William P. McGivern's exciting book is the best novel about the military since Anton Myrer's "Once an Eagle" (1968) and it inevitably will be compared to Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead" and James Jones' "From Here to Eternity."
"Soldiers of '44" provides a worm's-eye view of the Battle of the Bulge as seen in December 1944 by the 15 men of Section Eight, D Battery, 269th Automatic Weapons Battalion, whose mission was to provide anti-aircraft and anti-tank protection for the infantry with their 40-mm. cannon and .50-caliber machine guns. They are joined by a straggler from the 106th Division, which was shattered in the Germans' mighty drive toward Liege and Antwerp against the thinly held American lines in the Ardennes section of Belgium.
Cut off from other American forces, Sgt. Buell ("Bull") Docker and his gunners manage to shoot down a German jet - at that time a highly secret weapon - which lies in a nearby ravine. To recover the plane's instruments the Germans send a tank task force commanded by SS Col. Karl Jaeger, a professional soldier whose heart is with his wife and two small daughters back in Dresden (doomed to die in the unnecessary American-British raid on that city later in the war). Jaeger, whom McGivern portrays with considerable sympathy, offers Docker a chance to surrender "unconditionally but honorably" before his tank crushes the American outpost.
McGivern, whose gift is story-telling, weaves a tale that is hard to put down. The author of 21 other novels, mostly mysteries - "The Night of the Juggler," "Caprifoil," "The Big Heat," which was serialized by the Saturday Evening Post as long ago as 1953 and made into a successful movie - he is a craftsman. "Soldiers of '44" sometimes sounds as though it might have been written from the author's diaries, and undoubtedly it was partly drawn from personal experience: McGivern was the sergeant of a section of an automatic weapons battalion in the Battle of the Bulge.
His characters are sharply etched, and they talk like soldiers, perhaps a little more so when it comes to four-letter words that never would have seen the light of print in the Saturday Evening Post. Gellnick keeps his marriage a secret for fear that the others will snigger at his Doris; Pitko is a religious fanatic given to answering any question with quotations from Scripture; Corp Schmitzer looks on the fair-haired Sonny Laurel With homosexual Longings, but never allows his love to speak its name.
Corp. Matt Larkin, the Skinny, tough profane operator from New York's Lower East Side, is perpetually angry; he is the hardest drinker from the 66 gallon supply of ethyl alcohol the section has stolen from the Normandy beaches and distilled into something passable for consumption. He is also the best truck driver - the section has two trucks and a jeep - and he meets the most bizarre end. The steadying influence of this oddball crew is the college-educated Docker.
McGivern's verisimilitude extends to the most monstrous aspect of the Bulge battle: encounters with Einglis-speaking Germans dressed in American uniforms who had been parachuted or infiltrated behind the lines to wreak havoc generally. This they did for a while. The Americans reacted by interrogating everyone at every intersection. Gen. Omar Bradley in his "A Soldier's Story" tell how he was stopped by cautious GIs three times to prove his identity - once by identifying Springfield as the capital of Illinois ("my questioner held out for Chicago"), the second time by locating the guard between the center and the tackle in a line of scrimmage, and by naming Betty Grable's current husband. Bradley flunked the last question but was passed anyway.
These English-speaking Germans furnish some of the most gripping parts of McGivern's novel. The Germans' play-acting isn't perfect, but the slight imperfections are realized only as afterthoughts, when it is too late for some of the men of Section Eight to avoid disaster.
Sgt. Docker refuses Col. Jaeger's offer to surrender and the huge German tank rumbles toward the lonely outpost. But the straggler, at first regareded as a suspicious character, perhaps a German spy, proves more resourceful than one could have suspected. As the Battle of the Bulge moves toward its end - costly to both sides, but a Gotterdammerung for the Germans - Docker still holds the patch of ground atop his hill. Half his men have died violently, some valiantly, some absurdly (three by a booby trap as they snatch a portrait of Hitler off a wall). The end of the story shows Lt. Docker - newly promted in the field - in a heroic role that had nothing to do with combat. A good finish to a tautly told tale.