I’m a writer. So when I read a memoir or a historical account I’m always looking for something I can use in my writing. Sometimes it’s a story idea. Sometimes it’s how the person reacts to the situation. Sometimes it’s how two people meet. And sometimes it’s very specific details of the combat experience that can be used to recreate a realistic combat scene in a story.
In reading Company Commander by Charles B. MacDonald I discovered incredibly rich detail about his combat experience. In addition to detailed descriptions of terrain, weather and military procedures, MacDonald relayed his feelings during each episode, not just saying “I was frightened,” but saying “My body began to shake uncontrollably. My voice trembled despite my efforts to control it.” These realistic and vivid descriptions are all through the book.
Captain MacDonald joined I Company, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division in September, 1944, as a replacement Company Commander just after they had captured Brest on the French coast. Almost immediately they were loaded in French forty-and-eight freight cars and transported across France to Longuyon. From there they convoyed by truck to Belgium where they relieved elements of the 28th Division along the Siegfried Line near St.Vith. Along the way MacDonald got to know his more experienced men, both his platoon leaders and the men who would man his Command Post, and worried about gaining their acceptance.
MacDonald describes the procedure of taking over the positions including the guides assigned to walk them to their positions, the discussion with the Company Commander he was relieving, and an account of the defensive positions themselves. My writer’s eye marveled at the detailed description of the interior of the pillbox used as their command post, at the explanations of the deployment of his men, at his impressions of how the combat veterans accepted their new, twenty-two-year-old, inexperienced captain who felt so insecure in his first combat experience. Then later, during German attacks, he describes the process of communicating with the battalion to call in artillery fire to protect the riflemen in forward foxholes and the problems with broken phone lines and dying radio batteries at critical times.
The book follows MacDonald’s journey from the pill boxes on the Siegfried Line on to other defensive positions along the Belgium-German border as the autumn progressed and the weather deteriorated. In early December, the 2nd Division was ordered further north for an offensive against the Roer River dams. They were relieved by the 106th Division, newly arrived from the U.S. MacDonald describes them as “equipped with the maze of equipment that only replacements fresh from the States would have dared to call their own… and horror of horrors, they were wearing neckties!” The 106th took over positions in the proximity of St. Vith, Belgium, on December 11, just five days before the German offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge would begin.
The 23rd’s new positions were located in “a giant fir forest” where they de-trucked “half-frozen from a five-hour nightmare of cold, snow and hazardous blackout driving.” They were greeted by “a foot of frozen whiteness covering the ground.” They then hiked a mile along an icy highway, crossed a small, icy stream and up-hill on a one-way trail to a point in the snow-covered forest designated as their new home. MacDonald said “I felt like crying.” This was a far cry from the comforts of their last positions. Yet their kitchen truck was able to follow them and provide a hot breakfast.
After word filtered in about a German attack, MacDonald tells of his meeting at battalion headquarters where he received orders to move to an assembly area in support of the 99th Division whose area had been penetrated. “We would take blanket rolls, three meals of K-rations and packs.” These scenes of meetings with commanding officers and discussions of details about deploying his men on short notice along with his anxiety about going on the offensive after only defensive action bring the reader into the moment. And they help me as a writer, and non-military person, visualize the situation.
I Company would go on to frantically try to hold their assigned positions against the German onslaught and ultimately have to scatter and withdraw. In the mêlée MacDonald is wounded and berates himself for not holding while worrying about his men who he can’t account for. Again the reader is right with them.
In March, after recovering from his wounds and receiving a medal, MacDonald is reassigned to Company G as the Americans push into Germany and cross the Rhine. He recounts the anxiety as they enter each German village never knowing whether they would meet gunfire, surrendering German soldiers or gawking civilians. More than once large anti-aircraft guns fired at them as a few Germans tried to desperately fight on.
MacDonald had an extraordinary memory to be able to recall so many details included in the book, written in 1947, three years after the events. It was not surprising to learn that MacDonald became a military historian after the war. He wrote two of the U.S. Army’s official histories of the European campaign.
I’ll mention what I thought was an interesting tidbit. MacDonald mentions many men by name along with their hometowns. At one point he mentions meeting Captain John M. Calhoun of Athens, Tennessee, who was then commander of F Company 23rd Regiment. Knowing that Athens, Tenn. was the headquarters of B Company, 117th Regiment, 30th Infantry Division when they were federalized in 1940, I went to their history which lists all the members of B Company at the time of federalization. Sure enough, John M. Calhoun was listed as a Private First Class. The B Company history states that in 1942 twenty-two of its enlisted men were sent to Officers Training School. Captain Calhoun was apparently one of those and he ended up in the 2nd Division as a Company Commander.