Updated: 04/14/2013 09:28:43 PM EDT
The photo of Pennsylvania's own 28th Infantry Division triumphantly marching down the Champs Elysees in Paris past cheering crowds was so inspiring it ended up on a postage stamp.
According to a new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning military historian Rick Atkinson, the decision to have the 28th march through the French capital was made solely by a "bemused" Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander.
In "The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945," Atkinson explains that French President Charles De Gaulle pleaded with Eisenhower for two American divisions to be sent to Paris as a "show of force."
"I don't think he put a lot of thought into what unit was chosen," Atkinson said in a phone interview. "I think it was a target of opportunity. The 28th was nearby. De Gaulle had pressed him for two divisions for security in Paris. Eisenhower decided to divide the baby in half. He wasn't going to have two divisions. The 28th was told to get spiffy. They went to the Bois de Boulogne, a big park outside Paris, and then spent a rainy night getting ready."
The photo is ironic, Atkinson said, because while it appears the 28th is marching victoriously through the French capital at or near the war's end, they actually went on to participate in some of the fierecest fighting in the European Theatre, including the Battle of Hurtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge.
"It is ironic because proud as they are, glorious as they look, their destiny is very harsh," Atkinson said. "The Hurtgen Forest and the Bulge, among other things, await them.
"The Guns at Last Light", which will hit bookstores on May 14, is the third book in Atkinson's "Liberation Triology" about World War II. The first book in the series, "An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943," won a Pulitzer Prize for history and was a New York Times best-seller. The second book, "The Day of the Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944," also was a New York Times best-seller.
His new book covers the Western European campaign, starting in May 1944 with the planning of Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy, and ending on Victory in Europe Day, or V-E Day, in May 1945. The book comes in at a whopping 851 pages, but notes and a source list account for more than 200 pages.
"The war gets so much bigger," Atkinson said of the Western European campaign. "It's really industrial-strength by this point. There's roughly 60 American divisions in Western Europe. I started in North Africa with company-sized engagements."
In addition to the battles, Atkinson said he is always drawn to the characters in war, including Eisenhower, Gen. George Patton and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
"The thing I enjoy the most about writing about war are the figures, and they're pretty extraordinray in this book," he said.
Another character from the European campaign that does not get much credit is Maj. Gen. Norman Cota, the 28th ID's commander, Atkinson said. Cota is a great example of the "fickleness of fate," he said.
"He's a guy who leads a parade through Paris, and then he's in a hellhole that is the Hurtgen Forest and essentially shot to pieces," Atkinson said. "The next thing he knows he's got the Fifth Panzer Army falling on his division, and the division is fighting for its life. Here's a guy who's really extraordinary at Omaha Beach, he's extraordinary at St. Lo, he's doing all the things right ... then life turns on a dime, and he's fighting for his career."
The 28th ID also deserves more credit than it sometimes gets, Atkinson said.
"I think their performance in the Battle of the Bulge was quite remarkable," he said. "I think the 28th, as difficult as the war is for them in the Hurtgen and the Ardennes, is really to be lauded."
Atkinson, who lives in Washington, D.C., was a staff writer and editor at The Washington Post for more than 20 years. He spent about 14 years researching and writing the Liberation Trilogy.
In addition to the triology, his other books include "The Long Gray Line," "Crusade" and "In the Company of Soldiers," about the invasion of Iraq in 2003, during which he was embedded with the 101st Airborne Division.
He said he plans to continue to write about the military, but he said his next book will probably be about a war other than World War II.
"I think 14 years in World War II is probably enough," he said.
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Buying the book
"The Guns at Last Light" will be available May 14. The 851-page hardcover edition will cost $40. The audio version will be $29.99.