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Nations at war
Mittelman, Joseph B. Eight Stars to Victory: History of the Veteran Ninth US Infantry Division. Nashville, TN: Battery Press, 2003
Foreword; Preface; photos; maps; Acknowledgments
Appendices: Facts and Figures; Command Staff; TOE
Of the many histories of American divisions in World War II, some of those published in the immediate post-war years seem more like souvenirs or scrapbooks while others tackle the divisional stories more seriously. This book, originally published by the 9th Division Association in 1948, never quite falls to the level of mere souvenir, but it never quite rises to the level of serious history either. That's too bad, because the divisional histories offered their authors a great opportunity to make important contributions to the understanding of the operational experiences of American combat units.
Instead, Joseph Mittelman chose to "dumb down" his book back in the days before that particular term had even entered the language. He certainly didn't write for future historians or researchers, and the book reads as though he might not have even been writing for the veterans themselves. Instead, with a simplistic vocabulary and a sanitized approach to the 9th Division's story, Eight Stars to Victory reads like it might have been aimed at the young children of the vets. Readers face a cloying style (especially in the early chapters), almost complete excision of controversial or unflattering content ("we have eliminated all references to such occurrences"), an annoying and mystifying passion for randomly italicizing words, andon may occasionsan amazing degree of misplaced certitude concerning events about which the author in retrospect seems completely clueless.
Here's a typical passage:
Thus the invasion convoys sailed right under the
watchful eyes of German observers in Spain and
Spanish Morocco. The enemy thought the whole
thing an effort to run supplies and reinforcements
to the hard-pressed island of Malta, since all sorts
of false rumors had been spread throughout Africa
by American intelligence agents. So complete had
been the deception that Germans and their French
collaborators were led to believe that any attempted
invasion would come via Dakar...their concentration of military and naval might was distributed accordingly. The Allies were able to land with full information; habits of leading citizens, customs of communities, systems of water, electric power and communications were studied in advance by expertly trained men. Deception and spying had reached a
new zenith in military operations! ...Sixty-three enemy submarines were later proved to have been off this west coast port [Dakar], awaiting an attack which never came.
Despite that unfavorable evaluation of the book's style and approach to its subject, not all is lost. For readers who can grit their way through the prose and filter out the extraneous "facts" concerning almost everything (enemy forces in particular) outside the immediate confines of the 9th Division itself, the book improves in the later chapters and Mittelman does a fairly thorough job of chronicling the unit's odyssey.
Quite an odyssey it is, too, with the division participating in the Torch landings in North Africa, the Tunisian campaign, Sicily, Normandy, and more. To begin with, however, the author devotes a chapter to the original activation of the division and its participation in the First World War. The second chapter of about twenty-five pages goes into considerable detail about the rebirth of the unit in 1940 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Mittelman writes nostalgically about the early days of living in tents, lack of hot water, the low pay and high cost of living, and the weather, including "the worst electrical storm in modern Carolina history."
In November 1942, split between the Eastern and Western Task Forces, the division took part in the invasion of French North Africa. Spread far apart, some 9th Division troops hit the beach in French Morocco, others in Algeria. The 2nd Battalion of the 39th Regiment, on the other hand, was aboard the unlucky transport Thomas Stone which was hit by a torpedo in the Mediterranean. (According to Jurgen Rohwer, the torpedo hit was scored by an Axis bomber, but Mittelman concentrates on the battalion's exploits reaching shore safely without mentioning where the torpedo came from.) The division went on to spend time patrolling the border with Spanish Morocco before eventually engaging Italian and German forces and, along with the Corps Franc d'Afrique and its Goums (about which Mittelman provides a page of information, some of it accurate), finally advancing along the rugged coastal route into Bizerte.
The division next took part in the Sicilian campaign, including hard fighting in the mountainous interior of the island against German positions along the central route toward Messina. Afterward the 9th remained on Sicily and did not move to the Italian mainland. Insteadfollowing another memorable spate of stormy weatherthe division sailed from Sicily on 11 November 1943 en route for England.
