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Answering the Call

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Paperback $21.95 — Hardcover $36.95 — PDF file on disk by mail $4.99

Answering the Call

With the 91st Infantry Division in the Italian Campaign During World War II
 
by Stephen L. Wilson
 
Merriam Press Military Monograph 51

Paperback (ISBN 978-1430328933) - #MM51-P — $21.95

Hardcover (ISBN 978-1430326915) - #MM51-H — $39.95

PDF file on disk by mail — #MM51-PDF — $4.99 — Why no download of the PDF file?

First Edition (September 2007)

294 6 × 9 inch pages

60 photos/illustrations

6 maps 
On September 1, 1939, 18-year old Allen Wilson and his family hear the news that the German Army has invaded Poland. Although he could not know it at the time, Allen would be called upon to fight the Germans less than five years later.
 
That fall, Allen begins college and joins the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. Before graduating, he marries Barbara Bimer and completes the ROTC Course. He is then sent to the Infantry Officers’ Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia, and on a short assignment in California before joining the 91st Infantry Division at Camp White, Oregon.
 
Allen becomes a platoon leader and forward observer in the 362nd Regiment’s newly-formed Cannon Company. In April 1944 the regiment ships out to Algeria. It trains there for six weeks before crossing the Mediterranean Sea to engage the German Army in Italy.
 
In mid-July, elements of the 91st Division enter combat near Florence. They fight their way to the Arno River, continue to advance north into the rugged Apennines Mountains, and reach Livergnano in late October. Here the Allied forces stop their offensive and dig in for the “Winter Stalemate.”
 
After conducting intermittent combat operations during the bitterly-cold winter, the 91st Division begins the “Spring Offensive.” It rapidly advances north out of the Apennines and into the Po Valley. Less than three weeks after this offensive starts, the war in Italy is over.
 
When the Italian campaign ends, the 91st Division occupies an area in northeastern Italy, where it faces a potentially explosive situation involving Yugoslav partisans. Allen then fulfills his last assignment in Europe with U.S. Occupational Forces Austria.
 
While he is overseas, Barbara faces tests posed by wartime rationing, raising a young daughter without a father, and hearing from her husband on an unpredictable basis and only through his censored mail.
 
Finally, the book recounts Allen’s post-war civilian and Army careers, his and Barbara’s attendance at Army reunions, their visit to the World War II Memorial, and the long-term impact the war has had on them.
 
Based primarily on over 600 letters Allen wrote between 1943 and 1945, military records and unit histories, and recorded interviews, this book provides an in-depth, personal account of the challenges and triumphs for a young soldier who “answers the call.”
 
Contents
  • College Student and ROTC Cadet
  • You’re in the Army Now
  • Go West, Young Soldier
  • Shipping Out
  • Spring Training in Algeria
  • Arrival in Italy
  • Fight to the Arno River
  • Breaking through the Gothic Line
  • A Long, Cold Winter in the Apennines
  • Race into the Po Valley
  • Not So Fast, Tito
  • Occupation in Austria
  • The Home Front
  • Coming Home
  • Looking Back
  • Photos, Maps and Other Items
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Sources
For more about Answering the Call, also visit the author's web blog.

On January 2nd Steve Wilson and his parents, Barbara and Allen, sat down with interviewer Maureen McKamey to talk about Answering the Call. You may listen to segments of the interview by going to the author's web blog. Here are the segments:
  • Introduction
  • Steve's Background
  • Why was the Book Written?
  • Barbara on Keeping Letters
  • Steve's Writing Process
  • Using Interviews and Letters
  • Censorship of Letters
  • Maggie's Drawers
  • The Ship from Newport News to Algeria
  • Excerpt and Comments: Aboard the Troop Train
  • Excerpt and Comments: Friendly Fire
  • Cartoons
  • Photographs
  • Closing
 
