In 2021, Clavin and Drury published Blood and Treasure, an outstanding biography of Daniel Boone, several American Indian tribes, and their relationship to the American Revolution. When I saw a chance to hear their new audiobook titled The Last Hill, I jumped on it. And the early portion of it convinced me that I was missing too much by listening but not seeing, so then I went back and requested the digital version as well. My thanks go to St. Martin’s Press, Macmillan Audio, and Net Galley for the review copies. This book is for sale now.
This meaty yet readable book details the fight for Castle Hill, a strategically essential location that leads into the core of Nazi Germany. Several entire American divisions had tried and failed to take it, and so General Eisenhower ordered the Rangers to go in. Rudder’s were the most elite, battle-hardened unit of the already elite group known as the Rangers. Led by Lieutenant Colonel James Rudder, they were ordered to fight to the last man, if necessary, and they very nearly did; 130 special operatives, as they were known, ascended the hill, and only 16 were left standing when it was over. Nobody there knew that Hitler’s Wehrmacht had been given nearly identical instructions, as it was through here that a massive number of German troops were slated to descend through the gateway and conclude the Battle of the Bulge for the Axis powers.
The most interesting and enjoyable part of this book, for me, was in the first chapters, where we see the contrast between the misleadership early on, when the Rangers were being trained in rural Tennessee, and that which Rudder provided. The troops were sent on marathon marches without canteens, and their superior officer would be driven alongside them, where they could see him relaxing in his seat and drinking as much water (or whatever?) as he chose. Some men quit; others died. There were also war games, including “…the pit fighting competitions” that took place in a three foot deep, forty foot square hole in which “…entire platoons jumped in to attack each other like ancient Spear-Danes, screaming lusty war cries that echoed throughout the camp…by the ordeal’s conclusion, the sawdust looked as if it had been coated with red paint and the pit itself smelled like the inside of a leper. Afterward, the medical team—whose members were not spared the crucible—found themselves treating gashes, sprains, dislocations, and a no-inconsiderable number of broken bones, sometimes their own. At the end of these long days the Rangers returned to their tent city too exhausted to make the two-mile, round-trip walk to the barracks showers.” Angry servicemen, when they finally scored passes to the nearest town named Tullahoma, brawled with the locals and left the bars and taverns with splintered wood and broken glass. Lieutenant Colonel Saffarans had to go.
When “Big Jim” Rudder came in, the pit fights vanished and he marched alongside his own men, not for just a portion of the hike, but for the whole thing. When his feet became blistered, he waved away the medics and took care of himself. Soon morale improved, and so did the quality of the troops.
As we move from training to the European theater, I see less information that I didn’t already know. It’s not badly done, but I was so inspired by the earlier portion that I felt a little let down. I am also chagrined—though this is not the authors’ faults—at the casual way that the US Army threw its soldiers into the line of fire. Why could they not soften the area up before sending these poor men to the slaughterhouse? There were 260,000 grave markers in the hold of their transport ship. Whereas I have never been a proponent of nuclear war, it does seem to me that if someone was going to be hit with the bomb, Hitler’s minions were likely very strong candidates; the Japanese that were nuked at Nagasaki and Hiroshima were nearly beaten already, and the bomb was nearly superfluous. And I’ve said it in earlier reviews but I’ll say it again: it’s too bad that the U.S. Military treated white enemies gently, and its nonwhite ones ruthlessly.
Do I recommend this book to you? If you are looking for just one book about American forces in World War II, this is probably not the one you’re looking for. It’s specific to just one part of Germany and just one hill, so it’s better suited to those that already have the basics mastered.
I might not recommend it at all, as I personally was offended by some of the remarks intended as humorous in reference to local women, as well as women in the service. Whereas I have no doubt that the misogynistic jokes told here are legitimately jokes that were told back then, there are some things that don’t bear repeating, and surely not in detail. I also wasn’t crazy about the clipped bro-speech of the narrator in the audio version.
For this reason, I recommend the printed version over the audio, for those that are interested.