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February 2020 Book Reviews

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Hard Climb for Original Mountain Soldiers

The Winter Army: The World War II Odyssey of the 10th Mountain Division, America’s Elite Alpine Warriors. Maurice Isserman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 336 pages. $28

By Lt. Gen. Walter Piatt

In The Winter Army: The World War II Odyssey of the 10th Mountain Division, America’s Elite Alpine Warriors, author Maurice Isserman masterfully lets us listen in as the original mountain soldiers tell their stories of acting as America’s elite alpine troops. His well-researched reliance on firsthand accounts adds a much-needed new chapter to the rich history of the famed 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry).

As someone who served three tours with the 10th Mountain Division, and as a voracious reader of historical accounts of the division, I am confident that the combat-tested veteran, the military historian or the interested casual reader can enjoy this book.

The narrative follows the incredible arc of the 10th Mountain Division, beginning with how the alpine troops almost never became a unit, training hard in bitter cold conditions but almost missing the war; when finally called upon, they became World War II game changers, proving to be the toughest foe the experienced German alpine soldiers faced.

After the war, we follow the veterans home, where they helped build America’s ski industry and stand up environmental organizations, parks and natural conservation groups around the country.

The Winter Army also serves as a reminder to our nation and our Army that we must constantly prepare for war, and in doing so, seek and welcome the perspectives of those outside the military and security community. As our nation mobilized for World War II, the military leadership did not see the need for a specialized alpine unit. It took a civilian ski advocate to convince top leaders of the amazing potential for this type of unit.

The original 10th Mountain Division fought in combat for only four months, but earned its place in history as an unstoppable force on some of the most unforgiving terrain. No matter how infallible the enemy’s defenses were, the mountain soldiers followed the initial guidance of their leader Maj. Gen. George Hays to always keep moving forward, no matter what. And they didn’t stop until they had finished their “climb to glory.”

This book also moved me profoundly, as it connected me once more to a long-lost friend and mentor from the original 10th Mountain Division, Nate Morrell. There he was in a picture I’d never seen before, an unnamed soldier, smiling as a young man the exact same way he so often did when I knew him, more than 50 years later. He was one of the original “ski troops” but was also one of the mighty soldiers who put the “mountain” into 10th Mountain Division.

Morrell’s passion in his final years was bringing together the original generation of mountain soldiers with the current, and I was so pleased to see him here in this book, still making that connection. Morrell passed away several years ago, but seeing his photo made me feel like I was having one last conversation with him, and I am grateful.

These are stories that must continue to be told and men that America should never forget.

 

Lt. Gen. Walter Piatt is director of the Army Staff. Previously, he was commander of the 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) and Fort Drum, New York. He has served in the Army for 36 years.

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Audacious Allied Attack Proved a Cliffhanger

The Force: The Legendary Special Ops Unit and WWII’s Mission Impossible. Saul David. Hatchette Books. 386 pages. $28

By Charles Sasser

During World War II, at the beginning of the harsh Italian winter of 1943, an elite, specially trained unit composed of American and Canadian commandos became legend for scaling an “impassable” mountain rampart to penetrate Nazi Winter Line defenses and opening the way for the Allies to conquer Rome.

In The Force: The Legendary Special Ops Unit and WWII’s Mission Impossible, military historian Saul David skillfully weaves exciting period history of the First Special Service Force (“the Force”) that ranges from strategies devised by top Allied leaders including President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill down to soldier commandos in the ranks who would “literally insist on … dying for one another.” And sometimes did.

The First Special Service Force, a name blandly applied to conceal the outfit’s true nature and purpose, was activated at Fort Harrison, Montana, on July 9, 1942. The only unit of its kind in the world, a predecessor of the U.S. Army Special Forces (aka the Green Berets), it consisted of three regiments with a complement of 1,650 volunteers selected from both Canada and the U.S.

The Plough Project, as the plan was code-named, was prepared by early 1943 to operate in the frozen mountains north of Europe to protect Allied supply lines, parachute into enemy strongholds, destroy Nazi hydroelectric power, and conduct other specialized commando operations in rough and mountainous terrain.

