“The Longest Winter” by Alex Kershaw: The 99th Infantry Division’s 394th Regiment’s Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon had 18 men dug in above Lanzerath on Dec. 16, 1944, when a German thrust through the Ardennes slammed into the Belgian town at the start of the Battle of the Bulge. Kershaw follows the platoon’s desperate fight and the soldier’s exploits until the end of the war in Europe five months later.
The Americans, at the front only a month and in Lanzerath as a stopgap, lacked winter uniforms, proper weapons, and artillery and armor support. The platoon’s commander, 1st Lt. Lyle Bouck, a day from his 21st birthday, soon lost communication with headquarters and had to make decisions based on a suicidal command to hold the position.
The platoon held out for about 10 hours before being captured as the ammunition ran out. Kershaw follows the men through their horrifying months as prisoners of war (when author Kurt Vonnegut has a running cameo), their return home and their recognition a quarter-century later for their stand at Lanzerath.
Kershaw includes scenes from the German side. Particularly valuable is the view from SS Panzer group commander Jochen Peiper, whose tanks failed to reach the Meuse River in part because of the delay at Lanzerath. But the story of Nazi commando Otto Skorzeny, who played no direct role at Lanzerath, is a pointless distraction.
Kershaw says Bouck’s platoon became the most decorated for a single action in World War II, but that’s not what makes “The Longest Winter” such a riveting, moving read. It’s Kershaw’s ability to depict the U.S. Army’s biggest battle through the exploits of one small band of brothers. The troops’ sacrifices, heroics and devotion to one another were repeated up and down the lines to win the war.
Rating: Buy it. Reviewed by Michael Jacobs (originally appeared in USA TODAY)