Share This Article

John McKenzie remembers his time with the 82nd Airborne Division as the most exciting of his life.

By Ivan Ingram

World War II’s 50th anniversary led to a surge of personal stories being published. Some of these memoirs are excellent, others merely good, while still others are poorly presented. Overall battle studies and grand strategy have a place, but they were not the concern of the World War II fighting man–he just wanted to stay alive. Such is John D. McKenzie’s account of his World War II experiences, On Time, On Target (Presidio Press, Novato, Calif., 2000, $27.95).

McKenzie’s memoir attempts to make sense of the author’s experience during the war. It is also intended to serve as a tribute to his fallen comrades. What makes the memoir somewhat unusual is that McKenzie served as an artillery forward observer with an infantry unit.

McKenzie served in the 456th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion, which supported the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division. He enlisted after his freshman year at Purdue University, where he was pursuing an engineering degree. At 18 he had his whole life ahead of him, and he now believes that he lived the most exciting part of it during the 959 days he was in the U.S. Army.

After enlisting, he was immediately introduced to the herd mentality–as he wrote, “I was by then only a number.” He went through a series of units and different Army bases before volunteering for airborne service. His battalion did not jump into Normandy on D-Day, but came ashore on D-plus-2 via landing craft in order to facilitate rapid employment of artillery support for the 82nd.

While McKenzie’s book has plenty of good illustrative vignettes that give the reader some idea of what life was like for a GI, his overall experience as a paratrooper is similar to that of other members of elite units. His descriptions of officers and NCOs, training, parachuting and combat, although typical, are of course unique to him because it is his story. Unlike many similar books, McKenzie’s On Time, On Target draws on the accounts of the battles he was involved in to give context to his personal experience. His book has several well-made maps of major engagements, and his descriptions tend to mesh fairly well with what is commonly known about the battles he describes.

His odyssey begins in Normandy and ends with his return home after the occupation of Berlin. The battles in which McKenzie saw action are written about clearly and concisely in On Time, On Target.

Many airborne veterans of Normandy described the Holland campaign during Operation Market-Garden and its aftermath as some of the worst fighting they were ever involved in, and McKenzie’s book is no exception. He addresses the types of rounds his unit fired and talks about the healthy respect he had for his adversary. Regarding the Battle of the Bulge, he offers some interesting information on “hunter-killer” tactics used in fighting enemy tanks during the Germans’ last-ditch effort to win the war.

The fighting in the Hürtgen Forest exemplifies the experience of soldiers from ages past: They all lamented that they had fought in vain. McKenzie finds it incomprehensible that higher officers did not exploit or capitalize on gains made early on, and opines that this would have brought about an early end to the war. He may have been right, and the reasons for certain decisions made despite high losses may never be known, especially to the front-line soldier. His story of occupation duty in Berlin is revealing in that he tries to make sense of the destruction he saw in Germany and the behavior of Russian occupation forces.

There are, however, some problems with the narrative. McKenzie mentions fighting an SS paratrooper division in Holland. As it happens, no such formation ever served in Holland, nor did one ever exist. He may have been confused by the number of SS men as well as the ad hoc 1st Parachute Army that served in that area and meshed the two together in his effort to describe the battles more than 50 years later.

Another point of contention is that McKenzie writes that he was able to go home after the war had ended due to his accumulation of 94 points, which he claims was the minimum number required. It is widely accepted, however, that 85 was the minimum required for troops in Europe.

The author is justifiably proud of his service with the 82nd Airborne Division. He makes a convincing argument that elite units such as the 82nd and 101st Airborne, 1st and 4th Infantry divisions and the Ranger battalions bore the brunt of the fighting in Europe. They suffered a higher turnover and casualty rate than other organizations due to overuse or, as in the case of the airborne units, to their employment in roles for which they were not intended, such as long-term defense or prolonged assaults. He maintains that many units were sent in against the Germans due to their esprit de corps and time-tested combat ability. He also comments on a lack of quality leadership that plagued the draftee divisions, saying that this may have led to their being kept out of the line during critical battles. This may also be true, as all-volunteer units tended to have a proportionately higher number of good, intelligent officers, although by late in the war many of them were dead or wounded, or had been promoted out of front-line positions.

What really grabs the reader, however, is McKenzie’s description of the feeling of combat. He examines how mines and random chance may have caused casualties as often as direct assaults. He writes of the stench of death that permeated a battlefield, and of how he and his comrades became fatalistic after being in combat only a few times. Clearly his perspective is unusual, but it is not atypical for a front-line soldier. He addresses the mental casualties of World War II as well. This is interesting, as such victims of war are not often discussed by McKenzie’s generation.

Overall, the book is a well-written, enjoyable memoir with some very good personal photographs, particularly of men jumping from airplanes. The author made a respectable effort to get his facts straight, using his commanding officer’s war diary as a primary source document as well as several well-known books for substantiation. Broken down into readable chapters, the book flows well and offers a good description of the experiences of a front-line soldier.