It’s a little odd that there were so few series dealing with World War II. What could be a more natural setting for stories with action, heroism, bloodshed and explosions? And WWII-themed stories had been in seemingly every issue of the men’s adventure magazines, the predecessors of the paperbacks. Even in comic books, there were more than a dozen long-running series set during the war.
I can only think of two standout paperback series centered on WWII, and both of them were written in their entirety by Len Levinson: 'The Sergeant' (under the name Gordon Davis) and 'The Rat Bastards' (as John Mackie). Just two! But you know, maybe it’s really not so surprising that these series had so little competition. Levinson set the bar so high that few writers could hope to match them.
The Sergeant’s debut novel, “Death Train”, recounts a couple of episodes in the combat career of Sgt. C.J. Mahoney. Gruff, pugnacious and snarky, he’s not your traditional lantern-jawed hero, but he sure gets the job done. The title refers to the first of these episodes, in which Mahoney is tasked with disrupting German supply lines by sabotaging the rail network of occupied France. The second episode finds him with some resistance fighters, holed up in a French village suddenly overrun by German tanks. I thought the first story was a little more effective than the second, but they were both superb.
The next novel is even better, presenting a handful of wartime episodes of varying lengths. In “Hell Harbor: The Battle for Cherbourg”, Mahoney is a much more fully-developed character. He’s still a grizzled war dog, chomping his cigar and addressing friend and foe alike as “Asshole,” but in one remarkable extended episode, we discover there’s far more to him than that. The context of how that happens is the last thing you’d expect. Mahoney’s recovering in a London hospital but manages to steal an officer’s uniform one night, and sneak out of the building in hopes of visiting a popular brothel. I can’t say anything more without giving away too much, but trust me--- this is the episode that will linger with you the longest. And there’s not a shot fired in it!
There’s certainly plenty of combat action in the other episodes, and the book’s title refers to the last of them. Based in an impregnable fortress, the Germans are going to blow up the harbor at Cherbourg by remote control, just to keep it out of the hands of the Americans, who need it to land critical supplies and reinforcements. Mahoney and a squad are assigned the seemingly impossible task of preventing the harbor’s destruction. A lesser author would turn Mahoney into a combat Superman, storming the fortress and drilling every German in sight, emerging triumphant. What happens instead is unexpected, harrowing and even a little disgusting, but it’s also pulp action at its best.
It’s also believable, and that’s important. Of course it’s fiction, but everything in the novel happens in the real world, not in the Mack Bolan fantasyland of invulnerable action heroes with unlimited heavy ammunition. Sometimes I’m in the mood for that stuff, and it’s fine as far as it goes. But what’s more compelling, more memorable and more rewarding is what Len Levinson serves up in “Hell Harbor”. Put this one on your shopping list.