CAISSONS ACROSS EUROPE: An Artillery Captain's Personal War.
Richard M. Hardison, August 1990, 306p. illus., Eakin Press, $18.95.
Caissons Across Europe is a very well written and entertaining memoir about the transformation of a "somewhat naive boy of West Texas into manhood" during the Second World War. Beginning his story with graduation in June 1941 from Texas A&M, Richard Hardison described the subsequent fifty-seven months of his life as an artilleryman. These months included a long training period in the States, a trans-Atlantic voyage to England in mid-November 1944 and combat throughout most of Western Europe in early 1945 while assigned to the 399th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, 8th Armored Division.
Asked by fellow veterans to write a unit history, Hardison visited old European sites, reviving old memories and feelings. In that his memoir was constructed decades after the war, there may have been some literary license taken. But, overall, it would appear that his accounts are open, honest, forthright and described as experienced.
Reviewed: Oct '95
Many historical memoirs deal specifically with preparation for and actual conduct of combat operations. While Hardison's work certainly addresses these types of activities as well as many others I've read, he has also provided much more. He brought to focus that all is not combat and, in reality, combat is just a very small part of the complete picture.
Hardison's complete picture of the Second World War included two items of special interest. The first dealt with the fact that despite Hardison's commissioning nearly six months prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor and the US's entry into the war, he and his unit did not deploy to the European Theater of Operation (ETA) and engage in any combat operations until nearly four months prior to V-E Day (8 May 1945). I found that aspect quite amazing. But when one considers the fact that 8,266,373 men and women served in the armed forces during that period, the obvious question often overlooked is "Where did we put them all?" In that the vast majority of combat forces were not needed in Europe until after D-Day in June 1944 and there was not enough land in the ETA to marshal them, many units were stationed in the United States until deployed for combat. Hardison's detailed accounts of the long hours of training, constant activity, adverse conditions and last minute transfers of units and personal are enlightening and informative.
The second item I found of interest were his experiences and observations as a member of the victorious Allied occupational force. One does not find much written about the early occupation and some of that omission is rectified by Hardison's accounts. Again, the author does not spare the details. Reassigned to the 301st Field Artillery Battalion of the 94th Infantry Division stationed in Czechoslovakia, Hardison describes the rapid dismantling of one of the most powerful armies in history. He tells tales of officers being officially excused from duties to go on a '30 day drunk.' He notes the lack of discipline or even focus for the units, and the fraternization of all ranks with the local populace. Hardison even relates a few incidents and interactions with Soviet occupational forces.
Throughout the book, the author does much to convey the full range and spectrum of human emotion. There are humorous moments, such as when his battalion commander ripped in half during a retrieval attempt a muck mired half-track while operating a M-7 self-propelled 105mm howitzer. and his story of battalion soldiers who attempted to stay warm with urine laced wood that burned so intensely it melted the stove's stack and released a dense smoke. This smoke impregnated uniforms so badly that 'contaminated' soldiers were left to themselves for days.
Hardison also does much to communicate the horrors and brutality of war. One such moment was when the author discovered that the snow covered 'log' he had been using as a table for his meals was, in reality, the chest of a dead German corporal. Other such moments occurred with the rape of German women by US Army soldiers. and the cold blooded murder by an infantry lieutenant of an innocent 65 year old German civilian.
Given the fact that the author was engaged in actual combat for only less than four months, my initial expectations about enjoying this book were relatively low. Fortunately, I was very pleasantly mistaken. I found this work to be a thoroughly enjoyable read. It is more than just a story about an artilleryman. It is a story about an officer who was committed for the duration of the war only to find himself spending the vast majority of time training and 'occupying.' These two activities would seem to be more the norm than the exception for many in that war, and Hardison's work does much to fill in the details of what this norm was like.