In August 1943, the Force joined a 32,000-man amphibious task force to storm Kiska in the Aleutian Islands off Alaska, only to find the Japanese invaders had evacuated the island. Still untried in combat, the Force lapsed back into limbo.

In the meantime, the invasion of Italy began. The Allied plan was to seize Naples, work up and over the western slopes of the rugged Camino massif’s series of peaks, penetrate the Nazi defensive Winter Line, and move on against Rome. Allied attacks had been repeatedly beaten back with heavy losses.

The key to seizing the massif highlands was Monte la Difensa, the highest and most formidable of the peaks. The side that controlled it controlled the entire massif. Not only would the climb be extremely taxing and hazardous, further complicated by freezing rain and snow, but the best approach to the summit at its weakest defense point required attackers to scale near-vertical 200-foot cliffs that topped part of the eastern and northern faces, a task only bold mountaineers with ropes, guts and guns would even attempt. That was the Force’s assigned objective.

Allied artillery commenced bombardment on Dec. 1, 1943, but freezing rain delayed the assault until the night of Dec. 4 when the action kicked off with the commandos clawing their way up the side of the peak in full darkness. Fortunately, the Nazis felt so secure in the unassailability of the cliffs that few observers or defenders were posted above.

Still, the Germans put up a fierce fight. Within two hours, however, the battle for la Difensa ended with the Force in control. The commandos’ superhuman effort became a legend throughout the Allied lines and opened the path through the Winter Line to Rome.

The Force fought for over a year after that in the mountains of Europe, suffering 401 killed and 1,803 wounded while stacking up victories against Axis forces with its unconventional tactics and bravery.

Montreal Star reporter Sholto Watt wrote that the Force “was exactly what one would expect from North America’s best—an inspiration to see and a terror to the enemy … an example of international brotherhood which deserves enduring honor.”

Charles Sasser is a retired 29-year veteran of the Army and Navy, both active-duty and Reserve. He also was a police officer for 14 years. He is the author or co-author of over 60 books, including One Shot—One Kill.

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Washington Inspired His Army by Example

Contest for Liberty: Military Leadership in the Continental Army, 1775–1783. Seanegan Sculley. Westholme Publishing. 256 pages. $30

By Edward Lengel

The Continental Army was one of the strangest armed forces to contest the field of battle during the past 300 years. Poorly supplied, sometimes starving, wracked by disease, ragged, sullen, nearly bankrupt and occasionally mutinous, it nevertheless endured for eight years before finally emerging victorious from the Revolutionary War.

Seanegan Sculley takes a fresh look at the nascent military force in Contest for Liberty: Military Leadership in the Continental Army, 1775–1783, evaluating its recruiting, training and discipline; examining its internal structure and motivations; and suggesting how it managed to face down the British Army. The Continental Army’s resilience, Sculley suggests, emerged from its fundamentally republican nature.

Commander in Chief Gen. George Washington and his most trusted general officers, notably Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, toiled for years to transform the Continental Army from the amorphous mob it resembled in 1775 into a professional fighting force on the European model. They had only partial success. Although Congress eventually came around to Washington’s point of view and helped regularize recruitment, discipline and organization, Sculley argues persuasively that American officers and men remained faithful to their regional traditions and especially their conceptions of individual liberty throughout the war.

American officers, unlike their European counterparts (to varying degrees by country) never attained the authority to command obedience by virtue of social rank or military law. While all military structures over time have entailed the negotiation of a kind of social contract between officers and men, in the American instance, that contract remained thoroughly republican in nature.

Throughout the war, American soldiers retained many of the rights appropriate to their dignity as citizen-soldiers, and on multiple occasions they offered reminders of their right to resist unjust or immoral authority. The most effective officers recognized these rights and negotiated authority with their men rather than simply trying to impose it by force.

Sculley sees the fundamental republicanism of the Continental Army as the foundation of its resilience in adversity. Officers’ obligations to negotiate just social contracts with their soldiers forced them to lead actively and by example. While variations persisted among formations from different regions, this acknowledgment of basic human dignities even within a military system, in combination with training and experience, helped forge a commonality of purpose their British counterparts lacked.

