Battle-Hardened: An Infantry Officer’s Harrowing Journey from D-Day to VE-Day
One of the great joys I receive from this blog is the opportunity to interview authors and filmmakers regarding their latest projects. I recently received a review copy of Battle Hardened by author Craig Chapman. The author delves deep into the personal recollections and mental state of his late father, Bill Chapman, as he fought against the Nazis, enduring frontline combat and witnessing horror on a massive scale. Lieutenant Chapman of the 4th Infantry Division maintained his sanity by isolating his emotions from the chaos of the battlefield and struggles to hold onto his humanity. The author does a thorough job of balancing the micro and the macro picture of war. Please enjoy our conversation and consider purchasing his very revealing book.
First off, for the sake of our readers, tell us about your dad and yourself.
My father, Bill Chapman, was born and raised in Oakland, California as the only child in a middle-class family. In 1943 he graduated from UC Berkeley with an engineering degree. Despite his degree he volunteered for the infantry. After commissioning at Fort Benning, he wound up in the 12th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division as a replacement officer. He landed on D-Day at Utah Beach, then spent an ungodly amount of time in combat, somehow surviving dozens of intense battles—though wounded twice. After the war he left the army and went back to school to get a master’s degree from Purdue University.
I grew up in a classic baby-boomer household. Dad had a budding career and Mom stayed home with four growing boys. Dad’s job took us to Milwaukee where he climbed the corporate ladder to an executive position in a Fortune 500 company. The father I knew growing up is sometimes difficult to match with the driven combat leader who dealt in death and destruction—except for his obvious determination to seek perfection in all endeavors from himself and others. I knew him as a devoted and loving father, as well as a considerate and thoughtful person.
I guess I inherited my father’s patriotism and sense of duty. Even though I attended one of the most left-leaning colleges in the country, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I joined ROTC rather than the street protests of the Vietnam era. I served 28 years as an infantry officer during the Cold War. Never heard a shot fired in anger—though one of my sons has.
What was your methodology in depicting the life story of a man so hesitant to tell his own war story? How did you connect the dots?
One point of clarification. My father wasn’t hesitant to talk about his combat experience. He shared his stories openly, though very matter-of-factly. He just refused to write about the war. Not sure why he drew such a sharp distinction.
My book has three, no five, foundations. The first major task was cataloging as much of my father’s oral history as possible. My entire family jotted down every anecdote we could recall over the years. I compiled these stories and wrote them into narrative form. After circulating the written anecdotes to family members, especially my mother, I reconciled differences in the way each family member recollected my father’s words.
Once the oral history was on paper, my mother turned over my father’s wartime letters. These letters provided the second foundation of the book, Bill’s state of mind as he went through combat. Due to censorship, the letters said little about the fighting but revealed valuable insights into his emotions, concerns and mindset. Reading between the lines, I could see the transformation of his motivations over time. At the start of the war, Bill wanted to prove to himself that he could stand up in the face of danger. The letters helped explain what kept him in the fight long after he had fulfilled that mission.
The last three foundations are research-research-research. When I started this project, I was determined to do more than spin out a long series of fascinating, personal stories of combat. Bill’s oral history needed to contribute to the historical record of World War II. To do that, I had to place his anecdotes within the context of the Northern European Campaign and add his personal perspectives to our understanding of those battles. That meant scouring written accounts of the 12th Infantry Regiment and digging into primary sources. The regiment had a pretty good history written by Gerden Johnson but the genuine details I needed were found in the National Archives. I didn’t know what to expect on my first visit to College Park. To my surprise the archives yielded fourteen boxes of records for just the regiment! The boxes contained journals, small unit histories, after-action reports, daily unit summaries, casualty lists, annotated maps, orders, overlays, unit commendations and personal interviews with key leaders. During one trip we fished out a five-page deposition made by my father, covering the campaign across southern Germany. No one in the family knew the deposition existed, yet it provides nearly the only written account left by my father. I ended up making five trips to comb through the written and photographic records. Then came the hard part.
How to match my father’s recollections to what I learned about his unit? Some stories were easy to place, like the time at Utah Beach when he admonished Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. about not wearing his helmet. For others I had to play the part of a detective to pin the anecdote to a time and site. Each story presented a few tidbits of information that helped whittle down the possibilities. Mention of a hedgerow meant Normandy. A battle in a Belgium town could only have happened at one or two places. Once I had specific details of the story and a general idea of when it occurred, I sifted through the records to find matching facts. One story perfectly illustrated this process. Bill related a story about leading a tank-infantry force that was taking enemy artillery fire directed from a distant tower. One of the tanks blasted the tower and the artillery stopped. My research showed that Bill led combined arms teams only certain days. During one such attack the journals recorded his team taking artillery fire. When I examined the topo map of that area I spotted a tower at the right distance from where Bill’s unit maneuvered. Bingo! All the facts lined up, allowing me to place Bill’s story to a precise time and location.
It seems your father was often balancing the needs of raw replacements and fatigued combat veterans. How do you think he maintained his composure as an officer in those trying times?
