From The Wall Street Journal:
Small-unit combat has held a special place in literature since the time of Herodotus. From Spartans at Thermopylae to the First Marines at Fallujah, “band of brothers” tales provide a voyeuristic glimpse into war’s charnel house and a testament to the sublime and profane within the embattled men on the spear’s tip.
At one end of the literary spectrum lie the front-line stories, real and imagined, that leave lasting images of epic heroism. Paul Bäumer huddling in a shell hole with a dying Frenchman. Audie Murphy on a burning tank destroyer, throwing back a German regiment. Hal Moore’s troopers fending off Vietnamese waves in Ia Drang Valley.
At the other end lie tales of the everyman warrior, the Tom Hanks character yanked from the terrarium of civilian life and thrust into a transient world of blood, fire and shrapnel. Books like Alex Kershaw’s “The Liberator” and Laura Hillenbrand’s monumental “Unbroken” celebrate human resilience and the latent power of the individual rarely tapped in peacetime. These stories are driven by characters who are relatable and yet possess some quality the rest of us don’t—at least, not as long as we remain ensconced in the comforting confines of civil society.
. . . .
“Spearhead” centers on a tank crew, in this case a half-dozen men packed into a Sherman dubbed “Eagle” that blasts its way across Belgium and central Germany. The crew rolls into action in September 1944, near the Belgian city of Mons, and winds up in April 1945 in Paderborn, Germany, bookending its journey with one-on-one tank duels.
The story’s everyman is Clarence Smoyer, a 21-year-old gun loader assigned to the Third Armored Division’s Easy Company. The mild-mannered Pennsylvanian seems destined to become a name, rank and serial number on a soon-forgotten casualty list, but Mr. Smoyer (whom Mr. Makos interviewed extensively for the book) discovers an unusual gift: He is a crack shot with a tank cannon. Promoted to gunner, though never formally trained as one, he also has a knack for unorthodox gun tactics when his crew faces steep odds.
In any tank tale, the steel shell becomes a rolling village in microcosm. “Spearhead” follows this well-worn path by introducing the reader to Eagle’s residents: its commander, Paul Faircloth, a half-Cherokee with a fatal devotion to duty; William “Woody” McVey, an Irish-American Michigander with an irreverent sense of humor; Bob Earley, a pipe-smoking Minnesotan whose chattering teeth are the crew’s barometer of how dangerous each mission will be; Homer “Smokey” Davis, a dour-faced Kentuckian who fancies himself a fast-draw pistolero; and “Johnny Boy” DeRiggi, an Italian-American from Scranton, Pa., whose jocularity dissipates as much of their tank platoon is wiped out near the town of Blatzheim, west of Cologne.
In the confines of an upgraded tank—a state-of-the-art Pershing—Clarence Smoyer and his fellow crewmen kill to live as enemy fire claims one platoon comrade after another. Faircloth, the crew’s father figure, falls to a German mortar blast. “The explosion lifted him from his feet and flung him askew through the smoke,” Mr. Makos writes. “Clarence’s legs became weak at the sight and he collapsed into the turret.”
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal