Once Upon a Time in War: The 99th Division in World War II

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For the soldier on the front lines of World War II, a lifetime of terror and suffering could be crammed into a few horrific hours of combat. This was especially true for members of the 99th Infantry Division who repelled the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge and engaged in some of the most dramatic, hard-fought actions of the war.

Once Upon a Time in War presents a stirring view of combat from the perspective of the common soldier. Author Robert E. Humphrey personally retraced ...

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Once Upon a Time in War: The 99th Division in World War II

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For the soldier on the front lines of World War II, a lifetime of terror and suffering could be crammed into a few horrific hours of combat. This was especially true for members of the 99th Infantry Division who repelled the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge and engaged in some of the most dramatic, hard-fought actions of the war.

Once Upon a Time in War presents a stirring view of combat from the perspective of the common soldier. Author Robert E. Humphrey personally retraced the path of the 99th through Belgium and Germany and conducted extensive interviews with more than three hundred surviving veterans.

When Humphrey discovered that many 99ers had gone to their graves without telling their stories, he set about to honor their service and coax recollections from survivors. The memories recounted here, many of them painful and long repressed, are remarkable for their clarity. These narratives, seamlessly woven to create a collective biography, offer a gritty reenactment of World War II from the enlisted man’s point of view.

Although focused on a single division, Once Upon a Time in War captures the experiences of all American GIs who fought in Europe. For readers captivated by Band of Brothers, this book offers an often tragic, sometimes heartwarming, but always compelling read.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“An absorbing social history of the common soldiers of the Checkerboard Division. Genuine and credible—a captivating story told mainly in the words of the GIs themselves.”—Peter R. Mansoor, author of The GI Offensive in Europe: The Triumph of American Infantry Divisions, 1941–1945

“A rich portrait of the American citizen soldier in war—well trained, sardonic in his outlook, determined to do his job, motivated to fight not for any abstract ideas about patriotism or hatred of Nazism, but for his comrades.”—Journal of Military History

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780806139463
  • Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
  • Publication date: 11/15/2008
  • Series: Campaigns and Commanders Series
  • Pages: 376
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert E. Humphrey is Professor of Communication Studies at California State University, Sacramento. He has published numerous articles in The Checkerboard, the newspaper for the 99th Infantry Division, and is author of Children of Fantasy: The First Rebels of Greenwich Village, 1910-1920.

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Read an Excerpt

Once Upon a Time in War

The 99th Division in World War II

By Robert E. Humphrey


Copyright © 2008 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8358-9


The Coming of War

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, struck like a lightning bolt, igniting a firestorm of patriotism that engulfed America. Before that unexpected assault the country was divided, with large segments of the public adamantly opposed to involvement in another foreign war. Uncertain as to Pearl Harbor's location, most Americans nonetheless knew something horrible had occurred when radio announcers interrupted regular programming to broadcast news of the Sunday-morning bombing in Hawaii. At 2:31 P.M. Eastern Time, CBS radio correspondent John Daly informed his listening audience that Japanese forces had struck American bases. In Westerville, Ohio, sixteen-year-old Warren Thomas and his father heard the shocking bulletin as they sat in the front room. Like everyone else listening to a radio that day, they stayed glued to their set in anticipation of additional bulletins. Francis Iglehart and his classmates at St. Paul's Prep School near Concord, New Hampshire, received the news from a dormitory supervisor and excitedly began to discuss which branch of service they would join, though the impetus, he confessed, was as much an escape from school as an expression of patriotism. That Sunday afternoon James Larkey's uncle took the whole family to the Polo Grounds to watch the New York Football Giants play the Brooklyn Football Dodgers. During the game, the loudspeaker system kept summoning military officers to report immediately to their unit headquarters. At dinner that evening they learned the reason for the urgent departures.

