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Once Upon a Time in War: The 99th Division in World War II - Robert E. Humphrey

About a month ago, I purchased this book from a local bookstore. Here is a story which serves as a perfect combination of a history of one of the U.S. Army's infantry divisions that was sent to Europe in late 1944 after the conclusion of the Normandy campaign, and combat memoir.

The author, a university professor, interviewed many of the surviving veterans of the 99th, whose stories capture so much of the impact the war had upon them directly, as well as its effects (albeit tangentially) on America itself. What I especially liked about this book was its layout. The reader is given a view into how young men are transformed from anxious and eager volunteers/draftees into soldiers ready for overseas deployment. In the case of the 99th Infantry Division, it was one of 2 of the Army's untried divisions to be sent to what was at the time (November 1944) a quiet sector in Belgium. It was to be a jarring transition to combat, because in the next month, the 99th would receive its baptism of fire in the Battle of the Bulge, which turned out to be one of the bloodiest battles in U.S. Army history.

Combat proved to be a rude awakening for the 99th, but it held itself firmly together, never shrinking from the challenging and at times onerous roles it was given to fulfill, carrying the fight from Elsenborn Ridge to beyond the Rhine River and into the heart of Germany. (The 99th made additional history by being one of the Army's first units to take on African-American soldiers and integrate them into the ranks. Despite the initial resistance of some members of the 99th (a number of whom hailed from the South) to having black soldiers serve alongside them, they would later come to fully accept their "black brothers" once they proved themselves in combat.)

What I also found deeply affecting about this book were the accounts of the "coming home" experiences of many of the veterans from Europe. I don't think any reader will have a dry eye after reading these accounts.

For anyone who is curious to get a real, palpable sense of the true cost of combat on soldiers and civilians alike, I strongly urge you to read this book. You'll be glad that you did.