ON DESPERATE GROUND: THE MARINES AT THE RESERVOIR, THE KOREAN WAR’S GREATEST BATTLE by Hampton Sides

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(American Marines at the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea, December, 1950)

Hampton Sides latest book, ON DESPERATE GROUND: THE MARINES AT THE RESERVOIR, THE KOREAN WAR’S GREATEST BATTLE has met, or even surpassed the high standards for excellent narrative history that he has set in his previous works.  The book is based on extensive interviews, memoirs, command of secondary sources, and the ability to place the reader along side historical decision makers and the soldiers who carried out their orders.  Whether Sides is writing about James Earl Ray and the assassination of Martin Luther King; the last survivors of the Bataan Death March; a biography of Kit Carson; or the late 19th century voyage of the USS Jeanette to the unchartered Artic waters, he tells his stories with uncanny historical accuracy and incisive analysis.

In his current effort Sides conveys the authenticity and intensity of war on the Korean peninsula.  His portrayal of the bravery of America soldiers is clear and unsettling as the realism of combat is laid bare for all to see.  At times it is difficult to comprehend what these soldiers were able to overcome and reading the book during the week of Veteran’s Day makes Sides work that more relevant.

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(Major-General Oliver Prince Smith)

Sides integrates all the important historical figures into his narrative, including American Marines and members of the US Army.  We meet the egotistical General Douglas MacArthur and his staff of sycophants and supplicants.  MacArthur can carry out the Inchon landing against all odds, but this logistical miracle seems to fuel is insatiable need for further glory.  Fed by men like General Ned Almond whose main goal was to carry out MacArthur’s wishes, sluffing off any advice or criticism by other planners the only result could be the disaster that encompassed American soldiers at the Chosin Reservoir and along the Yalu River.  Disregarding intelligence that went against his own staff, MacArthur and Almond would push on disregarding and ignoring contrary opinions.  President Harry Truman appears and seems to go along with MacArthur, particularly at the Wake Island Conference until proof emerges that over 250,000 Chinese Communist soldiers have poured into North Korea from mid-October 1950 onward.

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(Major-General Edward “Ned” Almond)

Perhaps Sides most revealing portrait in explaining how American soldiers met disaster in the Chosin Reservoir region was his comparison of the views of Major-General Oliver Prince Smith, the Commander of the First Marine Division, a by the book Marine who described MacArthur as “a man with a solemn regard for his own divinity;” and Major-General Edward “Ned” Almond, MacArthur’s Chief of Staff.  All Almond cared about was speed, disregarding the obstacles that Smith faced in planning MacArthur’s assault on northern Korea.  Smith was a deliberate and  fastidious planner who resented Almond’s constant goading.  He felt that Almond strutted around (like MacArthur!) and made pronouncements based on minimum intelligence.  Almond was a racist who down played the abilities of Hispanic American troops and thought very little of the fighting ability of the Chinese.  For Almond’s part he viewed Smith as an impediment to his overall goals of carrying out MacArthur’s wishes.  He believed that Smith was overly concerned with planning minutiae, and his deliberate approach detracted from his grand plans.

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(General Douglas MacArthur watching the Inchon Landing)

Sides portrayals of American soldiers and the their character provides insights and provide a mirror for the reader into the person’s abilities and their impact on their units, individual bravery, and the success or failure of their unit, battalion, or company’s mission.  Studies of Lee Bae-Suk, a Chinese-American who escaped North Korea as a teenager and enlisted in the Marines; Captain William Earl Barber, Commander of Company F, 2nd Battalion role protecting the Toktong Pass, a key route to the Chosin Reservoir, and a student of Sun Tzu as was Mao Zedong; the exploits of Seventh Marines’ Company E, known as “Easy” Commander, First Lieutenant John Yancy at Hill 1282; Lieutenant Chew-Een who led the column to rescue Fox Company encircled by Chinese troops; the Jersey contingent of private Kenneth Benson and Private Hector Cafferata, Jr.’s heroism in Fox Company; Lieutenant Thomas Hudner who would earn the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery for his attempt to rescue Ensign Jesse Brown who hailed from a Mississippi sharecroppers background to become the first African-American fighter pilot in the US Navy; are among many along with other portrayals that are eye opening, as so many soldiers continued to fight on against all odds, despite wounds that would not have allowed most to even stand upright.

