Looking Back From Ninety

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The Lost Paratroopers of Normandy is a great story, unfortunately told in best professorial style by Stephen Rabe, son of one of a paratrooper and a 40-year veteran of the University of Texas (Dallas). You know the drill: the prof first tells us what he plans to tell us, then the actual telling, and finally a retelling of what he's just told us. Worse, this circling around happens again and again. The virtue of this approach, and no doubt its justification, is that when we're done the story has been drilled into us. In short: about 160 paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were dropped too low, too fast, and too far from the D-Day beaches. Some were injured and some drowned, but the survivors gathered in the village of Graignes. The villagers helped them defend the town against a murderous Waffen-SS division, the 17th SS Panzergrenadiere (mechanized infantry). To his great credit, Mr Rabe is the rarity among English-language historians who understands that the German Army was (and still is) the Heer, one of the three components of the wartime Wehrmacht, the others being the Luftwaffe and the Kriegsmarine. Though it fought alongside the army, the Waffen-SS fell under the direction of Heinrich Himmler rather than the Oberkommando des Heeres. They learned their craft on the Eastern Front, where they specialized in murdering Jews and partisans. It was the paratroopers' and the villagers' bad luck to face these butchers instead of the regular army. "SS terror tactics were well understood by German soldiers who were members of the regular army, the Heer," Mr Rabe explains. "German soldiers have testified that when they passed by the bodies of US paratroopers, who appeared to have been executed with shots to the back of the head, they immediaely assumed that this was the work of 'the SS boys' who had a 'taste for such things'." The paratroopers of Graignes, along with the brave villagers who fed them, helped dig fighting holes, and ran an aid station in the church, managed to hold off about 900 men of the 1st Battalion, 37th Regiment until June 12. By that time the Americans were nearly out of ammunition, and had begun to withdraw as their positions were overrun. At least 26 died in the battle. The medics stayed behind with the 19 wounded Americans. All were murdered by the "SS boys," as were two priests and the parish housekeepers, and the town was burned to the ground.

In the 1950s, when I was young and footloose and monoglot, I hit upon ballet as the ideal theatrical evening as I romped about Europe, since the only language problem I'd encounter was buying the ticket, and I could always manage that. So I was able to enjoy Margot Fontyn of Sadler's Wells (now the Royal Ballet) in Manchester when I was a student, the Opera Ballet and -- oddly -- New York City Ballet at the wonderful Palais Garnier in Paris when I was in the US Army, and the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen when I was working for the Overseas Weekly in Frankfurt. Back home between times, I followed the so-called Ballet Russ de Monte Carlo. As I have now discovered in Diaghilev's Empire: How the Ballets Russes Enthralled the World, a more honest name would have been "Ballet Russ Americana." I don't think there's a great deal that's ground-breaking in this book by Rupert Christiansen -- the impressario Diaghilev, the mad aerialist Nijinsky, his talented and long-lived sister Ninjinska -- but Mr Christiansen tells it so well and so wittily that it all seems new again. It made me wish I'd been born thirty years earlier.

Daniel Ford's books:

Looking Back From Ninety: Depression, War, and the Good Life That Followed
Cowboy: Interpreter, Soldier, Warlord, and One More Casualty of Our War in Vietnam
The Only War We've Got: Early Days in South Vietnam
Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault & His American Volunteers, 1941-1942
Tales of the Flying Tigers (think of it as a lengthy appendix to the history)
The Lady and the Tigers (Olga Greenlaw)
Poland's Daughter: How I Learned About Love, War, and Exile
Glen Edwards: Diary of a Bomber Pilot
A Vision So Noble: John Boyd, the OODA Loop, and America's War on Terror
The Country Northward: A Hiker's Journal
The Greater America: An Epic Journey Through a Vibrant New Country (Ralph Paine)
~ ~ ~ ~
Michael's War: A Story of the Irish Republican Army
Remains: A Story of the Flying Tigers
Incident at Muc Wa: A Story of the Vietnam War
The High Country Illuminator: A Tale of Light and Darkness and the Ski Bums of Avalon

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