First Published in 1987, If You Survive is an autobiographical account of one American Soldier’s experiences during the last year of the Second World War, thrown into the frontlines in Late June 1944 Second Lieutenant George Wilson (22nd Infantry Regiment, US 4TH Infantry Division) survived 8 months of near continuous combat, through a combination of skill, common sense, and (the book gives the impression at least) sheer luck.
It makes an interesting change to read a book about a line company, whilst the airborne troops, marines and Air Force are subject to countless biographies’ and documentaries, there is rarely any insight into the ordinary soldiers, who saw the most combat and took the largest casualties. Wilson’s story may be lacking in prestige, but it certainly isn’t short of action.
His men were, by and large young, barely trained draftees, thrown together randomly and taking horrendous casualties, they often proved as dangerous to each other as the enemy. Despite this and the decades that had passed since the war, Wilson clearly still had a great admiration for many of the men he served with. In contrast his memories of combat are brutal, reluctant and unnerving, driven by this contradiction If You Survive is an honest, riveting combat biography that is very convincing, and stays in the memory long after the book has been read, but there are a few flaws which Wilson isn’t completely successful at hiding.
The book is printed on good quality paper, and is binded well but there are no photographs and only two maps (which admittedly are annotated), this is a book that relies entirely on Wilsons’s writing to get the story across, luckily he largely succeeds.
Only in his early twenties he was burdened with the fates of hundreds of men, often struggling with his own conscience as much as the fighting. Wilson fought through some of the toughest battles of the war; he was wounded three times, and came very close to snapping under the strain. By the end of the War Wilson was left the lone exhausted survivor out of the company of 162 Soldiers he had first joined (Wilson himself was a replacement, arriving a month after the company’s entry into combat).
Rejected by the Airborne Forces and US Marines Wilson (on account of his Glasses) Wilson eventually found himself drafted into the Regular Army aged just 21, much to his bewilderment he was chosen to become an officer, the opening chapter covers these first few months of his Military life.
The first chapter serves as an introduction to the ‘story’ and Wilson’s writing style. Wilson writes in a fast, relaxed first person manner making the book a largely accessible read for those who can accept the subject matter. This opening chapter is one of the shortest, fastest paced in the book, Wilson covers his whole training period, shipment to England and then his Journey to the front Lines of Normandy in 15 pages.
Though some readers may enjoy seeing the book reach the ‘action’ so quickly, it can make the opening a confusing read for those who aren’t familiar with World War 2 or the American Military, Wilson gives a bare outline of his background and training (some of these facts creep in later), giving little insight into his character or motivations (areas which, admittedly do improve later in the book) making it, at first, hard to relate to his story.
Despite the relatively fast moving nature of the book several of Wilson’s early impressions make their mark, billeted outside the town of Sainte Lo, Normandy he paints a vivid picture of his feelings and memories waiting for his first battle: German Corpses rotting in the sunlight, ruined farmhouses, and the terror of his first enemy shelling. It’s a clever decision by Wilson; he creates a genuine sense of dread as we wait for the battle to begin, the words almost mirroring the feelings he must have felt. The opening chapters are amongst the most vivid, even if they may appear clichéd to readers who have read other War Biographies, but that’s the point War is a universal horror that never really changes.
Wilson’s first experience of combat is just as vividly described, the guilt at killing the enemy, and loosing men under his command, at times it reads almost like a confession. After fighting through the Normandy campaign Wilson saw further action in the Siegfried Line, The Hurtgen Forest and the famous Battle of The Bulge, gradually becoming more experienced, and more embittered. His descriptions of combat are thoroughly convincing, detailing both the physical violence and the mental hardship that faced his company, but also the humour and absurd situation’s that only war can bring out. Wilson’s portrait of battle generally feels a great deal more real than many historians can manage, even if they lack the detail and clever language a professional historian could bring to the role of Author.
Though he doesn’t include a great deal of analysis or statistics, both make a limited appearance, proving very effective when they do, for example, In just 18 days in the Hurtegen forest his company took more than 300 casualties (Wilson was the only original member of the company left at the end), though scarce the few statistic’s included help break up the text, and give his opinions more weight.
Whilst Wilson’s story is a strong one, and his writing style makes the book extremely accessible, it can’t disguise some of the books problems. It is recalling events from a personal perspective; events more than 40 years old, so some of the facts are a little hazy. Wilson never shirks from giving his opinions, and does occasionally come across as biased, it may be a biography, but some of his rants make uncomfortable reading. There is little discussion of the historical backdrop or Politics of World War 2, Wilson largely focuses on his own experiences, so some readers may find it a confusing or annoying read.
The book moves swiftly from location to location, and battle to battle, there are a lot of names to remember, for its length there is far too much turning to the index. Much like its short introduction, the book ends rather suddenly, with a rather weak resolution.
Despite its short length (276 pages) and relatively fast pace, this is a book that can be repetitive; the battles though fought in different places feel, can read as quite similar, with little change for several chapters. Wilsons’s inexperience as a writer shows at several points in the book, he frequently jumps forward in time to reference future events, and appears to forget he’s writing for another person.
Names appear and disappear with annoying regularity, in addition to Wilson there are only two ‘main characters’, both fellow officers, there is little insight into his personal relationship with his men-out of the hundreds he commanded less than 30 are named and few of them are mentioned more than once. Wilsons home life is rarely, and barely alluded to, references to his (unnamed) wife making some rather random appearances. Though it’s not hard to relate to his story, he provides so little insight into himself that some readers may struggle to relate to him as a human being.
All these things result in the book never feeling quite as memorable as its story makes it out to be. Wilson thanks in his introduction ‘Howard Thurlow’ (Another former soldier) for his support and encouragement, though there is no insight into his actual role in the book.
Reading this book brings to mind the Tagline for the 1980 War Film ‘The Big Red One’-‘The real glory of war is surviving’ much like this film, it’s flawed, very violent, and can read as biased. But overall this book is worth reading for anyone interested in World War 2, one of the best combat Biographies of its time. Other readers may find the book more confusing, boring or simply not to their taste.