Archive for September 2003

Book recommendations: The Histories of Stephen E. Ambrose

10 September 2003
Categories: From the armchair
coverCitizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany by Stephen E. Ambrose

One of Ambrose’s strongest popular works, in part because he allows his sources to tell their stories in their own voices. The result is about as close as one can get to the actual experience of the infantry in the European Theatre, even though that still leaves it worlds away from having been there.

Ambrose takes us from D-Day through to the Bulge, then takes a lengthy interlude of several chapters that focus on specific aspects of the war. Most, especially the chapter on medics, nurses, and the aid station system, are excellent. One chapter, on the air war, is somewhat redundant to his later work The Wild Blue, but is also fairly short. Finally, he returns to the chronology and takes us across the Rhine into Germany.

Structurally and informationally, the book is quite solid. My only real complaint is that the ETO maps that lead off many chapters are not particularly helpful. They usually show the big picture but do not show the smaller towns and villages in which the events of the accompanying chapter take place, leaving the events in a sort of geographical limbo. Also, all are two-page maps, and so the central front line, where the maps have their greatest detail, almost always winds up buried in the depths of the spine. Overall, this book would be my first recommendation for those interested in getting started with WW2 history as seen through the pen of Stephen Ambrose.

coverBand of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest by Stephen E. Ambrose

The basis for HBO’s extraordinarily-well-rendered 10-part miniseries. After about episode 5, I found myself wishing 1) I had been better able to place names with the faces on the screen, as it was becoming quite obvious that nearly every character was an actual, real-life person, and not some dramatic-license amalgam as in, say, The Tuskegee Airmen (a notable flaw of that otherwise excellent HBO production); and 2) I had a better knowledge of the various battles in which these men fought, and a more detailed understanding of what they went through. Ambrose’s book provides all that and more. It’s based—often directly, with long quoted passages—on numerous lengthy interviews with many of the soliders of Easy Company, including Dick Winters, Carwood Lipton, and many others. Best of all, the book allows one to see how one company could fight in the D-Day invasion in France, Operation Market-Garden in Holland, and the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium and manage to wind up in Austria by the end of the war.

coverThe Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s over Germany by Stephen E. Ambrose

The story of the Fifteenth Air Force as told through the eyes of one pilot, his crew, and a squadron of the 455th Bomb Group stationed in Cerignola, Italy during 1944–45. The pilot is George McGovern, a South Dakota native who flew 35 missions over Germany and Austria, later to become a U.S. Senator and presidential candidate. McGovern’s tale is neither typical nor atypical, and is told with candor and a scholar’s eye for detail. Overall, this is a well-written and interesting book, but at times the book is hampered by a feeling of disjunction, as if various chapters did not know of the existence of others. For example, Chapter Nine describes the emergency use of parachutes tied to the waist gun mounts to slow an aircraft with its brakes shot out. Two chapters later, McGovern uses this technique, which is explained to us anew, as if for the first time. Also, many of the chapters bog down at their ends because Ambrose resorts to reciting mission statistics for the time period covered in the chapter. This is useful information, but might have been better served by a table in an appendix, with the body of the book reserved for more analysis than merely the raw numbers of missions flown, aircraft deployed, bomb tonnage, and losses of crew and aircraft.

coverNothing Like It In The World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863–1869 by Stephen E. Ambrose

This time Ambrose has moved away from military history and writes about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, though he does often refer to the crews, populated by Civil War veterans, as being similar to a fighting force as they pushed the line forward. (He even works in a few half-sequiturs regarding World War II soldiers.) The book alternates chapters between the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific, a decent way to structure the tale even though it’s forced to chronologically backtrack to cover the same year from the other railroad’s perspective. (This disconnect is more pronounced as the lines near each other, and their surveyors and graders cross paths.) The book includes some good maps, following the lines on a state-by-state basis, with the only drawbacks being that the the maps are insufficiently detailed to show all the towns along the lines that are mentioned in the text, and the California map (the start of the CP) is inexplicably placed near the very end of the book.

Overall, this is a typical Ambrose book in that it’s an enjoyable read, densely researched (if not perfectly notated), mildly repetitive but otherwise written with élan. During his research, Ambrose was invited to ride on the UP’s gigantic steam locomotive № 844, where he saw first-hand the enthusiasm of railfans for the old beast. Reading this book, it’s apparent that much of that enthusiasm rubbed off on old Stephen.

Footnote: The fact that I managed to be in Sacramento while reading this book, and saw the actual Gov. Stanford, the CP’s first locomotive, in the California State Railroad Museum there, helped to bring this book to life for me. Maybe someday I’ll take a long drive down Interstate 80, much of which follows the old Transcontinental grade, for a full-immersion history trip.