Another Band of Brothers
David G. Mitchell
The first book about World War II that I ever read was the now iconic Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose. The commercial success of that book, coupled with the brilliant HBO mini-series adapted from it, opened our collective eyes to the awe-inspiring stories of the men and women who won the Second World War and paved the way for scores of other historians who wanted to write about the Greatest Generation and World War II.
As many readers will recall, Ambrose wrote about the men of E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, sharing their experiences and memories from basic training to the end of the war. In Tonight We Die as Men: The Untold Story of Third Battalion 506 Parachute Infantry Regiment from Toccoa to D-Day, Ian Gardner, writing with Roger Day, brings to light the stories of several more members of the 506th PIR and reminds readers of the great sacrifice and determination that resulted in the Allied victory over the Third Reich.
The Third Battalion was trained at Camp Toccoa, Georgia, a location familiar to readers of Band of Brothers. Like so many other American troops, the Third Battalion was shipped out to England for further training and assembly before they were dropped onto Normandy soil on the sixth of June, 1945. Their D-Day mission was to capture and secure two wooden bridges that spanned the Douve River that could have been used by the Germans to deliver reinforcements to the Utah Beach area.
Although the experiences of the Third Battalion may have been similar to the experiences of the men of Easy Company, Tonight We Die as Men reinforces the fact that for all of the men who participated in the D-Day landings, no two had exactly the same experience, and the story of each is very much worth preserving. For example, the story of paratrooper Private Don Artimez, in the moments after he jumped from his transport plane, is both remarkable and unforgettable and might have been lost but for the research of Gardner and Day:
As he floated to earth, an enemy soldier armed with a Schmeisser machine pistol fired and hit him 23 times in the legs and lower body. When he landed, he had no feeling from the waist down and was unable to move. The German soldier thought that Artimez was dead and cautiously approached. He then sat astride him and started going through his pockets. Luckily Artimez’s arms were by his sides. He managed to pull his jump knife out of his boot and plunge it into the German’s kidneys. The man let out a terrifying scream and collapsed on top of him. He was now trapped under the German’s body and stayed in this awful position until he was discovered the following day by a group of passing troopers. Artimez survived his ordeal and astonishingly made a full recovery, but he never returned to duty.
But for Tonight We Die as Men, the stories of men like Artimez would soon be forgotten, which would be a small tragedy for each of the soldiers who fought and died, and for those who fought and lived as well. Today we have plenty of outlets for recording personal history. Blogs, Facebook and other social media tools make it possible for all of us to record our personal histories, whether remarkable or mundane. For the men and women who endured the Great Depression, and who fought for the Allied cause, and even those who fought for the Axis cause, however misguided, during WWII, their histories will die with them unless someone decides to ask them what happened, then writes a book that includes their answers, and then finds a publisher who will publish it. The odds of those three things happening are increasingly remote and that is why, even though millions fought during WWII, most of the stories—the personal histories that in the aggregate comprise human history—will be lost in time.
If it does nothing else, Tonight We Die as Men remains a worthy book because it preserves some of those endangered histories. Although the book is not perfectly written—at times it seems fragmented or to lack cohesion—it is still wonderful to read, as a tribute to the men of the Third Battalion and to better understand where and how they fought and where and how they died or survived. If there are passages that are disconnected, it may only be a fitting metaphor for the war itself when one considers how the paratroopers of the Third Battalion felt as they were getting ready to jump. Some would live. Some would die. None could know in advance into which group they would fall and one can only assume that a small part of each died as they descended onto Normandy soil.
Nevertheless, although readers of oral military histories will want to read Tonight We Die as Men, they will also find that the Gardner and Day did not take the stories of the men of the third battalion nearly as far as they might have. Telling the story of what happened is only part of the historian’s task and while preserving those stories is important, the historian also needs to provide a synthesis of events and place them in a broader historical context. As I read Tonight We Die as Men, I found myself earnestly hoping to find such synthesis but I never did. Of course, Ambrose was often guilty of that as well, but he helped to pioneer the importance of oral histories so he gets a bit of a free ride. Today’s historians should provide us with more than Ambrose did, if only to give us good reasons to move beyond Ambrose.
Criticism aside, I enjoyed reading Tonight We Die as Men. It is a fine piece of story-telling and its pages are populated with engaging tales and sympathetic characters. Only the survivors have been able to share with succeeding generations their stories. It is a credit to men like Gardner and Day that they have been willing to listen, to record, and to share the stories of men like Artimez. That is more than enough to make Tonight We Die as Men a very special book.
Books mentioned in this column:
David G. Mitchell spent most of his youth arguing with his elementary school librarian about the merits of Enid Blyton’s works and why it was a crime that Blyton was not represented in the school library. He lost that argument, but that did not stop him from trying to read his way through the school library anyway. Over the years, he has immersed himself in the classics, science fiction and fantasy, history, biography, philosophy, popular religion, cooking, folklore, sports and just about every other genre that can be imagined. Between books, he received a degree in history from Boston College and a law degree from Boston College Law School. In addition to practicing law, he has worked as an interpreter of the history of historic houses in Salem, Massachusetts, and participated in the archaeological survey of Boston Common. David currently has his own law practice. He is also a contributing writer at SavingAdvice.com where he finds connections between frugal living and almost every aspect of life, and a contributor to Renaissance magazine and Book Page. He lives in Florida with his wonderful wife, two sons and a labradoodle named Biscuit. Contact David.