Soldiers dying to go home

"Hitler had been sure his young men would outfight the young Americans. He was certain that the spoiled sons of democracy couldn't stand up to the solid sons of dictatorship.”

This is a story of war. It's not an analysis of strategy and tactics, or of generals and politicians.

It's a story about the common American soldier fighting through France and Germany in World War II.

In “Citizen Soldiers,” historian and author Stephen E. Ambrose follows the U.S. Army as it fights its way through the hedgerow-laced French countryside and across the formidable Siegfried Line protecting Germany's western border.

The story begins on June 7, 1944, the day after the Allied invasion on the Normandy beaches.

In his folksy, storytelling style, Ambrose writes of the young men who died, were wounded and those who survived. He writes of heroism and cowardice and the appalling conditions of a soldier's life while in constant contact with the enemy.

Continual shelling and sleep deprivation made men go crazy. Men in foxholes spent nights listening to the screams of the wounded pleading for help. Retaining a semblance of sanity was as difficult as staying alive.

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Winter was brutal for the men on the line. Pvt. Bert Morphis told Ambrose where he was on Christmas Eve, 1944.

“…on an outpost right in front of the German lines where the choice seemed to be moving and being shot, or lying perfectly still and freezing to death.”

Trench foot took its toll. Men lost toenails and toes, and feet and legs.

“During the winter of 1944-45, some 45,000 men had to be pulled out of the front line because of trench foot—the equivalent of three full infantry divisions,” Ambrose writes.

Wounds were a ticket out of the foxholes and out of the war. A bullet pierced the neck of Pvt. Martin Duus, went through his throat and lungs and out his right shoulder.

“I was damn glad I was hit and could get out of there. Absolutely. My fear was I'd get well enough to go back,” he remembered.

Ambrose describes the ingenuity of the American fighting men. Soldiers welded six-inch pipes to tanks in an effort to break through the dense hedgerows, which, in an incredible blunder, American intelligence had overlooked.

For Ambrose, what the U.S. Army accomplished, from the Normandy beaches to the Rhine River in 1944 and 1945, is nothing short of phenomenal. But it's not only about the fighting men. Ambrose describes the experiences of nurses and clerks, secretaries and code-breakers. He writes of criminals and cowards, quartermasters, replacements, medics and doctors.

He writes of an army learning as it fights. Soldiers had to cross rivers and fortified defense lines, battle through severe cold and snow and fight in cities. Air and ground campaigns required coordination. The army had to fight on the defensive as well as offensive.

“Citizen Soldiers” is the story of an army overcoming fear, inexperience, geographic obstacles, command and intelligence mistakes, fatigue, insanity and death. It's the story of soldiers who weren't going home unless maimed or dead, or until Germany was defeated.