Grant Yager was working at his dad's little store in Sandusky, Michigan, when the news broke. The next day he took a bus to Detroit and tried unsuccessfully to enlist in the Marines. In Marshfield, Wisconsin, sixteen-year-old Raymond Wenzel was sitting in his grandparents' house waiting for the Green Bay Packer football game to start when the announcement came over the radio. Not knowing where Pearl Harbor was, he wondered if the Japanese would bomb his family too. Robert Mitsch, a sophomore at the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, heard the news on a tiny crystal set in his bedroom and hoped the American forces would "take it" to the Japanese. A senior at Catholic Central High in Detroit, Joseph Thimm sat in his best friend's car while they discussed the future, which they guessed would mean either enlisting or waiting to be drafted: "At this point the war became the focus of our lives." Robert Maclin, a freshman at Texas A&M University, was watching a polo match when the swing music playing on the radio of a convertible parked nearby was suddenly interrupted by a report of the war-triggering event, which soon "brought a more serious and sober mood to the campus." Carefree days had come to an end for Maclin and young men across the nation.

Upon hearing what had happened, Ken Reed, a high school student in Astoria, Oregon, near the mouth of the Columbia River, worried that the coastal state might be invaded or bombed. Eager to do his part, Reed immediately tried to volunteer. When Homer Kissinger of Ottawa, Kansas, came home late in the afternoon, his mother, thinking Pearl Harbor was located somewhere in northern California, gave him an incoherent and frightening account of an attack on San Francisco in which hundreds had been killed.

The seriousness of the situation was confirmed on Monday, December 8, when President Franklin Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war in a six-minute speech broadcast live to the nation. Throughout the country, high school principals organized special assemblies for their students. At Riverton High School in southeast Kansas, the entire school, including Howard Bowers, gathered to hear the president's address. William Galegar, a farm boy from rural Oklahoma, and his Avant High School classmates, one hundred strong, listened quietly to the sober message that would dramatically impact their lives. Working as an historical aide for the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., Charles Roland initially didn't believe the news; he thought "those funny-looking, little Japs wouldn't dare attack our great naval base." But after learning the truth, "shock, disbelief, patriotic anger, excitement, and anxiety overcame" him and everyone else. Within days isolationism virtually disappeared as Americans realized, especially after Germany also declared war on December 11, the two oceans no longer functioned as an attack-proof barrier against foreign aggression.

Upon learning of the war's beginning, B. O. Wilkins and his ROTC classmates at Louisiana State University marched to the university president's house and asked him what they should do to defend the country. Deep in the heart of Louisiana, they stood ready to fight. Sam Lombardo, a sergeant in the regular army, and his outfit were bivouacked near Lynchburg, Virginia, when they learned of the Japanese air attack. He later recalled, "No one slept much that night" because "everyone was uncertain about what was going to happen next." When John Hendricks attended class the next day at General Motors Technical College, the machine shop teacher, who thought Japan could only produce cheap, shoddy goods, confidently predicted the United States would defeat Japanese forces in "just a few weeks."

Although draft calls were speeded up, thousands entered the services voluntarily. Glenn Bronson recalled students in advanced ROTC leaving college and joining up. Likewise, James Bussen remembered many of his high school classmates in St. Paul, Minnesota, quit school and registered for the draft. James Larkey, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, canceled his registration at semester break and volunteered for the army because "I wanted to see what I was made of." Having enjoyed "a pampered life," Larkey wanted "to try hardship and prove myself." Rocco Razzano, twenty-six-years old with a wife and child, volunteered because he felt the "army needed me." Nicholas Gianopoulos' parents, poor Greek immigrants proud of their adopted country, told him the United States was a great country, and Nick should do his duty.

While parents accepted the necessity of service to the country, they did not eagerly embrace the idea of putting their sons in harm's way. When Edwin Stoch departed, he insisted his mother not accompany him to the train station in downtown Cleveland because he knew she would break down. Upon reaching the terminal, Stoch observed hundreds of draftees accompanied by their parents, all of whom were openly crying: "It was not a happy day." Although his father remained silent as he left, Stoch learned afterwards that he hardly spoke to other workers in the factory during his son's absence.

