Military historian’s latest book uncovers ‘Band of Brothers’ falsehood

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On July 1, 2009

Despite the stirring portrayal in Band of Brothers, Easy Company of the 101st Airborne Division was not the first to enter Adolf Hitler’s Berchtesgaden mountain retreat near the end of World War II, says military historian Dr. John C. McManus in a new book.

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Missouri S&T military historian John C. McManus’ latest book chronicles the U.S. Army’s 7th Infantry from the War of 1812 through World War II.

It was actually the 7th Infantry Regiment that first took Berchtesgaden, writes McManus in American Courage, American Carnage: 7th Infantry Chronicles: The 7th Infantry Regiment’s Combat Experience, 1812 Through World War II, published in June by Forge Books.

American Courage, American Carnage is the result of nearly a decade of archival research, battlefield visits, interviews and intensive study by McManus, an associate professor of history at Missouri University of Science and Technology. The final product is an authoritative, inside look at Americans in combat – from the nation’s early nineteenth century struggles as a fledgling republic to its emergence as a superpower in the twentieth.

The book is a prequel to the first installment in the 7th Infantry Chronicles series, published in June 2008 under the title The 7th Infantry Regiment: Combat in an Age of Terror, the Korean War through the Present. That volume covered the regiment’s involvement in battles from the Korean War through Iraq. McManus, who serves as the official historian for the 7th Infantry, notes that it is the only Army regiment to serve in every war from 1812 through the present day.

McManus’ new book – his eighth – tells the story of the 7th from its creation in the months prior to the War of 1812 through World War II. The 7th Infantry has been involved in some of the nation’s most pivotal and memorable battles. They include the Battle of New Orleans – where the infantrymen became known as “Cottonbalers” because they were said to have battled the British from behind large rows of cotton bales – to Mexico City during the Mexican-American War, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg in the Civil War, Custer’s massacre at Little Bighorn, Belleau Wood in France during World War I, and epic World War II campaigns in North Africa, Sicily, Anzio, southern France, the Vosges Mountains and the breaching of the Rhine. The book ends with the 7th’s capture of Hitler’s mountain home at Berchtesgaden in May 1945.

In his 1992 book Band of Brothers, Stephen E. Ambrose incorrectly attributed Berchtesgaden’s capture to another Army unit: Easy Company of the 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. “Ambrose just made the mistake of taking the Easy Company guys at face value and not corroborating their stories with actual unit records,” McManus says.

McManus isn’t the first to discover the erroneous report of Easy Company’s accomplishment, but he is the first to provide detailed documentation to set the record straight. In nearly a full page of end notes on the subject, McManus cites National Archives documents and other records, including reports from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of the Allied Forces, to refute Ambrose’s report.

McManus adds that his intent was not to impugn Ambrose’s reputation as a historian. “I have great respect for Stephen Ambrose’s work and was definitely influenced by him,” he adds. “We all make mistakes, and I just wanted to help set the record straight.”

A member of the Missouri S&T faculty since 2000, McManus is considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the history of Americans in combat. A member of the editorial advisory board at World War II magazine, McManus was recently named to History News Network’s list of Top Young Historians in 2007. In 2008, he received the Missouri Conference on History Book Award for Alamo in the Ardennes: The Untold Story of the American Soldiers Who Made the Defense of Bastogne Possible.

“I have always been interested in what warfare was really like for the person who fights,” McManus says. “It seems like so many books I read as a kid were very antiseptic. I didn’t like that. I knew there was a real story in there of an average person doing the real fighting and that is what fascinates me.”

McManus thinks of himself as more of an American social historian, because he looks at Americans in the combat environment. “To me, that is the ultimate environment. It tells us a lot about them.

“I think military history is very important,” McManus says. “There is this repetition of tragedy over and over again. Throughout history, humans resort to war and I want to understand why. And more than that, how it affects the people who do the fighting. It’s a sad thing to study, but it’s incredibly compelling.”

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