Colonel (Retired) Dominic J. Caraccilo, author of 1,271 Days a Soldier: The Diaries and Letters of Colonel H. E. Gardiner as an Armor Officer in World War II, spoke with us about his personal experience in the writing process and his research that went into compiling H. E. Gardiner’s diaries. Caraccilo served nearly six years in combat in command roles culminating a 27-year career as the Deputy Commander of the 101st Airborne Division. His 65 months of combat during multiple deployments including Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Kosovo, and a series of deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq spanning from 2001 to 2010. Caraccilo’s other works include Achieving Victory in Iraq: Countering an Insurgency (Stackpole Books, 2008), Beyond Guns and Steel: A War Termination Strategy (PSI, 2011), and Forging a Special Operations Force: The US Army Rangers (Helion & Company, 2015). Like 1,271 Days a Soldier, the latter two were sponsored by the Association of the U.S. Army as part of the AUSA Book Program. In retirement, Caraccilo has had extensive C-Level, Director, and Management experience for companies including various consulting firms, Amazon, Facebook, Parsons Corporation, and Microsoft.
[Emily Stachelczyk] Was it common for soldiers in World War II to keep diaries?
[Dominic J. Caraccilo] No, and there’s a lot of reasons why they didn’t, most importantly because of security reasons. It was hard to enforce of course, but there’s not a lot of standing works that exist from World War II. There’s one that was by an aide-de-camp to one of the senior generals that made it through. But there were very, very few. Diaries, novels, and letters get lost along the way. Guys were busy so they didn’t do it. H. E. Gardiner was very, very determined to keep a daily account in his letters intact, which is kind of cool.
[ES] Why does Gardiner refer to his jeep as a “peep”?
[DC] At first, the editors asked if it was a misspelling. No, the soldiers actually called the ¼-ton jeep that! I didn’t know that. I spent 30 years in the army, you’d think I know everything about the military. I thought it was a mistake too and I started to do some research. They called their jeeps “peeps.” And once you understand why, it’s kind of goofy.
[ES] I think it’s brilliant because it’s one of those great examples of metonymy, where the word has been changed to reflect the purpose. They used that jeep to peep, so a jeep became a peep!
[ES] I thought of the candy or about friends. So to see the word “peep” with these moments, like when he’s describing the assault gunners, the peeps, and the wounded driver, I had to wrap my mind around peep meaning “surveillance jeep.”
[DC] Exactly. Same with me. That’s why I find it so fascinating to start reading his letters. It made me want to figure out who the guy was that he was talking about. In all the research that you might have seen in the footnotes, it gave me the opportunity to try to unfold some mysteries on what was discussed. It was a neat thing to do. I did this once before with my book on the Bataan Death March at the end of the 1990s. I just enjoy researching. I wrote my own books on my own experiences, but this is more fun.
[ES] Speaking of your other novels, what is the difference between writing one’s own combat memoir and compiling the experiences and details of another?
[DC] When you write your own experiences, you’re obviously writing from your thoughts and what you’ve done, and maybe the notes you took. I took a lot of notes in Desert Storm when I wrote a book about my experiences there. It’s somewhat tongue-and-cheek in a lot of ways too. When you write about somebody else you really have to learn everything. I don’t have to learn about myself because I know me, right? I can write my own memoir and my own history, but you have to get inside the other guy’s brain if you’re writing about somebody else. You have to learn to understand how they’re thinking, and the interactions with people. I know when I write my own memoir, I know if I’m talking to a general, I know who he is, what he is, because I experienced that. With H. E. Gardiner, I had to figure out who he’s talking about. So, it’s actually harder to understand and write somebody else’s work in your own thoughts. It’s pretty easy writing about your own thoughts. I’ve written a memoir of my own military experiences. I’ve written books on strategy from my viewpoint. But to write about somebody else’s thoughts, it’s hard. But it’s fun.
[ES] What similarities were there between compiling Gardiner’s experiences with writing your novel, Forging a Special Operations Force: The US Army Rangers?
[DC] That’s a great question! For that book, I did a lot of first-person interviews. A lot of those guys, nearly all of them, are still around. I got a lot of my information from them. The difference is that Gardiner’s book all came from him. He had all his notes and his diaries. Special Operations was a conglomeration of notes from different people on the same viewpoint about forging the Ranger Unit. It was the compilation of their thoughts into a structured manner throughout the book. That was harder because you had to come up with your own chapter use. In the Gardiner book, the chapters kind of lend themselves to the military experience, “this happened in Italy” or “this happened in Africa.” The Special Operations book was more of a thought piece on how things occurred when developing the Ranger unit.
[ES] So it was more of an epic, more of a prose-style collection of experiences.