After receiving his draft notice, Steve Kallas of Cleveland, Ohio, boarded a train bound for an induction center, "curious as a cat to find out what army life was all about." Lyell Thompson, a farm boy in the drought-stricken dust bowl of central Oklahoma, heard the news on a battery-operated radio and worried that the "darn war would be over before I get in." Returning to the University of Washington after Christmas break, David Thompson was also "concerned the war would end before I had a chance to get involved." Having seen newsreels of Hitler and the havoc the Germans wreaked on Poland and France, Thompson felt they must be stopped.

Some inducement came from a sense of patriotic duty; the country was in peril and in the mythic tradition of the revolutionary Minute Men, good patriots ought to come to the aid of the nation if they cared about its survival. Young men who stayed out lacked the character to make sacrifices and the courage to put their lives on the line. They were acting selfishly, not heroically, at a time when the whole nation was pitching in to save democracy from militarism. The war appeared to be an apocalyptic struggle between the forces of good and evil, and civilization would surely defeat barbarism if Americans pulled together.

After a decade of unemployment, poverty, social dislocation, labor unrest, and class conflict, the war offered an opportunity for the country to come together and unite in a selfless, idealistic crusade. Self-confidence and optimism replaced doubt and pessimism. America would stand up to authoritarianism and save the world for democracy. Given the lofty goals and values at stake, no one could ignore the seriousness of the struggle and the dire consequences of losing.

* * *

Frederick Feigenoff wanted to volunteer but his parents were opposed because his older brother had been wounded at Pearl Harbor. Instead, he went to work for a defense subcontractor where he could have used a deferment for the duration, but "thought I am no better than anyone else." So he requested the local draft board in New Jersey remove his deferment, and subsequently he was drafted. There existed, Feigenoff admitted, social pressure to serve. Strangers and neighbors "gave you dirty looks" with the unspoken question, "What are you doing here when other young men are fighting?" The Service Flag with a blue star (indicating a son in the armed forces) in a family's window testified to a household's sacrifice and patriotism, while silently pressuring those eligible but not serving.

Edgar Henson, married and the father of a baby girl, might have avoided the draft because he worked for the Army Corps of Engineers. He decided, however, to volunteer because "his country was in need." Thor Ronningen, a twelfth-grader, felt "like a slacker" after his older brother was drafted and he couldn't join him. "It would have broke [sic] my heart," J. C. Jones commented, "if I hadn't gone. All the boys in Benton, Kentucky, were in; I thought it would be exciting." Francis Chesnick's two brothers were already serving, so he was keen to join the war effort, which promised to be "a great adventure" and a chance to see the country and the "world beyond the oceans." Joseph Hineman did not mind being drafted; he wanted to be like his father who had served in the First World War. Radford Carroll decided to go because "all the other people of my age group were going," except for the "physically or mentally defective," and he didn't want to be identified with those groups.

John Barton, the son of a Montana rancher, could have used a deferment to avoid the military, but "my world was pretty small and limited mostly to the county line, and there were things out there I wanted to see." Earle Slyder was serving as an army air force x-ray technician but decided he "didn't want to fight the war taking x-rays." Charles Swann, happy to be drafted into the infantry, "wanted to be where I could fight. I wanted to be a big hero." Maltie Anderson's three older brothers and his cousins were already in the service; "every one was going," and it "would have been inappropriate not to go." Charles Katlic preferred to avoid the infantry, but he wanted to "fight the Japs." B. C. Henderson, who worked on his father's ranch, went to the draft board in Lubbock, Texas, and told them to remove his deferment: "I felt I wasn't contributing enough. I wasn't doing as much as others were. I felt I ought to be doing more." After induction the doctors discovered Hubert Moody had a hernia and advised he could be discharged honorably. Moody asked them to please operate, which they did, and he stayed. Idealism, innocence, social pressure, patriotism, a desire for adventure, anger at the evil aggressors, and the chance to prove one's manhood motivated men to serve. Everyone sensed, if only vaguely, this decisive event would affect the course of history, and few wanted to miss out on something so momentous.

