The Combat Soldier: Who Was He?
What defined a combat soldier in the U.S. Army in World War II? Certainly, at one time or another, many soldiers from service arms found themselves in life-threatening situations. What distinguished the combat soldier from the others was that the combat soldier's job necessarily involved life-threatening situations.
This was not true of most service troops or, indeed, of most troops who were nominally assigned to combat divisions, even field artillery. Artillerymen by no means enjoyed a safe job, and the army thought of their branch as a combat arm. However, except for forward observers, who were often up front with the infantry, the vast majority of artillerymen were usually a mile or more behind the lines. This distance was reflected in casualties. One study found that infantry soldiers suffered an average of 92 percent of a typical division's battle casualties, as opposed to 4 percent for the artillery.
Thus, for the purposes of this study, a combat soldier shall mean armor, combat engineers, and, of course, infantry. Included under armor are tank destroyers and cavalry. Included under combat engineers are demolition experts, who often saw heavy combat in the Pacific. The infantry includes paratroopers, special forces, and rangers. Troops from these outfits did the vast majority of the fighting on the ground in World War II and took the lion's share of the casualties. They were a clear minority; even at the end of the war, only 25 percent of the army was assigned to ground combat divisions. Probably the majority of that 25 percent would not be classified in this study as combat soldiers. This is because much of the manpower of an American combat division was composed of field artillery, headquarters, military police, medical, quartermaster, and other service personnel. Historian Lee Kennett estimated that 50 percent of division personnel were primarily involved in noncombat logistics. The other 50 percent, at the most about 8,000 to 9,000 men per division, fought, bled, and died and along the way determined the outcome of the war. They represented a distinct minority among the millions of soldiers in the U.S. Army in World War II.
Needless to say, the designation "combat troop" also covers marines. In fact, owing to the Marine Corps ethos of "every marine a rifleman," the average marine was far more likely to have participated in combat than the average army soldier. Most World War II marines were infantrymen or combat engineers; as such, their accounts will form a bulwark of this book.
Frank Nisi, of the 3d Infantry Division, explained this well in a letter to his father:
I would venture to say that only a very small percentage really know what war is all about. By that I mean that of the millions . . . only the Infantry and certain attachments, such as tanks or TDs [tank destroyers], were ever close enough to hear a shot fired in anger. Then that could be broken down still further to exclude the Reg't. Hq. Service Company etc. It gets down to the man with the rifle who has to live in the ground . . . or any place he possibly can, then go without sleep for several days and get up and fight, hike, run, creep, or crawl 25 miles or so. During this time the echelons in rear of him move up in vehicles, get their night's sleep and wait for him to advance again.
A 7th Infantry Division soldier named Roland Lea took great pride in being part of this minority. "The front lines soldier fought the battles, occupied the land, suffered and won the war. I'm proud that I was one of them." Brendan Phibbs, of the 12th Armored Division, worried that, after the war, "parasites from the quartermaster battalions would wave flags and scream about patriotism and nobody in the world would know or care that they, the tiny 10 percent, had pulled the whole war machine forward."
If the war was fought by a minority, then it is important to understand how the army organized its combat units at their smallest and most basic levels. Armored divisions, for example, were not primarily made up of tanks. A typical American armored division in the European theater was composed of three tank battalions in addition to three battalions of armored infantry (who functioned as ordinary infantry but rode in half-tracks), three battalions of armored artillery (equipped with self-propelled artillery), an armored cavalry reconnaissance battalion, a tank destroyer battalion, and an armored engineers battalion. Tank battalions, like infantry battalions, were broken down into companies of approximately sixteen tanks, four to a platoon. A tank company was often commanded by a captain and platoons by lieutenants. However, it was not at all uncommon for sergeants to command tank platoons. The majority of enlisted tankers held a rank above private first class much like bomber crewmen in the army air force. Also, it was common for various tank battalions within the same division to be equipped with different tanks, especially early in the war. Most U.S. tanks were crewed by five men.
Regarding armored infantry, 8th Armored Division soldier James McDonald explained it best: "Armored infantry units were organized a little different than the standard infantry battalion. We had a headquarters squad, two rifle squads, a machine [gun] squad and a mortar squad in each platoon. We had a lot of firepower."
As vitally important as armored formations were, regular infantry was the bulwark of the U.S. Army in World War II. Of the approximately ninety-one divisions that saw combat, sixty-eight were infantry divisions. Another four were airborne and one was a cavalry division. The airborne and cavalry units were equipped and functioned as infantry. The vast majority of combat soldiers, then, were infantrymen. Whether on the offensive or, much more rarely, the defensive, the infantry was the main component around which the army's ground combat forces were built. More often than not, the other branches found themselves in support of the infantry in combat. Thus, in spite of all the newfound technology and mobility in the U.S. Army of 1941-45, the infantry can be aptly described not just as the "queen of battle" but more appropriately the "king of battle." This was particularly true in the Pacific, where at times the terrain and conditions made armor useless.
Radford Carroll, who served as a rifleman in the 99th Infantry Division, personified these facts:
The Infantry walks, except when it runs, and lives in the open as best it can. Battles and wars are not won unless the infantry is standing on the land that once belonged to the enemy. The infantry fighting is not remote from the foe; the enemy is visible and the bodies and blood of enemy and friend alike show the results of the fighting. The infantry lives under the hardest conditions and suffers the most danger of any of the branches of the military. It is the pits, a place to stay out ofand there I was.
