World War II

THE FIGHTER AND THE WRITER

On July 9, 1944, GIs of the 22nd Infantry Regiment, part of the 4th Division, battled south from the foot of Normandy’s Contentin Peninsula. Heavy casualties from D-Day and the subsequent capture of Cherbourg had severely depleted the veteran ranks of the “Double Deucers.” Now relentless U.S. attacks met stubborn counterattacks by fresh, battle-hardened German units. Worse, the Norman bocage—a checkerboard of fields bounded by dense hedgerows—made armored support virtually impossible. The division commander, Major General Raymond O. “Tubby” Barton, had already summarily relieved two of the regiment’s commanders. Amid this furor and disorder, a captain at the 22nd’s forward command post answered a ringing field phone. “I am Colonel Charles T. Lanham,” a voice on the other end announced. “I have just assumed command of this regiment, and I want you to know that if you ever yield one foot of ground without my direct order, I will court-martial you.”

It was the first battlefield command for Lanham, a 41-year-old West Pointer. Why had combat come so late for the trim, gray-haired, bespectacled colonel? Perhaps a clue lay in his profile in the 1924 edition of the West Point yearbook, The Howitzer: “His highest ambitions and greatest aspirations are in the field of literature.”

An odd encomium for a cadet about to embark on an infantry career. Indeed, even as he took the “ground-pounder” path, Lanham—known to most by his plebe year nickname, Buck—wrote and published poetry elegizing the warrior craft. “Soldier,” for example, published in the August 1933 issue of Harper’s magazine, begins:

The stars swing down the western steep, And soon the east will burn with day, And we shall struggle up from sleep And sling our packs and march away.

Following his 1932 graduation from Fort Benning’s Infantry School Company Officer’s Course, Buck, a forum for infantry professionals, eventually caught the attention of George C. Marshall, then the army’s deputy chief of staff.

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