What others are saying about “An American Knight”
Book review of “An American Knight – a Tank Destroyer Story” by Victor ‘Tory’ Failmezger,
National Media Services, Inc., Front Royal, VA, 2012, by Howard Klein, former critic for The New York Times:
World War II holds a unique place for us: it was the last war to be declared by the Congress, the last war with clear victories – in Europe and in the Pacific – it was the war fought by the ‘Greatest Generation,’ as journalist Tom Brokaw proclaimed it. Although two of its theaters of operation are frequently the subject of films, TV specials and books, and therefore shine in our memories, there were in fact three.
In the Pacific, there were the endless beachheads storming atolls and islands, culminating in the terrifying atomic incineration of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, which brought theater’s conflict to an end. And in the European theater was the high drama of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, the suicide of Hitler, and Germany’s surrender. But what of that third theater of operations?
Now, as if to correct history’s poor memory, we have Victor Failmezger’s book, “An American Knight – a
Tank Destroyer Story,” (2012). The book is about that now mostly forgotten theater of operations that
begins with the arid North African Campaign, and moves on to the bloodstained invasion of Italy at Anzio and, what to the minds of some, including Winston Churchill’s, ends with the anticlimactic invasion by mostly American troops of Southern France. And later, with the Battle of the Bulge crowding the headlines, the equally important breaking of the Siegfried Line was also going on; Failmezger shines a light on that.
Failmezger, a retired US Navy Commander, tells his story through letters that Thomas Peter Welch sent
home. Welch, his uncle, was a soldier and an authentic hero. Like an epistolary novel, this loving
biography reprints Welch’s letters home (1942 – 1945) which trace the events of Tommy’s war. From
upstate New York, Welch was typical of most volunteers and conscripts who early in the war found
themselves in uniform, being trained in Texas and later shipping out and finding themselves in relentless combat. Welch writes faithfully to his mother and siblings about his training and later about his combat life. In his letters, if we read between the lines, we sense the gradual toughening and inevitable coarsening of the young man. The sweet Boy Scout innocence flakes away as he is exposed to the grit of combat and its anodynes, alcohol and the random woman.
War dehumanizes its combatants. Welch was not immune from this. One night in Italy, he writes, he drives his Tank Destroyer to within 400-500 yards of the German lines so he can, “Shoot the hell out of them with a 50-cal machine gun. It’s the best sport of the war.” But Welch’s simple prose can be affecting as well, such as when he writes, “Please forgive the writing my hand is cold, it’s hard to write – I’m writing by the light of the moon.”
He writes his mother about another battle where, “The first few days were terrific. It was very good
hunting, and we knocked off lots of Jerry tanks as well as killing lots of square heads.” Indeed, heroism in wartime is made of just such acts. Welch was decorated for his actions and leadership, two Silver Stars, Bronze Stars, Purple Hearts, commendations.
Tommy’s letters are not those of a newsy war correspondent. To fill in the many gaps in the narrative –
periods of prolonged battle when letters could not be written, for example – Failmezger quotes from the letters of other soldiers or officers. Where Tommy is silent, others fill history in.
At the War’s end Tommy’s repatriation did not result in his successful transition to civilian life. He was not the first, nor the last soldier, to fail to adjust – he had two marriages, one unsuccessful, and there was an estranged child. The last letter quoted in the book, was written in 1966. A chatty note to his sister then visiting Helsinki during the Cold War, he warns her husband to “leave his camera behind” when he crosses the border, adding, “I’m too old to crank up my tanks and come to your rescue.” The author tells us, in a footnote, that, “This is the only time that Tommy was known to mention his ‘tanks.’”
As a civilian, Tommy had changed jobs frequently. At his death in 1972 at the youthful age of 51, he is in San Antonio and is now calling himself Pete. Did Tommy the soldier need a new, civilian identity? We don’t know. It is a bittersweet end to a complex life, that of a hero, an innocent, a dissolute, yet loved man for whom killing had become ‘sport.’
