Sunday, December 17, 2017
Human Interest

A history of a war is a history of a man

In 1943, the Army tried to turn an American lit expert into a mechanic. It took Bill Sutton's superiors most of the next two years to figure out he was no mechanic. In early 1945, the Army got smart and sent the bespectacled 29-year-old Ph.D. to France to be a military historian.

He was dispatched to a corner of the Alsace region, where the Army's 3rd Division had just fought a bloody battle to dislodge the Germans from a pair of heavily fortified villages west of the Rhine. "Find a combat lesson," Sutton was told.

Sutton found evidence of a disastrous reconnaissance failure. The bridge at Maison Rouge was not strong enough to handle tanks. This was discovered only after two regiments had forded the icy river in anticipation of armored support following. Unchallenged, the Germans decimated the Americans, who retreated in disarray.

Sutton's report was dismissed as impossible. The 3rd doesn't retreat, he was told. Medals were awarded.

I wrote about this episode of Bill Sutton's life in 2003. Bill was 87, living in Dunedin, and he had been waiting a long time to unburden himself. I had been touched, I suppose, by Sutton's stubborn insistence that it mattered. "It was an experience that fed me," he said. "I've always thought it should be told."

Every month or so over the years I'd get a call from him. In his unfailingly polite quaver, he would update me on his latest historical project. "I made up my mind that the people of Dunedin didn't understand the war as much as they should."

Sutton compiled a list of war dead from the city. Then he embarked on a definitive account of Dunedin's role in WWII as a training ground for the Marines' 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion. The unit's men fought at Guadalcanal and a host of other major Pacific battles. Sutton gathered details without regard for magnitude. "I'm trying to find out more about the dog that was the mascot of the unit," he would tell me. That was my cue to dig into the Tampa Bay Times' archives.

Through his research, he met Warren Maxson, whose father, Glenn, had been one of the unit's officers. Like so many veterans, Capt. Maxson retired to Florida. Through the son, himself a Marine, Sutton met Maxson's widow, Hallie. She shared the letters she had received during the war. An attic cleaning unearthed a spare, weary diary "Maxie" had written on Guadalcanal. No one in the family had seen it.

Combining his research, the letters to Hallie and Maxie's diary, Sutton produced his book. Maxie and Hallie: In Love and War is about 85 pages. It took seven years. It might lack the scope of Gibbon or Tuchman or Michener, but it has a value nevertheless. "I like to think it makes a contribution," he said.

Sutton is 98 now. His wife, Marion, died a few months ago, and he is living in a facility in Largo, which is where I visited him the other week. The place is okay, Bill says, but he would much prefer somewhere that offered a desk in his room so he could get going on his next project. He has 681 pages of his diary from the end of the war, a fair bit of which was spent interviewing captured German officers.

"I'd like to show it to you to see if it might be suitable for publication."

Bill Duryea is Times enterprise editor.

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