The entire book takes place in December 1944 after Everett Hackermeyer from Brooklyn joins the ten-man platoon of C Company, a true fighting outfit just inside the German borders. Four of the ten soldiers are only 18 years old, including our young hero. The novel wastes no time thrusting Hackermeyer into his first combat experience nose-to-nose with German soldiers.
Instead of fearless killing machines, the soldiers of C Company are mostly portrayed as scared teens just trying to stay alive in a confusing and chaotic place far from home. When they get their first taste of combat, Matheson underscores the terrifying muddle that combat seems to an unseasoned soldier. There are moments of bravery, but very little of the heroism we often read in fictional depictions of front-line fighters.
This is a powerful novel, but not a pulpy adventure in the manner of Len Levinson’s The Sergeant or Rat Bastards books. There’s tension and excitement to be sure, but Matheson is clearly trying to give the reader a reality check rather than a swashbuckling yarn. Rather than tracking a single mission, the book reads like a ride-along over a month of an American infantry soldier behind Germany’s front lines.
Ultimately, The Beardless Warriors is a coming-of-age tale where a scared boy matures into manhood and leadership in the most harrowing circumstances. As long as you understand what you’re getting, you’re bound to appreciate the novel as a vivid account of what it was like for the young men prepared to sacrifice it all when the stakes were unimaginably high.