* * *

The tremendous upsurge in patriotic feelings roused by the onset of war did not subside until war's end. As each class (1942, 1943, 1944) of high school students reached eighteen and headed for their draft boards, the same sentiments persisted. Howard Stein, a student at Swarthmore College, became upset when others in the Enlisted Reserve Corps (or ERC, begun in April 1942) were drafted but he wasn't. Stein wrote a letter to the adjutant general of the army, asking why he wasn't taken—he soon was. Called up in July 1943, Mel Richmond was happy but worried (like his friends) he "might flunk the physical" and not be inducted. David Perlman would have been "crushed" if he had been rejected as 4-F. Apprehensive that poor eyesight might disqualify him, Perlman did his best to memorize the eye chart, and he passed. Similarly "gung-ho," Ralph Miller volunteered for the draft but was turned away because of a heart murmur and high blood pressure. Two weeks later, to his delight, the army drafted him and the doctors pronounced him fit for service. Radford Carroll was "uneasy" that he might be found "physically defective" and be rejected. James Langford tried to join the navy when he turned seventeen but was turned down because he wore glasses and had bad teeth. At eighteen, however, the army thought he would do fine. Since Donald Wallace had suffered a stroke as a baby, his right hand was useless. Nevertheless, by hiding that hand in a pocket and using his two hands together, he passed the physical. Wallace did not see himself as handicapped, so it was important he not be rejected; thankfully "the army was not too careful when it came to amassing cannon fodder."

Patriotism was not the only motivation for enlisting. By the time Tony Pellegrino finished high school, his brother and his friends had already left for the service; consequently, he decided, since he had "nothing to do," he would join up. Drafted in 1942, Isadore Rosen looked forward to escaping the pressures of running a wholesale butcher business. Ralph Shivone volunteered because he had a chance to become an officer and send some money home to his widowed mother.

Most recruits did not relish the prospect of serving in the infantry. The army air force scored high on the glamour scale. Even the navy was considered more desirable than the army; after all, the air force and navy had first rights on volunteers, and those who scored highest on the Army General Classification Test (150 multiple-choice questions in forty minutes) were more likely to be selected by the air force.

Young men already in college hoped they might finish their education. Many were told that if they joined the Enlisted Reserve Corps (ERC) they could complete their degrees while preparing to become officers in the army. Robert Mitsch delayed active duty for six months in ERC, but the extra time prompted "rumblings in the neighborhood as to why I was not in service, whereas others were." When finally ordered to report, Mitsch was glad to "get the monkey off my back." Occidental College student Louis Pedrotti explained that no one wanted to be sent directly to the front lines as a private in the infantry: "Even though we all felt that we were 'doing something' in a just cause, there was still the personal desire to get the best possible 'deal' in the service of our country." James McIlroy joined the ERC at Texas A&M for the same reason: "I wanted to be in the service because it was not popular at that time to be a draft dodger. I just didn't want to be in the infantry." Robert Maclin remembered being told by the army that enlisted reservists would not be ordered to active duty until after graduation, at which time they would receive commissions as second lieutenants. But all the enlisted reservists received a rude shock, for soon they were called to active duty—and not as officers-to-be. It was the first of many promises the army would break.

Induction and Basic Training

When the volunteers and draftees received "greetings" from the Selective Service, they reported to local draft boards and were later transported to induction centers. There, young men, stripped naked, moved along what amounted to a human assembly line where physicians, dentists, and psychiatrists examined their suitability for military service. Prudery and privacy came under assault, which lasted for the duration of their service. Those who passed (and many did not, especially in the beginning) felt an affirmation of their fitness and manhood. They were fingerprinted, required to sign induction papers, and given an army serial number (ASN) to be memorized. Decades later Louis Pedrotti could recite his number instantly, almost as if it "were engraved permanently across the inner surface of my cranium."

In a short time the inductee reported to a reception center where he received immunization shots, clothing, shoes, and two sets of "dog tags," a self-mocking, sarcastic term coined by American soldiers, equating their status to a domestic pet. This all-important medallion (embossed with the soldier's name, serial number, year of tetanus shot, blood type, and religion) provided surgeons and grave registrars with vital information about the wounded and the deceased; for Jewish soldiers captured by the Germans, the "H" (Hebrew) stamped on their tags proved to be a source of anxiety and danger.