Mittelman spends much of his sixth chapter about England discussing London, pubs, and Constable Lane, but he also has a fair amount to say about training and planning. Despite its previous amphibious experience, the 9th Division was not destined to land on D-Day. Instead, the first troops disembarked at Utah Beach in Normandy on 10 June. The division took part in the drive to the west coast of the Cotentin peninsula and then the assault on Cherbourg. It then moved southeast of Carentan and participated in the battles in the hedgerows in that area. On 25 July the division's 47th Infantry Regiment sustained heavy casualties due to accidental bombings by American aircraft when the bombers attempted to blast a hole in the German defenses. Beginning on 2 August the division assisted in the final breakout by American forces and then in the halting of the Mortain counter-offensive. For the remainder of the month the division pursued the retreating German forces across France, entering Belgium on 2 September. The division also served in the early stages of the battle of the Huertgen Forest, taking heavy casualties in the initial push toward Huertgen and Schmidt.
Here's how Mittelman describes some of the action:
The course of the battle for Germeter swayed
back and forth. Footsloggers of the 39th tried to
cut the north-south road north of Germeter, but
moved forward slowly against mounting opposition.
Meanwhile, the 60th attempted to cut that road
south of the town. Both the Go-Devils 1st and 2nd
Battalions were counterattacked many times and a
rough fight ensued. With tanks and tank destroyers to aid them, the Go-Devils made some progress...despite a preponderance of wire obstacles.
During the night of October 9th the enemy infiltrated between the two left platoons of Company I and the remainder of the 39th 3rd
Battalion. This cut off one platoon and the
Germans succeeded in killing, wounding or
capturing all but a few men. To re-establish
the push it was necessary to clear out the
Nazis in house-to-house fighting. The battle
still was going on in the morning and ended
with the capture of 58 enemy troops. As
this engagement was in progress, the 47th Infantry
delivered a diversionary attack on the northern
Most successful attack of the day was launched by
the 1st Battalion of the 60th. The 60th Infantry
had received support from an artillery preparation
prior to jumping off. Then, in a magnificent
maneuver the 1st Battalion changed its direction of
advance and moved 2,000 yards on the vital Germeter-Rollesbroich road junction at Richelskeul.
Taking a total of more prisoners than they had men
present for duty in their own battalion, Lt. Colonel
Lee W. Chatfield's fighting outfit forced the Germans to issue one of the first retreat orders directed
by the Wehrmacht inside of Germany. By 6 P.M.
the road junction and its vicinity were in possession
of the 1st Battalion. This action was instrumental
in stopping the flow of German supplies traveling
The division went on to the Battle of the Bulgewhere the 9th held the northern shoulder of the frontand the capture of the Roer dams. The same troops were among the first into the Remagen bridgehead. After the battle of the Ruhr pocket, the division plunged eastward as the German army crumbled.
It was during the battle for Ballenstedt that one
of the most audacious episodes of the campaign was
lived by Private Paul King, Jr. of the 47th's Company B. The battle had been a lively one, and the
numerically superior foe was peppering the area
with death and destruction. Private King had had
enough of this nonsense, so he went forward under
direct enemy observation and fire...until he came
upon the German troops. King demanded to see
the enemy commanding officer. This done, the private who had more gall than two Caesars, calmly
informed the German commander that if he did not
surrender all the enemy forces within the area, that
he (King) would have his battalion's tanks and infantry kill every soldier in the vicinity.
That did the trick, and the German C.O. capitulated with his entire command of 250 men and 15
vehicles to Private Paul King, Jr.the one-man
battalion of Company B!
The last chapter of the book covers "Peace and Occupation" with about twenty-two pages, concluding with deactivation of the division at the beginning of 1947.
All in all, Eight Stars to Victory isn't a chatty, high school yearbook kind of divisional history, nor does it have the flavor of family reunion familiarity found in some unit histories. Perhaps because the unit spent so much time in combat, Mittelman has little choice but to follow the 9th's actions across North Africa, Sicily, and western Europe. However, his descriptions of combat tend to be somewhat stylized and vague, as though the author can't quite believe that anyone would really want to know tactical details of deployments and engagements. From that perspective, this book is useful but not of the first rank.
Nevertheless, like many other readers of WWII-related books, we're big fans of unit histories, even imperfect ones, and we'll gladly add this one to our library. Collectors of American divisional histories continue to owe a debt of gratitude to Dick Gardner of Battery Press, publisher of these reprint volumes.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from Battery.
Thanks to Battery for providing this review copy.
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Reviewed 1 February 2004
Copyright © 2004 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone