Contributor: Bryan Hiatt
Review Date: 13 Feb 2005
Fans of Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers and the ten-part HBO Series will find a good deal of familiar territory in Parachute Infantry. Webster's keen ability to describe situations and retell conversations make this book worth reading, but his skill at capturing dramatic moments of the time make it especially memorable.
Webster penned the manuscript for Parachute Infantry after the war, relying on his letters home and his unit's history, Rendezvous with Destiny: A History of the 101st Airborne Division (1948). It was never printed in his lifetime (he died in 1961) as publishers were more interested in sensationalized fictional accounts of the war. This book is about how the U.S. Army looked from the ground up, with the men Webster served with from Toccoa, Georgia to Germany and back. Luz, Hoobler, and Guarnere. They are all here.
What separates this memoir from others is its literary style. Parachute Infantry isn't at all pretentious in tone, rather it reflects the experience of a young man who attended Harvard for two years, where he studied literature before joining the Army and volunteering for the paratroops. Despite this difference in experience between himself and others, Webster remained one of the guys. As Ambrose suggests in the introduction to the book, "it was in this unlikely group of men (uneducated hillbillies, southern farmers, coal miners, lumbermen, fishermen) that Webster found his closest friendships and enjoyed most thoroughly the sense of identification with others" (x).
One of the strengths of Parachute Infantry is Webster's ability to capture a moment like a snapshot and there are dozens in this book. After jumping into Normandy, Webster found himself alone in a flooded field, crouched down and hearing the approach of the next wave of transports. He writes:
"They (the 501st) jumped in a moonlit moment in a 4th of July sky laced with great fans of tracer bullets. The bullets lit the planes and the shadowy parachutes of men tumbling out of them like strings of ball bearings and followed the men to the ground, fanning back and forth with a ferocious rattling. Sick in the stomach, I watched men swing helplessly in the heavy fire. I wanted to help them, but there was nothing I could do but watch in mounting anger and hate." (42)
Dialogue is also used effectively to heighten the drama of a moment and it is often mixed with a "quick shot" of commentary like you'd find in a work of fiction. While still in the flooded field, and after meeting up with several arguing soldiers on a grassy hummock, Webster asks the ranking sergeant his plan:
"Beats the hell out of meâ€¦I'm going to stay here until daylight, then take off."
I gaped at him. "You're crazy," I said. I had never liked him before and now I wanted to spit on him. "They're killing paratroopers up there. We have to get to those krauts." (44)
Dialogue and commentary here allow us to see Webster's determination, his willingness to get on with the job, despite the unknown and the odds against success. It's one thing to say as much in a book, yet another to demonstrate this urgency and this says a good deal about his skill as a writer.
Webster also finds space in this text to define certain attitudes about soldiering. His buddy Ash, for instance, just knew he was going to die in Normandy. Upon landing, Ash sprained his ankle and became immoveable, in body and spirit. What Webster didn't understand is why Ash would want to sit and wait for others to help him. Later, we discover that Ash is killed at a make-shift aide station. Contrast this to Webster's actions in Holland where he was hit by shrapnel in the leg, where he uttered "They got me (147)," a fact he later bemoaned. Patched up by a medic and given the choice to wait near the action or head back to the rear, Webster chose to leave, even though it meant moving through open fields and exposing himself to enemy fire, specifically German artillery. He wanted some measure of control, instead of meeting his fateâ€¦waiting.
This memoir isn't without the wondering of why certain things happen and others do not. But when engaging in this line of thinking, Webster clearly illustrates the arbitrary nature of war and its costs. After recovering from his wound and returning to his unit after the Battle of the Bulge, Webster asks about the men he did not see:
"Got it at Foy."
"Oh? And what about Muck and Penkala?"
"They got it at Noville. Shell came right in their hole."
"He's dead too, Web. Got it on patrol."
"And Hoobler. Where's Hoobler?"
In the replacement depots, Webster also learned that his "first and finest squad leader" from Toccoa, Mather, "the noisy reckless redhead, unwounded in two campaigns . . . had been killed at a crossroads by a distant machine gun while moving up to the front" (166). Lt. Peacock, on the other hand, the man who fished him out of slit trench one night to sweep out his billet and was an equally incompetent officer, was then home on rotation. All the good men die, Webster thought, and incompetence is rewarded with a trip home.
Webster thought of these men, his friends, and his response is honest and practical, and moments like this, among many, make this book worth reading. "A gust of anger blew through me. Then I sighed and closed my eyes, because I knew anger was useless. I could not change the war or the Army." All he could do was remember his friends as best he could. "Send me a letter," Sawosko used to sing. "Send it in care of the 506th jail" (167).
Finally, Webster's letters in the appendix inform readers about his experience in hospitals and replacement depots, and also about his relationship with his family. His drawings in the middle section of the book provide additional insight into the equipment used by both forces in Europe. Specifically, "A Complete Wardrobe for the Holland Tourist" showing the tools of the paratrooper trade is especially good, and is available online with several others at www.davidkenyonwebster.com.
All told, Parachute Infantry is a must read for Band of Brothers fans, who will no doubt see many of the circumstances (large and small) that helped shape the HBO mini-series. Beyond this, readers will undoubtedly gain new insight into the life of a foot solider in the 101st Airborne in World War II.
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