Shooting at the enemy made a man part of the “team,” or “brotherhood.” There were, of course, many times when soldiers did not want to shoot, such
as at night when they did not want to give away a position or on reconnaissance patrols. But, in the main, no combat soldier in his right mind would have deliberately sought to go through the entire ear without ever firing his weapon, because he would have been excluded from the brotherhood but also because it would have been detrimental to his own survival. One of [rifle company commander Harold] Leinbaugh’s NCOs summed it up best when discussing Marshall: “Did the SOB think we
clubbed the Germans to death?”
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Somewhere in the Ardennes Forest in a snowy, muddy hole with a small pool of slushy water at the bottom, an American soldier paused and collected his thoughts for a moment. Then he hoisted his weapon, left the dubious comfort and safety of his hole, and advanced toward his enemy while enduring machine-gun, small-arms, mortar, and artillery fire. He moved forward as he had dozens of times before and would dozens of times again if he wasn’t killed or wounded. The reality for him was this: he had little or no hope of rotation out of his surroundings or transfer to a unit in safer circumstances. Combat was his world and he could hope to escape it only through death, wounding, capture, mental breakdown, desertion, or—if he even dared imagine—the end of the war. To make matters worse, the law of averages stated with certainty that sooner or later he would become a casualty. It was not a matter of if, but when. Yet, in spite of his nightmarish existence, he continued, with dogged frequency and regularity, to fight and fight well, grimly moving forward to attack his enemy.
This drama was repeated millions of times, not just in the Ardennes Forest in the winter of 1944–45 but in other parts the world. In fact, at the same moment that the Ardennes GI moved forward, chances were very good that another GI was prowling through the mountainous, rocky terrain of Italy and yet another was doing the same thing in a steamy, forbidding jungle somewhere in the Pacific. What did they have in common? They carried out the same dirty, monotonous, dangerous job day after day and did it successfully. Yet not only did they do it in radically different circumstances against different enemies, but often they themselves came from completely different regional or ethnic backgrounds.
Ultimately the most basic question is why they did it. Why did these World War II American combat soldiers endure what should have been unendurable? What made them perform effectively and cohesively and draw on reserves of courage that they probably thought they did not possess? The answer is surprisingly simple. To a great extent they fought for one another; to an even greater extent they fought because of one another. The bond among American combat soldiers was so tight that it can be accurately termed a “brotherhood.” The GI leaving his foxhole in the Ardennes did it primarily because the next soldier was doing it too. He might not have even liked the soldier next to him, but he would do almost anything to help him. The same was true for his counterpart in Italy and in the Pacific. This bond was the single most important sustaining and motivating force for the American combat soldier in World War II. Although some individual units were more cohesive than others, the brotherhood was not unique to any one unit, sector, or theater. Rather it was pervasive among the troops who fought the war.
It is with those few who actually did the fighting—those at the so-called “Sharp End,” as historian John Ellis has termed it—that this book is exclusively concerned. Surprisingly little has been written on the American ground combat soldier in World War II. Of course there is no shortage of books on Americans in World War II, and often they include some discussion on the combat soldier. Good examples of this are Lee Kennett’s G.I.: The American Soldier in World War II; two books by Stephen Ambrose, D-Day June 6th, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II and Band of Brothers; and Geoffrey Perret’s There’s a War to Be Won: The United States Army in World War II. Roger Fosdick’s A Call to Arms: The American Enlisted Soldier in World War II and Francis Steckel’s Morale and Men: A Study of the American Soldier in World War II are both excellent doctoral dissertations on the American soldier in general; combat soldiers are dealt with only as a part of the whole and, although combat is discussed, it is not the main focus. John Ellis, in his outstanding work On the Front Lines: The Experience of War Through the Eyes of the Allied Soldiers in World War II, focuses primarily on British combat soldiers.
In dealing with the attributes of the American combat soldier, it will also be necessary to take into account the important works of Trevor Dupuy (A Genius for War: The German Army, 1807–1945) and Russell Weigley (The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy).
Richard Holmes in Acts of War: The Behavior of Men in Battle, William D. Henderson in Cohesion: The Human Element in Combat, and, of course, John Keegan in his classic The Face of Battle have done an excellent job of studying the realities of modern combat and its effect on those who fight. But their studies are necessarily general. They do not seek to focus on the combatants of one specific nation in one specific war.
By contrast, this book will concentrate exclusively on one group of combatants—Americans in World War II. Part One, entitled “The World of the Combat Soldier,” seeks to answer the overarching question “What was it actually like?” Chapter 1 explains who did the fighting. Chapter 2 discusses the combat soldier’s equipment and food and how he felt about them. Chapters 3 and 4 describe the conditions in which the American combat soldier fought. Chapter 5 concentrates on how he actually fought. Chapter 6 explains what it was like to become a casualty.
