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Walk in a Rifleman’s boots … Riflemen (Book Review)


‘Riflemen: On the Cutting Edge of World War II’ by Earl A. Reitan with a forward by Russell F. Weigley.

This fascinating account of one man’s service as a US Army infantryman (a ‘Rifleman’) in WW II Europe is a memoir that reads like a novel. The author, a retired history professor, documents his experiences meticulously with footnotes, communication transcripts and photographs but it’s the story of ordinary men slogging their way into Nazi Germany to defeat Hitler that truly captures the reader.

In RIFLEMEN the banal and bureaucratic rub shoulders with the horrors of war: fresh socks and showers delivered by truck once a week to troops in the field contrast trench foot and comrades suddenly vanishing with the blast of a mortar shell. Minesweeper tanks do a less thorough job when they aren’t supporting their own units, and men pay with their legs and lives. In one street battle, French armored units arrive, the soldiers half drunk, only to quickly leave when things turn ominous. The dual chain of command prevents anyone from telling them otherwise.

There are also tender moments: Riflemen deliberately saving scraps from their meals to give to hungry Italian children waiting on the edge of camp, a French-trained cook who whips up a gourmet meal using K-Rations for weary US infantrymen standing guard at a token roadblock where villagers not wishing to be stopped take the next street over. These details make RIFLEMEN as real as spending the night in a freezing foxhole while not far away US Army mail clerks read paperbacks in their cots by electric light. The author’s final brush with death is as ironic as fine fiction and, in his modest, factual recounting of the day-to-day service of an unsung hero, makes RIFLEMEN an excellent book for the casual reader and history buff alike.

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