Whatever It Took: An American Paratrooper’s Extraordinary Memoir of Escape, Survival, And Heroism In The Last Days OF World War II, by Henry Langrehr and Jim DeFelice
This book is somewhat extraordinary in that it is the most restrained book about a man’s desire to be free from slavery in a prisoner of war camp. It is not particularly surprising that an elderly man in Iowa from a restrained German-American family would find it difficult to open up about his war experiences. And it appears as if there is a great deal of tension between the author’s quiet dignity and obvious discomfort in writing about his own insecurities as well as his own struggles with faith and his own dark memories about the traumas of imprisonment, slavery, and doing whatever it took to escape to freedom in the waning days of World War II, which are described in an unsentimental manner, the co-author’s insistence that there are no good wars, only necessary ones, a sentiment I happen to endorse, and the efforts of the publisher of this book to profit by pointing to the author’s heroism. If this is a book about heroism, it is also a book about the horrors of war and how long they linger in the memory of those who suffer from them, making even the elderly inhabitants of small Iowa communities unable to escape such matters.
This book is a bit more than 200 pages long and it begins with a map and then a prologue that shows VE day, with the author safe at home and recovering from the horrors of his World War II experience. After that the author talks about his family background (1), his training as a paratrooper (2), and his experiences in June 1944 as he prepared for D-Day (3). After that the author shares his experience in the drop zone (4), his fighting in the hedgerows of northern France (5), and it is only on page 135, about 2/3 of the way through the book, that he discusses how he was taken prisoner by the Germans (6). After this the author discusses his story in shorter chapters that are restrained despite the horrific content of what is in the chapters, including a discussion of his work in mines as slave labor (7), a summary of the war that was going on outside of the fence (8) and the opportunity that he seized to escape from the labor camp (9). After this comes a look at what had to be done for the author to survive (10), which included going west in the night to avoid people and finding food and water and weapons by killing unprepared home guard soldiers and even escaping with German soldiers feeling towards the Americans. After that he discusses his trip home (11) and marriage, as well as the rewards of survival (12) and his experiences going back to Europe as a hero (13). The book ends with a post-script from the co-author, appendices which are of interest, notes, acknowledgements, and photo insert credits.
One of the key elements of this book being co-written is that it is written in a spare style that emphasizes the author’s own insistence of telling his story in spare and unadorned way, and the presence of the co-writer simply makes his approach to put what the author is willing to tell into a coherent and well-written narrative. The narrative has some gaps, as the author simply does not remember everything about where he was or the motivations of others. What shines through in particular, and most poignantly, is the way that the author still appears to be haunted by his doing whatever it took to be free, including risking being shot by Germans and risking the damage to his own spirit that resulted from his killing others stealing their food in order to survive as he made his way to the West. It is not surprising, alas, that the author was not judged as having any worthwhile intelligence, but it scarcely mattered, as he achieved what he set out to do in making it home. On the other hand, though, this book makes it appear as if the author was never entirely at home with himself given what he suffered and endured at the hands of the Germans and thanks to his own deeds.