Excerpted from Once Upon a Time in War by Robert E. Humphrey. Copyright © 2008 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. The Coming of War,
2. Training for War,
3. Going to War,
4. The Battle of the Bulge,
5. Going on the Offensive,
6. Crossing the Rhine,
7. The Soldier's World,
8. Closing the Ruhr Pocket,
9. Prisoners of War,
10. The War Comes to an End,
Appendix: 99th Division Interviewees,
Selected Bibliography,

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 12 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 12 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 13, 2009

    "Once Upon a Time in War" is written for and about the front line fighting man--their hopes and fears, loves and hates, and the paradoxical relationship between them and their officers.

    Only during the last few years of his life did my dad, John P Middleton (G-393) of the 99th really open up and tell what the Bulge was like as best he could. Since then I have read every book about that battle I could get my hands on, but few of them give more than a passing reference to the important part the 99th played in that crucial battle.
    As Dad would tell his story, he always made sure to include the raw deal the ASTP'ers got, including having to repeat Basic Training,and the antipathy that existed between the non-coms,drill sgts, and the "soft" college boys of the ASTP.
    But he also made it clear that the mistrust and hard feelings all went away when they were in the middle of life and death combat in the frozen foxholes of the Ardennes.
    Because these front line "doggies" rarely knew what was going on beyond their own company or platoon, Robert Humphrey has tried to write this book from that perspective--every moment of life was precious because these boys never knew what the next moment would bring. They only knew that they were to stay and fight, to hold on to their little pieces of frozen ground, and to kill any Germans that they saw.
    Because most of this book is based on many, many interviews with 99'ers, the viewpoint is narrow and the opinions expressed about the officers is usually critical at best and brutally harsh at worst, with a few exceptions.
    The men felt as if they had been fed to the slaughter by the "brass", that there was no real plan, and that their lives were as cheap as a pack of cigaretts. The fact that they were issued no winter clothing in the worst winter in decades was just one example of how they saw themselves in terms of importance--especially when the guys in the rear seemed to have all the warm clothes they could put on.
    But they grew to respect and look up to most of the non-coms and they held because the alternative was disgrace or exile to a German prison camp or even murder in a snowy field like those at Malmedy had suffered.
    Yes, most of the 99'ers were green, but they held the northern shoulder of the Bulge at Elsenborn Ridge and breakthroughs by the Germans were few and on a relatively small scale.
    A final thought on Humphrey's book--most of these men were quite up in years when they were interviewed and in most cases they held nothing back, good or bad. The language at times gets rough, and the scenes and descriptions are often horrible to read, but this only shows that what these men suffered and accomplished and (some) survived in a frozen forest lo so many Christmases ago left a mark on them that faded only with their deaths.
    Dad was one of the many interviewed for this book. The last few years, as he tried to relate what it was like (how could anyone relate it to a person that has never experienced it?), I begin to understand why and how and who he was, for better or worse, and although he had plenty of faults in life, that long ago Christmas in Belgium forged and influenced nearly everything about the rest of his life. I suspect it was the same with most of these other men, in spite of what they say, heroes all, as they went from boy to man in a world turned upside down. Robert Humphrey captures the essence of that as well in his book as in any other I have read on the subject of war. If you want to read from the men themselves what it was like, I highly recommend this book.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 1, 2008

    WWII from an Infantryman's Perspective

    Robert Humphrey has done a great job showing the horrors of war from an infantrymen's perspective. The book is about the 99th Infantry Division who fought in numerous battles in WWII including the Battle of the Bulge, Remagen Bridge, and the Ruhr Pocket. <BR/><BR/>What is great about this book is that Mr. Humphrey has interviewed hundreds of the front-line infantrymen who suffered the most with regards to casualties and living conditions during the war. The reader will realize the true horrors of war after reading this book. <BR/><BR/>Since this book focuses on the individual soldier, the reader will get a great sense of what war was like during the Second World War. The reader will also realize how the front-line soldier was neglected with regards to food, clothing, etc. during the war.<BR/><BR/>This is a must read. I would recommend this book to all scholars and history buffs.<BR/><BR/>Jett Johnson<BR/>Goldthwaite, Texas

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 13, 2015

    "It was like hell in a very cold place...!"