“An American Knight” is not just a story of a war or a hero: it is a thorough compendium of military
history footnoting in dizzying completeness some often neglected campaigns. The text is dotted with
exhaustive descriptions of everything pertaining to the military life, its bases, reports, invasion plans, maps, dossiers. A visitor from Mars would be able to reconstruct the entire US Army from this one book, it would seem. There are thirteen appendices, if one wants more details, presenting, among other things, the specification for the Tank Destroyer along with comments and tactics for deployment, definitions of Army Food (A, B and C rations), as well as Nazi propaganda leaflets. The extensive bibliography includes personal interviews with veterans along with copious citations of authors, books and periodicals – research worthy of a David McCullough!
The book is heavily illustrated throughout with photographs, drawings and documents from the author’s
extensive collection. It is a mother lode for scholars of this period. And for the veterans of this, or of other wars, men and women for whom Tommy Welch’s life may mirror elements in their own lives, I would guess that Tommy might earn an honored place among their own comrades in arms. And for anyone
interested in the minutia of this forgotten theater of operations, as well as in the broad dramatic arc of World War II, as seen through the eyes of American soldier, “An American Knight” is well worth thereading.
September 30th, 2013
It is well known that the Internet has fundamentally altered the way we access the news. Citizen journalists report news events and blog on issues that would have never seen the light of day a decade ago. What is not as well known is that the Internet has also changed the way history is researched and presented. Today “citizen historians”—combined with self-publishing Internet services—are preserving history that would have never been considered “historically significant” or had the “mass appeal” favored by the big-time book publishers of old. This is a wonderful social development.
In the book, “An American Knight”, author Tory Failmezger shines as one of best of these new citizen historians. Tory’s book appeals to several historical niche audiences: those with a general interest in researching and preserving the individual memories of WWII soldiers, those who wish to understand the Mediterranean War from an American ground soldier’s perspective (the Northern European perspective has been well documented), and those who have a specific interest in American Tank Destroyer forces (an important history that has been terribly ignored).
Tory’s uncle was 1st Lt. Thomas P. Welch of the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion. With a boxful of his uncle’s wartime correspondence and a inquisitive attention to detail honed after years as an officer in the U.S. Navy, Tory painstakingly pieces together his uncle’s life. The result is this wonderful book. On the surface, his work has the appearance of one huge scrap book stitched together in chronological order. It is full of interesting charts, photos, maps, and letters. A common problem with scrap book histories is that a reader doesn’t necessarily know what certain items or references are or what they mean. Not so with Tory’s book. Tory narrates and explains everything to you as you read through each page. It is as if he anticipates your next question and has an answer at the ready for you. What was it like to live in Geneva, New York in the 1930s? Tory tells you. What is this “C-ration” that Lt. Welch writes about? Tory tells you this and more. In other words, Tory immediately answers the questions that naturally come to your mind as you read through the material. He also provides a wonderful collection in the book appendix of German propaganda leaflets that Lt. Welch sent home. This collection, in of itself, could probably provide the substance to another fascinating book. Some of these images I have never seen anywhere. By the time you get to the end of the Lt. Welch’s story you feel that you are not just an expert in Tank Destroyers, WWII nomenclature and slang, but a member of Lt. Welch’s own family and tank destroyer crew. Tory’s research is THAT informative! Tory’s book reminds me of some of the best works of the French Publisher “Histoire and Collections” in how he presents his subject. (An example is “Dragoon: The Other Invasion of France” by Paul Gaujac.)
I must make the personal disclosure that interview material I recorded about ten years ago from members of the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion was used by Tory in this book. At the time of those interviews, I was researching my grandfather’s service in the 756th Tank Battalion for the book “The Day of the Panzer” (Casemate: 2008). While researching, I had no idea which of my interviews would ultimately end up in my own book. As it turned out, I could not use much from those 601st interviews because my focus shifted more to the infantry and tanks—and away from the tank destroyers. Nevertheless, I am extremely pleased and proud that Tory found my material useful and incorporated it into this work. Because of Tory’s exhaustive research, I now have far deeper admiration–not only for his uncle–but for all the men in the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion. Even after all these years of my own research into WWII, I am still struck by how many thousands of American soldiers with outstanding heroic service have come and gone unheralded. Lt. Welch had dozens of tank kills (and one fighter plane kill!) to his credit in that war. Lt. Welch’s actions at La Maison Rouge in Alsace on 24 January 1945 probably saved the 3rd Battalion / 15th Infantry Regiment from being annihilated by a fierce German armor attack. Lt. Welch was a bonafide American war hero. Thanks to Tory, Welch’s heroism did not die silently with him as it has with so many others of his generation. Thank you, Tory, and well done!!
