Against All Odds: A True Story of Ultimate Courage and Survival in World War II
“This is a magnificent tale of personal courage, combat leadership, and heroism under fire. The sacrifices made by this ‘greatest generation’ are really brought out in Kershaw’s narrative and Americans should be grateful that we had men such as these who stepped forward in this hour of greatest need in the 20th century.”
What is a hero? Why do some men rise above the chaos and fear of a battlefield to perform not one, but multiple acts of battlefield heroics? These are questions that Alex Kershaw explores in this captivating read that covers the exploits of four of the most highly decorated soldiers in American history.
One of them, Audie Murphy, achieved some fame for his exploits, but the other three—Maurice Britt, Michael Daly, and Keith Ware—lived their remaining days in relative obscurity, trying to get on with their lives like millions of other World War II veterans while each man dealt with the stress of dealing with life and death situations for days and weeks on end. What's more remarkable is that all of these men served at one time during the war in the US Army's 3rd Infantry Division, one of the most storied units in American military history.
These men all came from very different backgrounds, and there doesn't seem to be any common thread to explain their heroism, other than a desire to rally their fellow soldiers in the face of incredible odds and survive the close combat they were facing. As Kershaw describes their exploits, based on both personal documents, interviews, and official records, all of these men did not view themselves as particularly heroic, just soldiers doing their duty and fighting for their buddies in extended combat situations. As the author describes their engagements that won them so many combat citations, it is remarkable that any of them survived the particular clash that eventually earned all of them the Medal of Honor, America's highest military award, as well as multiple awards of other combat medals as well.
But Kershaw also looks at these men and how they coped with the fallout of serving multiple months of combat in harsh conditions, seeing their friends killed in combat, as well as suffering serious wounds themselves. Maurice Britt was eventually medically retired after losing an arm at Anzio after his Medal of Honor action in Sicily, and all of these men earned multiple Purple Hearts for wounds in combat.
It is remarkable to note that most of these men did not seem interested in earning medals, except for Michael Daly, who experienced a desire to surpass the valor of his father, a highly decorated World War I veteran. However, the army, in a desire to boost morale, publicized their heroics and embarked on a headline grabbing exercise in determining who would gain the designation as “the most decorated soldier” of World War II. When the war ended and the tally was complete, Audie Murphy exceeded Maurice Britt in numbers of multiple awards, with both men earning every combat decoration of the US Army. Daly and Ware also were highly decorated, but neither soldier earned the Distinguished Service Cross during the war.
Then Kershaw continues the story with happened to these men after the war, and here the story moves from heroics to somewhat of a tragedy. Although Audie Murphy turned his heroism into successful career as a B-movie star in Hollywood, his undiagnosed post-traumatic stress led to broken marriages, heavy drinking, a clash with police, and an eventual death in a plane crash in 1971. Keith Ware was the only one of the men who remained in the army, rising from World War II draftee to Major General and command of a division in Vietnam before dying in action in a helicopter crash in 1968. Daly and Britt achieved their own success after the war, Britt going into politics in his home state of Arkansas and Daly becoming involved in charity work at a local hospital before both men passed away.
This is a magnificent tale of personal courage, combat leadership, and heroism under fire. The sacrifices made by this “greatest generation” are really brought out in Kershaw’s narrative and Americans should be grateful that we had men such as these who stepped forward in this hour of greatest need in the 20th century.