Part Two, entitled “The Soul of the Combat Soldier,” answers another overarching question, “What was the combat soldier actually like?” Chapters 7 and 8 address his attitudes toward his Japanese and German enemies. Chapter 9 covers an element of the military experience that has constituted a near obsession with military historians—leadership. Far too much military history has been written exclusively from the perspective of those at the very top. Now it is the dogfaces’ turn to talk. How did the dogface feel about his officers, and what constituted good and bad leadership in his eyes? Chapter 10 is something of a catchall, relating many commonly held attitudes and motivators of the combat soldiers and touching on the costly effects of total war. Chapter 11 addresses and refutes some commonly held myths about replacements in the U.S. Army without attempting in any way to defend the army’s replacement system. Finally, Chapter 12 demonstrates unequivocally the crucial importance and pervasiveness of the brotherhood. It is the single most important theme of this book. Hopefully the reader will recognize elements of it in every chapter.
The sources used to prepare this work are overwhelmingly primary. Contemporary letters, diaries, and surveys were a gold mine of information. Generated later, but no less important, were the postwar memoirs, questionnaire responses, veterans’ association publications, and oral histories of veterans. Some historians have expressed concern that, over time, memories of the veterans have faded, especially in oral histories. They caution that perhaps the veterans do not remember their experiences as they really were but rather as they wished they would have been. Certainly this view merits consideration and argues for caution. However, it is undeniable that most veterans express the same attitudes, feelings, and descriptions as they did in their wartime letters or diaries. And although memories do fade, the detail and alacrity with which World War II veterans recall their combat service is often startling. Often their memories have dulled regarding the mundane; but, for most of them, World War II was the defining moment of their lives. These men were part of something monumental, although they may not have been fully aware of it at the time. More importantly, they were young, and the fondness for memories of youth rarely diminishes.
The veterans were senior citizens by the mid-1990s. Although earlier in life they may have been reluctant to talk about their experiences, they now realize that if they do not tell their story, no one else will. With retirement or a decline in health, they have had more time to reflect on the past. For some, such as ex-paratrooper Howard Ruppel, writing his war memoir was an emotional but necessary experience. “As I wrote, checked, revised and corrected,” he said, “I relived those harrowing moments, experiencing the agony once more and shed tears thinking what may have been.” So why did he do it? “If I had not written this, I would have taken it all with me . . . and no one would ever know about . . . how I changed from a boy to a man.”
Richard Roush, of the 84th Infantry Division, was motivated to write his experiences in a veterans’ association newsletter because of a desire to communicate the truth. “Out of all the men that were there and the ones that survived there are probably a million stories that will never be told due to the fact that they were so bad, so horrible that nobody would believe them anyway.”
The words of the soldiers, the historical actors themselves, will echo throughout this book. The historian in the 1990s dealing with mid-twentieth-century history has an advantage that scholars of earlier centuries do not. He or she can directly interact with those being studied. For this rare moment in history it is possible for a World War II scholar to talk directly to “GI Joe.” The author has gladly taken advantage of that privilege.
This is not another stolid examination of military doctrine, strategy, or generalship. This work is, more than anything, about flesh-and-blood people and the realities of their lives within the cataclysmic events of the recent past. One soldier writing home in July 1945 put it succinctly: “Confusion is still the god of war. Nobody, least of all the line soldier, understands war. Battles are more decisive to rear echelon generals than to the men whose blood is spilled winning them.” Even if the line soldiers had understood the larger questions, they certainly could not have exerted any degree of control over them.
Without doubt, it is important for historians to study every aspect of America’s involvement in World War II, including the war of the generals and policymakers. But the story of the ordinary man who carried out the policies and did the fighting has not been adequately related or understood. Accordingly, interested readers are left with a somewhat antiseptic and romanticized view of the war. This is often manifested in casualty descriptions. The terms light and only are often used, as in “The hill was taken with light casualties, as the unit lost only four killed and three wounded.” To those seven individuals affected and their families, the cost of taking that hill was heavy indeed.
The main point is this: it is important to remember that the combat soldiers were not faceless robots but rather someone’s son, brother, father, nephew, uncle, or friend. James Simms, in his memoir of his experiences in the 101st Airborne Division, wrote of his fellow paratroopers, “They were not cold statistics in a history book. They were warm human beings who were terribly afraid but who were anchored by their bravery and commitment.”
Walter Slatoff, of the 78th Infantry Division, perhaps communicated it best in a passage he wrote to his son:
My Son: War is a more terrible thing than all the words of man can say; more terrible than a man’s mind can comprehend. It is the corpse of a friend, one moment ago a living human being with thoughts, hopes and a future just exactly like yourself—now nothing. It is the groans and the pain of the wounded, and the expressions on their faces. It is the sound of new soldiers crying before battle; the louder sound of their silence afterwards. It is the filth and itching and hunger; the endless body discomfort; feeling like an animal; the fatigue so deep that to die would be good. It is the evil, snickering knowledge that sooner or later the law of averages will catch up with each soldier, and the horrible hope that it will take the form of a wound, not maiming or death. Remember what we are talking about. Not words, not soldiers, but human beings just exactly like yourself.
Slatoff’s comrades, whether they were trudging through the Ardennes, Italy, or the Pacific, would certainly have agreed wholeheartedly with him and probably would have realized that they could not have said it any better.