An old soldier takes on the ghosts of his war

  • Article by: MARK HVIDSTEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 16, 2009 - 3:57 PM

In retelling his experiences with an intelligence and reconnaissance platoon during World War II, the author finally nurses his wounded conscience.

Unknown Soldiers by Joseph Garland

On bookstore shelves, former Minneapolis Tribune and Associated Press reporter Joseph Garland's "Unknown Soldiers: Reliving World War II in Europe," could be just another in a long line of accounts of the Allied Forces' bloody climb up the boot of Italy.

But Garland, who served with the Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon of the First Battalion, 157th Regiment, 45th Division of the U.S. Army, goes beyond the movements of troops and accounts of battle. He drops to the lower rungs of pay grade and examines the buried conflicts of conscience and fear that he and his platoon members struggled with before, during and after battle.

It is the battle within himself that Garland's book really is about. "Unknown Soldiers" is more an exercise in understanding and accepting a life-changing experience. And if at times it reads like a session on a therapist's couch, it is because the book could not have been written without many such sessions. Garland credits time spent with a Veterans Administration psychiatrist with helping him tear down his wall of "writer's block" that led to two previous attempts at a book.

"I realized that this was really the collective story of our Platoon and by no means mine alone," Garland writes. "So I turned to my old comrades around the country ... interviewing them with my news-hound know-how and with bottle and camera in hand, and discovering few if any of us had talked of our war to anyone."

The result is a better understanding -- for the reader, to be sure, but also for Garland himself, whose time with the platoon ended two weeks into a campaign in southern France by a mortar blast that knocked him off a ladder and cut his leg to the bone. He was reclassified as unfit for further combat duty and reassigned to a medical corps in Italy.

Garland was both relieved and confused by the reclassification. Many of his friends had received more significant wounds and returned to the platoon. He discovered in his research that the "sympathetic" Army surgeon who made the call served under a medical friend of Garland's doctor father.

"So now at last, in this moment of revelation and with a lump in my throat, I hereby face up to what's really been gnawing at me for sixty-five years," Garland writes, " ... the loving, but never revealed, undoubted intervention of my father to rescue me from my war. Thus the letdown of my buddies back on the front, thus the 'guilt,' thus the book."

In telling his tale, Garland discovers that none of his former mates begrudge him his "soft" duty as an orderly and ambulance driver behind the lines in Italy. His army brothers were, in fact, just as bored with, terrified by and conflicted about the war as he was. And he learns that his army brothers, too, received emotional wounds that never truly healed.

The platoon's duty was to observe and relay information about enemy movements, and as a result the soldiers rarely engaged in direct combat. But the result of their work was clearly evident. On one patrol, Garland and a few others entered a bombed Italian farmhouse. "There in a shrapnel-torn room sprawled the family on their beds," Garland writes, "father and mother and four or five children and babes, greenish and bloated in death, covered with gray palls of plaster dust from the explosion of the shell that had torn through the wall by the ceiling. The hole faced our lines."

Val Mullenax had called in the artillery. "I drank a quart o' whisky for about ten years and nobody ever knew I was drunk," he told Garland. "It stuck in my mind, that family I called the artillery on, and I still to this day think that maybe they was working with the Germans, but I dunno. But to kill innocent children bothered me to beat the devil."

It is an account of actions and reactions such as these that makes Garland's book different from the others that surround it on bookstore shelves. He presents a perspective that the parents and loved ones of the common foot soldier might have received from war journalist Ernie Pyle or cartoonist Bill Mauldin, a perspective that has been buried under the broad scope of history and is rapidly vanishing from our ranks with an aging generation.

Mark Hvidsten designs the book pages at the Star Tribune.

  • UNKNOWN SOLDIERS

    By: Joseph E. Garland.

    Publisher: Protean Press, 528 pages, $29.95.

    Review: An in-the-face-of-fire perspective and reflections on an Intelligence & Reconnaissance platoon's experiences from the invasion of Sicily to the end of World War II.

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