Against All Odds: A True Story of Ultimate Courage and Survival in World War II, by Alex Kershaw, Dutton Caliber, New York, 2022, $30
Veteran military historian Alex Kershaw delivers admiring accounts of four notable Americans who received the Medal of Honor and more than their share of Purple Hearts during World War II. All attracted worshipful publicity and survived the war more or less intact.
Perhaps inevitably the author opens with Audie Murphy, the most familiar of the quartet. The son of a Texas sharecropper who deserted his family amid the Depression, Murphy dropped out of school in the fifth grade to support his family at odd jobs. At the outset of the war, though underage and undersized, he managed to enlist. Murphy participated in every campaign from North Africa to Sicily, mainland Italy, France and Germany, impressing everyone with his courage, aggression and marksmanship and earning every American award for valor, as well as French and Belgian decorations.
Returning Stateside to great acclaim, the young, handsome hero immediately landed a movie contract. Nearly a decade passed before Murphy appeared in a leading role—playing himself in the autobiographical 1955 war film To Hell and Back. But by the 1950s he was a successful star, although he led a stormy personal life until his death in a 1971 plane crash.
Considered the great American hero of World War II (like Alvin York of World War I), Murphy was not the original. That honor belonged to Maurice Britt. A standout end on the college gridiron, he was playing professional football with the Detroit Lions when called up. No less audacious than Audie, he was faster than Murphy at securing every American medal for valor before losing an arm at Anzio in 1944.
Britt returned Stateside to a hero’s welcome. Fawned over by journalists and invited to speak at war bond rallies, he was the Sergeant York of his time until Murphy (who didn’t receive his Medal of Honor till war’s end) returned home and superseded him.
A True Story of Ultimate Courage and Survival in World War II
By Alex Kershaw
This post contains affiliate links. If you buy something through our site, we might earn a commission.
Kershaw’s third American hero is Keith L. Ware, who was supporting his family as a department store manager when drafted. Earning selection to Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Ga., he rose through the ranks while fighting in Europe, receiving the Medal of Honor for having single-handedly stormed a German hilltop position. He remained in the postwar Army, rose to major general and was killed in action in Vietnam while commanding the 1st Infantry Division.
The fourth, Michael J. Daly, seemed unlikely material. Entering West Point in 1942, he set a record for demerits, dropped out and enlisted as a private. Landing at Normandy on D-Day, he amazed everyone with his battlefield feats. He, too, received the Medal of Honor for having stormed an enemy strongpoint. Within weeks of the German surrender he sustained a disfiguring facial injury. Returning Stateside, Daly rarely appeared in public, though he went on to a successful business career.
While Kershaw steps back regularly to deliver the bigger picture, he focuses most of his narrative on the small-scale accounts of gruesome individual heroism. All are admirable. As there are only so many ways to kill, some repetition is inevitable, but military buffs will know what to expect.