Company Commander – Review

Company Commander: The Classic Infantry Memoir of World War II by Charles B MacDonald [Rating 4.25/5 Reviewer – daikama]

Company Commander is a WW II oral history book, really the WW II memoirs of Captain Charles “Mac” MacDonald. The book is considered by many to be seminal work of WW II oral history.  Capt. MacDonald was young for a WW II captain – achieving the rank of captain at just age 20. In the fall of 1944, at 21 years old, he was sent overseas to Europe to take charge of his first command – the veteran Company I, 23d Infantry Regiment, 2nd Division. Later in the war, after recuperating from a wound, he’s given command of Company G of the same regiment.  MacDonald finished the war with a Purple Heart and Silver Star. He later worked as an official Army Historian, retiring as Deputy Chief Historian. He also wrote other WW II books such as A Time for Trumpets, covering the Battle of the Bulge in which MacDonald and his Company G fought.

One thing that makes this book special is MacDonald’s rank of captain and his position as a company commander which provides a different perspective from most oral history books.  Typically, such books tend to cover either junior officers, NCO’s and enlisted men, or “the brass” (ranked colonel or higher) commanding regiments to army groups. Another interesting thing about the book is that it was published in 1947 – a mere two years after the war. For reference/”textbook” type books, publication so close to the end of the war often means some credibility issues. After all, a lot of important information about the war remained classified or simply lost for decades. Since this a personal account, there are no concerns over that issue. In fact, for oral history, it’s quite beneficial since MacDonald is far more likely to remember details better two years later than say 20, 30, or 40 or more years later. On the downside, WW II books of that period tend to be less forthright and more “politically correct” with some adhering to the “official” patriotic version rather than the cold hard facts.

Company Commander avoids that last potential pitfall – at least in terms of what’s written. MacDonald does not shy away from criticizing those in command. In fact, some of that becomes almost a running joke. For example, inevitably, almost immediately after his regiment’s commander orders MacDonald via field radio or telephone to hurry up and get his company moving since “there are no enemy forces in the area”, cue German shelling. MacDonald jokes about this in a soldier’s grim/dark sense of humor by the fourth time this tragic comedy is repeated. Still, it’s not quite as gritty and bloody as say The GIs War. It’s certainly more PG rated with maybe one “f—–k up” and one or two “g———-m!”  Once, MacDonald mentions men under his command possibly committing questionable acts and his concern over that.

The book on the whole is quite interesting and often riveting. It is very easy to put oneself into MacDonald’s proverbial combat boots. Often when reading oral history, I try to imagine myself at that age and under those conditions. MacDonald is forthright about his feelings, concerns and thoughts during all the chaos. To be honest, I found a lot of what MacDonald thought and felt similar to what I imagine I would think and feel if I were in his place. The whole narrative comes across as very credible. For example, as he approaches the front line for the first time: “This is it! This is it! my brain kept repeating madly, over and over. I must not appear afraid. I must give these men confidence in me despite the fact they know I’m inexperienced. … I must keep that confidence. I must! I must!”

Company Commander is a very good, entertaining and easy to book which gives the reader an excellent idea of what it was like for a company level officer in the ETO. It just falls short of truly great. MacDonald’s writing is functional and efficient but doesn’t rise to the level of some of the better writers in the genre such as Atkinson and Franks. Certainly excusable since MacDonald wrote the book in his early twenties, but I still have to mark off a bit for that. My other minor complaint is that at 278 pages, it’s one of the shorter WW II books I’ve read. MacDonald doesn’t go into any of his training or how he became a captain at such a young age. I’m curious as to his training experience. Even so, I definitely recommend Company Commander, especially for anyone interested in WW II oral history.

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One thought on “Company Commander – Review

  1. The average age of a solider in WWII was 26 so he was 5 years younger than most of his men and in charge of probably 100 to 200 of them. To be so young and have so much responsibility. The thought of taking charge of seasoned combat veterans in a war zone would probably turn my legs to jelly. I agree that he deserves some leeway on the book given that he was all of 24-5(!) when it was published. A book that I will certainly put on my list.

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