Reviews and Testimonials
 
From John L. Peschel, Professor of Law Emeritus, New York University, November 2007:
I found the book to be absolutely absorbing, indeed I read it within a single 48-hour period. It's an interesting story, well-told. Your fine writing style is aided by the high quality sources (Allen's letters and the Allen/Barbara interviews). (For convenience sake, I will indulge in the book format use of first names). Midway through the book, a question arose: why no quotes from Barbara's letters. The answer came later when you noted the Army restriction on retention of letters received by Army personnel in combat zones. It's the type of rule that contemporary personnel would probably ignore.
     I believe that a central strength of the book is the required scope limitation to the Italian campaign. Hollywood and many writers have a Normandy bias. Except for some classic Italian movies, I remember only two Hollywood films that dealt with the Italian campaign.
     Some readers might be put off by the amount of detail, and repetition of certain subjects. In contrast, I found the details to have critical cumulative impact. Important conclusions flowed from the evidence, rather than a simple declaration. The repetitive talk about card games [and] movies, highlights the element of tedium and time-filling in combat operations. Discussion of weapon details, forward sites for locating targets, illustrates the role of precision in successful battles. American ingenuity was manifested in the changes in the quality of the food packages and clothing. The blunt pragmatism of making the Liberty boats smaller to reduce the scope of personnel losses in the event that one ship is sunk is not intuitive. The capacity for delivery of mail and packages was amazing. The market place offer of different mail alternatives illustrates an American preference for choice. I can't image that the Germans or the Brits offered those alternatives.
     Allen's temperament was truly impressive. He (and it seemed, also his colleagues) had the patience of Job. Didn't anybody get angry at some point? I can imagine that censorship would deter communication through letters, but the interviews would be an opportunity to vent anger. A related point: So much of the fictional versions in films, plays and TV shows (Catch-22; Stalag 17; MASH) is loaded with complaining. One was left with the impression that some men spent half of the war bitching. In your book, Allen and others could be frustrated or disappointed with mail delays or the chore of censorship, but they seemed basically stoic in their response. Allen's clear exasperation at the delay in "coming home" is really the exception that proves the rule.
     For me the only real disappointment in terms of substantive content was the inadequate discussion of the Denazification  (DZ) phase in Austria. I thought the wrong details were included there. Perhaps Allen was not there long enough to get deeply involved, but my questions are necessarily ones that had to be faced at the beginning. What was the general process for making decisions? What were the standards? How was relevant evidence to be secured? DZ turned out to be a tricky process. Tony Judt (an historian) in his recent book Post War indicated that compromises were required in order to have enough qualified Germans (e.g., industrialists) to run the country. The "Patton Episode" was more significant than suggested. Of course, George would screw up the matter by both his language and insubordination, but ultimately he had a point. I would have thought that DZ in Austria would be a particularly complicated matter. Even to this day, the Austrians, unlike the Germans, have been sluggish (to put it charitably) in acknowledging their wartime role. In a DZ program, you could miss an Austrian that was a rabid Nazi fan because membership in the Party was either not available or necessary for self-protection. I would appreciate hearing from Allen on this specific point.
     I end with some observations on the trains and railroad aspects of the story. I confess to having been a railroad fan from early days. The "toing and froing" aspects of the travel by ancient trains from the upper mid-west to Texas, to Ogden, Utah, then to California clearly confirms that there were a lot of logistical mistakes or problems. The train discussion revived some personal memories. When my family (parents and younger sister) moved from Findlay, Ohio, to Salt Lake City, Utah, we took a train from Lima, Ohio to Salt Lake (via Chicago, Omaha, Cheyenne and Ogden) in December 1942 (I was age 7). We had a comfortable-sized bedroom (it was business relocation travel) in a Pullman car on a train that was going from Chicago to Los Angeles. I have the clear recollection that the train was jammed with troops, many of whom must have had the same "sleeping upright" challenge that Allen notes. On the homefront, the ability to travel by train from western South Dakota to Northfield, Minnesota, is a long-gone era. By the way, I had occasion about ten years ago to board an Amtrak train in Paso Robles on my way north. 
     I enjoyed the pictures and other items, though in the abstract I would have preferred an individualized map that traced Allen's march up the Italian peninsula, because I like detailed maps for this type of book.
     I truly close by pointing out that I have not inquired about how (other than one clear episode) the boys satisfied their sexual urges. I did take note of the night when Allen slept "butt to butt" in combat.
     Congratulations, Steve to you and all of the participants in a highly successful book.

