World War II is fading into history and its veterans are dying off, which makes recording their stories all the more urgent, capturing the details before time seals them away.
Alex Kershaw, author of "The Bedford Boys" and "The Longest Winter," continues exploring the untold bravery of troops on the front line in his new book, "The Liberator: One World War II Soldier's 500-Day Odyssey From the Beaches of Sicily to the Gates of Dachau" (Crown, 433 pages, $28).
The camaraderie and group effort that went into defeating the Axis dictates that a well-written account would pull a wide cast of people into its orbit. "The Liberator" does this, but the bulk of the story revolves around one Felix Sparks, who joined up with the 45th Thunderbird Division at a low rank. Starting with a desk job, he finds himself wanting more challenge, more excitement.
He got his wish on July 10, 1943, when Allied forces went ashore in Sicily to begin the liberation of Europe, despite the efforts of 230,000 Italian troops waiting to stop them.
Or so it was predicted. A fictional account might make this landing dramatic and intense, when in reality the beachhead was established with little combat. More troops died in boating accidents that morning. Kershaw hews closely to historical record, drawing from firsthand accounts from Sparks and dozens of men close to him. His refusal to simply narrate one pitched battle after another makes for a richer, more nuanced read.
Which isn't to say this is the remembrances of a desk jockey, or someone only tangentially involved with combat. Sparks and the Thunderbird division fought throughout the war, more often than not in the fiercest conflicts against the most determined, well armed enemies. These battles are rendered in a way that lets the facts generate the dramatic tension, and it's wholly successful.
Sparks rises through the ranks and finds himself increasingly thrust into a leadership role. He is the sole survivor in his unit's fighting at Anzio, yet pushes forward after rebuilding his unit with other troops, moving into the Vosges Mountains and then the horror of Dachau. This part of the book is heart-rending, as the victory over Hitler comes with Allied troops pushed past the breaking point by the atrocities they find.
With few exceptions, Kershaw's writing is seamless. He incorporates information from a vast array of sources, but it works -- you get a sense of the different voices coming into the story, moving the story forward rather than holding it back with an overabundance of detail. The result is both a gripping read and a history lesson that at no point feels like more of one than the other.
Matthew Tiffany is a writer and therapist in Maine. He blogs at condalmo.com.