BOOKS JUNE 10, 2013
One of the most haunting things I’ve ever read about World War II involves Audie Murphy’s private nightmare room.
Murphy isn’t remembered much these days, but at one time he was as famous as anyone in the United States. A small, baby-faced Army infantryman from Hunt County, Texas, he fought heroically in Italy and France, emerging as one of the war’s most decorated soldiers. In January 1945, at 19, he won the Medal of Honor for an incredible one-man stand near Holtzwihr, France—firing a machine gun atop a disabled, flaming tank, killing or wounding roughly 50 advancing Germans, and saving the troops he commanded from being overrun. Life put Murphy on the cover in July 1945. He went on to become a movie star (acting mostly in B westerns) and memoirist, co-writing To Hell and Back, a bestselling 1949 account of his military service. He played himself in the film version.
In 1983, Esquire ran a profile of Murphy by a writer who’d interviewed him in 1967 at his home in North Hollywood, four years before he died in a small-plane crash. By that time, Murphy’s movie career had fizzled and the trauma of what he’d endured in Europe was serving as a steady drag on his state of mind.1 During a tour of the home, the writer noticed that Murphy’s garage was fully furnished as a bedroom—a solitary retreat where he slept with the lights on, so that when he woke from recurring, combat-related nightmares he would know where he was.
Murphy makes cameo appearances in The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II, Charles Glass’s terrific book about American and British soldiers who fled the front lines. He serves as an extreme example of how some men handled unimaginable combat—bravely, but with mental health consequences that we recognize today as post-traumatic stress disorder. Glass’s main interest here is the other side of the story: men who broke down at the time, making the momentous decision to run away from the relentless grind of injury and death. Most deserters were combat soldiers. They represented only 14 percent of the overall Allied presence in Europe but absorbed 70 percent of the casualties.
Nearly 50,000 American and 100,000 British soldiers bolted during the war.
Nearly 50,000 American and 100,000 British soldiers bolted during the war, mostly in North Africa and Europe. (Desertion was rare in the Pacific because there weren’t many places to go.) Glass focuses at length on the complicated sagas of three of them—one from Scotland, two from the U.S.—and in the process sweeps aside easy assumptions about the motivations and character of soldiers who followed this path. “Few deserters were cowards,” Glass writes, adding that the people who “showed the greatest sympathy to deserters were other frontline soldiers. They had, at one time or another, felt the temptation.”
It’s not news that life on the front lines was hellish—that’s been explored in many fine books, including Eugene B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa and John Ellis’s The Sharp End: The Fighting Man in World War II—but Glass brings something new to the table by going deep with desertion, an overlooked aspect of the wartime experience. The result is an impressive achievement: a boot-level take on the conflict that is fresh without being cynically revisionist.
Glass opens with a look at the most famous deserter of them all: Eddie Slovik, an Army private who was the only American or British soldier to be executed for the crime during World War II. A draftee from Detroit, Slovik arrived in Europe after D-Day and was headed for likely death in a slaughterhouse campaign known as the Battle of Hürtgen Forest.2 He was certain he couldn’t face combat, so he deserted, turned himself in at a command post behind the lines, and made it clear to officers that he understood the possible consequences of what he was doing.
Running away might have been a better idea. As Glass explains, 49 Americans were sentenced to death for desertion during World War II, but only Slovik was put in front of a firing squad. Turning himself in didn’t earn him any mercy. Desertions were rampant after D-Day, when it became clear that optimistic predictions about the war ending by Christmas 1944 were absurd. His court martial happened during the Hürtgen campaign; his appeal was heard during the Battle of the Bulge. The Army needed an example, and no one, including the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower, was ready to step in and apply the brakes.
Glass argues that Slovik shouldn’t be viewed as a coward and that most deserters were, in a sense, making the rational choice to run away from death. As Glass points out, there wasn’t sufficient troop rotation in the European theater because General George Marshall had decreased the total number of divisions. Fighting soldiers were exposed to a numbing array of horrors and inequities: relentless artillery barrages that made survival seem like a matter of random chance; rear-echelon support personnel who fattened up on supplies that never made it to the front; undertrained replacement officers who ordered aggressive assaults but didn’t always participate; and the pervasive hopelessness of the war itself, which seemed to offer only four ways out until victory finally arrived: death, capture, serious injury, or desertion.
