- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 8, 2005


By Herman J. Obermayer

Texas A&M; University, $32.95, 324 pages


They are fading fast from us now, the 16 million Americans who wore the uniform of their country in “The Big One,” World War II, the bloodiest conflict of all time. But they still have the power to impress and surprise us. One would imagine that more than 60 years after the end of that war, the well of personal memoir and retrospectives would finally have run dry. But such is not the case.

Herman Obermayer was a young Jewish GI who never fought in combat but performed a priceless service for those who did. He was involved in the so-called “Red Ball Highway” or “Red Ball Express,” the innovative band of Army engineers and GIs who overcame the lethargy of their own allies and the gross incompetence of Gen. J. C. H. Lee, easily the worst senior appointment Eisenhower ever made, to supply half a million gallons of gasoline a day to Patton’s Third Army as it drove into Germany.

This memoir is one of the best and most interesting about the European Theater of operations and the last year of the war in Europe to appear in many a year for many reasons. First, it is likely, unfortunately, to be one of the last to be published while the author is still alive. Second, it is no mere recollection 60 years later of warmed over memories. Mr. Obermayer, a loving and dutiful son was also observant, independently minded and highly literate. His letters back to his parents were remarkably vivid and filled with a detail and color about the texture of life in the American Army absent from many larger and more pretentious works.

Mr. Obermayer remains alert, witty, and fearless in expressing his opinions today. He had a long and successful career after the war as a newspaper editor and publisher. And his comments and observations now on his letters then give this memoir a two-tiered, stereoscopic richness that is rare in such works.

And third, like the best memoirists in any generation, Mr. Obermayer had a gift for being in the right place at the right time. He attended the 1946 Nuremberg war crimes. Many of his observations and recollection are surprising and even disquieting. He and his fellow GIs, he recalls, paid little attention to VE-Day. They assumed it only meant they would be immediately sent around the world to face far greater dangers and horrors in Operation Olympic, the invasion of Japan. The GIs, he recalls, also resented the prominent role given to their French allies. “The American soldiers I talked to at the Verdun Red Cross resented the fact that the high command ordered them to participate in provincial VE-Day parade. We knew that notwithstanding the heroism of a few Free French units, France’s contribution to Hitler’s military defeat was insignificant.”

Mr. Obermayer also notes that the success of the amazing gasoline pipeline supply system he was involved in “was achieved despite constant French sabotage. Every soldier who worked on the pipeline knew why there were regular breaks, and he detested the people who were responsible.” One of his first jobs in Europe was to help attend the casualties of a U.S. Army troop train that was sabotaged not by the Germans but by the French, killing 200 GIs on board. Wartime censorship ensured the story was never reported back in the United States.

With victory won, Mr. Obermayer was transferred to the U.S. occupation forces in Germany and the nation he saw was almost impossible to imagine for anyone who has known the peaceful, friendly and prosperous Federal Republic of the last five and a half a decades. “Approximately 70 percent of Frankfurt has been destroyed,” he wrote home. “Of the remaining 30 percent, the Americans have taken over more than half.”

One of a handful of Americans who got the chance to personally attend the Nuremburg War Crimes trials, Mr. Obermayer describes “Goering, Hess and Jodl squirm and make faces.” His views on the trials at the time make unexpected and thought-provoking reading from a patriotic young American Jewish GI and throw an interesting light on the current passion to prosecute Saddam Hussein for his many crimes:

“The trials were undoubtedly dramatic and interesting but I am not convinced that they are just,” he wrote. “… I am scared. Individual rights seem to be unimportant at Nuremburg… . When lawyers and soldiers are willing to sacrifice men’s lives for international morals, international law or posterity, it is very dangerous.” The security surrounding the trials, as he describes it, makes the security surrounding the Green Zone in Baghdad look positively relaxed by comparison.

Some 46 years after being discharged, Mr. Obermayer returned to the army camps and battlefields of his youth. The emotional climax of his journey confirms the emotional impact and veracity of the end of Steven Spielberg’s magnificent movie, “Saving Private Ryan.” The author and his wife Betty Nan visited the American war cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach in Normandy where 10,000 GIs are buried. “Its simple eloquence is overwhelming … . Random selection put them there… . Cemetery superintendent Gene Dellinger says the average age is between nineteen and twenty years old.” As Mr. Obermayer’s eyes clouded with tears, his wife asked him what he was thinking. He replied, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Martin Sieff is national security correspondent for United Press International.

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