SEVERAL TIMES while reading this "Autobiography of a World War II Rifle Company," to quote its subtitle, I had to put the book aside: tears filled my eyes, making progress difficult. If you review books frequently, your responses get calloused. Then you open a book written from a real depth of emotion and you know you are a man, not a page-turning mannequin. The Men of Company K, a classic anthropology of battle, is such a book.
Harold P. Leinbaugh lives in Virginia. A former FBI agent and deputy special assistant to the president in the White House communication office, he is now retired. Leinbaugh served first as a platoon leader in Company K, then as its commander. John D. Campbell lives in Maryland. A Harvard PhD, he was until his retirement a researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health. He too was an officer in Company K. He was severely wounded in the Battle of the Bulge and is a holder of the Purple Heart and the Silver Star. With the help of yet another veteran of Company K, a former sergeant named Dempsey Keller, Leinbaugh and Campbell interviewed as many of the 400 men who served in Company K as they could find. From their testimony as well as from the official army histories, they have put together not a interview book but a forward flowing narrative in which the men of Company K act as co-narrators with the authors. It is an exceptionally happy form for a book about solidarity.
Company K was mustered in 1942, but the subject of this book is its combat service, which lasted from November 1944 to April 1945. Company K -- at full strength it numbered 200 men -- was part of the 333rd Infantry Regiment, which in turn was part of the 84th Infantry Division. The places where it fought -- the villages of Geilenkirchen, Kogenbroich, Lindern and Hardt in Germany and Verdenne, Houffalize, and Taverneux in Belgium -- are not among the famous place names of the war. "We were," as one veteran says of the company, "such a small part of such a big picture."
Their baptism of fire came near Geilenkirchen, one of a series of strong points along the Siegfried Line they attacked before being moved to Belgium to help staunch the great German counterattack of the Bulge. Their first casualty was Adrian Wheeler, of Shirley, Indiana. Hit by a shell fragment from an "88," he "started choking in his own blood. Mellon (the company medic) took the top off a pen, broke off the end and stuck it through the hole in Wheeler's windpipe to keep him from suffocating." At the news that Wheeler had been hit one of the company's sergeants, who later died in combat, became "angry and grim." Another veteran recalls his reaction: "Hadley was a good typical American on the verge of battle; but he had to have one of his closest friends critically wounded, a man with whom he had played, worked, trained, suffered, before he was deeply moved by war." Adrian Wheeler was blinded in both eyes by the shell fragment. He remembers seeing his daughter as a "lump" upon her birth in 1946; and that is the last thing he remembers seeing.
In its "Western Front" section Time magazine called the inconclusive battle around Geilenkirchen "a classic of teamwork; Germans were trapped between U.S. and British units." But the official British history takes a different view. " . . . the battalion was attacking a superior German force entrenched on an excellent position. The only thing that higher headquarters contributed to the debacle was pressure. . . . It had the effect of ordering men to die needlessly." K Company lost 13 dead and 40 wounded. Lieutenant General Sir Brian Horrocks, the British corps commander in charge of that sector of the front, paid tribute to their sacrifice. "I was filled with admiration for the extreme gallantry displayed by raw GIs of the 84th Division. If only their administration and staff arrangements had been up to the level of their courage . . ."
The German military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz wrote of the "friction" of war -- the play of chance and will that can doom the most brilliant plan or make success out of a recipe for failure. The Men of Company K is a casebook on "friction." The most memorable instance comes when the company stumbles upon a German tank concentration in a night battle in Belgium -- an accidental encounter that became a turning point in the Bulge. The book is also full of the sort of information missed by grand-scale histories of the war. (Did you know, for example, that GIs would not keep German Lugers as souvenirs? The word was that the Germans shot prisoners caught carrying them.) But most of it is about the death of brave men and the courage of other men in the face of death.
John S. Moore, of New Hope, Kentucky, died trying to save wounded comrades. "Sabia and Moore crawled as close as possible to the wounded men. 'Moore says, "No, Johnny, you've got a wife," and he pushes out. Then he got hit . . . I pulled him back through the snow and then I saw the hole through his neck.'" Johnny Bowe, of Worcester, Massachusetts; "Mutt" Tomlinson, of Twin Falls, Idaho; John Lavelle, of Fargo, North Dakota -- we meet men like these, K Company's 38 dead, early in the book, and so when they die, much later, we share a tincture of the grief of their friends and loved ones. The authors have wisely included chapters on the home front; from them we learn how Jeanette Tomlinson got the news about Mutt, and how young Bob Bowe, a student at St. John's High School in Worcester, was told to leave school and go home -- there was a message waiting for him. "This was so close to the end of the war," he told Leinbaugh and Campbell, "we wondered why did it have to happen then." Last year, John B. Dolan, also of Worcester and himself twice wounded in battle, attended a 40th anniversary mass for his old friend Johnny Bowe at Christ the King Church. He is not forgotten.
Nor has Keith Lance forgotten Mutt Tomlinson. After the war he paid a visit to Jeanette, to share his memories of Mutt. Out of their common love for him they fashioned a love of their own. Their son, Kent, "with a little bookkeeping assistance from Jeanette," now runs the business they started in Shelley, Idaho.
The book ends with an extensive "Update" on the men of Company K: mostly retired grandfathers now, in their working lives they did everything, lived everywhere. It also includes 20 pages of photographs of its subjects, both then and now. Coming across the "now" photographs in an album, you would never guess that these late middle-age to elderly men, as nondescript as your Uncle Bill, are giants.