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(General Douglas MacArthur and President Harry Truman at their Wake Island meeting)

Sides description of combat is almost pure in of itself, but completely unnerving.  A prime example is the fight for Hill 1282 and the rescue attempt of Fox Company.  The Chinese would attack American soldiers in human waves by the thousands paying little, or no attention to casualties as Marines repeatedly cut them down.  The carnage and suffering are hard to comprehend as is the bravery of US Marines fighting in sub zero temperatures in the middle of the night to protect a small piece of geography in northern Korea against an enemy, lacking in communications using the unnerving sounds of bugles, cymbals, whistles and such to organize their attacks.  Battles are seen through the eyes of the participants and the will and desire of each man is on full display.

Sides has written an excellent narrative military history, but on another level, he has produced a study that highlights the relationship between men in combat and how they rely upon each other for their survival.  It is a book about heroes, the idiocy of war, and the incompetence of decision-making by people at the top who are willing to send men to their deaths, in many cases without batting an eye.  The book reads like a novel, but it presents history as truth, that cannot be denied or dismissed.

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(US soldiers retreat from the Chosin Reservoir, December, 1950)

 

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THE LONGEST DAY by Cornelius Ryan

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(June 6, 1944….D-Day landing at Normandy)

On June 6, 2019 thousands will descend onto the beaches of Normandy to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the allied landing that would eventually bring an end to Nazi domination of Europe during World War II.  Since my wife and I plan on traveling to Normandy at that time I felt it was important to read the latest works on the topic.  It made sense to me to reread Cornelius Ryan’s THE LONGEST DAY, first published in 1959, a book that has not lost its resonance to this day. As I began to familiarize myself with the history of the events that led up to the invasion, the invasion itself, and its historical ramifications I felt that Ryan’s work was a good place to begin.

Ryan’s work, along with A BRIDGE TO FAR and THE LAST BATTLE are well written accounts of the war that in most cases have stood the test of time.  In THE LONGEST DAY, Ryan recounts the horrors of war that took place the night of the invasion, and what followed the day after.  His research consisted of hundreds of interviews of the participants including Americans, Canadians, British, French, and German soldiers and civilian, along with primary documents that were available.  In his account we can discern the difficulties in planning the invasion, carrying it out, and its emotional and physical impact on those who approached the Normandy beaches, and what transpired once they landed.  In the end roughly 12,000 allied soldiers perished in the attack, with the Americans bearing half the number of casualties.

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(German obstacles on the beaches)

Ryan possesses an almost intimate knowledge of what transpired, particularly the thoughts of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, who believed an allied invasion would coincide with a Russian move in the east.  Since a Russian attack was delayed because of a late thaw in Poland, Rommel decided to travel home on June 5th.  Rommel firmly believed that he had left the beaches protected with the numerous underwater obstacles he created as well as the 60 million mines that were buried on the beaches.  For Rommel, the key was to destroy invasion forces in the water before they could reach land.

At times, Ryan’s account reads like a novel as he describes the various aspects of the invasion.  Whether he is describing the actions of allied midget submarines X20 and X23 off the shore of Normandy, the inability of the German command to obtain permission to release the 12th SS and Panzer Lehr divisions to combat the invasion, the experiences of individuals as they tried to cope with what was occurring around them, Ryan places the reader in the middle of the action, and one can visualize what is happening very clearly from his descriptions.

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(Allied Supreme Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower)

Ryan is correct in his account of how the German High Command reacted to reports of the allied landings.  They could not accept the magnitude of the assault and those who were witnessing it, like Major Werner Pluskot could not seem to convey to higher ups that “a ghostly armada somehow appeared from nowhere.”  Ryan presents a realistic portrayal as the allied landing forces begin to approach the beaches as he describes the many accidents, drownings, explosions, and deaths that occurred before the fighting even commenced.  Ryan’s reporting of certain incidents is chilling; for example, when soldiers saw their compatriots drowning or injured, they were ordered not to assist them and stick to the tight schedule that planners wanted implemented.

Ryan’s descriptive approach is on full display as he describes the paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne units and their plight as they parachuted behind German lines as the first component of the invasion.  Ryan provides individual stories of the participants ranging from Lt. Colonel Benjamin Vandervoort who fought for 40 days on a broken ankle, General Dwight Eisenhower’s agonizing decision making in dealing with weather issues as he tries to determine whether to unleash allied forces, to members of the French underground and their work, to civilians in England, Germany, and France and how they dealt with loss and anxiety about their loved ones.

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There are several interesting aspects dealing with the technological ingenuity of the allies, particularly the creation of two floating harbors that were towed across the channel, each harbor amazingly replicating the size of Dover, England.  The invasion was a logistical nightmare and Ryan does a wonderful job providing insights into how certain problems were dealt with.

