by William Wharton
Publisher – The Friday Project
Copyright 2012 (in English; 1999 for the Polish original)
Rating – 7.5/10
Summary – “War for me, though brief, had been a soul-shaking trauma. I was scared, miserable and I lost confidence in human beings, especially myself. It was a very unhappy experience.” The above quote encapsulates William Wharton’s theme in Shrapnel, his memoir of his service in Europe during World War II. Shrapnel is good and Wharton’s fans will find the real-life inspiration for his novels Birdy and A Midnight Clear.
Review – In 1999, William Wharton published his war memoir Shrapnel in Polish. It attracted little comment outside Poland until the English-language version appeared in 2012. The publication is fortuitous because Shrapnel is a good book that tells the story of how a teen went to World War II and forever lost his illusions.
Wharton (1925-2008) admits that – for many years – he could not bear to tell of his World War II experiences. Though his children often asked about his time in the army, Wharton evaded the subject because he feared that they would think less of him if they knew his story.
From the Beginning
Military service for the teenage Wharton began at Fort Benning, Georgia, where he attended basic training. Immediately, he recognized that those in charge were petty sadists who cared little for the troops. In basic training, he met a Jewish soldier named Birnbaum who badly wanted to kill Nazis, but who could not adapt to military life. But many other soldiers loathed the military, and one even faked a bedwetting problem to obtain a medical discharge.
From the U.S. to England to France
After Fort Benning, Wharton was sent to England on board the Queen Mary, which was in service as a troop ship. After arriving, he flirted with a young Englishwoman and used his art skills to draft maps for the Army. His maps attracted attention; as a result, three days before D-Day, a plane dropped Wharton into France, behind enemy lines. Later in the war, Wharton and a colleague stumbled on a light plane and tried to fly it. So, in spite of the anti-war tone, Shrapnel reveals that there was an element of adventure to Wharton’s military service.
War – & Absurdity – in Europe
With the pre-D-Day parachute drop, Shrapnel takes on a more-serious tone. From this point forward, Wharton was fighting for his life. He was repeatedly wounded, received several purple hearts, and saw sickening brutality. His simmering anguish led to multiple court martials and demotions.
In one haunting scene, Wharton recounts that another soldier and he were in a foxhole when they saw a German patrol. Wharton had a heavy machine gun and the other soldier had a rifle. They allowed the Germans to get close to cut off any potential escape. When Wharton tried to shoot, his machine gun jammed; but the other soldier cooly killed all of the Germans without missing a shot. Afterward, the other soldier looked for souvenirs and unit insignia on the corpses.
Wharton despised the fighting and tried to escape it; he even attempted to get trench foot. When wounded, he malingered. But he did not get the “million dollar wound” that would have sent him home. As he experienced more combat, his distress built and he eventually attacked an American whose bumbling cost several men their lives.
In Germany, the U.S. soldiers looted homes, accosted women, and engaged in other shabby behaviors. For his part, Wharton stole precious stones. However, he eventually lost them during a bizarre attack by a Hitler Youth squad armed with jerry-rigged weapons.
Wharton’s war ended with his unit’s involvement in a war crime in which Americans murdered German soldiers. Many reviews of Shrapnel have focused on this material, but it doesn’t reflect poorly on Wharton. Wharton’s was not involved involved in the murder, though it later haunted him.
I wish that Wharton had more fully recounted what happened after the war. But he is clear that the authorities let him down and that this feeling had a profound effect on him. Never again would he want to be in charge of other people. Back in the U.S., Wharton attended college, taught art in Los Angeles for about ten years, then “dropped out” and moved back to Europe where he became a practicing artist.
Flat Prose and Other Issues
While I enjoyed Shrapnel, the book is choppy because it is too short; it reads as a set of scenes that are only loosely pieced together. Also, Wharton’s prose can be flat and artless. Finally, many other books have established that the Allies weren’t always good guys and those prior revelations dull Shrapnel’s impact.
Wharton’s service should not have been a source of shame. While he could not discuss his service with his kids, he left all of us an interesting memoir. The book has a few flaws, but it is also a good, quick read (with 249 pages of very-large print).