[DC] Right. Not easy, either one! With 1,271 Days a Soldier, I found the information on it in the late-to-mid ’90s. And I started writing it at the end of the ’90s. My wife’s friend was actually messing with our computer where my book was, and they lost the whole thing. We were stationed in Italy at the time.
I was like “Oh my God!” I did all this work on it. Then the wars came, and I was gone all of the 2000s until 2010, in Iraq and Afghanistan in-between. I never did anything on this book until a year and a half ago. So it’s been a quarter of a century doing it.
[ES] It’s a labor of love.
[DC] It is, it is. Every time I get done with a book, I tell my wife I’m never doing it again, because it’s hard. Then she looks at me like “yeah right.” Behind me are my books; she framed the covers.
[ES] I want to ask about Gardiner, the man himself. What he is he most notable for, and where and when can we find most of his references and attributions?
[DC] This guy was a very successful businessman, no doubt. The Anaconda Mining Company was his company. He had that going for him as a lawyer with that company. He moved to Chile after the war to keep that company going. The military experience that he’s known for, referenced quite a bit in a lot of different books, is the North African campaign. Notably within North Africa is the Kasserine Pass, which was another battle he was a commander for. And if you’re ever a commander in some of these pinnacle moments of military history it’s a cool thing!
Gardiner was really well known for the 13th Cavalry in the Kasserine Pass. I covered that somewhat in the book, but there’s a lot more to it. He’s written articles on it. He’s a very interesting guy. You see, Gardiner wrote in his diaries and letters from the beginning of the war, all the way to the very last day. That’s why it’s 1,271 Days a Soldier. It’s the whole war. In references, that’s what he’s known for: His business acumen, his career in North Africa and Italy, and how he was in the wars as a senior guy from day 1 to day 1,271.
[ES] I could tell by reading his accounts that this was a man of business, who writes very succinctly. He almost reminded me of Richard Aldington, author of Death of a Hero. Gardiner is Aldington without the animosity. They share the same thorough and punchy writing.
While researching Gardiner, what stuck out to you the most?
[DC] What was most interesting to me, and that’s why I enjoyed writing about him, was his humor! There’s a lot of tongue-and-cheek humor in the way he describes things. And he’s very honest. It wasn’t just dry. Everything was very “it’s freezing out,” but he made it fun to read about. There was a lot of interesting twists that I wouldn’t expect as he talked about parades and life. Who cares if that’s interesting or not, but he made it interesting to me! He was such a funny guy.
[ES] Yeah, especially in his interactions with the locals!
As we’ve discussed, the process for compiling this book was a long one. Towards the end of the book, Gardiner shifts to describing himself in the third person. Why?
[DC] He actually did that more often than may be apparent. I’m not sure why. He would do things like “the author viewed this” or the “the author did this.” And that was just his way, I think, from looking at it from afar, from the third person viewpoint. And then he would roll back to just talking to his Mom and Dad in letters. It was hard because, at first, when I started writing about that, I would write as if he was talking in his third person. Then the editors asked “Is that you saying that? Or is that him saying that?” So I had to capture that he was speaking in third person. It’s just a quirky thing that he did. Again, it made it really interesting to read his stuff because he took twists and turns I didn’t really expect.
[ES] In the novel, what was the most interesting part to you? Any detail, or any recount?
[DC] I kind of see myself as understanding military history. Spending so much time in the military you think you know a little bit of everything.
[ES] Just kind of.
[DC] Yeah, yeah. Laughs. But what I found really cool and that I didn’t know so well was the whole combat piece. What is cool to me is all the preparation. All the time in Ireland. I didn’t really know a lot of that. A lot of it gets gleaned over because care more about combat and operations. But all the preparations, and all the interesting challenges they had. They’d go overseas and the leadership changes. All the things behind the scenes, if you will, that really kind of prepped them for the battles in North Africa and thereon. I found it interesting because I didn’t know it, and so I enjoyed reading about it.
[ES] During World War II, did photographs face the same treatment as diary entries and any detailed information?
[DC] Yeah. So, as you can imagine, nowadays everybody has a cellphone. They can take pictures of this, pictures of that. It’s always available. Obviously, there wasn’t that capability. So most of the photos were taken by official photographers, the “X” military photograph company. A lot of those get taken and then chartered away into some sort of archive. Somehow, Gardiner had a bunch of photos taken. There was a big pile of 1 x 1-inch photos that he must’ve taken with a camera he had stowed away. We never heard about it, but the reason why I know this is because Gardiner’s sister-in-law, Patricia Issel, had provided me with them, a big package full.
