Reviewed by Philip Fretz (Sierra Leone 1967–69)
Angels of Bastogne is an exceptionally comprehensive telling of the conditions faced by a team of medical personnel in WWII. Although it deals with one battlefront over the course of only several days, it is an emotionally riveting account.
As Bastogne, Belgium is surrounded and under siege, desperate conditions in a makeshift aid station overcrowded with wounded bring out a level of dedication and compassion inconceivable in any other situation. The American Army doctor and the Belgian nurses who are the chief protagonists of the story turn to each other for emotional support in the face of unrelenting bloodshed and trauma. Together, they overcome exhaustion and despair to find the courage to face another day.
Outside the aid station and across town, citizens face deprivation with grim stoicism as they hunker down in basement shelters. On the defensive perimeter, soldiers hug the ground in ditches and foxholes hoping for the relief and reinforcement of the town. The terror and tension that build in the story are alleviated by love and camaraderie on the one hand, and by moments of incongruous happenstance and humor on the other. The tears, laughter, suspense, and drama that meet the readers at every turn of the page, and the loves, desires, hopes and dreams of multiple characters in the face of fear, make Angels of Bastogne a most compelling read.
Moreover, the juxta-positioning of the timing in the story, wartime in the 1940s and fifty years after the battle at a reunion of the combatants, makes one realize that wartime experiences don’t end with an armistice. Time cannot erase the bonds forged under fire that had a direct bearing on chances of survival. Even after the passage of so many years, the anguish of losing comrades remains. Some wounds, whether physical or cerebral, never heal. Only the act of remembrance brings redemption.
Sadly, given the current state of affairs in Europe in 2022, this book is a truthful rejoinder of how history is repeated, despite the pain and sorrow it triggers. Just as bombs fall indiscriminately upon Ukraine today, innocent Bastogne townspeople, women and children were collateral damage in 1944, their lives cut short by mindless, soulless inhumanity.
Angels of Bastogne left me laughing, crying, and shuddering.
Reviewer Philip Fretz (Sierra Leone 1967-69) is the author of Softball, Snakes, Sausage Flies and Rice: Peace Corps Experience in 1960’s Sierra Leone (Independently published, 2013)