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This week we look at four recent books about American Army units.
Ross, Robert Todd. U.S. Army Rangers & Special Forces of World War II: Their War in Photographs. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 2002
Ross, who previously wrote The Supercommandos about the joint US-Canadian First Special Service Force, this time has compiled a photo album covering the men of other American commando units, mostly Ranger battalions but also forces such as the Alamo Scouts. Ross divides his material into four sections:
Assembled like a scrapbook mostly with photos of soldiers (usually black and white, but some in color) and captions (ranging from a short sentence to a solid paragraph or more), Ross includes a few sidebars (such as the TOE for a Ranger battalion). Ross also shows uniforms and shoulder patches, certificates, weapons, equipment, and even a wartime cover from "Yank" magazine.
Ogburn jr, Charlton. The Marauders. New York: The Overlook Press, 2002. Softcover reprint edition
Where Ross devotes about eight pages of U.S. Army Rangers & Special Forces to Merrill's Maraudersand mostly photos in that spacethis classic unit history tells the complete story of the Marauders and their dramatic exploits in Burma. First published in 1956, The Marauders was written by a veteran of the unit who saw much of the action first-hand. This experience allows him to include many personal anecdotes to round out the more formal elements of the history. In fact, in his Acknowledgments Ogburn quotes another piece about the Marauders to explain the dearth of official documents: "[T]he Marauders restricted their files in order to maintain mobility while they were operating behind Japanese lines. During the second mission a Japanese artillery shell scored a direct hit on the mule carrying the limited quantity of records and maps kept by the unit headquarters. During the third mission the heavy rains made preservation of papers impossible for more than a day or two. The unit's intelligence officer [Captain William A. Laffin] was killed at Myitkyina, and his records were washed away before they could be located." Despite these obstacles, Ogburn has put together a solid, detailed, engrossing account of the Marauders, and this is a welcome reprint of that unit history.
Knickerbocker, H. R. et al Danger Forward: Story of the First Division in WWII. Nashville, TN: Battery Press, 2002. Reprint edition
Equally solid, Danger Forward is another reprint of another classic unit history, this one originally published in 1947. The new edition is part of Battery's ongoing project of reprinting American divisionals, and this particular package is one of the most attractive. The volume is divided into ten chapters (Algeria, Tunisia, Sicily, Normandy, St Lo and Mortain, etc) and each chapter is constructed in an interesting fashion, beginning with a brief introduction ("The Situation") explaining the overall context, followed by a third-person account of the campaign ("The Record"), followed in turn by a first-person account ("As I Saw It") with personal recollections from someone who was there. Rather like Ogburn's book, but in a much more compartmentalized manner, this approach means the book can juxtapose a detached historical survey with a great many human-interest details, providing in sum a full history of the division's part in the war. The text is supported by maps, a thick section (unpaginated) of photos, and a variety of "Supplements" including lists of 1st Division unit commanders, a chronology, and a long list of unit attachments and detachments. While some unit histories amount to little more than a self-congratulatory scrapbook, Danger Forward is a both a serious historical record of the division as a whole and an engrossing insight into what individual GIs went through.
Griggs, William E. The World War II Black Regiment That Built the Alaska Military Highway: A Photographic History. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2002
The last book in this survey is by far the slimmest of the lot, and it returns in many ways to the format of the first book discussed above. That is, Griggs presents us with a photographic history, and in this case one mostly devoid of text save some brief captions. Frankly, as our trail of book reviews over the last seven years proves, we're not usually big fans of photo albums, especially when so many of them seem to be little more than repetitious snapshots of Waffen-SS troops. This volume doesn't exactly redress the imbalance, but it's certainly a breath of fresh air in the genre. Instead of SS troops at war in Europe, Griggs offers the African-American soldiers of the 97th Engineer General Service Regiment (Colored)as it was officially designated at the timeat work on the Alcan Highway in Alaska. Also, rather than blurry snapshots, these are artful images by a trained photographer. The shots are superbly composed, the troops look vigorous and dignified, and the scenery is amazing. Not quite Galen Rowell, but very evocative. Other than a six-page overview of the construction project by Douglas Brinkley, little is revealed about the broader story of the unit (and nothing about its later service in New Guinea); instead this is a simple photographic record of men at work and play in a rugged wilderness under the pressure of war. Fortunately, the photos are strong enough to stand on their own, and anyone who appreciates albums of WWII-era pictures will enjoy looking at them.
All of these books are available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from the publishers.
Reviewed 15 September 2002
Copyright © 2002 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone
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