Wednesday, November 14, 2012

"Captain, I'm scared": The Liberator by Alex Kershaw

Two weeks ago, when I was in Jackson, Wyoming for a reading from Fobbit, I stopped in the Valley Bookstore--the bookshop which, along with the now-defunct Teton Bookshop, formed part of the Holy Trinity of my bookish youth (the Teton County Library was the other point of that literary triangle).  As I've done at every stop during this Fobbit tour, I bought a book to help support the cause of independent bookstores.

As I walked through the front door of the Valley Bookstore, BOOM!, there was my choice right in front of me on the table of new releases.  This may be surprising, coming from a guy who wrote a novel about the Iraq War, but I'm not a frequent reader of military non-fiction.  My friend Bart, who lives here in Butte, Montana, can wax rhapsodic for hours on end about Napoleon's disastrous Battle of Leipzig and he will even go to the library just off his sitting room, skipping happy as a schoolboy, to pull a musty, leatherbound volume down off the shelf--a 19th-century text written by one of the general's contemporaries--and page reverently through the engraved plates showing maps, battle landscapes and military portraits.  God bless Bart, but that's not really my style.  I'm more of a Jonathan Franzen-Alice Munro-Ian McEwan kind of guy.  I breathe the air of wholly-fictional worlds.

However, when the bell above the Valley Bookstore's door tinkled, it was like a gong sounding in my head.  Here, right in front of me, was a book I needed to buy and read immediately.  I don't know why I felt so compelled--maybe it was the stunning jacket design featuring the photo by Robert Capa, or maybe it was the subject matter of one World War Two Army officer's "500-day odyssey from the beaches of Sicily to the gates of Dachau"--but something moved me to pick up The Liberator by Alex Kershaw.

In the past week, I've been slowly making my way across Europe with Felix Sparks of the U.S. Army's 45th Infantry "Thunderbirds" Division.  Kershaw is a masterful narrative historian, making the battle campaigns easily digestible to even the most battle-map-challenged reader like me.  The Liberator is most effective when it views combat from the inside out--burrowing us deep into sometimes horrific scenes through the eyes of its weary and wary participants.  I'm less than 100 pages into the book, but I can already tell this is going to be one of the best accounts of war I've read in a long time.

Today, I thought I'd share one passage with you--the moment in September 1943 when Captain Sparks first leads his men into battle.  Up to this point, he'd primarily been working as an adjutant (a fobbit for all intents and purposes), but finally he gets his big break as his unit--seasick and facing a formidable German defense--is ordered to press north along the Italian coast toward Naples.
He had yet to lead men in battle and was understandably nervous as he headed toward the front for the first time as a company commander.  But one of the many things he had learned from Colonel Ankcorn in Sicily was that he should always appear calm and collected.  Indeed, good leaders were often good actors, able to convince their men if not themselves that they would somehow prevail.  "The truth of the matter was I was scared shitless, but my men didn't know it," Sparks later confessed.  "Sometimes you just have to take care of business.  Just do it, get through it.  That's all."

Sparks and his men climbed down netting and into the landing craft that would take them to the shore.  It was around 8 a.m. when E Company's boats left the mother ship and made for the beach.  The air was soft, the skies a bright blue except where scarred by ugly black puffs from anti-aircraft fire.  Before them lay the Gulf of Salerno with its long beaches of white sand.  In the distance, to the north of the bay, Sparks could see 3,556-foot Monte Soprano and adjacent Monte Sottane, which had provided the perfect vantage points for German artillery observers.

Ramps came down.  The landing craft disgorged a foul soup of puke and seawater.  Men pushed forward onto the churned sands and began weaving through piles of Allied supplies.  Sparks led his men inland, passing the ancient ruins of Pastum, famous for its three great temples, whose towering columns still stood, seemingly in defiance.  Evidence of fierce and desperate fighting lay all around as he moved farther inland: abandoned German anti-tank guns, packs dropped by men in a hurry, vehicles blackened and still smoldering.  Not far from one temple stood the charred hulk of a German tank that had received a direct hit and then "brewed up" as the British put it, exploding into flames.  The Germans had been trapped inside, and a puddle of their fat, coated in brightly colored flies, spread slowly beneath the tracks.

As Sparks moved off the plain of Salerno and onto higher ground, one of his men couldn't help show his feelings.

"Captain, I'm scared," said a young private.

"Well, soldier, we're all scared," Sparks reassured him.  "Don't let that bother you."

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