Is it possible for a story to be compelling if the storytelling isn’t? Case in point: the premise of Patrick O’Donnell’s book They Dared Retur is absolutely irresistible: German Jews whose families were threatened or destroyed by the Nazis were recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the American wartime espionage organization, to collect intelligence on the Nazi regime during its final months, when rumors were swirling about plans for an enormous underground bunker from which the German armed forces were to make their final stand.
The setting is fascinating, the protagonists as courageous as they come, so I can’t pinpoint the reason I never felt pulled into the story as I was to a title with a similar premise, Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany. The latter reads almost like a novel; perhaps They Dared Retur suffers unfairly from this comparison, but on the other hand, it seems that on occasion, O’Donnell is indeed attempting to novelize his material. Consider this line from a later chapter:
“[He] did not see the first rays of early light seeping through the window of Innsbruck’s Gestapo headquarters since he lay on the cold damp floor of the unheated cell into which his captors had thrown him, bloodied, beaten, bound at the hands, and naked.” If he didn’t see the first rays of light, how could he have recalled that the sun was even out that morning? Although O’Donnell peppers the book with this type of descriptive bordering-on-fiction writing to bring certain scenes to life, the rest of the book—which contains a disruptively shifting timeline—is written in a fairly prosaic style..
If one can overlook the faulty issues of the narration, this book accomplishes several valuable things. By highlighting this particular mission of one of the OSS’s Operational Groups (OGs), it gives the reader a better understanding of the wide variety of work done by the OSS, the incredible dangers their agents faced, and the valuable information they provided. Some of what these particular agents witnessed individually absolutely fascinates. Consider the following scenario: one of them, disguised in a German uniform, is invited over to a VIP table in a beer hall where an inebriated Austrian captain regales them all with tales of a gaunt Hitler who is “tired of living.” The fact that a Jew was one of the first to report on the Fuhrer’s depressed state of mind is deliciously ironic.
WWII vets are leaving us far too quickly, very often before they can record the details of their war stories. While it’s wonderful that O’Donnell stumbled upon this story, it’s unfortunate that it will not gain the audience its protagonists deserve. But anyone who is willing to expend the effort to become acclimated to O’Donnell’s writing will be well rewarded by the accomplishments of these courageous Jewish men who collected intelligence on Nazi Germany during its final days.