Forgotten Books: Combat General - William Chamberlain
When I was a kid in school, I loved it when the teacher would pass out the book order forms from Scholastic Book Services. I always found a lot of books I wanted, and I would order as many as my parents were willing to pay for. Even better were the days when the books actually arrived and the teacher gave us the ones we had ordered. I still remember racing home to read THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES in the Scholastic edition.
One book that I remember buying at school like that was COMBAT GENERAL by William Chamberlain. But for some reason I never read it, even though it sat on my shelf for years. I lost track of it and my other Scholastic books over the years. They were already gone before the fire wiped out my library.
However, I recently came across a copy of COMBAT GENERAL in the Nostalgia section at Half Price books, and I didn’t hesitate to pick it up, figuring it was finally time to read it, forty-five years after I bought it the first time.
I’ve always liked war novels. As you might expect from a book published by Scholastic, COMBAT GENERAL doesn’t have any real cussing or sex, but I’m not sure it really qualifies as a young adult novel, either. More than anything else it reminded me of the sort of war movie that was made in the Forties. Those didn’t have any cussing or graphic violence, either, but they still managed to tell some fairly gritty stories. So does COMBAT GENERAL. The protagonist is Brigadier General Miles Boone, who has spent the first few years of World War II stuck at a desk in Washington, so that he has a reputation as a “Pentagon general”. He’s finally transferred to a command position in an armored division and finds himself assuming his new post near the front lines in Belgium in the middle of December 1944.
Mid-December 1944? Uh-oh. You guessed it. Boone, with no combat experience, finds himself smack-dab in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge almost as soon as he arrives at his new command. Throw in a superior officer with whom Boone has been feuding since their days at West Point, a reckless colonel with more ambition than tactical skills, a little romance with the American widow of a French officer, a wise-cracking sergeant to drive Boone around, and you’ve got a Forties movie, all right. Randolph Scott would have made a great Miles Boone. And as a novel, Chamberlain’s yarn, while predictable, is very well-written and highly entertaining. The history seems accurate to me, and so do the characterizations.
Which is not surprising considering that William Chamberlain was a career army officer, retiring as a general himself in 1946. He certainly knew what he was writing about. But in doing a little research about him for this post, I came across something that surprised me. At the same time he was putting together a long and distinguished military career, Chamberlain was also a prolific pulp author, breaking in during the late Twenties with Western, war, and adventure yarns in a variety of pulps. He continued contributing to the pulps into the 1950s, when he made the transition to the slicks and published a steady stream of war and military-oriented stories, primarily in THE SATURDAY EVENING POST. I may well have read some of them while visiting one of my aunts in the Sixties, because she always had stacks of old issues of the SEP around. Chamberlain also wrote paperback Westerns and hardcover war novels (COMBAT GENERAL was originally published by the John Day Company, as were several more of Chamberlain’s novels).
Chamberlain’s background as a pulp writer is easy to see in COMBAT GENERAL. It’s especially evident in the masterful pacing. Late in the book, when General Boone and his driver get involved in an adventure when they’re separated from the rest of the command, the story maybe gets a little too pulpish, considering the realism of the rest of the book (an encounter with an SS officer results in the trading of insults like “American swine!” and “Nazi dog!”), but that really doesn’t detract much from the novel’s overall impact.
COMBAT GENERAL is a fine book, one of the best I’ve read this year. Bear in mind, though, that as a middle-aged guy who grew up watching COMBAT! on TV, along with a bunch of war movies, I’m a prime example of the target audience for this sort of yarn. But I really enjoyed it. Some of those SEP stories of Chamberlain’s have been collected in several different volumes. I may have to order them. I also discovered that he was the author of MATT QUARTERHILL, RIFLEMAN, a novel about a young Marine rifleman in the South Pacific campaign. I checked that one out from the bookmobile many, many years ago and read it, and liked it enough that I’ve always remembered the title even though I didn’t recall that Chamberlain wrote it. I may have to get my hands on a copy of that one, too, for a reread. I’m glad I stumbled across COMBAT GENERAL. It proves that my instincts were right when I ordered it all those years ago at Walnut Creek Elementary, even though I didn’t read it until now.