Fighting with the Screaming Eagles: With the 101st Airborne from Normandy to Bastogne.
Robert Bowen may have never finished high school, as he mentions early in this book, but Fighting with the Screaming Eagles is one of the best-written pieces about World War II to come out in years. Although not entirely free of historical error or narrative shortcomings, once this memoir gets going, it becomes difficult to put down. Aided by scores of letters he wrote to his wife, Bowen's descriptions of places, names, and battles come to life as his articulate prose makes this book a valuable contribution to our World War II literature.
The author recounts his experiences in one of the more obscure branches of the US Army. An infantryman by training, Bowen sees the Army convert his battalion into glider infantry early in the war to augment paratrooper units in the 101st Airborne Division, where he shares the dangers with paratroopers but without the extra pay, distinctive jump boots, or insignia. The literature about World War It includes numerous recollections of paratroopers, but to my knowledge, this is the first from a glider troop. For that reason alone, Fighting with the Screaming Eagles is worth reading.
The book starts slowly, and Bowen's narrative seems a bit pedantic for the first few chapters as he slogs through the typical stories of induction, training, and transfer to the airborne. However, the closer the tale gets to combat, the better it becomes. Once he enters battle on D-day (interestingly, his battalion lands in Normandy via US Navy landing craft instead of gliders due to a shortage of tug aircraft), the narrative starts afresh with accounts of a soldier's life in France that are both highly lucid and thoroughly engrossing. Although each chapter is unique, a common theme throughout the ones dealing with combat addresses how the carnage and brutality of war disturb Bowen. Indeed, he comments continually on the wounded, the dead, and the apparent randomness of death, the grim reaper who harvests both the pious and the impious, the competent and the incompetent, family men and bachelors, as well as "patriotic" volunteers and draftees. For some, combat strengthened their religious convictions, but its inhumanity seems to have pushed Bowen away from spirituality.
Interestingly, the ever-present violence hones his skills as a soldier. A natural leader, blessed with courage, common sense, and the willingness to use both, Bowen instinctively takes charge on his second day in combat and helps capture several German strongpoints. Later, in Holland, he is promoted to squad leader and then platoon commander over more senior NCOs because he knows how to deploy his men to counter enemy attacks and how to direct and lead attacks of his own. Stalwart in combat, Bowen holds an untenable position outside Bastogne until he is wounded and taken prisoner.
Unfortunately, once the war ends, so does the gripping narrative--almost as if he recites his story as part of an exorcism or an act of catharsis. Bowen then breezes through repatriation and recovery from his wounds, both physical and mental, leaving the reader wanting to know more. How did he struggle with and overcome the chronic pain caused by his 60 percent disability? How did he (or did he) recover from the posttraumatic stress he alludes to?
Perhaps these minor criticisms, especially those that reflect our desire to know more, are the sign of a good memoir. Weak at both the beginning and at the end, Fighting with the Screaming Eagles nevertheless tells a fascinating story in between. The book should interest World War II enthusiasts as well as readers looking for examples of strong leadership.
Maj James P. Gates, USAF
Lake Ridge, Virginia
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|Author:||Gates, James P.|
|Publication:||Air & Space Power Journal|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2005|
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