Timothy R. Stoy
Lieutenant Colonel, Infantry
US Army, retired
The 3rd Infantry Division developed an outstanding reputation for aggressiveness and combat effectiveness in World War II. In its 10 campaigns in North Africa, the Mediterranean Theater, and in Europe the Rock of the Marne spent 531 days in combat, incurred 25,977 casualties, had 41 Medal of Honor recipients (the most of any division in WWII), and was decorated with the highest unit awards by the United States (the Presidential Unit Citation) and by France (the Croix-de-Guerre).
Combat units of World War II were comprised of men. It is the men of the 3rd Infantry Division and its attached units who earned that outstanding reputation, with their blood, their sweat, and their courage through innumerable fights in all conditions of weather and terrain. The most famous of those men are the division’s Medal of Honor recipients – their stories were told in the press and have been kept alive in books which are still sold today. However, countless other brave men fought in this war, many died with their heroism unseen and thus unremarked, others received lesser awards for heroism which fellow soldiers would know to respect but which do not carry the caché the Medal of Honor does, while all who survived the war worked hard to establish a sense of normalcy after the trauma they experienced. Their stories also deserve to be told.
Tory Failmezger does this with his book on his uncle, 1 LT Peter “Tommy” Welch. Reading the chapters on his combat service Tommy Welch fit right in in this aggressive combat division. He was the kind of soldier that 3rd Infantry Division Commander Major General John Wilson “Iron Mike” O’Daniel wanted, the kind who would take the fight to the enemy, who would accept risk in order to bring the war to an end more quickly. It was kill or be killed, and Tommy Welch was good at it and lucky. Tory has brought his uncle back to life, using his war time letters he paints a clear picture of a confident, maybe even cocky, young American fighting man.
Tory also takes us back in time, with his extensive use of period materials, to provide us a better understanding of the Army of WWII, and the America of those times. Almost 70 years have passed since the war ended, very few of the Greatest Generation are still among us, and few younger Americans have had the privilege of knowing a WWII veteran. The America of the 1940s doesn’t exist anymore, and it is difficult to put ourselves into the shoes of the men and women who rose to the occasion to defeat Nazism in Europe and preserved American freedom while aiding the Nations of Europe to regain their liberty.
Tommy’s post-war years show a restless man who appears to have been unable to come to closure with the sudden end to his part in the war. He seems to have been a man who found himself while mastering the challenges and the risks of combat. After the intense combat he experienced it is clear little in a peaceful world, in a tidy civilian existence, could provide him the adrenaline rush he needed and only experienced in combat. In today’s America it is probable many young men returning to civilian life after time in Iraq and/or Afghanistan face the same challenge.
Tory is extremely fortunate to have spent time with Tommy – what college kid would not love an uncle who would show him the ropes in the necessary, if not always openly discussed, social skills of young men? And we are extremely fortunate that Tory has chosen to share his deep affection for his uncle with us through this lovingly written and well-researched book. I highly recommend this book to our members as it accurately pictures what life was like in the tank destroyers in WWII.
COL (Ret) David W. Brown, Executive Director, 45th Infantry Division Museum, Oklahoma City, OK 73111
Just wanted to let you know that I received your book yesterday
evening. I’ve already spot read various pages throughout the book and I can already tell that you
did a great job! I have already regaled members of my Museum staff with
various passages. Your uncle was very gifted with his use of words and he
had a wonderful sense of humor in recording his observations of the various
aspects of a soldier’s life. You did an excellent job in splicing historical
accounts with your uncle’s letters to provide a continuous narrative.
