An impeccable researcher and author of The First Wave and The Liberator, among many bestsellers, Alex Kershaw’s great gift to readers is the ability to tap into the heartbeat of human stories in the whirlwind of war. Against All Odds is the story of four men of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Division, all recipients of the Medal of Honor, caught up in the 1942 invasion of North Africa and the lives they lived after the war. To our delight, Kershaw delivers one again.
The untold story of four of the most decorated soldiers of World War II—all Medal of Honor recipients—from the beaches of French Morocco to Hitler’s own mountaintop fortress, by the national bestselling author of The First Wave
“Pitch-perfect.”—The Wall Street Journal • “Riveting.”—World War II magazine • “Alex Kershaw is the master of putting the reader in the heat of the action.”—Martin Dugard
As the Allies raced to defeat Hitler, four men, all in the same unit, earned medal after medal for battlefield heroism. Maurice “Footsie” Britt, a former professional football player, became the very first American to receive every award for valor in a single war. Michael Daly was a West Point dropout who risked his neck over and over to keep his men alive. Keith Ware would one day become the first and only draftee in history to attain the rank of general before serving in Vietnam. In WWII, Ware owed his life to the finest soldier he ever commanded, a baby-faced Texan named Audie Murphy. In the campaign to liberate Europe, each would gain the ultimate accolade, the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Tapping into personal interviews and a wealth of primary source material, Alex Kershaw has delivered his most gripping account yet of American courage, spanning more than six hundred days of increasingly merciless combat, from the deserts of North Africa to the dark heart of Nazi Germany. Once the guns fell silent, these four exceptional warriors would discover just how heavy the Medal of Honor could be—and how great the expectations associated with it. Having survived against all odds, who among them would finally find peace?
Related collections and offers
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.40(w) x 9.60(h) x 1.40(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Baptism of Fire
The silence was unnerving after several days at sea, crossing from America with the constant grinding of the ship's engines, quiet now in the Atlantic waters off North Africa. But it didn't last long. In the early hours, bells clanged and then soldiers heard an anchor chain's rattle, barked orders, heavy and frantic footsteps, power winches whirring as they started to lower landing craft into the whitecapped water.
A radio played. Twenty-four-year-old Lieutenant Maurice "Footsie" Britt to his surprise heard the voice of President Franklin D. Roosevelt announce that the invasion of North Africa had already begun. "We figured he had jumped the gun a little," Britt later remembered. "After all, we were still eight miles from shore."1 Then blond-haired Britt, all two hundred twenty pounds of him, took his place in his landing craft. Finally, the craft headed toward the shore.
The seas as far as the horizon were dotted with transports. Britt belonged to the 3rd Division's 30th Infantry Regiment, whose motto was "Our country, not ourselves."2 He was one of thirty-five thousand green American troops in Western Task Force, commanded by General George S. Patton, one of three forces attacking French Morocco and Algeria in three areas of a thousand-mile-long coastline, stretching all the way from Safi on the Atlantic to Algiers. The arrival of the first Americans in Europe to fight the Axis powers came at a critical point in the war. After enjoying stunning success against the British 8th Army through 1941 and much of 1942, General Erwin Rommel and his famed Afrika Korps were now on the defensive, having been defeated at El Alamein in Egypt less than a week earlier.
In all, the Torch Landings, the first joint operation of the war by the Americans and the British, comprised more than a hundred thousand troops backed by three hundred fifty warships from seven Allied navies. The Americans had tried to negotiate an armistice with the French in recent days but to no avail, and so an order had come from on high to Britt's division: "Okay, boys, let's play ball."3
Dawn was now breaking off the coast of North Africa. In the far distance, men could make out the steeple of a Catholic church rising above the port of Fedala.4 There was the sound of machine-gun fire. Bright red tracers spat across the lightening sky. Ahead loomed a flat, broad beach a couple of miles to the east of Fedala.
Britt heard the drone of French bombers and then saw "huge fountains of spray" as bombs crashed into the sea. "It was a pretty sight," he remembered, "until suddenly we realized, with a sickening feeling, that the men in these bombers were trying to kill us. No lectures on the subject, no crawling under carefully aimed machine gunfire, will ever make a soldier. He becomes one the instant he realizes the gunfire he hears is intended to kill him."5
Britt's landing craft ground ashore. Men began to unload it but then there was a "deafening rattle of fire" and Britt looked up and saw a French plane diving toward him, strafing his regiment. There had been no preinvasion bombardment in the hopes that the French would not put up any resistance. Many of Britt's fellow invaders carried American flags, figuring the French would be less likely to fire on US troops. The flags made no difference.
