I have always respected the U.S. Army’s First Infantry Division â€“ the “Big Red One” â€“ but I have even more respect for it after reading The Fighting First by Flint Whitlock. It’s a combination of harrowing stories and narrative.
Whitlock briefly details the Division’s activity in World War II prior to D-Day â€“ participation in the North Africa and Sicily campaigns. The majority of the book covers the training and preparation for, and the fighting on, D-Day. Whitlock then chronicles the exploits of the Divisions as it fought from Omaha – through Normandy, Aachen, and the Battle of the Bulge – to the end of the war. Of all American divisions that fought in World War II, the First Division suffered some of the highest casualties and was one of the longest serving in combat.
Whitlock does a superb job in bringing together stories of the rank-and-file soldiers and their commanders. I particularly liked Whitlock’s description of the Division’s hatred of General Patton. As one soldier stated about Old Blood and Guts, “Our blood, and his guts.”
I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the Division’s stay in England. Whitlock covers everything from how hard the Division trained to prepare for the landing to how the soldiers related to the English. The stories from soldiers’ personal diaries or letters are particularly interesting. For instance, one soldier describes being shocked at seeing the small amount food the English were living on. Whitlock writes that many soldiers took food from their mess hall storage rooms to give to the families.
Whitlock’s description of the defenses on Omaha beach gives you a better understanding of what the American soldiers faced. The mines, tank traps, and pillboxes combined to make the assault a nightmare for the soldiers. It is no small wonder that three First Division soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor in the 12 hours of fighting to secure Omaha.
Despite all the planning and firepower, the invasion still came down on the shoulders of the infantry and their supporting arms. Whitlock vividly portrays what it was like for a soldier once his transport’s ramp went down on the beach – explosions and bullets whittling away your friends and fellow soldiers. The stories of the men who see their friends die in front of them or in their arms are gut wrenching.
If you are at all interested in what Americans went through on Omaha beach during D-Day, Whitlock’s Fighting First is for you.