Reviewed by Dr. Anthony Feagin, U.S. Army (Ret.)
From September 1944 until February 1945, the Hürtgen Forest became one of the bloodiest battlegrounds for U.S. troops during World War II (WWII). At varying times, six different U.S. Army divisions, more than 100,000 men, would fight over 80,000 Germans in the Hürtgen’s rugged terrain, which was as much a combatant as the opposing forces. Historians have not devoted as much coverage to the actions by both sides in the Hürtgen. The timing of the battles following Field Marshall Montgomery’s famed but failed airborne operation to shorten the war, Operation Market Garden, preceding the even more famous Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s failed last attempt to retake the momentum from the Allies, makes it easier to overlook the Hürtgen campaign. Few authors have chosen to account for an individual lower enlisted Soldier’s actions and the consequences of the battles in the dark and foreboding Hürtgen for him and his family.
One such account comes from author Chris J. Hartley, in his book The Lost Soldier: The Ordeal of a World War II GI from the Home Front to the Hürtgen Forrest. This is Hartley’s fourth book, with all his previous works, dating back to 1996, focusing on American Civil War history. In his first WWII history book, Hartley does more than merely cover the history of the 28th Infantry Division. The leaders and Soldiers called the Division the “Iron Division” because of its reputation for fierceness in battle. The Germans fighting the 28th called it the “Bloody Bucket Division” for the same reason. The 28th faced staunch opposition from the Germans in the second battle in the Hürtgen in November 1944. Hartley masterfully introduces the reader to PFC Felmer Lonzo “Pete” Lynn and his beloved wife, Ruth Lynn. Hartley’s work is more than a retelling of the 29th’s combat in the Hürtgen. Instead, Hartley weaves Pete and Ruth’s love story into a war story illustrating how difficult life was for the individual Soldier but also his loved ones back home.
Hartley, the husband of Pete and Ruth’s granddaughter Laurie, did not know the full extent of their story. After Pete died in WWII, the widowed Ruth raised their children, living a long and fruitful life, dying in 1993. While commiserating with the family at the Lynn home in King’s Mountain, North Carolina after Ruth’s funeral, Pete and Ruth’s youngest daughter Petie gave Hartley her father’s overseas bag from his World War II service. Inside the bag, Hartley found Pete’s service medals and Purple Heart, several photos, and stacks of letters. Some of the letters in the bag were from Pete to Ruth. Others were addressed to Pete from Ruth but were stamped “Missing” or “Return to Sender.” The Army had returned those letters to Ruth after the Department of War, today’s Department of the Army, declared Pete first missing in action and later killed in action. Hartley decided theirs was a story that he needed to investigate and share with the family and a wider audience.
Hartley began his research by examining the history of Pete and Ruth. The contents of the overseas bag helped tremendously as Pete and Ruth constantly wrote to each other throughout Pete’s service. Those letters allowed Hartley to reconstruct that period in the couple’s life. Additionally, Pete and Ruth both kept personal diaries. Those diaries allowed Hartley to piece together their lives before marriage and chronicle Ruth and her daughter’s stories after Pete’s death. Hartley also interviewed Pete and Ruth’s friends, family members, and surviving Soldiers and their family members from Pete’s service in the 28th Division. Most helpful were Soldiers, or in some cases the families of Soldiers also killed in action, that had served with Pete in the same Company, Battalion, and Regiment in the Division. Finally, Hartley researched Pete’s military records, the Army’s official history of the 28th Infantry Division, and the Hürtgen Campaign. Hartley’s spellbinding story exemplifies the benefit of exhaustive research. He masterfully blends Pete and Ruth’s love story into the context of one of the worst combat actions by the U.S. Army in the European Theater of War.
The book is an easy read. This reviewer finished the book – 343 pages including the main text, detailed bibliography, and index – in two days. Hartley’s writing is engaging. He combines individual and couple’s photos of Pete and Ruth with those of some of the most famous characters of the day—General Eisenhower, for instance—inviting the reader to connect with this story of a loving couple from a small town within the context of the great struggle to liberate Europe.
Although not an issue for this reader, some readers may be disappointed that Hartley does not provide closure on the story of the 28th Division. LTG Hodges, the commander of 1st Army, the higher headquarters for the 28th, considered firing the Division’s leadership after the debacle in the Hürtgen Forrest. Instead, Hodges relented, leaving the command team intact. Refitted after the terrible loss of life in the Hürtgen, for instance, Pete’s unit suffered more than 65 percent killed or missing in action. The Army sent the 28th to the Ardennes, where it distinguished itself in sustained combat during the Battle of the Bulge, rejuvenating its reputation.
I enjoyed reading this book as it fills a niche in the Hürtgen Campaign’s historical record. Hartley did not attempt to write the definitive history of the Division’s campaign. Instead, he tells the story of a Soldier and his loving wife. A Soldier lost but not forgotten in a campaign where the Americans suffered some of its most significant European theater casualties. Hartley reminds us that their service and sacrifice should be honored as highly as their colleagues who fought and died in more renowned campaigns. They and their families deserve nothing less.
Dr. Anthony Feagin, U.S. Army (Ret.), is an Associate Professor at the Joint Forces Staff College.
The Lost Soldier: The Ordeal of a World War II G.I. from the Home Front to the Hürtgen Forest (Chris J. Hartley, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA, 2018)