I came across this book in my late teens on one of my many trips to the library. It looked interesting, so I brought it home. If I remember correctly, I read it all in about one sitting. I loved the book so much I read it to my brother. By the end, we were both in tears.
Soldier Boys is the story of two very different young men. Dieter has grown up in Germany, knowing nothing but Nazi propaganda. Like most boys his age, he adores his Fuhrer and can’t wait to defend his country from foreign aggressors. Spence is a good Mormon boy from Utah. His two main goals in life are to impress LuAnn Crowther, the prettiest girl at school, and to avoid getting in trouble with his parents. But two years after Pearl Harbor and a world still at war, Spence risks his dad’s displeasure by begging him to sign his induction papers. He figures if he turns into a tough-as-nails paratrooper and comes back from the war with a chest full of medals, then LuAnn and everyone else who thinks of him as plain, old, underdog Spencer Morgan will have to think again.
After months of grueling training in broiling hot Georgia for Spencer, and a lifetime of training and indoctrination in the Hitler Youth for Dieter, Spencer and Dieter’s paths intersect on the cold Western Front during the Battle of the Bulge. The harsh winter and the realities of warfare slowly strip away Dieter’s idealism and Spencer’s hopes. During a brave charge up the hill Spencer’s company occupies, Dieter is shot and wounded. Left on the hill during the cold night, Dieter realizes his only chance at survival will come through an American he has been taught to hate.
What struck me to the core with this book was the ending message—love your enemies and do good to them that hate you, even if it comes at a great cost to yourself. I enjoyed the way Mr. Hughes developed the characters of both Spencer and Dieter. Spencer originally joins the army with foggy ideas of defending his country from Japs and Germans. But for the most part, he really signs up to prove his manhood to himself and others and to impress a girl. As the story progress, his character is tested and grows until he sees life through wiser eyes. Dieter grows, as well, though more tragically. As the lies of the German propaganda machine are stripped away, his confidence is shaken and the purpose and idol of his life falls and shatters. We see the immense impact that can have on a young life, especially when there is nothing good and true to replace the idol.
You can find Soldier Boys on Amazon used or new. I heartily recommend it for mature readers. Although descriptions of wartime violence are not sinfully graphic, they are realistic.
Bonus: The Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” has a special place in my heart since reading this book. If you read it, you’ll know why.