Brothers in Arms
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Review Date: 21 Feb 2011
Full Title: Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761St Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes
African-American soldiers only made up of a small fraction of all Americans who served outside of the United States during WW2, and of that population, an even smaller number actually saw combat. Entering service in a time period when they were looked down upon by the majority Caucasian-Americans, some of their superiors thought they were not intelligent enough to fight in a modern war. Yet when they were presented with the opportunity, they proved to be as gallant and as ferocious as any man in uniform. The famed professional athlete Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who later found that one of his early mentors had served as a tanker in the 761st Tank Battalion, teamed up with author Anthony Walton to tell the story of these men in this small yet significant chapter in American history.
Written in a fashion similar to other memoirs of front line soldiers of the period, Brothers in Arms told of the lives of black soldiers, with particular focus on three, Leonard Smith, William McBurnie, and Preston McNeil, as they went through the experiences of enlisting, training, fighting, and returning home. The book distinctly divided in two sections. The first section of the book dealt with the prejudice they faced in southern US, where prejudice against African-Americans were significantly more prevalent when contrasted to northern US. While being forced to sit in the back of the bus (if the drivers allowed them to board at all) was a nuisance, the murders of some African-American on leave painted a vivid picture of this shameful dark side of the period of the supposedly "Greatest Generation". I enjoyed the aside about Jackie Robinson, of later baseball fame, and his court martial brought on by racial bias. When the 761st Tank Battalion reached the front lines, their skills earned the respect of some, but unfortunately not all, of their officers. While the authors only did a mediocre job describing the big picture of the European War, their narration of the battalion's engagements were dramatic and exciting. There were numerous factual mistakes (apparently Hermann GĂ¶ring replaced Joseph Goebbels as the propaganda minister along the line, according to the authors; at another occasion, there seemed to be a confusion between the words Panther and Panzer), but for a general audience the book did a good job in telling the story of these ethnic minority soldiers fighting in a war not only against enemy soldiers but at times also against officers on their own side.
I reviewed this book in its audio book format. I could not say that I liked Richard Allen's reading. Although my German pronunciation was not very good, I could easily tell that the audio book publisher never bothered to consult with a German language expert, or even a WW2 expert for that matter, before producing the audio book. Had any kind of research or consultation been done, Luftwaffe would not have been pronounced as "looft-waaf", and Elbe would not have been "el-bee". Beyond the German mispronunciations, there were several careless mistakes in English as well; I was pretty sure somewhere on disc 8 I heard a mention of a "President Truben". At the very end of the audio book, Peter Francis James conducted an audio interview with McBurnie and McNeil. This I enjoyed immensely. As the two veterans encouraged young listeners to always strive for the utmost even if life presented obstacles, hearing them in their own voices I felt a brief personal connection with them as I had just finished listening to Abdul-Jabbar and Walton's telling of their war experience. Furthermore, it gave me a more realistic sense of how they spoke and what their voices were like, both of which were completely different than how Allen portrayed them in his reading.
Brothers in Arms suffered some historical accuracy and pronunciation problems as noted above. If that could be glossed over, I would say that this book was still worth a cursory glance for it told a story about an uglier side of American culture that was often tucked away from the mainstream study of the war and the period on the whole. I would recommend the printed format over the audio format, as the less-than-perfect reading would not be an issue to overcome.
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Joachim von Ribbentrop, German Foreign Minister, Aug 1939