Ryan’s work was published in 1959 after years of research and the final product was exemplary when written and remains a classic account of D-Day seventy-five years later.

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BABYLON BERLIN by Volker Kutscher

Image result for photo of Weimar Berlin 1929(Weimar Berlin, 1929)

After recently visiting the Jewish quarter of Budapest, former Nazi sites in Nuremberg, and several German towns along the Danube and Rhine Rivers, 20th century German history has taken hold of my thoughts.  When I travel I have a personal tradition of trying to discover regional authors who have written historical mysteries about countries I have visited.  In this case I have come upon, Volker Kutscher’s first novel, BABYLON BERLIN, which introduces Book I of his Gerson Rath series.

Gerson Rath is an interesting protagonist who stems from a somewhat questionable background.  A former Cologne detective, he was forced to leave that police department due to a shooting incident where Rath was strongly implicated.  Because of the influence of his father, Police Director Engelbert Rath, he was able to transfer to a vice squad in the Berlin Police Department as an investigative detective.  From that point on Kutscher provides an insightful look at the underside of Weimar Berlin in 1929 as the depression looms and right-wing parties begin to proliferate.  Kutscher explores the role of drugs, pornography, and the actions of immigrant elements and their effect on German crime, politics and society in general.

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(Weimar Berlin, 1929 witnessed the rise of the Nazi Party)

Rath soon finds himself involved in a series of vice raids, but his heart is in solving homicides, not busting pimps, prostitutes, or porno-film producers.  After several murders take place, Rath sees an opportunity to solve them as a vehicle of self-glorification to gain a promotion to the Homicide Division.  He keeps information from his superiors, becomes involved in an accidental murder which he hides, false in love with a stenographer in Homicide, all on the way to achieving a promotion, due in large part once again to his father’s influence.

As Rath proceeds with his own investigations, the pervading atmosphere in Berlin is one of fear of communist demonstrations that could lead to a coup against the government.  This fear was further reinforced with the emergence of a group called the “Red Fortress.” Pre-Hitlerite Berlin is on full display as we witness the rise of anti-Semitism and the Nazi Party, the cafes and dance halls infested with alcohol and cocaine, opium dens, mob killings, corruption, and labor unrest.  Berlin is a city where Communists and ultra-nationalists are at war with each other to wreck the Weimar Republic’s fragile democracy. Another component to Kutscher’s plot emerges as Rath discovers a connection with a circle of oppositional Russian exiles who try to purchase weapons with smuggled gold stolen from Stalinist Russia.  Rath’s actions and machinations should be self-destructive as he himself becomes a murder suspect.  Rath is a character with many secrets, which include PTSD from combat in World War I, and Kutscher has no compunction about presenting Rath as an individual who is morally compromised as he tries to achieve a greater good for his city.

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(1929, Hitler the politician in Weimar Berlin)

Kutscher introduces several interesting characters to carry his novel.  Among them are Charlotte Ritter, a stenographer in the Homicide Department that Rath falls in love with; Elizabeth Behnke, Rath’s landlady who is jilted by Rath after a one night stand; Detective Chief Inspector Wilhelm Bohm, a boisterous commander that Rath must deal with; Dr. Magnus Schwartz, the coroner who repeatedly tests Rath’s reaction to autopsies;  Berthold Weinert, a newsman and neighbor of Rath; Commissioner Zorgiebel, a friend of Rath’s father, who needed publicity the way an addict needs his drug fix; Bruno Wolter, Rath’s partner;  Countess Svetlana Sorokina, whose family held $80 million worth of gold; Alexej Ivanovitsch Kardakov, worked to smuggle gold into Germany; and Johann Marlow, a cocaine dealer linked to the Red Fortress plot. Other criminals and interesting personality types are also present representing the Russian mob, drug dealers, murderers, and Nazis, all designed to complete a complex plot line that meanders throughout the novel.  For Rath, as the investigation proceeds he is forced to ask himself; “how was it that every time he learned something new about the case, he understood less than before?”

Kutscher has written a fast-paced story that seems to twist and turn from page to page.  It will keep the reader’s attention through an excellent translation from German and the end result should surprise everyone.  The end of the novel forms the basis of a continuing series involving Detective Investigator Rath in the second installment, entitled, THE SILENT DEATH.  For those interested, BABYLON BERLIN, currently forms the basis of a new series on Netflix.

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(Weimar Berlin, 1933)