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Shrapnel: A Memoir    by William Wharton order for
by William Wharton
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William Morrow, 2013 (2013)
* * *   Reviewed by Bob Walch

Before his death in 2008 William Wharton wrote eight novels and a couple of memoirs. He also left behind a manuscript, a wartime memoir, that had only been published in Polish. This collection of war experiences is now available for the first time in English.

'War for me, though brief, had been a soul-shaking trauma. I was scared, miserable, and I lost confidence in human beings, especially myself. It was a very unhappy experience,' writes Wharton in the book's Prologue. 'It was not a pleasant experience writing this book either. When dug up, the buried guilts of youth smell of dirty rags and old blood. There are many things that happened to me, and because of me, of which I am not proud, events impossible to defend now; callousness, cowardice, cupidity, deception. I did not tell these stories to my children. My ego wasn't strong enough to handle it then, perhaps it isn't even now, when I'm over seventy years old. We shall see.'

Continuing, Wharton explains that when he underwent his training for combat in World War II he didn't react well to the military's rigid hierarchy. 'I fought the military mentality with my meager resources but to no avail. In they end they prevailed. They taught me to kill. They trained me to abandon my natural desire to live, survive, and to risk my life for reasons I often did not understand and sometimes did not accept.'

The memoir follows the author's basic training in Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1944 and some of the other young men he met during this twelve week period. Then Wharton was sent to Regimental Intelligence and Reconnaissance for additional, specialized training and he ended up at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, before he shipped out to England. Following General Patton's forces, Wharton's unit headed across France, bypassed Paris and relieved the Twenty-Eighth Division (The Yankee Division) which was charged at that time with retaking parts of the old Maginot Line around Metz, which the Germans had captured.

The wheels come off for Wharton when he is charged with abandoning his men in combat and goes before a summary court martial hearing, but gets off. Broken back to private from the rank of sergeant, he's sent back to the fighting where he is wounded.

After a partial recovery, Wharton finds himself drawn into another mess where the men he was in charge of killed some German soldiers they had taken captive. Naturally another court martial follows and again the author is busted in rank back to private. He is also threatened by the men who were sent to Leavenworth. As one of the men is taken out after sentencing he shouts, 'Better watch out, Wharton. In ten years you're not safe. I'll have your ass.'

In the understatement to end all understatements, Wharton writes. 'It's a really bad way to end a war. If there's a good way to end a war I don't know what it is, but this was a bad way to end one.'

Not your typical war memoir, this brutally honest, soul baring, little book reads very quickly but it will stay with you long after you've finished it. The author's pain will become your own by the final page.

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