All the Way to Berlin
Contributor: Bryan Hiatt
Review Date: 13 Apr 2005
All the Way to Berlin is an extraordinary book.
I say this not as a way of praising James Megellas the writer, but as a way of expressing my own surprise at his candor. He is not a humble old soldier, but one who boasts of enjoying his former vocation. He writes at the war's end:
"I found the business of killing and destruction agreeable. I suppose this comes when killers are made out of soldiers. Alexander the Great cried in his tent when he realized there were no more lands to conquer. I didn't cry in my Company CP, but I was saddened knowing there would be no more lands to conquer and enemy to kill" (324).
Perhaps I expected to see a dose of humility or maybe even a shot of euphemism, masking the actions of such a proficient soldier (He was, after all, the 82nd Airborne's most decorated officer). After some thought, however, I'll take Megellas at his word, knowing that his honesty tells us how war shapes people, perhaps in ways that we donâ€™t expect to see.
At other times in the book, Megellas uses worn clichÃ©s like "war is hell," or "our MOS was killing Germans," yet he has a knack for recreating moments in great detail. The strength of All the Way to Berlin is his research in compiling the remembrances of dozens of men in the 82nd Airborne experiencing the same events.
One such moment, and it is perhaps the heart of the book, is the crossing of the Waal river by the 82nd during Operation Market Garden. "This would be the 504's Omaha beach" (132). The men in the attack would be paddling toward unknown numbers of soldiers who were essentially looking down on the river from behind a series of dikes and embankments. "A suicide mission," one soldier remarked.
What Megellas describes is nothing short of amazing, considering the men crossing the wide river in daylight were not in Higgins boats, but in 19 foot canvas rafts with plywood bottoms, some using their rifles as paddles, under intense fire. He writes:
"Halfway across the river, an artillery shell or perhaps a 20mm round crashed into the overhead boat that was carrying the other half of my platoon. The boat capsized and sank, spilling all its occupantsâ€”two engineers and thirteen paratroopsâ€”into the river. They splashed frantically to keep from submerging or being swept downstream. There was nothing we could do to help them; the strong current made it impossible to maneuver our boat toward them, and there were no other boats near enough to provide aid. Nor were there any Mae Wests or other type of inflatable life jackets.... There had been no time to be concerned about such matters" (146).
"Lieutenant Ernest P. Murphy, H Company, recalled the river crossing: 'We were the lead boat nearing the north bank and suddenly an enemy 20-mm shell tore through the canvas side of the boat opening two gaping holes. The boat started taking on water and we had to swim for shore. On the shore I took count of my men and all but one had made it. Then I noticed a helmet pop of the water and the missing man, Private Joseph Jedlicka, walked out of the water safely. Jedlicka, who could not swim, had sunk in about eight feet of water. He was still carrying his BAR and two boxes of ammo when he emerged. Drenched and shaken by his ordeal, he rejoined my platoon thankful to be alive. We had our boat shot out from under us, but fortunately, I had no casualties'" (146)
This is just one harrowing moment among several that Megellas describes in this section of the text. The pace and drama increase once the survivors make it across the river and take the fight to the Germans. These chapters alone make the book worth reading. And there are many other events that Megellas describes, from Italy on to the end of the war, with equal (and graphic) detail.
Readers will also appreciate the extra detail the author uses all through the book in describing what happened to wounded or missing soldiers. It's generally a sentence or two at the end of a paragraph, but it's a key device that makes this narrative a compelling historical document. While Megellas may boast of his exploits as a soldier, it's clear All the Way to Berlin is an important chapter in the European war, and a must read of students of the period.
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