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Nations at war
Whitlock, Flint. The Rock of Anzio: From Sicily to Dachau: A History of
the 45th Infantry Division. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998
Acknowledgments; Introduction; photos; maps; Notes; Bibliography; Index.
Flint Whitlock's new book is simultaneously promising, frustrating,
disappointing, and partly redeeming.
Promising because Whitlock sets out to tell the story of the US 45th
Infantry Division from its days as a pre-war National Guard unit all the
way to its return to the States following a long, bloody, and victorious
path across Sicily, up the leg of Italy from Salerno, at Anzio, in France,
and through Germany to Dachau and Munich. This he attempts to do partly
through his own narrative but also in large measure by quoting the simple,
gained in interviews with dozens of aging Thunderbird Division veterans.
Frustrating because too often those stories lend a disjointedness to the
book, almost as though the author felt compelled to use all his hard-won
quotes even when they added little information and failed to fit neatly
into his flow of paragraphs. Similarly, too often the quotes lapse into
hearsay along the lines of "I heard that some other guys...", "Later we got
the word what happened was...", "My buddy told me he saw...". When
Whitlock fails to clarify or confirm these kinds of secondhand reports, the
book suffers accordingly.
Disappointing because Whitlock's own narrative tends toward
hyperbole and sensationalism with "withering fire", "hot lead flying", and
"blood flowing" at every turn. For much of the book he simply fails to
strong sense of craftsmanship, and his pop-flavored, unsophisticated writing
tends to settle into the easy cliches and generalities of pulp
magazines. He writes much but reveals little.
Partly redeeming because the weakest work comes in roughly the first third
of the book when the 45th is training and then fighting in Sicily, at
Salerno, and northward toward Cassino. The writing improves for the lengthy
section on Anzio, both in terms of Whitlock's narrative and the veterans
who contribute their voices. Even so, this remains very much rooted in the
"bayonet-clenched-in-his-teeth" school of military writing.
The Rock of Anzio, despite the voices of the 45th's veterans,
doesn't convey the same sense of authentic, serving-in-the-unit flavor as,
for example, when Greg Urwin in
Facing Fearful Odds
writes about what
fighting men have told him. Nor does it achieve the same level of astute
academic analysis and insight as John Sloan Brown's
And it doesn't offer the same level of broad operational and
strategic comprehension as Carlo D'Este's
Nevertheless, Whitlock offers enough mud, blood, sweat, and machine gun
fire to satisfy readers who seek a view of war from a front-line foxhole.
Whitlock's descriptions and those of the vets make for page after page of
dramatic men-under-fire vignettes illustrating the suffering and sacrifices
of the Thunderbirds of the 45th Division.
The reality consists of scenes of soldiers battling each other with knives,
bayonets, entrenching tools, and bare hands; thirst-crazed soldiers
drinking from streams flowing red with blood; men roasting to death in
burning tanks; pigs devouring corpses; soldiers being torn to pieces or
decapitated by the bursting of shells, leaving no earthly trace that they
had ever existed. In the hell of Anzio, grizzled veterans and frightened
teenagers -- each one someone's son, father, husband, lover, brother,
nephew, or uncle -- died together, their torn bodies intermingled in death
and mixed with the mud churned up by unceasing artillery duels, or crushed
flat and beyond recognition by armored vehicles.
Not the strongest book reviewed here this year, but The Rock of
Anzio is probably finding success among fans of the withering fire and hot
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from Westview.
Thanks to Westview for providing this review copy.
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Reviewed 24 September 1998
Copyright © 1998 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone