Review of Company Commander by Charles B. MacDonald
By Jeff Salter
Though I purchased this volume when I was enrolled in a military book club many years ago, it didn’t reach the top of my TBR stack until recently when I found a bit more reading time in my schedule.
Wow! A powerful reporting of this infantry captain’s experiences in combat during the final eight months of hostilities in the European theater. As a 21-year-old captain with no previous combat experience, MacDonald took the helm of a 2nd Infantry division company in September 1944. [I confess surprise that he did not “start” combat as a lieutenant leading a platoon… but that jump – from stateside training to combat company commander – is never explained.] Later wounded, after recovery MacDonald was assigned command of a different company in that same division. Each of his companies received numerous dangerous assignments by an aggressive battalion commander of the 23rd Infantry Regiment (of that division).
Hailed – when first published in 1947 – by reviewers and veterans alike as a “classic,” this volume has been termed “the definitive military memoir of an Allied infantry commander fighting from the Battle of the Bulge to the Crossing of the Rhine.”
In his own 1947 preface, MacDonald explains:
“The characters in this story are not pretty characters. They are not even heroic, if lack of fear is a requisite for heroism. They are cold, dirty, rough, frightened, miserable characters…”
“This is a personal story, an authentic story. And to make a story of a war authentic you must see a war — not a hasty taste of war but the dread, gnawing daily diet of war, the horrors and the fears that are at first blunt testimony that you are a novice and then later become so much a part of you…”
At least four aspects really set this volume apart from other military unit histories I’ve read.
One is the artistic / poetic “soul” of MacDonald as he describes – almost in portrait detail at times – the setting of each of his company’s assignments. Normally the reader would learn only the name of a village or its approximate location within that country / region and the direction of the enemy. But MacDonald gives us the lay of the terrain, the look of the village… and which buildings and/or landscape features represent the potential threats of enemy fire.
Another is MacDonald’s unashamed admission of his own fears, anxieties, and self-doubts. This is a far cry from the typical Hollywood version of a combat leader. Yet, through it all, this youthful captain never shirked his duty and never “hid” back at HQ. He knew his decisions must be formed based on first-hand observation, so he was frequently at the very front of his troops.
A third feature is MacDonald’s mention of his men, by name and hometown. These are not merely anonymous soldiers assigned to Company I or Company G — they are individuals MacDonald lived with, fought with (against the enemy), and suffered with.
The fourth feature is the absence of much information about MacDonald’s earlier life or post-war life. Nearly every other military memoir I’ve read – which is quite a few – has followed a standard formula: we learn about the individual as he grew up, what led him to the military, and other personal details. Then we read about his military training, assignments, and what he experienced during the war. Finally, we learn about his post-war education, career, family life, etc. Not so with this title. It basically begins with MacDonald’s assignment to command Company I, and ends with his Company G in Czechoslovakia on Victory in Europe (VE) Day eight months later.
We learn from the book’s dust jacket that “after the war, Captain MacDonald left the Army. He received the Silver Star, Purple Heart and Combat Infantry Badge. He turned to a career in writing about World War II and retired as the Deputy Chief Historian for the Army Center for Military History. He died in Arlington, Virginia in 1990.”
The deprivations of rifle companies “I” and “G” are too numerous to list, but I was most struck by the many lengthy periods MacDonald and his men went without sleep, without food, without adequate clothing in a brutal winter environment, without bathing facilities of any type, and even without needed ammo and other needed supplies.
The edition I read featured an introduction by noted historian Dennis Showalter… plus a section of photos and maps collected by Earl McElfresh. Company Commander is must-read for anyone interested in WW2 history in the European Theater. In particular, I recommend it as a complement to some of the more famous “small” unit histories, such as Band of Brothers or Pegasus Bridge.
[JLS # 554]