In this, as Sculley acknowledges but which he could have explored in greater detail, Washington inspired by his personal example. Recognizing over time that he could improve the Continental Army and tighten training and discipline to foment better battlefield performance, but that he could never fully embody the European model, the commander in chief achieved personal identification with his men without abandoning the perquisites of high social rank. Washington never shared the kind of physical hardships his men endured, but he did work assiduously and without glory-seeking for their welfare. This was the key to the trust and love they eventually came to feel toward him.

Contest for Liberty is not for the general reader. Academic in tone and structure, it presupposes intimate knowledge of the field and is frequently repetitious. Some of Sculley’s peripheral arguments are erroneous, such as the suggestion that Washington was a Fabian warrior—a Vietnam War-era supposition that has long since been exploded. The author’s central arguments, though, are convincing and eye opening.

Students of military history seeking to ponder the origins and meaning of the idea of an American way of war will find much to ponder and admire in Contest for Liberty, which should quickly become a seminal work in the field.

 

Edward Lengel is a military historian and former director of the Papers of George Washington documentary editing project. He has written extensively on the Revolutionary War and is the author of General George Washington: A Military Life.

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Profile of a Multifaceted but Erratic Leader

Edward M. Almond and the US Army: From the 92nd Infantry Division to the X Corps. Michael Lynch. University Press of Kentucky (An AUSA title). 440 pages. $60

By Allan Millett

By Helmuth von Moltke’s legendary categorization of officer types, Lt. Gen. Edward Mallory “Ned” Almond should have been a perfect Army chief of staff or Army group commander. He was smart and energetic. He was a master of detail and complexity. In Michael Lynch’s biography of Almond, Edward M. Almond and the US Army: From the 92nd Infantry Division to the X Corps, we see Almond in full—a driven professional who reflected the best and worst characteristics of the generals of his generation, the junior officers of World War I who led the U.S. Army in World War II, then shaped the Cold War Army of the 1950s.

Almond, who is best known for his command of the U.S. X Corps in Korea from 1950 to 1951, looked like a division commander of exceptional promise in a Regular Army ground officer corps dominated by George Marshall and Leslie McNair. Having proven to be a courageous and innovative machine-gun commander in the American Expeditionary Forces, Almond had little problem winning a career commission in the interwar Army.

Among the cultural values of that officer corps, two influences were especially meaningful for Almond. One was the institutional position that nonwhite units should be no larger than a regiment and have white officers of the highest caliber. The second was the Army’s emphasis on formal officer training and education. Almond’s academic performance was stellar. Successful troop command was less valued.

Measured by assignments, since promotion was governed by seniority, Almond rose in the interwar Army by being a student and an instructor. He spent one-third less time in troop command than his contemporaries, and spent one-third more service in school assignments. He not only attended and performed brilliantly at the Infantry School, the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and the U.S. Army War College, but on his own initiative attended the Air Corps Tactical School and the U.S. Naval War College.

As a field army and corps staff officer in the 1939–41 prewar maneuvers, Almond won ringing endorsements from his seniors, including Marshall and McNair. He also won a reputation as an outstanding trainer. His professional profile matched that of Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley, as well as Lloyd Fredendall, a dramatic failure as a corps commander in North Africa.

Almond finished the war still in command, and Lt. Gen.  Lucian Truscott, not given to empathy, rated him fourth best of the 15 generals he rated in Fifth Army. As a corps commander in Korea, Almond impressed Gens. Matthew Ridgway and James Van Fleet.

The galaxy of future generals on the X Corps staff recognized Almond’s flaws: impetuosity, inability to admit his misjudgments, lack of personal empathy, demands for uncritical loyalty and a bad temper. Few ever earned Almond’s trust. And of those who earned his enmity, including Lt. Gen. Walton Walker, Gen. Paul Freeman and Marine Gen. O.P. Smith, he never changed his opinion.

Almond is best remembered for his opposition to racial integration in the Army, which Lynch covers in full detail. Almond’s erratic performance as X Corps commander had nothing to do with his racism, but further expressed personal traits no amount of professional education and socialization could cure.

 

Allan Millett is the author or co-author of 10 books on U. S. military history, including a history of World War II and a trilogy on the Korean War.