That was another experience too, trying to find out if there is anybody alive that really knows this guy. She provided all this stuff. That’s so important. It was the same thing with my Bataan book. I had to find someone that knew Colonel Irvin Alexander. If you’re going to do this kind of work, an important piece is to find somebody in the family or a friend that can help you. Otherwise, you get lost.
You also have to get permission most of the time for photos or maps and that’s hard. And I really don’t want to go through trying to do that but maps in the public domain are a good solution. One time, I made my own maps for another book!
[ES] What was that process like, reaching out to a living relative of Gardiner?
[DC] So that’s really a big part of this. Back in the ’90s when I first found this, I reached out to a guy named Robert Sopher. He was part of their family; he was a nephew. He was giving me information about how to write this. And I was reaching out to Mark Blumenson, who you may or may not know, but he’s a very famous author who wrote Anzio. He was going to be a big part of this book, and then he died. Because I took so long to really get this thing to fruition, you’re talking to old people in the ’90s. By the time you’re done doing this in the late 2010s, they’re obviously not going to be around because that’s a long time. So I had to try and find somebody associated with him, a couple of friends of his or people he worked with. And then I found Patricia Issel who is just fantastic. The estate went from Robert Sopher to somebody else, but it ended up with her. She had all Gardiner’s stuff, and she was very willing to share it with me. It was a shot in the dark. I found her by going on the White Pages on the internet, looking up connections with names he used, trying to figure out who’s related to who. It was a huge puzzle, it was crazy!
I found her, I sent her a note, and she wrote me back. I thought “Wow, that’s a jackpot!” And I probably did more than I’m claiming I did, because I forget about all the work I do sometimes to try to find somebody. That’s hard to do, and it’s really important to spend the time to do it if you’re going to write something like this. Otherwise, you’re just copying letters. Who wants to read copied letters, you know?
[ES] Yeah, exactly. Compared to your other projects, would you say that the work you did to compile all the information you needed for Gardiner’s story was more intensive because you had to track through a pre-internet period to find people?
[DC] Yeah, that’s interesting because my first book was in ’93, and back then there was not much of anything with the internet. In retrospect, when you think about that, you realize how easy it’s become because of the internet. I remember when I was teaching at West Point, going to the library and looking up stuff. I hardly went to the library at all for this book. Which is probably kind of odd if you’re writing a book. You should do research. But most of it’s online.
Every kind of book is different from the other in its genre, if you will. I wrote my own memoir, I wrote a strategy book, I wrote some military technology books, I wrote a history of the Bataan Death March, which is much like this book. So there’s some similarities. But every adventure I make into writing is always so different from the other. Some are easier, and some are harder. It’s just a matter of the topic. And this is what’s hard, especially from the struggle of having an initial piece get lost. To re-cock it and do it again . . . it took a lot of energy to want to do it again. I really did so much work, and for five years, I’m thinking “I don’t want to touch this thing ever again.” And I ended up doing it, so I’m glad I did.
[ES] Was Gardiner the commander of the 13th Armor Regiment or Combat Command B?
[DC] As you know from military experience, nowadays task forces are a combination of different units to do something. He was a commander of 13th Cavalry, but the 13th Cavalry became the Combat Command. The way they used Combat Command back then are much how like I would use “task force.” There’s a combination of forces to associate with it.
I never really understood from him who else were a part of his Combat Command B. I did some research on that, I didn’t really spot too much details on it. But there was other units associated, other than the 13th Cavalry that supported him for a brief period of time. But no doubt there had a Combat Command A, Combat Command B, and a Combat Command C. I think a lot of the reasons why they called them combat commands is because they had landing craft associated it. So there was a mixture of the navy, with the army, the OST’s, they made this Combat Command. And they stayed that way! All the way through Africa and Italy they called it the Combat Command.
[ES] So how much longer did that stay? That type of nomenclature?
[DC] I don’t know, that’d be a great study to figure out how the task force organization nomenclature, the nomer behind it, extended through different periods of war. Combat Commands, Task Forces, Shield Forces: It’s probably had its own trajectory. But it would be interesting to find that out. I don’t know!
[ES] You’re an author. You know that when the language changes, its for a reason.
[DC] Yeah, right!
[ES] And when the title and the description of something changes, there was a reason or some kind of shift.
[DC] Yeah, it’s not just happenstance most of the time.
[ES] It’s the military, nothing happens by chance! What made you want to start writing military novels, specifically?
[DC] In 1991, I came back from Desert Storm. I was a commander there. It was a unique experience, we went there in the middle of the night, not knowing where we were going, first unit into the theatre. When I got back, I was telling my Dad some of things that occurred. He goes “You gotta write a book about that.” I’m like “no, whatever,” but I did, and it was my very first book!
