The Beardless Warriors by Richard Matheson (1960)
Since today is Veteran's Day, this seems like the perfect time to choose The Beardless Warriors for today's forgotten books. Many people consider this book to one of the best war novels of the Twentieth Century. I read this book while in high school and it has stayed with me ever since.
The "beardless warriors" of the title are the teenage infantrymen who comprise an understaffed rifle squad in the last days of World War II. These boys are replacement soldiers, unprepared and inexperienced. The latest recruit is "Hack" Hackenmeyer, a troubled eighteen-year-old from an abusive home life. The squad is headed by an older sergeant twice the age of his men; Sgt. Cooley has a son their own age serving in the Pacific and he has become a father figure to his squad, and especially to Hackenmeyer.
When the squad's assistant leader is killed, Cooley chooses Hackenmeyer to fill the position. Hackenmeyer is eager to please his sergeant and soon discovers that he is good at killing Germans, perhaps too good. He seems to enjoy killing, and even shoots down German soldiers who are about to surrender. When he gets disciplined by Cooley, he feels he has fallen out of the older man's favor.
This is the story of a young's sudden growth to maturity. A close call with death makes him begin to value life. An unexpected field promotion forces him to assume the mantle of responsibility. Over the two weeks recorded in the novel, Hackenmeyer's character is forced to change and mature.
In the background, of course, is the war. Matheson makes the reader feel the wet and the cold, the fear and the monotony, the terror of a shell attack and the senseless deaths of soldiers on both sides -- all of this for the squad to take a seemingly minor and unimportant position.
Despite some stereotypical characters, the author has fashioned an authentic story of what it is like to be a grunt caught in the hell of war, and does it vividly and without resorting to preaching or polemics. Matheson wrote this book fifteen years after his experiences as a teenaged infantryman in World War II France and Germany. He dedicated the book to his young sons, in the hope that they would never have to go through what he had recorded in the novel.
In 1965 The Beardless Warriors cheaply made into a poor film (The Young Warriors) that little resembled the book. It's a shame. The book deserved better.
After more than fifty years, The Beardless Warrior remains a powerful read.
For more of Friday's Forgotten Books, go to Pattinase.