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MHQ Book Review: Tonight We Die as Men

By John C. McManus
2/28/2018 • MHQ Magazine

Tonight We Die as Men: The Untold Story of the Third Battalion 506 Parachute Infantry Regiment from Toccoa to D-Day

By Ian Gardner and Roger Day. 344 pp. Osprey, 2009 $27.95

What more could possibly be said about the 101st Airborne Division in Normandy? Band of Brothers, in book and miniseries form, sparked a prodigious public interest in nearly every aspect of the division’s history, but especially the unit’s jump into Normandy. The inevitable result was a flood of books and video games about the 101st, and this one division came to dominate any discussion of the American airborne experience in Normandy (much to the unfair detriment of the equally accomplished 82nd Airborne Division). Steven Spielberg, in his famous combat film Saving Private Ryan, also got into the act, prominently portraying 101st Airborne troopers even in settings, such as Neuville-au-Plain, where they almost certainly would not have been present in any substantial numbers.

So, by now, the history of the 101st in Normandy is well-plowed ground. Yet British authors Ian Gardner and Roger Day have succeeded in shedding new light on the topic with this history of the 3rd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment in Normandy. The authors plausibly contend that the battalion’s story is relatively unknown, overshadowed by the more famous “Band of Brothers” in the regiment’s 2nd Battalion.

Gardner is a former British Army paratrooper. Day grew up years after the war in Ramsbury, the town where the 3rd Battalion was billeted before D-Day. One of the troopers even lived with Day’s relatives during the war. Together, Gardner and Day have reconstructed the battalion’s experiences, from training in Toccoa, Georgia, until the end of the Normandy campaign. The book is based on legions of interviews with veterans, new photographic evidence from the Air Photo Archive at Keele University, many battlefield visits, and a meticulous accounting of the battalion’s key actions in Normandy. In telling its story, the authors borrowed the place-to-place format popularized in several books by 101st Airborne Division historian Mark Bando, whom they wisely consulted for advice during their research.

In a larger sense, Gardner and Day have made two important contributions in this volume. First, through exhaustive research, newly discovered photographs, and several site visits, they have established the authentic location of the Douve River bridges, the battalion’s key objective in Normandy (and a vital one for the entire Allied enterprise). Their history of the battalion underscores the crucial yet underappreciated importance of these bridges to the American effort to link up the Omaha and Utah beachheads. Second, they have fleshed out an excellent portrait of Lt. Col. Robert Wolverton, the battalion commander, a charismatic, beloved young West Pointer who would certainly have gone far in the army if he had not been killed in the early hours of the invasion.

The only major downside to this well-researched book is the absence of citations to serve as evidence and corroboration for the authors’ obviously extensive work. They seem not to have consulted the divisional records at the National Archives and, if so, that is an oversight. Regardless, Tonight We Die as Men is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the combat history of the U.S. Army in World War II.

 

Originally published in the Winter 2010 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here

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