Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Review Date: 11 Mar 2013
I would be hard to argue that Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers was among the most popular WW2 titles of the recent years. Already a fine collective memoir to begin with, the television mini-series by the same name lifted it to Hollywood stardom. I would have to admit that I was equally mesmerized by the television show, and sought after additional material about the company of paratroopers just like so many others. In late 2011, I checked out Dick Winters' Beyond Band of Brothers and generally enjoyed it. Some months would pass before I found the audio book edition of Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends on the shelves of the local library; it would only take me a couple of chapters to love this book.
While I would not bash Winters' work by any means, as an officer and gentleman, the material he presented to complement Ambrose's work was generally in the realm of accomplishments of his men that did not make it to Band of Brothers, or good personality or leadership traits that he wanted to share with the readers. In contrast, Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends, written by enlisted men William "Wild Bill" Guarnere and Edward "Babe" Heffron (with Robyn Post), gave the readers the dirty laundry that Ambrose and Winters might be more willing to skip over. Needless to say, Guarnere and Heffron made sure that they told the stories of their comrades, otherwise ordinary citizens, advancing amidst heavy fire to take objectives and risking their own lives to protect fellow paratroopers. I had indeed expected such glorification of their comrades, especially the fallen ones. I had also expected them to tell stories of the ugly side of combat, such as Guarnere's description of Bastogne "an arm here, a leg there, blood, guts". What I truly valued beyond those were the things that fell in the gray area that others might be hesitant to go into, whether it was in the realm of morality (eg. their visits with London prostitutes), the mistreatment of the enemy (eg. opting to kill rather than capture Germans when they had such a choice, using dead German bodies to shield the opening of their foxholes), or the cockiness of young soldiers (eg. "They got us surrounded, those poor sons of bitches"). It was also interesting to see the contrast of Guarnere and Heffron's recollection of Herbert Sobel with that presented by Ambrose; while Ambrose's presentation of Sobel borders the dramatic (and even more so on television), the two enlisted men, while agreeing that Sobel had a range of leadership weaknesses, appreciated Sobel for preparing them well for the rigors of combat. When I had read Band of Brothers some years ago, I had wondered about why Ambrose included so many Tiger tanks and 88-millimeter guns in his narrative, almost as if the Germany Army inventory was full of superweapons; going through this book I confirmed that this came from the veterans, including Guarnere and Heffron, who regularly exaggerated the strength of the enemies they faced in the field. Finally, through the telling of their stories, I got a sense of how two strangers who met on the front lines of combat in Europe returned home best of friends, and would remain so until this day.
I had reviewed this title in its audio book format. Dick Hill did an absolutely wonderful job, not only as the narrator but also as a voice actor. While I did not have a good grasp on what a South Philadelphia accent would sound like, Hill's "Bing! Bang! Boom!" and "get the helllll outta here!" were pretty convincing; as I listened to this audio book in the driver seat of my car on my daily commute, I felt that I was more so sitting next to these two blue-collar and down-to-earth older men at the neighborhood bar. What really hit me were the appropriately inserted chuckles and silences; I caught myself smiling whenever I heard the former, and bracing for a harsh reality with the latter. It was at one of the sullen pauses that I realized that this reading ranked among the best of the few audio books I had listened to.
I found Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends to be a great memoir of US Army enlisted men fighting in the European War, and would recommend it even more for those who would enjoy audio books as much as I would. I found this memoir to be weaker on actual history than most titles in this genre, so I would also caution that it should serve only as a complement to book on the military history of the battles of Normandie, Bastogne, etc.
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