In World War I, the U.S. Army was structured in a so-called quadrangular fashion, which basically meant that it was composed of four infantry regiments. The World War II American infantry division was triangular, as Carroll explains:
A division was commanded by a general officer and contained about 15,000 people. A division was subdivided into regiments, usually 3 regiments to a division. A regiment was divided into battalions, usually 3 battalions to a regiment. A regiment was commanded by a colonel. A battalion was divided into companies, usually about 6 companies to a battalion. A battalion was commanded by a major. A company was divided into platoons, usually 4 platoons to a company. The company commanding officer was a captain. A platoon was divided into squads, usually 4 squads to a platoon. The platoon was commanded by a lieutenant. Each squad was composed of a sergeant, a corporal and 10 privates.
David Williams, a member of the same division as Carroll, related in greater detail the exact composition of the small units that actually did the fighting:
At full strength, an infantry company was composed of about 190 to 200 enlisted men and 6 officers, but due to casualties a line infantry company [one facing the enemy] was rarely at full strength. With the addition of . . . ten replacements, L Company had 173 enlisted men and 5 officers. Like all infantry companies, L Company had three rifle platoons, each consisting of three twelve-man squads, and a fourth platoon, called the weapons platoon, consisting of three mortar squads and two machine-gun squads. In addition to those in the platoons, there were clerks, cooks, medics, runners [messengers], and men in various other positions.
Howard Ruppel's unit, the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment, was organized in much the same fashion. "The 517th Combat Team was a miniature army by itself. The team included rifle platoons, machine guns and mortar squads . . . field engineers, medical service . . . all clothing, arms and ammunition."
Combat engineers were nearly identical to infantry outfits in organization. The only exception is that there were few specialiststhat is, machine gunnersas opposed to riflemen. The engineers were employed as a team to accomplish whatever mission needed to be done, whether that meant clearing mines, setting up barbed wire, building bridges under fire, or destroying pillboxes.
Unlike their sons in Vietnam who were sent home after a one-year tour of duty, or their comrades in the air force who rotated out of combat after a certain number of missions, these combat soldiers had little or no hope of rotation out of combat. They were in the war for the duration. Some units, such as Lloyd Pye's 1057th Provisional Infantry Battalion (Merrill's Marauders) in Burma, "had a rotation system within the battalion, to make heavy action and death as fair as possible." However, even in that system, troops were not permanently excused from combat.
The army did make a halfhearted effort at relieving individual veteran soldiers from combat, but 24th Infantry Division veteran Leonard Kjelstrom describes that as a "farce." Radford Carroll summed up the feelings of the individual combat soldier on this subject:
In the Army Air Force, after 25 [later 50] missions were completed the airman was sent back to the States. We really envied the Air Force that goal. An infantryman had no such arrangement. Instead the infantryman went into battle knowing that the odds were stacked against his survival. There were no promises of either reward or relief. Only a wound could offer the comfort of safety, shelter and a bed.
In the wake of the first peacetime draft in the nation's history in 1940, the army found itself in the welcome but uncomfortable position of having to evaluate hundreds of thousands of new men, most of whom had little or no military experience. For this purpose, the army devised a test, called the Army General Classification Test, or AGCT, which was given to all new recruits. They had forty minutes to complete it. The test consisted of 150 multiple-choice questions of three basic types: lock counting, synonym matching, and arithmetic. The tests were machine graded, then everyone was placed into one of five categories according to raw scores. Class I had a score of more than 130, class II between 110 and 129, class III 90 to 109, class IV 70 to 89, and class V 69 or less. Ordinarily the men tried their best on the AGCT, because of the general understanding that doing well might give them a better army job. For example, to qualify for officer candidate school a soldier needed a score of at least 110. It was also common knowledge that scoring high on the test would increase the chance of assignment to the army air force, a desirable branch of the service for most recruits.
The consensus among army leadership as well as those who have studied the effects of the AGCT was that it was a good measuring stick for general as well as technical aptitude. However, some felt that it had shortcomings: first, the speed factor in taking the test was not minimized when results were tabulated; second, scoring methods favored persons who were inclined to guess; and third, the test placed great emphasis upon spatial thinking and quantitative reasoning (math skills).
The top two classes of men were thought to be suitable for any army job. The average group (class III) was slated for any nontechnical job. Class IV covered a fairly wide group, from the barely functional to the slightly below average; this group was thought to be best for service or labor functions, often in the "zone of the interior," as the continental United States was called. Class V was thought to be made up of men who were mentally deficient, possibly even retarded in some way. In the first year or so of the war, combat units had the largest share of class IV and V men. This was to change.
The AGCT seems to have been a fairly good barometer of level and quality of schooling and also depth of experience. As such, it was somewhat biased against those without the benefits of extensive education, travel, or experience. Accordingly, it was slanted in favor of older white men in their late twenties to early thirties who may have had some college education or varied work experience. More importantly, it reflected to a significant degree the army's initial emphasis on technology at the expense of the infantry soldier.
As a group, blacks tended not to score well on the AGCT. More often than not, they did not have the benefits of education or experience. This led to a vicious cycle. The low scores that most blacks achieved seemed to confirm in the minds of the army's leadership their own assumptions of black inferiority. Many of the top brass felt that blacks were not fit for combat duty, so they were often shunted into labor and service jobs in the quartermaster or the noncombat engineer corps. Thus, blacks were by and large excluded from combat service in World War II. Along the way, the army lost an invaluable pool of talent and manpower. As the war dragged on, however, the views of the brass changed somewhat, and by 1944 a small minority of black troops began to see combat, albeit only in segregated units, such as the 92d and 93d Infantry Divisions, or the independent 761st Tank Battalion. It was only in the final months of the war in Europe that the army began experimenting with integration, but in a limited way. A platoon of black soldiers would sometimes fight alongside a platoon of white soldiers. Although the troops generally got along well, it was not the true integration that the army would later have in Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War. Generally, blacks fought as well as other American combat soldiers, and their voices are heard throughout this study in proportion to their numbers.