Lester Atwell wrote what is considered by many combat soldiers the most authentic depiction of infantry combat on the Western Front in World War II.
Based on notes he took while in combat, he started the book, “Private”, in 1954 and finished it three years later. It might well have invented the non-fiction novel. When it was published by Simon and Schuster, it received unanimous accolades. Years later a softcover edition was published that reminded reviewers of the original book, and that softcover also received accolades.
Reviewers commended the book for both for its literary quality and its lack of pretense;his fellow combatants hailed it for its honesty and depiction of ordinary, unheroic American soldiers under combat stress. It’s difficult to state flatly, but “Private” may be the most excerpted and anthologized World War II novel, exceeding “The Naked and the Dead” in citations. Most recently it was quoted in “Citizen Soldiers” by Stephen Ambrose.
Atwell was particularly adept at picturing the psychic decline of soldiers subjected to long and repeated periods of stress.
An aspiring painter who had attended the Art Students League, Atwell discovered a penchant for short-story writing and became a contributor to the Saturday Evening Post. When drafted into service, he was 35 years old; at 36 he was assigned overseas with the 87th Infantry Division, serving in three campaigns including the Battle of the Bulge.
Initially assigned to Co. G, 345th Infantry, he was attached to a frontline medical aid station, and his nonfiction novel contains graphic scenes of physically and psychically-wounded and broken soldiers.
Until the past several years when his eyesight deteriorated, Atwell was a New Yorker. In recent years he lived in Cary,
N.C. with his nephew, Bill. He was born in Brooklyn in 1908 and graduated from St. Francis Prep. Lester died on April 30, 2001, and is buried in Brooklyn.