Britt and his men stopped unloading the craft, headed for safety across the beach, and then moved inland. By midday they had reached a preassigned assembly area near a road bridge. Then Britt returned to the beach with a sergeant to salvage the jeeps and equipment he'd been forced to leave in the landing craft. "The first edge of my excitement was beginning to dull and when another strafing plane came over I hit the beach in utter terror, digging madly into the sand."
The plane soon passed over, in search of more targets. For five long minutes, Britt lay flat, terrified, trying to summon the courage to get back on his feet. He then found his landing craft. But before he and the sergeant could pull off several guns and two remaining jeeps, the landing craft sank in the rough seas. There was more bad news. Britt learned that a "submarine torpedo [had] hit our transport standing off shore and all our equipment went down with it. We lost all our barracks bags, food, kitchens, and other equipment. All we had left was the clothes on our backs and the rations we carried. We were tired, sick, and disgusted."6
Britt and the sergeant had no option but to walk back across the beach and rejoin their company at the assembly point by the road bridge. By early afternoon, Fedala was in American hands, and Britt and his company were marching toward Casablanca, sixteen miles to the southwest. Britt's regiment encountered minimal resistance while taking dozens of French soldiers as prisoners.
Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower arranged a cease-fire with Vichy French forces forty-eight hours later, on November 10, and Casablanca was occupied with fewer than seventy men killed from Britt's division, although by the time the guns fell silent in all of Morocco, there had been some fifteen hundred Allied casualties. Britt and his fellow "Marne men," as the 3rd Division soldiers were known, had been initiated into the full chaos and confusion of combat in a couple of hectic, feverish days. They'd fought with barely any armored support yet had successfully spearheaded the first US invasion of the war. "My biggest thrill," Britt wrote his wife, "and one that I'm sure I'll never recapture, was when my boys performed so heroically that at least three will be decorated for outstanding bravery."7
Far bloodier battlefields and much greater danger were in store for Maurice Britt but, unlike so many of his fellow junior officers, his background and training had prepared him to endure the ordeals ahead. Britt had in fact trained for combat since the harshest days of the Great Depression when he first donned an army uniform in 1937 as a freshman in the ROTC program at the University of Arkansas. He was quick-witted, tough, and humble, with no airs or graces, an optimist by necessity, having grown up dirt-poor in rural Arkansas. He was born in the small town of Carlisle, in the state's rice-growing region, and already knew what death meant. When he was nine, his father was badly hurt in an industrial accident and given less than five years to live. He lasted four.
Britt's mother was left with two boys, nine-year-old Basil and thirteen-year-old Maurice, to bring up on her own. Each cent counted and Britt worked every hour he could, stacking wood, picking fruit, chopping cotton.8 In high school, he was an exceptional athlete, playing basketball and football and starring on the track team. His teammates nicknamed him Footsie because he had such big feet-"size 12, double E."
He studied as hard as he worked to feed his family, graduating in 1937 as his high school's valedictorian. He never forgot his mother's delight when he won a football scholarship to the University of Arkansas, where he majored in journalism, hoping one day to become a sportswriter if he didn't make the cut as a professional athlete.9 As in high school, Britt was again both a star athlete and a superb scholar, gaining a 5.5 grade point average in his freshman year while winning plaudits for the college's Razorback football team as a nimble, quick-thinking defensive and offensive end. Before his senior year, he'd attended a reserve officers' training camp at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas-what he regarded, on the cusp of his first combat, as "a priceless experience."10
Aged twenty-two, Britt fell in love with a high-spirited, beautiful freshman called Nancy Mitchell. After he received his commission as a second lieutenant upon graduating, he and eighteen-year-old Nancy were married on June 8, 1941. "Life was simple and serene in those days, six months before Pearl Harbor," he reminisced. "We went on a honeymoon tour of the Ozarks and in the fall we went to Detroit, where I had an offer to try out with the Detroit Lions professional football team."
Britt was selected for one of six roster spots and soon became a regular starter, a professional football player in the NFL. The Lions were a woeful team, losing most of their games, but Britt was highly respected by both fans and teammates for his dedication and endurance. "He could take any amount of punishment and he was a sixty-minute man," recalled fellow Lion O'Neale Adams. "I always thought he would make a leader."11 Another of Britt's teammates was Byron White, a future Supreme Court justice, rumored to be the best-paid player in the NFL. "There were stories that [White] was making $1000 a game, which was fantastic money," remembered Britt. "None of us knew if it was true and no one asked. We were just glad to have him on our side. . . . It wasn't hard to see that this man was going places."12
The same could have been said for Britt. But then, a few weeks before the end of the 1941 season, he received a letter from the War Department calling him to active duty.13 Britt turned up at Camp Robinson in Arkansas on December 5, 1941, and was told to make his way to Fort Lewis in Washington State. He was listening to the radio, driving across the Arizona desert with his wife, when he heard that Pearl Harbor had been attacked and that the United States had entered the war.