One of the sad discoveries coming out of the history of the Northern European Campaign was the Army’s awful procedure for replenishing unit strength. This is not the place to describe the Army’s callous, neglectful and cruel process for replacing casualties but Bill and other small unit leaders were left to deal with the effects and the resulting mental strain. My father admitted that he and the other veterans felt little emotional attachment to replacements. It made it easier to avoid anguish when the untrained soldiers got killed or wounded, which often happened within a day or so of their arrival. The time pressures of the campaign allowed no time for training. Veteran leaders did their best to get the newbies to perform in combat but they fared poorly. After the regiment was nearly destroyed at Mortain, Bill and his men finally got some days of rest. They used the time to train the replacements and refresh the veterans’ fighting skills. The succeeding weeks spent pursuing the German Army across France and Belgium gave them the opportunity to turn the replacements into infantrymen.
What surprised you most while conducting your research?
How much I didn’t know! After a career as an infantry officer I knew my craft but I discovered that I didn’t know how the U.S. Army fought back in the 1940s. Times, techniques and weapons had changed more than I appreciated. I had to run down copies of the Tables of Organization & Equipment (TO&E) and old field manuals. It took some homework to figure out how the Army of World War II used their weapons and their tactical doctrine. I was further surprised by the deficiencies in the Army’s doctrine and tactical execution. Frankly, the Army was not fully prepared to face such a well-armed, skilled and experienced opponent in the summer of 1944. I gained a greater appreciation for my father and his troops as they displayed ever-improving combat skills and learned to dominate a much-depleted German Army. My father surprised me, too, at least his state of mind did. He became so mission-focused and driven that I could barely reconcile his demeanor with the composed fatherly figure I grew up with. He had pushed emotion out of his mind as he concentrated on winning the war. By the end of the fighting he was so addicted to combat command that he had difficulty dealing with the boredom of occupation duty.
Why do you think the saga of the 4th Infantry Division is comparatively overshadowed?
Overshadowed is the right word to describe the Ivy Division’s reputation. Plenty has been written about the division. Ernie Pyle and Ernest Hemingway traveled with and wrote about them. The men of the Ivy Division sure saw more than their share of action—and casualties. Unfortunately, they were just outside the spotlight. The storyline from D-Day was Omaha Beach, not Utah Beach. Patton’s bold advances excited the public while the Ivy Division slugged its way through Villedieu, St. Pois and Mortain. The French Army freed Paris, though the 12th Infantry Regiment was there, too. Headlines during the Battle of the Bulge concentrated on Bastogne instead of Luxembourg. Everyone was talking about the race to Berlin while the Ivy Division fought ardent SS troops in southern Germany. The 4th Infantry Division suffered the most losses of any division during the Northern European Campaign but the casualties came from sustained, brutal fighting in places the cameras preferred to avoid. Now that so many years have passed the public only recalls the highlights of the war and the popular unit histories that have captured attention. Ask and most people can tell you about the Band of Brothers, the Tuskegee Airmen, the Big Red One or the Rangers that saved Private Ryan. The country has largely forgotten the contributions of the other millions of troops. Think of all the stories that have slipped from the public’s consciousness!
What advice would you give to an aspiring writer or researcher digging into their family history?
Start with the oral history. Memories and recollections are very perishable. Get them on paper! Capture every detail of a story from the veteran him/herself or, if they’ve already passed, from the people who heard the stories firsthand. Each detail is precious when trying to correlate a memory with history. This can be harder than one might expect. Stories of terrible living conditions and quirky incidents away from battle abound. The ones about fighting are more difficult. First person accounts of combat action are extremely personal and intense yet, frustratingly, limited in perspective on the conflict around them. People who go through combat cannot “see” a battle. Soldiers fight from behind trees and bushes, close to the ground. They rarely see anything. They hear plenty, feel the terror and often relate what happens to themselves individually. Recalling exactly where, when and why these things happened can get lost in a blur. As an historian you must keep in mind that you’re hearing a story from someone who was pumped full of adrenaline and nearing complete exhaustion when they experienced the events they describe.
Once the details of the oral history are safely recorded the historian should research the circumstances surrounding the veteran’s service. A trip to a university or large public library will uncover books that describe campaigns, normally from a high level. Nevertheless, the historian needs a firm grip on the big picture before diving down into small unit movements. These historical accounts, if well-documented, often lead the researcher to more specific histories that deserve exploration. Eventually, the historian should look for primary sources to drill down to the level that is meaningful for an individual veteran’s story. Luckily for World War II researchers, the National Archives in College Park, Maryland houses the contemporaneous records of the U.S. Armed Services. These records seldom yield direct statements concerning individual soldiers, sailors, airmen or marines but do provide a tremendous amount of information that can corroborate, or sometimes correct, a veteran’s oral account. A Missing Air Crew Report can spell out the mission, location and circumstances about when a lost relative was shot down. An entry in a unit journal might validate a veteran’s anecdote about the time his tank got stuck in the mud, holding up an attack. An overlay may show the precise spot a field hospital set up when a nurse got wounded by artillery.
A productive, illuminating individual history links the highly specific stories of a veteran to the overall story of the action he/she took part in.
Many thanks to Mr. Chapman for sharing insights on his new book!