 
From South Dakota Magazine, January-February 2008:
The story of Lt. Allen Wilson begins and ends in Hot Springs [South Dakota]. In Answering the Call, written by his son, Stephen Wilson, his life begins routinely; attending the University of South Dakota, joining the Reserve Officers Training Corps and serving briefly as a student teacher under Dr. William Farber.
     But the routine dissolves with the onset of World War II, and Wilson quickly departs to Algeria and then Italy, fighting Nazis with the 91st Infantry Division. The book gives an "in the trenches" view of what cannon companies (with 105mm howitzers) did in the fight to occupy northern Italy. Amidst danger and hardship, which earned him the Bronze Star Medal with Oak Leaf Clusters, Wilson managed to observe Italy's finer points: Florence's culture "lives up to its advance publicity", and Lake Maggiore would be "a great place for a honeymoon."
     The book is based on 600 letters written between 1943 and 1945 plus military records and interviews. Wilson's story continues with his return to Hot Springs, where he became an attorney, and lives today.

 
From Minnesota Law & Politics, April/May 2008 (in an article about what several lawyers did on their sabbatical):
Steve Wilson also wrote a book during his sabbatical, but his hit much closer to home. The Foley & Mansfield attorney used his three-month sabbatical in 2005 to pen a book about his parents' World War II experiences.
     "I was always interested in what my folks had done during the war," says Wilson. "I had heard little snippets of information growing up but never had a chance to put the whole story together." Over the course of three days at the family cabin in South Dakota, Wilson interviewed his parents about their wartime experiences: his dad as a platoon leader and forward observer in a cannon company that saw combat in Italy, and his mother as a young wartime wife and mother. "I gained a new appreciation for what my parents went through in World War II," says Wilson. "They were very open about it, and it's a very interesting story."
     One of the key parts of the process was getting access to his parents' old wartime letters. "I must say that my dad was a little reluctant, because they're private letters, written by a guy who was 23 at the time," says Wilson. "But after the interviews were completed, I talked to him about it and I did get access to the letters, over 600 of them."
     Wilson self-published his book in 2006, and the 100 copies were quickly distributed to family and friends. This past August, his project came to full fruition when a small Vermont press formally published the book. Answering the Call: With the 91st Infantry Division in the Italian Campaign During World War II is now available from merriam-press.com.
     When asked if he could have written the book without the sabbatical, Wilson is quick to answer no. "Like a lot of projects, it took more time than I ever expected," he says. "And if I had waited until my retirement to do the story, my folks may not have recalled it as clearly as they did in September 2005." Speaking of his folks, what was their reaction to the book? "They liked it," says Wilson. "And they were its most important critics."

 
From Fir Tree, 91st Division Magazine, Summer 2008:
 
Son of 91st Division Vet Writes Book on Dad's Service
 
By Staff Sgt. Catherine Pauley, 91st Division Public Affairs Office
 
Stephen Wilson has always been proud of his dad, Allen Wilson, who served in the military from Reserve Officers Training Corps in 1939 to his discharge as a captain in 1954.
     His dad's service in World War II was especially interesting, so Steve took a three-month sabbatical from his law practice to research the 91st Infantry Division's role in the Italian campaign. He interviewed his dad and mom, Barbara, about their wartime memories and started writing a book.
     "While I was growing up, my dad would tell me short stories about specific incidents," Steve said. "But I never was able to grasp the bigger picture and put the whole story together until I went through the book-writing process."
     Steve's interviews netted more than oral memories - he had the opportunity to read private letters from his dad to his mom during Allen's World War II service. These letters set a theme throughout Stephen's book, "Answering the Call," published in 2007, and available online or most bookstores.
     "I enjoyed the whole process and 'interviewing' was very rewarding," Steve said. "Before the interviews were conducted, I prepared an outline from the various military records, military histories and a World War II scrapbook my paternal grandmother and my mom had made.
     "We (my dad and I) spent the better part of three days going through the topics on the outline and talking about his recollections," Steve said. "I also interviewed my mom, who was able to fill in some of the details during the times in dad's military career when they were not apart. I was truly amazed at how both parents could remember so many details - no doubt because World War II was such a significant event in their lives."
     Allen Wilson completed the ROTC program at the University of South Dakota from 1939 to early 1943. He then was sent to Fort Benning, Ga., for Officer's Candidate School. Upon his commission as a second lieutenant, Allen was assigned to the Infantry Replacement Training Center at Camp Roberts (Paso Robles), Calif. Shortly thereafter, 2nd Lt. Wilson was transferred to the 91st Infantry Division at Camp White, Ore., where he became a platoon leader and forward observer in the 362d Regiment's newly formed Cannon Company.
     "I didn't appreciate the challenges encountered and the sacrifices made by the 91st Division during the Italian campaign," Steven said. "Apart from the considerable stresses faced by anyone in combat, the weather and terrain were additional forces making the advance through northern Italy especially difficult."
     While attending the university, Allen married Barbara Bimer in 1942. They had four children - Suzan, Sally, Stephen and Shelley.
     Allen remained with Cannon Company where it fought in the Italian campaign from July 1944 to May 1945. He was promoted to first lieutenant in August 1944. After the war ended in Europe and while the 91st Infantry Division occupied part of Italy's Venezia Giulia province, 1st Lt. Wilson was transferred to the 362d Regiment's Headquarters Company.
     In August 1945, 1st Lt. Wilson was transferred from the 91st Infantry Division to the U.S. Occupational Forces Austria, where he served in the U.S.-occupied zone for 2-1/2 months.
     After returning to the United States, Allen became an Army Reserve soldier and later spent a year in the South Dakota National Guard. While in law school from 1948 to 1951, he joined the 490th Quartermaster Group in Minneapolis and was later transferred to the 407th Military Government Co. in St. Paul. He was officially discharged from the Army on Jan. 19, 1954.
     Allen practiced law from 1951 until he retired in 1986 in Hot Springs, S.D. He shared the law practice with his dad, Clifford Wilson, until Clifford died in late 1953. After his father's death, he practiced law solo.
     Steve has bachelor's degrees from the University of South Dakota and the University of Oxford; a master's from the University of Oxford; and J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School. Since 1991, he has worked at the private law firm, Foley & Mansfield, P.L.L.P. in Minneapolis. He and his wife, Kristine, have been married 30 years and they have three children - Matthew, Todd and Sarah.