Glass doesn’t pretend that every deserter had just cause or behaved nobly, and the book parts a curtain on an aspect of World War II that is rarely discussed: the sizeable criminal networks, run by gangs of deserters, that sprouted up in post-liberation Naples, Rome, and Paris. One notorious example was the Lane Gang, organized in Italy by a young private from Pennsylvania who adopted the pseudonym Robert Lane. “His mob terrorized the military and civilians alike in a crime spree of robbery, extortion, and murder,” Glass writes. In France, much of the action was centered in Paris, which was awash with stolen goods—particularly cigarettes and gasoline—swiped by renegades from outfits like the 716th Railway Battalion. One hundred and fifty members of this battalion roamed and robbed for months before the gang was broken up in late 1944.
Glass is deft at providing this kind of necessary contextual information, but The Deserters is a piece of narrative storytelling, not a scholarly study, so he focuses on his three representative soldiers, who illuminate what he sees as the primary motives for desertion: greed, disgust, and fear.
Filling the role of bad guy is Alfred T. Whitehead, a native Tennessean who became a black-market criminal in Paris. Whitehead grew up in poverty with an abusive stepfather, and he initially saw Army life as relatively pleasant: solid meals and ample money for womanizing and boozing. He was a capable infantryman who fought in France and Belgium, earning a Silver Star and three Bronze Stars. He was taken off the line because of appendicitis; he deserted partly because he resented being transferred to an inferior outfit. He was eventually arrested, served half of a five-year sentence, and seemed miserable for the rest of his life, thanks to the shadow on his service record. “For years Dad just went through the motions of being alive,” his son recalled.
The “disgusted” soldier is John Vernon Bain, an amateur boxer and intellectual who became famous in the United Kingdom for writing poetry—much of it about the war—under the pen name Vernon Scannell. Paul Fussell, the critic and World War II veteran who examined his own disgust with the conflict in books like Wartime, Doing Battle, and The Boys’ Crusade, found Scannell to be a compelling example of a deserter who operated from a strong moral foundation. “Questioned about his motives for leaving,” Fussell wrote in The Boys’ Crusade, “he answered that ‘he walked away because of that hideous business of war,’ and denied that cowardice had anything to do with it.” Scannell deserted three different times: once during training in the U.K.; once after he witnessed gruesome corpse-pillaging in North Africa; and once shortly after VE Day, when he was in England recovering from serious leg wounds. He was convicted but discharged after a brief stint in a mental ward.
The star of the book is an American infantryman whose story hasn’t been told before: Steve Weiss, a New York City native who introduced himself to Glass in 2009, when he was in London promoting an earlier book. In 1942, at 17, Weiss enlisted and saw his first action in Italy. Landing at Anzio, Weiss encountered a group of deserters who were locked inside a barbed-wire stockade. Like some mad Shakespearean chorus, they warned Weiss, with obscenities and waving arms, that he would end up just like them. Weiss’s tour took him through combat in Italy, the invasion of southern France, and a near-miss behind enemy lines that ended with him getting rescued by the French Resistance and drafted into their ranks. Weiss served with the French and briefly with the American O.S.S., but he eventually had to return to his old unit, which had fought almost every day without rest during the month he was gone.
“Many’s the time I’ve just wanted to sit down and cry about the whole damn mess.”
As a miserable, rainy October settled in on northeastern France and the Allied advance slowed, Weiss felt a sense of doom, as if he were nothing more than “ammunition, gasoline or rations” being fed into the maw. When he rejoined his unit, only two men remained from the group that had been saved by the French. A buddy told him he was a fool to come back. Weiss deserted twice in October, returning once before leaving for good and turning himself in at the French town of Vesoul. What followed was a typical frogmarch of military justice: His defense counsel was lazy, and nobody cared that he’d fought on two fronts, that he volunteered to parachute into Germany with the O.S.S., or that he was obviously suffering from battle fatigue. He received a life sentence but was freed when he agreed, in principle, to fight in the Pacific.
These summaries don’t do justice to the quality of Glass’s storytelling. He’s a talented writer, and he obviously hit the archives hard in an effort to make the book both novelistic and true. Occasionally it feels as if context gets crowded out by narrative—I wanted more about those black market criminal gangs, for example—but that’s a minor complaint. He’s pulled off something special here: showing respect to what the deserters endured while acknowledging that the war—gruesome and unfair and nonsensical though it was—had to be won, and that this happened because enough men somehow found the will to keep going.
Here again, Audie Murphy comes to mind—somehow, he retained his decency and humanity through a series of feats that defy belief (it’s estimated that he personally killed 240 Germans). One day, Murphy found a soldier sobbing under a tree. Instead of berating him, he talked softly and told him to fall back and report to the medics.“Looks like he’s taken all he can,” Murphy told another soldier. “I know how he feels,” the third soldier replied. “Many’s the time I’ve just wanted to sit down and cry about the whole damn mess.”
Alex Heard is the editorial director of Outside magazine and author of The Eyes of Willie McGee. Follow @alexheard.