Thursday, November 10, 2016

Climb a Cliff and Fight a Battle

I've been writing about my quest to find a few World War II-themed novels I read as an 11-year-old. I remembered plot points and (in one case) a character's name, but for years did not have quite enough information to zero in on titles and authors. This changed this year and (with the help of a Goodreads forum dedicated to identifying vaguely remembered books), I've found them all.

Two of them involved PT boats--I've written about them HERE and HERE. This next one, though, was trickier to find. It's an anthology and what I remembered was the general plots of two of the stories in it.

Fortunately, I have awesome deductive reasoning skills (and would, in fact, be regularly solving murders if anyone I knew would have the good grace to get murdered or be falsely accused of murder). I found a clue online that helped me identify the book.

It's an anthology published in 1964 as More Combat Stories of World War II and Korea, which was reprinted in 1969 as The Zone of Sudden Death. This was written by William Chamberlain and contained both short stories and novellas that originally appeared in the Saturday Evening Post during the 1950s and 1960s.

Chamberlain was a great writer and it's a pity he seems to have dropped into obscurity. His stories are historically accurate, realistic and exciting--made even more suspenseful by his habit to abruptly kill off likable characters at any moment. I'm a little surprised that I didn't remember more of these stories--though it's possible that for some reason I didn't originally read them all.

The theme of effective and inspiring leadership runs through nearly every one of his stories. The main protagonist is almost always an officer. They are battalion, regiment or division commanders who are given tough jobs to do, but lead from the front to make sure their men do the job. Chamberlain understood the qualities a leader in real life must have and effectively incorporated this into his fiction. This is not surprising--Chamberlain had been a career army officer, retiring as a general in 1946.

The first of the two stories I remembered is "Reluctant Hero," originally published in the Post in July 1961. The narrator is a battalion commander fighting in the Pacific island-hopping campaign, but the protagonist is a front-line soldier named Tom Minor. Despite a record of drunkenness and going AWOL back in the States, Tom has proved to be a great soldier who exhibits strong leadership skills. We meet him when he plays a key role in stopping a banzai charge.

Tom gets several promotions, eventually becoming an officer and a company commander. But when he's awarded a Silver Star, he refuses it. The reason why gradually unfolds as the story continues.

The other story I remember is a novella titled "Battle Party," set during the Italian campaign. (Originally published in the Post in September 1961.)

Here the main character is a newly-minted one-star general named Dave Mosby. This means Dave will be moved out of the regimental commander position he had, but not before he completes one more job. A big attack is going to be launched in a few days. But in order for that to succeed, the Germans will first have to be pushed off a mountain that overlooks the battlefield. Dave's regiment is given the job.

His plan is to lead one battalion up a steep cliff, hauling mortars and machine guns up behind them on ropes. This should achieve surprise and allow them to hold the mountain top until the rest of the regiment travels up a pass to join them. Then it's a matter of holding out for a few days until the big attack is launched.

In addition to crossing rough terrain, there are a couple of other problems. Dave is still recovering from a wound and the winter weather leaves him susceptible to pneumonia. And, when the bulk of the regiment makes its way up the pass, Dave's overly-cautious executive officer dawdles, taking hours longer on the trip than he should and allowing the Germans to wear down the battalion that's already entrenched on the mountain.

The story is peppered with a great cast of supporting characters and the battle scenes are among the best in the book. It's really no wonder "Battle Party" made such an impression on 11-year-old me. Heck, it made an impression on grown-up me.

We have one more World War II novel to visit, then we'll have finished our journey through my childhood reading experience.

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