February 2006

Sarah Statz

nonfiction

The Dead of Winter: How Battlefield Investigators, WWII Veterans, and Forensic Scientists Solved the Mystery of the Bulge's Lost Soldiers by Bill Warnock

I don’t know what to say about the book The Dead of Winter.

I should probably start by giving its subtitle (How Battlefield Investigators, WWII Veterans, and Forensic Scientists Solved the Mystery of the Bulge’s Lost Soldiers) and the name of its author (Bill Warnock, a Battle of the Bulge scholar and writer). I should tell you that it is a proficiently written book, offering both compelling character portraits of soldiers who died in the forests between Belgium and Germany during World War II, and detailed descriptions of how their undiscovered remains were located through research, digging, and pure chutzpah. I could tell you that the reader reviews of the book at Amazon.com are universally positive, and that one of those reviews is written by another highly respected military and war historian and author (William Cavanaugh). I could even tell you that The Dead of Winter is a history/adventure blend that seems custom-made to appeal to fans of Robert Kurson’s recent bestseller, Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything To Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II.

But what I’d have to say is that this book, although obviously thoroughly researched and passionately written, made me sad. At its heart it is a book about recovering the remains of American soldiers whose bodies were left behind, pretty much exactly where they fell in battle, for more than fifty years. It is a book that tells the stories of young men, many in their twenties, who left homes and sweethearts and lives and found only death and ignominious repose in the dirt of a Belgian battlefield. It also tells the stories of family members left wondering, for five decades, where the dead bodies of their husbands, sons, and brothers really lay. Can such a story be called an “adventure” read?

The author, to his credit, does a good job of explaining the desire of some “relic hunters” (individuals who use metal detectors and digging tools to excavate former WWII battle sites) to both locate historical artifacts, and to recover and identify the remains of soldiers so that they might be returned to their families. In addition to describing the European excavators and repeatedly referring to their desire to honor the American soldiers who liberated Belgium, Warnock also tells compelling stories of his own research methods and the untiring efforts of many World War II veterans to piece together the events of long-ago battles, and to help provide corroboration regarding the true identity of recovered remains.

Although the first few chapters are slow going, Warnock eventually finds his narrative stride and ably weaves together chapters alternating between the present day (focusing on the relic hunters, the army’s methods for identifying remains, and the research performed by Warnock and others at veteran reunions) and the past (describing the lives of the soldiers whose remains have been found and the battles in which they fell). He also includes valuable information about the burial choices and procedures offered to the families of the deceased soldiers, as well as photographs, copious notes, and appendices providing more technical information about the identification of bodies and how dog tags were issued during World War II.

All of that adds up to a book that I really can’t fault. It’s a solid blend of the physical, in the form of the maverick relic hunters, and the cerebral, as represented by the recreation of battle scenes to extrapolate the locations of hidden graves. But it’s also a book that disturbingly often provides anecdotes regarding the army’s bureaucratic incompetence; at one point relic hunters provide a soldier’s sister with a ring they found with her brother’s remains. Why had relic hunters Jean-Louis Seel and Philippe Speder kept it, rather than turning it over to the proper authorities? Because, as Speder noted, “the families of Sito and Holloway [other recovered soldiers] never received all the artifacts that he and Seel turned over to the army.”

I found something to say about the book. But I’ll leave unsaid what I think about an army and a government that can’t get it together sufficiently to return personal items to grieving family members.

The Dead of Winter: How Battlefield Investigators, WWII Veterans, and Forensic Scientists Solved the Mystery of the Bulge’s Lost Soldiers by Bill Warnock
Chamberlain Bros.
ISBN: 1596090855
288 pages