, they only estimated (based apparently on actuarial tables) that there were as many as fifteen hundred still living. After repeated inquiries from Rubin, the VA then reduced that estimate to "fewer than two hundred."

Rubin did find dozens of WWI veterans to interview: men and women, American and Canadian, Army, Marine, and Navy, all between the ages of 101 to 113. His best and main source for locating these veterans was the French government, who maintained a list of recipients of the Legion d'Honneur. The French awarded this medal during the late 1990s to American veterans who had served on French soil during the "Great War." Others he found through media research. It turns out that this forgotten war from our distant past wasn't so distant after all. Rubin traveled the country, conducting his interviews from 2003 to 2010. Some of his subjects had vivid memories of the events that had occurred eighty-five years or more in their past and were interviewed on more than one occasion. Others, let's just say they proved to be less than successful. His last interview subject was the last surviving American veteran of WWI, Frank Buckles, who passed away in February 2011.

I'm amazed at what Rubin did as far as thinking up this project, and then unrelentingly following up until the last veteran of WWI had passed away. In addition, I am more than impressed with what he did with the information. If the veteran was a combat veteran of say, Belleau Wood, then Rubin explains the circumstances, events, and effects of that battle to the reader. You'll also hear about what conditions were like on the home front, how we treated the immigrant population, the military's handling of "shell-shocked" soldiers, how we suppressed free speech with the Sedition Act of 1918, and how we deployed cavalry (yes, still using horses) to guard the Mexican border. You'll even learn about media coverage of the war and popular culture as expressed in song lyrics of the day. Every aspect of the war is covered, and accompanied by the voice of the young person who lived through it and experienced it. This book is a "page turner." The history is accurate and provided in a voice that is entertaining and engaging.

If you are looking for a book that covers only the military actions, strategy, etc., of the First World War placed on a timeline, then "The Last of the Doughboys" is probably not the book for you. If instead you are looking gain an insight on the whole of the war and its effect on regular people whose lives were forever changed by it, then I cannot urge you strongly enough to read this book. It will have a prominent place on my bookshelf, ready for a re-read in the near future.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate)

A Norwegian-American Unit formed during World War II.

One of the reasons I enjoy studying and writing about WWII is that during that time the concept of "special operations" was really taking root. There are a lot of interesting stories in the histories of these types of military units. Quite a few units were conceived on paper, or actually formed and began training, to fulfill specific missions or operate in a particular theater or environment. Units like the 1st Special Service Force, Darby's Rangers, Merrill's Marauders, etc, easily come to mind. Even the airborne was initially conceived as a small unit, special operations force, according to General William Yarborough. (The general made that statement in an oral history interview that I used as a reference while researching the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion.)

99th Infantry Battalion Patch
Another of these unique units conceived during the early days of the Second World War was the 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate). This particular unit was made up of Norwegian Americans, originally destined to conduct military operations in Norway. The Army put out the call for native Norwegian speakers, and many immigrant and sons of immigrants answered the call. All of these volunteers were either American citizens or had applied for citizenship. The soldiers started out training with the Devil's Brigade and went through a fair amount of mountain and winter warfare training. It could be argued that the 99th Battalion was the best winter warfare trained unit in the United States Army during WWII. Unfortunately, the operations in Norway were scrubbed and the 99th Infantry Battalion's mission was given to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). About 100 members of the unit joined the OSS for that mission. The remainder of the 99th Infantry Battalion went on to fight in Europe during the Normandy Campaign, the Battle of the Bulge, and through to the end of the war. The "Norwegian Avengers" ended their war as occupation troops in Norway, helping to process the surrender of over a hundred thousand German soldiers before the unit was returned to the United States for deactivation.
The 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate) in Norway. 

I found the story of these Scandinavian immigrant soldiers to be really captivating. So much so that I wrote an article for Military Vet Shop on the unit: "A Summary History of the 99th Infantry Battalion." I hope you'll give it a read and share it with others, as this unique unit deserves recognition and remembrance.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Will the Army retire the "Band of Brothers"?

The wars are winding down and the budget is shrinking. The United States Army, as it has done after every period of conflict, will go through a cycle of downsizing. The goal this time around is to reduce active army forces by about 80,000 soldiers. This move will be accomplished in the deactivation of 12 combat brigades. One of those on the chopping block is the 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Part of this BCT is the first and second battalions of the 506th Infantry Regiment (1/506 and 2/506), therefore making this brigade the modern manifestation of the "Band of Brothers."

As expected, there is a collective howl coming from those veterans and others with an affinity toward the lineage of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. To their credit, The Huffington Post published a well done article on this, explaining that the 506th PIR of WWII fame earned that moniker of "Band of Brothers" for the title of the Stephen Ambrose book and the HBO miniseries of the same name. I can't do better than the Huff article for explaining the situation and what it means to keep storied units like this in an active status. The article also has a nice summary history of the 506th Infantry from its birth during WWII, through Vietnam and their recent participation in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, I will say that from the beginning of this blog a recurring theme I write about is the importance of a military unit's history to the esprit of its soldiers and veterans.

Unfortunately I've come to the conclusion that the Department of the Army just doesn't get it. When the Army went from organizing by regiment to divisions, that was okay from a lineage standpoint because soldiers have always taken pride in the shoulder patch of their parent unit and regiments were the building
blocks of the Army that could move from one division to another. However when the Army began to create brigade combat teams that would deploy separately, without their division headquarters like some kind of "plug and play" component, the shoulder sleeve insignia lost a lot of its meaning. The Army's plan was to provide the battalions within these BCTs a regimental affiliation so that the soldiers would have an anchor of unit history and tradition, that - with a few exceptions like the 173rd Airborne Brigade and the Armored Cavalry Regiments - really had nothing to do with the BCT or the division the battalion was assigned to. And now that disregard for lineage, tradition, and unit history has come full circle because apparently decisions on which brigades to deactivate are being made with a total disregard for the regimental affiliations of the battalions within that brigade.

Why bother with unit crests or shoulder sleeve insignia at all? Maybe soldiers could just wear bar codes?

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