Certain he'd be shipped to the Pacific in a matter of days, Britt's first impulse was to pull his coupe over at the next town and send his bride home, but she insisted on crossing the Rockies with him. It was a fraught journey as her husband kept putting his foot to the gas, eager to get to the West Coast. The police stopped Britt several times for speeding and he earnestly explained he was in a rush to get the war won. He didn't pick up a single ticket. In Fort Lewis, an officer in a tank unit quickly sized him up-he stood 6 feet 3.5 inches: "You're too big," the officer told him. "You look like you might be some good in the infantry."14
So it was that Britt ended up in the 3rd Division, the legendary "Rock of the Marne" outfit that had saved Paris in July 1918 by blocking the last great German offensive of World War I. Dubbed "the Blue and White Devils" because of the blue and white stripes on their insignia, the Marne men had boasted among their ranks between the wars none less than Dwight Eisenhower-the future Allied supreme commander-and George Marshall, US Army chief of staff.15
Later that November 1942, as Hitler sent more men to North Africa to bolster RommelÕs Afrika Korps, Britt was detailed with his battalion to set up security for one of the most important conferences of World War II in Casablanca, the first port on the Atlantic that could receive troops and supplies directly from the United States. It was dull work but Britt and his company found time to barter with the local Arabs, he recalled, Òfor eggs and other food to supplement our rations. One lucky fellow in our company had come ashore with a box of red, white and blue poker chips. The Arabs thought these were worth more than silver money, and our man almost had a corner on the Moroccan egg market.Ó16
From January 8 to 23, 1943, Britt and his fellow Marne men kept a tight cordon around the elegant Anfa Hotel as Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt and their military staffs planned strategy for defeating the Axis in North Africa and then in mainland Europe. "Britt personally met his Commander in Chief," it was later reported, as well as "Churchill, De Gaulle, Marshall, and others."17
The Torch Landings had been opposed by the US chiefs of staff, who feared being dragged into what they saw as a vaguely planned Mediterranean sideshow, designed to further Churchill's imperialist aims. But Roosevelt was under intense pressure to commit more men and matŽriel to the fight against the Axis. It had been impossible to invade northwest Europe in 1942 and thereby open a second front as Stalin demanded. To maintain momentum in the war, Roosevelt now agreed to Churchill's calls for a strike to the "soft underbelly" of the Third Reich in the Mediterranean.18 At Roosevelt's insistence, it was also decided at Casablanca that there would be no negotiating with Hitler and the Axis powers; only unconditional surrender would be acceptable.
Once the dignitaries had left Casablanca, Britt and his battalion bade adieu to the port with its ancient medinas, gut-rotting chicory coffee, armies of beggars, and surly French colonials. They were sent to the windswept Spanish-Moroccan border, where they again performed guard duty. Spring arrived and men no longer shivered so much as they stood at sentry posts at night. On March 7, 1943, they received a new division commander, forty-eight-year-old Major General Lucian Truscott, a chain-smoking aesthete who'd left American shores with a copy of War and Peace and a bottle of booze stowed in his kit bag. A former schoolteacher from Texas, the son of a country doctor, aged twenty-three he'd enlisted in the cavalry and become a superb polo player. Famously short-tempered and bullheaded, he would soon dole out fifty-year sentences to men who shot themselves in the foot to avoid combat.
Truscott took charge at a turning point in the North Africa campaign. The Allies had hoped for a quick victory following Operation Torch but Rommel's forces proved infuriatingly hard to defeat. Rains lashed the mosquito-plagued invaders and deep mud along coastal highways slowed Allied tanks. Then came a stunning victory against the green Americans at Kasserine Pass. Six US battalions were destroyed in two days.
It was a woeful performance, leading to sniping from the British. But Kasserine was a necessary blooding that led to a shake-up in the US Army, sackings and reassignment of men and commands. And now, that spring of 1943, the Allies were back on the offensive, better organized and with new generals such as Truscott in charge. Record numbers of enemy ships were being sunk, strangling supply lines across the Mediterranean. That April 22, the Allies launched a decisive offensive. Tunis fell as two once mighty German Panzer armies fell apart, and by May 13, what was left of Rommel's Afrika Korps was defeated and 238,000 Germans and Italians were taken prisoner.
Lucian Truscott gathered his officers for a pep talk. The Germans were no supermen. When the American soldier was daring, organized, and highly aggressive, he could beat his German foe, always called the Boche by Truscott. Barely a week later, Truscott ordered his regimental commanders to move to Arzew, a training center in Algeria.19 "While Allied forces were driving Marshal Rommel back from the gates of Egypt and the Germans were being cornered in Tunisia," recalled Britt, "our division was rehearsing for [an] invasion. Over and over we practiced beach landings. It was dangerous work but the men who formed combat teams were generally volunteers. They got no extra pay."20