Into the Mountains Dark
Contributor: Thomas Houlihan
Review Date: 12 May 2007
Full Title: Into the Mountains Dark: A WWII Odyssey from Harvard Crimson to Infantry Blue
This book is different, in that it grew out of a violation of Army regulations. The author had written for his high school paper, as well as for the Harvard Crimson university paper. When he went to combat, he maintained an unauthorized journal. He was aided by his comrades, while his superiors "turned the other way." Thus, when he sat down decades later, he didn't have to recall events from half a century before. His journal notes were hours, or at most a day or two old. It shows in the telling of his story.
The book is broken down into nineteen chapters, that take the author from 1939 through his participation in the Vosges Mountains as a member of the 100th Infantry Division. The first two chapters introduce the author, and provide some background to help understand him as a person. They discuss his experiences as a Boy Scout, writing for the high school paper, and sneaking into Fenway Park to watch the Red Sox play. Managing to make the grade to get into Harvard University, he also joined the track team. His coach there was Jaakko Mikkola, who had coached the Finnish Olympic teams in 1920 and 1924. However, one of the definite highlights of his time at Harvard was when he got to listen to Winston Churchill speak in September 1943.
Having been accepted to the Army's A-12 Program. This was a commissioning program, similar to the ROTC program. Qualifying for this meant that the author spent one semester at Harvard, then was sent to Ohio University with 583 other "Army scholars" who had become part of the Army Specialized Training Program, (ASTP), also known as the "Ain't Safe Till Peace" program. Here he was to study Basic Engineering, along with the rest of the course load. It was here that he had his first experience with anti-Semitism. The cadet appointed to the position of company commander had been born in Palestine, and this bothered some of the cadets. A couple of them went to far as to try to get the Jewish cadets moved out of the building they were billeted in. However, this attempt didn't go anywhere.
By the end of March, 1944, the ASTP had been dissolved, and the men in it had been assigned to the infantry. The author was assigned to the 399th Infantry Regiment, and his training began. By the time it was over, he was designated as his platoon's second scout, narrowly talking his way out of being an assistant BAR-man. The training regimen ended at the close of August 1944, and by the end of the following month, the 100th Division was entrained for the Port of Embarkation at New York.
After being welcomed to France by Axis Sally, the troops disembarked at Marseilles, and moved into a nearby encampment. It wasn’t long before they moved to the front, after a short stint as stevedores. They ended up in the High Vosges, just in time for winter. The story then goes into combat around St. Remy and La Salle, which blooded many of these men.
The men went through a couple of weeks combat in that area. What is interesting here is the detail that the author is able to go into. Drawing from his contemporary notes, he is able to vividly help the reader understand the experiences of his unit in action. The combat, waiting for combat, and even dealing with the locals, aided by his knowledge of the French language, is described in a manner that can easily bring the reader right into the foxholes with the "Century Men." Gurley is able to describe not only the emotions the men felt, but all the physical discomfort and challenges, including mind numbing fatigue that causes a potentially serious security lapse. Even simple problems such as reloading a rifle with fingers that won't cooperate.
The final chapters inform the readers of several other smaller actions that the men of Gurley's regiment endured. This is the important part of the book. Not a wide-ranging story of the Alsatian Campaign, or Operation Nordwind, it is a view inside the foxholes of men in combat. The author tells his story, but he manages to do It while freely sharing the spotlight with his comrades. That is one of the things that I really liked about the book. He doesn't simply write a book about "what I did in the war." Here, you find more of a "how we fought our war, and I was in there too" attitude.
Here, you will find one of the best descriptions of what war was like for a bunch of men who weren't supposed to be in the infantry. Men who should have received more training than they did. Men who when faced with the ultimate challenge, responded in the best way they knew how, and managed to carry the day.
As a disclaimer, I will state here that while I am associated with The Aberjona Press, I was not involved with the production of this book in any way.
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Thomas Dodd, late 1945