I remember being in a bookstore once when I was in Brooklyn. I was walking through the aisles, and I saw some guy in the military section reading a book. And it was my book! So I’m walking by, not saying anything, looking through the books on the other side. I never told him. I just left. I don’t know who that was. I don’t know what he was reading inside the book at the time. But it was somebody reading my book! Maybe it’s a lot of vanity. At the end of the day, some people hunt, some people fish. I write, read, and run.
[ES] Before you were writing, did you lean towards military and military history novels?
[DC] I actually don’t read any military stuff anymore. I spent so much time in the military, and I wrote so much about the military that I don’t like to read military novels. I don’t watch military movies for a lot of reasons too. I don’t watch the modern-day stuff. I have a lot of military books, but I read a lot of other stuff and right now. I got a bunch of books going on at once.
[ES] A lot of the cadets here at University of North Georgia do something similar. There are some that obviously read a lot of military books casually and for fun. But then there are those who read a lot of military-adjacent novels: the Romans, the Ottomans, the Huns.
[DC] Yeah! I mean, there is some really good authors. I love that era and I love reading about things like Carthage. I like fantasy too. I like things that are probably not what most senior military retired officers read. I just find myself caught up in the fictional world sometimes. I like to read about that.
[ES] What is your favorite book of all time?
[DC] Oh wow, that’s hard.
[ES] Let me break that down because there are phases in everyone’s life. What were your favorite books at different phases of your life?
[DC] I really like to read World War II books. There’s no doubt about that. I think some of my favorite books were Ridgway’s Paratroopers. I like reading Soldiers by Matthew B. Ridgway, On to Berlin by James M. Gavin, about the 82nd jump in World War II. I like a lot of the paratrooper stuff because I’m a paratrooper Ranger. I always like to relate how I was, how they were, and try to connect the dots there. You’re probably going to think I’m crazy, but my favorite book of all time is On War.
[ES] Oh, really?
[DC] Talk about being a nerd! I loved it. I used to get wrapped up in strategy, just how people think. If you had to pick out a book for me that I’ve read, and read again. I’ve read On War a couple times because I thought it was going to be so important for what I was going to do for a living. That made sense to me. If you’re going to be an army officer you might as well be good at what you do. And you might as well read about what people did to make themselves good, and the strategy, and all of that stuff behind it.
As I progressed out of that, and I became a guy working for Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and other companies, I wanted to read a lot about business successes. Zero to Onewas a book that I thought was great, by the founder of PayPal. I started reading a lot of business stuff, Microsoft stories, stuff like that. I want to make myself better at what I do, so the time I spend is to make myself better at what I do!
Then I find myself reading just stuff that means nothing, you know? Off the wall. I read a lot of theology. I’m a faithful guy so I love reading a lot of stuff. I love reading Dominion which is about the history of Christianity. It’s very interesting, a great book, hard to read. I’m getting a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary studies, which is basically theology and the New Testament, so I read a lot of that.
None of my favorite books are mine. After you write a book, you never want to read it ever again!
[ES] When you were growing up, what kind of books did you lean towards?
[DC] This may or may not surprise you. I didn’t read when I was younger. I didn’t. And that’s why I didn’t write really well. I couldn’t tell you I read any books when I was a young kid. I was all wrapped in sports. I was just a different kind of person at the time. I started reading in some earnest when I was at West Point as a cadet.
[ES] If stranded on a deserted island, what three items would you bring with you?
[DC] The first item would be my wife. I’d have to bring a source computer with batteries that has every book on it that ever existed. Right now on my hard drive, I have 1,360 PDF files of all these books.
[ES] Oh my goodness.
[DC] It’s so good, it’s like a jackpot! It’s like every book you’ve ever heard of, I have.
[ES] It’s like the Gutenberg Project!
[DC] Yeah! And I’ve never opened any of them, ever! It’s almost like “break glass in case of tragedy” and here’s your books! I’d have to read a lot, or else I’d also go crazy. So I would bring that. And I think I would bring a necessary tool, a really comfortable sleeping bag.
[ES] Nothing wrong with that! What one piece of information should readers have before going into 1,271 Days a Soldier?
[DC] What they need to know, I think, is that Gardiner’s works are widely used as a resource already. If you look at footnotes in other books, a lot of military books, they always reference Gardiner. 1,271 Days a Soldier is the one-stop shop now. If you want to know how Gardiner and his history has been used in resources time and time again, if you really want to know more details about that, you can find it here. That was the intention. Make this a more inclusive document for people to use to reference, or just to read and enjoy too!
1,271 Days a Soldier can be requested at your local independent bookstore or purchased from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million.