    Those were the words my Dad once used to describe "The Bulge". He served with the 99th. Infantry Div., 394th Regiment, Battery A, Field Artillery as a Forward Observer, was badly wounded and captured by SS units on his birthday, Dec. 19th, 1944. Over the years I learned by reading what was available about some of what he likely experienced in combat and, captivity as a P.O.W in Hammelburg and Moosburg, Bavaria. His liberation took place in May 1944 by then having lost over forty lbs. due to near starvation and disease. Eye witness commentary from surviving veterans and fellow P.O.W.'s recalls the fear, sacrifice, suffering from bone chilling cold, frost bite, lack of food, inexperience and training of both officers and enlisted but, above all speaks of the courage of the American soldier who became simply known as "The G.I." Reading this well researched and documented history helped fill in many blanks for me personally. Dad did not speak of his experiences until many years later and then, did so reluctantly. Reading "Once Upon A Time..." put me beside him and along side the brave men (many green replacements at this point in the war) he served with. The first person recalling of events by numerous veterans adds substance to their story. Those survivors of the 99th. and "The Bulge" that remain are rapidly leaving us. Soon sadly, all will be gone. This book honors them and their generation who were called on to destroy fascism in Europe and save democracy during WWII. What the 99th. accomplished in battle in places like Elsenborn Ridge and surrounding towns in Luxembourg and Belgium deserves to be honored and not to be forgotten. Memories eventually fade and history often becomes myth. Robert E. Humphrey's "Once Upon A Time In War" is a noble effort to assure that future generations of Americans will remember these men. He has honored those who survived but, especially those who did not. Highly recommended.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 5, 2012

    very boring

    very boring

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 10, 2009

    Must Read

    Once Upon A Time In War is The Book for anyone interested in the history of WW II. Mr. Humphrey has not only done an excellent coverage of the 99th Division, but also found and described the thoughts and feelings of all front line infantrymen of all divisions as they faced the Germans and tried to live through their fight and come home to resume a normal life. Interviews from 363 veterans of the 99th, some wounded, some captured some funny remembrances, many horror memories, were used by Robert as he composed this book and these interviews covered an extensive range of topics from training through the end of the war. Many personal thoughts were described as the interviewed veterans of the 99th shared some of the secrets they had kept locked away for over fifty years. Anyone searching for information relating to the 99th Division would definitely see this book as a gold mine of information and those just seeking historical WW II information will also find this book a necessity in understanding what a front line American soldier saw and endured as he sacrificed his youth and many times his life for his country.

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  • Posted January 26, 2009


    I have just finished reading Robert Humphrey's new book, "ONCE UPON A TIME IN WAR." It is a great and accurate book, and I would recommend it to anyone, whether a former soldier, a history buff, or just a casual reader.<BR/><BR/>Many books about World War II tell about generals and strategy, and an overall view of this war. Humphrey deals with the stories of the men who actually fought. There were approximately fifteen million military personel involved in this great war, but fewer than one million actually saw the enemy. This is a story of men living under horrible weather conditions, not properly clothed or fed, who engaged the enemy face to face, and sometimes hand to hand.<BR/><BR/>The men he interviewed told stories they had tried to forget, but could not. These stories they could tell only to each other, for they felt if you were not there you could not understand.<BR/><BR/>After great research and many interviews with soldiers who lived day to day knowing that the nwext day might be their last, Humphrey tells it like it was. How do I know? I was there.<BR/><BR/>J.R. McIlroy (F Company, 393rd regiment, 99th division)

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    Posted December 12, 2008

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    Posted December 26, 2008

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