Friday, March 23, 2012

Book review: "Fatal Crossroads" by Danny S. Parker

On Dec. 17, 1944, at the outset of the Battle of the Bulge, a lightly armed U.S. Army convoy was surprised by a German tank squadron at an intersection near Malmedy, Belgium. Realizing that they were clearly outgunned, most of the Americans quickly surrendered.

The Germans disarmed the 127 prisoners, gathered them in a field and then fired into the crowd with a machine gun. Those men that showed any sign of life after the machine gun stopped were executed with a pistol. In all, 84 Americans died. The other 43, most of them wounded and bleeding, played dead in the field for up to two hours before running or crawling to safety.

The Malmedy Massacre, as it has come to be known, was a horrific atrocity for which some German officers were sentenced to death after the war (the sentences were later commuted to prison time). In "Fatal Crossroads," author Danny S. Parker THOROUGHLY recounts the events of that day, relating the stories of dozens of the men who were there, both American and German.

Parker is to be commended for his comprehensive research, but unfortunately his storytelling suffers from too much repetition. Parker tells every moment of the day from multiple perspectives, even when different participants recall basically the same thing.

At first this is confusing. As various Americans each describe the moment when the convey first encountered the Germans, for example, I thought they were relating different, though strangely similar, events. Later the repetition becomes annoying. On page 105, for instance, with the Americans gathered in the field, the massacre begins. Then it all starts again on page 106, then again on pages 108, 109, 111, 116, 118, 119, 121 and many times more. Clearly, this is a book where you can skim through large parts.

This IS an important story to tell; I just wish it was told better. I didn't know a lot about the Battle of the Bulge going in, so I did like the early parts of the book describing how the Germans chose this unlikely place for their assault, and how the front lines were so unclear that the Americans never expected to run into the enemy near Malmedy. I also really liked one chapter called "Escape," which told the story of how American Charles Reding saved the life - with the assistance of a Belgian family - of fellow soldier Bill Merriken.

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