WW2 Memoir That’s a Modern Military Classic

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…”

And later:

“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]

About Jeff Salter

Currently writing romantic comedy, screwball comedy, and romantic suspense. Fourteen completed novels and four completed novellas. Working with three royalty publishers: Clean Reads, Dingbat Publishing, & TouchPoint Press/Romance. "Cowboy Out of Time" -- Apr. 2019 /// "Double Down Trouble" -- June 2018 /// "Not Easy Being Android" -- Feb. 2018 /// "Size Matters" -- Oct. 2016 /// "The Duchess of Earl" -- Jul. 2016 /// "Stuck on Cloud Eight" -- Nov. 2015 /// "Pleased to Meet Me" (novella) -- Oct. 2015 /// "One Simple Favor" (novella) -- May 2015 /// "The Ghostess & MISTER Muir" -- Oct. 2014 /// "Scratching the Seven-Month Itch" -- Sept. 2014 /// "Hid Wounded Reb" -- Aug. 2014 /// "Don't Bet On It" (novella) -- April 2014 /// "Curing the Uncommon Man-Cold -- Dec. 2013 /// "Echo Taps" (novella) -- June 2013 /// "Called To Arms Again" -- (a tribute to the greatest generation) -- May 2013 /// "Rescued By That New Guy in Town" -- Oct. 2012 /// "The Overnighter's Secrets" -- May 2012 /// Co-authored two non-fiction books about librarianship (with a royalty publisher), a chapter in another book, and an article in a specialty encyclopedia. Plus several library-related articles and reviews. Also published some 120 poems, about 150 bylined newspaper articles, and some 100 bylined photos. Worked about 30 years in librarianship. Formerly newspaper editor and photo-journalist. Decorated veteran of U.S. Air Force (including a remote ‘tour’ of duty in the Arctic … at Thule AB in N.W. Greenland). Married; father of two; grandfather of six.
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10 Responses to WW2 Memoir That’s a Modern Military Classic

  1. jbrayweber says:

    Wonderful review, Jeff. Though I’ve read very few military non-fiction books, my interest is piqued.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      Thanks, Jenn. For anyone potentially interested in military history (especially WW2 era), I almost always recommend reading a “small” unit account. The accounts of a particular company is just the right size unit.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. John Babb says:

    Jeff – your review definitely makes me want to read this book.  Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      It’s exhausting to read — in the sense that the reader can feel the fatigue and hunger and cold. I feel so pampered when I read accounts like this… of what those ground-pounders went through.

      Like

  3. Michael Grigsby says:

    Jeff another excellent review, I have read this book several years ago. As time passes the historical value of written memoirs of politics and wars usually becomes less interesting. This book is certainly an exception to the claim. This is a definitive work on World War II, while the current generation has a lost use for real history, this book will speak to those of the Greatest Generation who served there. The author, Charles B. MacDonald is also the author of “A Time for Trumpets”, “The Siegfried Line Campaign” and co-author of “Three Battles: Arnaville, Altuzzo, and Schmidt”. He served with the US Army’s 23 Infantry Regiment After winning the Silver Star and a Purple Heart, he served as the official Army Historian, retiring as Deputy Chief Historian in 1979. He passed away on December 4, 1990, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This sounds like a TRULY heroic man, one not afraid to admit being afraid and not glamorizing war.
    Courage is not the lack of fear, it is the knowledge that something is more important than your fear; I have tried to impress that to many people. There is almost no limit to what you can face if others are depending on you, so I have found out.
    Have you seen the Peter Jackson Documentary on the trenches in WWI? I knew the situation was bad, but I had no idea how much those men went through…and the lack of hygiene!
    This sounds like something I could steel myself to read, (when I am doing better.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      Hope you get better soon, Tonette.
      Yes, Hollywood and popular culture did indeed glamorize war for a generation or two. I understand why they did so during the war, but I still wonder why they kept it up well after the war was over. Of course, things shifted and the pendulum swung back during the Vietnam Conflict — no more glamor… just grit and blood and bad politics.
      I’ve seen many documentaries on WW1, though that name of that particular one does not ring a bell.

      Like

  5. Elaine Cantrell says:

    Good review. It sounds so authentic and interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

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