- Surviving the Odds: From D-Day to VE Day with the 4th Division in Europe
My colleague Bill Fitzgerald landed on Normandy with the 90th Infantry Division on D-Day+2. Ambushed, wounded, and evacuated to England, he served out the war with a battalion Headquarters Company much as did Jack Capell, author of the present memoir. The post–World War II years saw many memoirs published, ranging from Audie Murphy's To Hell and Back to Charles MacDonald's Company Commander. The immediacy of the shock and horror of battle explains such works. But how does one account for a memoir written thirty years after the fact, e.g., E. B. Sledge's With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa (1981), or sixty plus? After attending the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day, Bill Fitzgerald—silent on the war to that point —talked of it constantly as his late wife was quick to observe. Jack Capell was not quite as reticent, occasionally speaking of his experiences, but not really writing them down until recently. The answer to the above question lies in the grim realities of war and how the human psyche responds to them. Some will never tell what they saw. Others will do so only after some later experience, e.g., attending a memorial reunion or reading a book, sparks a response prompting reflection and the need to talk.
Memoirs of war then reveal the deeply seated nature of trauma and this in itself should be cautionary. Jack Capell's memoir is cautionary, but reveals, too, a lesser known story—the daily challenges of just trying to survive ubiquitous death and destruction. Assigned to a regimental Headquarters Company (8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division), Capell was perhaps a thousand yards behind the front-line battles of the combat infantrymen, the companies like those of his own division, who typically numbered but 30 of 190 just three weeks after D-Day. This is not to minimize the hazards faced behind the front but rather to note the nuances of ground combat.
Like the woodworm in Julian Barnes's A History of the World in 10 Chapters (1989), Capell's memoir tells a similarly arresting tale of what the majority of soldiers experienced—not the combat infantry, always in the minority—but the mass of men who saw war and survived: the Atlantic crossing on crowded (!) troopships where men were squeezed together like sardines, receiving just enough food to keep body and soul together; the daily grind of extended battle where hot food and water, a warm place to sleep, were luxuries dreamed of but seldom realized. Occasionally there are lapses characteristic of the woodworm's view—the assertion that numbers of Americans were shot for desertion (in fact only one was, Pvt. Eddie Slovik), or that black Americans did not serve as infantrymen (in fact numbers of them surrendered at the Bulge, as did their white brothers-in-arms), while other black GIs volunteered to fight, some even sacrificing stripes to serve as grunts.
Despite occasional lapses, Jack Capell offers a glimpse of the heroic unheroic side of battle, and for that reason his memoir deserves recognition [End Page 1287] and inclusion among the many noble achievements of the "Greatest Generation."
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