Dan Carlson, CDR, USN (MC), Retired:
AN AMERICAN KNIGHT-A TANK DESTROYER STORY is a comprehensive and readable book centered around the experiences of Army LT Tommy Welch during and after World War II. Author Victor “Tory” Failmezger describes his Uncle Tommy’s heroism as a tank platoon commander in Italy, France and Germany…and the permanent psychological scars that resulted. Tory uses official records, other historical documents, and recollections from many members of the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion to provide convincing glimpses of American military and civilian life during World War II. Several years we unexpectedly discovered that my wife’s late father earned a Bronze Star medal, while in the 601st TD Battalion, for his part in destroying two enemy tanks. Tory’s book helps me understand Dad’s post war silence about his combat experiences.
Joe Johnson, Washington, DC:
Tommy Welch got lucky when his nephew, historian and retired Navy officer Victor Failmezger, decided to write his uncle’s biography. Failmezger retraces Thomas Peter Welch’s path through life as a United States army lieutenant in the World War II Italian campaign and, after the war, as a Texas ad man. Much of the book is the first-hand account by Lt. Welch written from the Italian peninsula while he served with the 601st tank destroyer battalion. Tommy wrote relatives and friends as he traveled to Rome and on to France, and his letters’ gritty detail adds to the military history. Welch was not your average soldier, and Failmezger’s thorough research and insights from his own military service in Italy prove it. The extensive documentation includes copious illustrations; you’ll find a photo, map or drawing on nearly every page. My favorites are the cartoons about army life, many drawn by Welch and his friends. Welch returned after the war and made a home in Texas, but never quite settled down. It’s that portion of the book that makes this more than just another tale of combat. Failmezger includes his personal memories of his uncle, making an affectionate tribute that offers an absorbing read and a new window into U.S. history.
Walter W. Meeks, III, Director, Fort Stewart Museum. GA:
I very much remember your work in progress and offer hearty congratulations on your finished product. All of our 3ID units in WWII were filled with exceptional soldiers, it seems, but hardly any are closer to my heart than the “Black Y Boys” of the 601st TD Bn. We would be honored to include a (signed?) copy of your work in our research library.
John R. Howard
LTC, U.S. Army, SF, (ret.)
I met you briefly on the last day of Historicon in Fredericksburg, where I purchased your book as you were wheeling the stack out of the hall. I promised to read it as soon as possible and provide feedback. The book went to the top of my stack and I enjoyed recording comments as I went along. It has only taken me this long to contact you because work and family keep me fairly busy. I retired from the Army with 28 years of service as an Armor and, later, Special Forces officer. Now, I just read books about such things and I greatly enjoyed yours.
You certainly had sufficient material for a book on Tommy’s service. Even with Tommy long deceased and no surviving comrades available for interview, you did an admirable job of tying the documentary and narrative material together into a complete story with minimal gaps. Your reconstruction of your uncle’s war experiences overcomes the limitations of the source material because it is such a compelling story. Tommy’s character is revealed slowly through his words and actions as we track his progress through training and deployment to combat in Africa, Italy, and Northern Europe. I was also struck by the number and substantial nature of your Uncle’s awards. He was a highly decorated soldier, and exceptionally so for a tanker. It was important that his story not be lost.
In light of the improved understanding we have gained since 9-11 of the Psychological and physical impact of intense, sustained combat and combat injuries, Tommy’s resilience and courage are remarkable and his later life more understandable. In that vein, I wish there could have been more details about Tommy’s work experience and personal life after the war. To me, how he handled life after combat was equally as interesting as how he survived his battles during the war.
By the time Tommy has received his second purple heart it becomes evident that he was experiencing serious, heavy combat and probably had sustained multiple concussions. Today he would be treated for possible traumatic brain injury and PTSD. There can be little doubt of the source of any emotional or behavioral issues he had after the war. That he was hardened by combat is shown by his frank discussion in letters (page 162) of what his job entails; he is a killer. I gained the impression that his aggressive nature and will to engage in combat was off-putting to peers and superiors who considered him erratic, or even nuts. Thus the multiple decorations without rapid promotion or increased responsibilities, Tommy had just committed himself fully to the fight with an intensity and to a degree that others did not, and it must have scared them.
The Lundquist memoir is very good. He captured the experience in precise shorthand and it was fun to follow along as he mastered the art of digging fighting positions.