[A photo of the author with his parents can be seen in the photo section by clicking on the book's cover at the top of this page.]


From Military, September 2009 - Reviewed by BGen. Curtis Hooper O'Sullivan (Ret.):
The 91st Infantry Division, "Pine Tree" and "Powder River," is one of the best citizen soldier outfits that served the nation during World War I and World War II, and continued to contribute to our defense and security between and afterward.
     Formed first as one of the 18 National Army Divisions (eight more in 1918 that didn't get overseas) in August 1917, at Camp Lewis from six western states. It went to France July 1918, served in three campaigns and had 1,134 KIA and 4,974 WIA. Demobilized May 1919 at Presidio of San Francisco, it was reorganized there June 1921 in the Organized Reserve as one of the 18 infantry and six cavalry divisions in that component. It was drawn from California only with the new 96th and 104th Divisions from the states of the Pacific Northwest to provide the three follow-up divisions of the IX Corps. My father had served as a Captain in the 91st in World War I and again as Captain to Lt.Col. from 1921-28 (when he went to the California National Guard), so I acquired an early interest in this outfit and its history.
     It was activated in the AUS August 1942 at Camp White, Oregon, and went to North Africa for training April 1944 and entered combat in Italy in July 1944. It served in three campaigns there, with 1,400 KIA and 6,573 WIA. It was demobilized in December 1945, but reactivated in the Reserve in San Francisco in October 1946 as one of the 23 Infantry and three Armored Divisions in the USAR. In May 1959 it was re-designated as a Training Division and in October 1993, it was changed to an Exercise Division.
     The book is the very personal story of a junior officer who served in the cannon company of the 362nd Inf. Rgt. of the 91st. It is an excellent example of a firsthand account of activities at that level, both during preparation and combat. It should appeal to those who shared somewhat similar experiences or who have relatives who did. In addition, a young officer just starting his career could benefit from this.
     The photos add to the story and the maps are adequate. As I consider card playing a waste of time, I was less than enthralled by the too-frequent details of bridge games. As a bonus, the work gives a good story of a war bride with child on the homefront. By the time I finished the book, I felt as if I was a member of the Wilson family.


From Don Ragsdale, via email, September 2011:
I just finished your excellent book on your parents experiences during World War II. It is well-written, and very enjoyable reading. It parallels my parents' experiences during the War. My Dad was 1Lt Billie O. Ragsdale of Headquarters, 2nd Battalion, 363rd Regiment, 91st Division. My parents went to Oregon with their two small children. After Dad departed for overseas, my mother went to live with her parents in St. Louis for the remainder of the War. I was impressed with the pictures of your father and his fellow cannoneers. Unfortunately, my family has no pictures of our father during the War. Your book really filled in some gaps in our family's history. It's the best thing I have read in years. Thanks for writing it.

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