The Longest Winter by Alex Kershaw
By Alex Kershaw
DaCapo Press, 2004; 317 pages ISBN # 0-306-81304-1
Author Alex Kershaw’s newest book examines the story of what has been called the most decorated platoon of the U.S. Army in World War II. This unit, the Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon of the 394th Regiment, 99th Infantry Division, fought an extremely important delaying action during the opening hours of the Battle of the Bulge in December, 1944. After inflicting heavy losses on a numerically superior force of attacking Germans during the first day of the offensive, the platoon exhausted most of its ammunition and fell victim to enemy flanking movements. The group was captured and spent the next five months in captivity as the war in Europe reached its final conclusion. Members of the platoon were liberated in April, 1945, after advancing Allied units overran the various camps that housed the valiant soldiers. Most were shortly sent back to the United States, and their story of extraordinary bravery and determination faded for the better part of three decades. Then in the 1970’s, after attention had again fallen on the platoon’s story, the Army belatedly awarded 18 decorations for valor on members of the unit, arguably making it the most-decorated such group in Europe during World War II. Included in this decoration were four awards of the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award for valor the U.S. Army bestows. One of the recipients of the DSC was Lieutenant Lyle Bouck, the commander of the platoon and central figure in Kershaw’s book.
The Longest Winter begins with the story of the I&R platoon’s creation while the 99th Division was training stateside. Kershaw follows the group as they are shipped overseas and then sent to the Ardennes for a period of combat introduction. It was there, on the morning of December 16, 1944, that the I&R Platoon defended a fortified position near the village of Lanzerath, Belgium as the Nazis launched their great offensive. Bouck’s men killed scores of German soldiers before they were flanked and captured. This delaying action has been credited with assisting the disruption of the Nazi timetable for the initial assault. Indeed, Bouck’s men blocked the path of a major German advance route. This delay prevented the enemy from making a quick breakthrough in that particular sector, and it gave Allied leaders time to deal with the situation. Many have suggested that stubborn resistance of front-line units, like the I&R Platoon’s defense, constituted the major reason why the Nazis failed with their offensive. Kershaw obviously agrees with this assessment.
The Longest Winter does not stop with the heroic action at Lanzerath. It follows members of the I&R Platoon as they begin their life in captivity. In riveting detail, the author traces the GI’s agonizing journey eastward and enlightens readers about their daily struggles as prisoners-of-war. One very moving account centered on the separation of the wounded members early after capture. Private William James, suffering from a severe head wound, had fought from the same position as Bouck. As he lay waiting for evacuation, Bouck placed a photo of his girlfriend in easy viewing distance and set James’ bible in his hand. Bouck then assured his wounded comrade he would see him again. Kershaw relates this incident in such a way, that readers will feel a tug of emotion as the obvious anxieties these men faced are brought home in a powerful manner.
One other notable episode covered in Kershaw’s book is the famous raid by a combat team form the 4th Armored Division on the POW camp at Hammelburg, Germany. This daring mission was conceived by General George Patton and carried out by a small task force under the command of Major Abraham Baum. It was designed to free the prisoners, and then bring these men back to American lines. During the attack toward the camp, which was over 50 miles behind the front lines, the task force met strong Nazi resistance. Baum’s command reached the camp but were unable to carry many solders out, as they had lost several vehicles in the fierce assault. Lieutenant Bouck, an inmate at Hammelburg, tried to make his way westward with the group as they withdrew toward American lines. Unfortunately, the weakened force lacked sufficient vehicles, fire power and soldiers to complete the difficult mission. Bouck, and many others, plodded back to Hammelburg and re-imprisonment. Kershaw relates the heartbreak and disappointment of the failed attempt vividly as he examines the reactions of Bouck and the other GI’s.
Whether it be trudging through snow in sub-zero temperatures, enduring bombings or dealing with the effects of malnutrition, disease and abuse, Kershaw dramatically describes numerous difficulties the men had to face. For those who have never studied the hardships that POW’s endured during World War II, The Longest Winter will definitely acquaint readers with the tribulations GI’s confronted during their daily existence.
With the sixtieth anniversary of the Battle of Bulge at hand, this timely work revisits a story of bravery, dedication, sacrifice and determination within that pivotal campaign. The Longest Winter is a must-read for those interested in this battle and is also valuable for its look at the exploits of brave soldiers in the largest land engagement fought by the U.S. Army during World War II.
Book review by Allen Williams