In 2008 military historian and author of acclaimed books such as Beyond Valor (winner of the William E. Colby award) Patrick K. O'Donnell gave us The Brenner Assignment, a superb narrative of a covert OSS operation in World War II Italy. In his latest book, They Dared Return, O'Donnell treats us to another riveting history of the planning and the execution of the behind-enemy-lines covert action codenamed Operation Greenup.
One of the striking things about They Dared Return is that reads like so much like a thriller. It opens smack in the middle gut-wrenching action. Then jumps back in time to relate the story of the men who dared return, raising the ominous question — who of the heroes will be unfortunate enough to fall into the hands of the dreaded Gestapo?
Throughout the dangerous mission there are close calls, moments of dramatic irony, as when Mayer and his men come within hair's breath away from being discovered by a random Gestapo papers check on a train, as well as stupendous reversals, as when arguably the most blended-in agent is undone by the simplest of mistakes imaginable. History's twists and turns come alive thanks to O'Donnell's feel for the dramatic.
If character is destiny, as the old adage goes, then the reason for the extraordinary events described in the book are the men at its center. They Dared Return is the story of five extraordinary men, European Jews all, who managed to escape the grasp of Nazi Germany and make their way to America, where they became part of the Office of Strategic Services' German Operational Group: George Gerbner, Alfred Rosenthal, Hans Wynberg, Bernie Stelnitz, and Fred Mayer.
But after intensive training, including challenging parachute training, ironically they end up victims of Army bureaucracy: shipped over to Africa by mistake, they are slated as replacements for regular infantry units. They must, not for the first time or the last, improvise and cut through layers of red tape before they can put their skills to use. And these guys want to fight because they have, as Jews, deeply personal reasons for seeking to harm the Nazi state. They get their chance in Lt. Alfred C. Ulmer's German-Austrian Section in Bari.