Foot Soldier: A Combat Infantryman's War in Europeby Roscoe C. Blunt, Jr.
Through the prism of ultimate victory, the greatest generation that fought World War II has been seen as triumphant. But the brutal reality of the war as endured by combat infantrymen has remained little documented. In Foot Soldier, Roscoe C. Blunt provides an all-too-rare glimpse into the experience of fighting at the Allied front. Nineteen-year-old "Rockie/i>
Through the prism of ultimate victory, the greatest generation that fought World War II has been seen as triumphant. But the brutal reality of the war as endured by combat infantrymen has remained little documented. In Foot Soldier, Roscoe C. Blunt provides an all-too-rare glimpse into the experience of fighting at the Allied front. Nineteen-year-old "Rockie" arrived on the continent in November 1944, when burnt-out U.S. vehicles still littered the beaches. His 84th Infantry Division fought at the Roer, through the Battle of the Bulge, and at the crossing of the Rhine all the way to the Elbe; he was briefly taken prisoner by an SS Panzer unit. Drawing upon his numerous letters home and the journals he scrawled in foxholes and tents, he has given us one of the most detailed, immediate accounts of the Second World War ever written, a memoir sure to take its place among the classics of war literature.
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The Beginning of an
The whistle blew. Instantly, pandemonium exploded as hundreds of men grabbed cumbersome, bulging barracks bags, backpacks, rifles, gas masks, travel orders and personal possessions, and stumbled out of the tar paper-covered temporary barracks and onto the "company street."
It was 0400, September 19, 1944, almost a year from the day of my induction at Fort Devens. It was drizzling slightly and depressingly chilly for mid-September. As the ungainly mob milled about, sleepily trying to form straight formations, all thoughts of Talladega Mountain maneuverssnakes, swamps, chiggers, 35-mile forced marches and scantily-dressed front-gate camp followerswere pushed into the background. The "real thing," we all inwardly knew, was about to unfold.
As I bounded out of the hut, I was ready. I wanted part of the action fighting the Germans, for I envisioned myself a Don Quixote, or at least an intrepid knight who, through courageous exploits, would make my loving family back home proud of me. As I peered into the black, unyielding, mist, I didn't understand why so many of my older companions, men leaving wives and children behind, did not share my youthful enthusiasm.
These were men, I now realize, who had no desire to die alone in some war-ravaged foreign country for a cause that was notat that timeclear to any of us. Little could we know, as we stood shivering in the pre-dawn darkness trying to wipe thesleep from our eyes, what lay ahead. For too many, death awaited. For the survivors, a lifetime of tortured memories would be the only reward for patriotic service. Each of us stood silently with our private thoughts waiting for our officers' next command. Moments later we were ordered to move out and the silent, almost sullen, column of men started to shuffle along, only gradually picking up the pace.
After a quarter-mile route step march, the pack straps started cutting into my shoulder blades and soon splotches of skin were rubbed raw by my itchy wool uniform, now drenched as the drizzle accelerated to lightly falling rain. When carrying a 40-pound pack, 10-pound rifle, gas mask and helmet, and dragging a 40-pound barracks bag along the ground, no amount of prior body building can prevent the pain and injury of improperly adjusted pack straps.
The pulsating ache in my shoulders intensified until I thought my arms were being pulled out of their sockets as the two-mile march to the troop train siding continued. Bunched-up lines of uniformed men, burdened and bent by the gear they they were toting, stretched from the doors of the transport trains at the Camp Kilmer, New Jersey railroad siding as far back as the eye could see before dissolving into the mist.
As I shuffled from foot to foot waiting for my turn to board the soot-stained transport train, I thought of the months of training I had received and had then taught to others as a cadreman. I wondered whether the training would protect me in combat and guarantee my safe return. There was no way I could have known while standing on that train platform in New Jersey that practically none of what I had been taught and then passed on to others applied to realitythat most of it was only untested and untried theory. No one had informed me, in training or elsewhere, that Army manuals are best thrown out the window on the first day of combat and that the odds of self preservationthe most basic of all human instinctsimprove only if a warrior learns quickly to protect his own ass. No training manual is going to do it for him.
Eventually, we were all boarded, the first ones into seats; those who followed, in the aisles and on the car platforms, sitting, sprawling, sleeping or grumbling on disarrayed mountains of military gear. Seventy-five men were crammed into each car that was originally built to accommodate 48.
With repeated jerking and considerable metallic impact, the string of cars irritatingly lurched forward and backward with neck-snapping abruptness, coupling car after car until finally settling into the steady, roughly swaying rhythm of motion typical of passenger trains in the '40s. Some men peeled back the blackout shades trying to catch a glimpse through grimy windows of the countryside passing in the darkness or the occasional lights of sleeping upper New Jersey towns. Others tried to read letters from home, knowing full well the letters would be the last direct contact they would have with loved ones for many months to come, perhaps forever.
The world wasn't awake yet and neither were we. I tried to push my thoughts aside and sleep but it wouldn't come. The cattlecar conditions were too disorganized, uncomfortable and smelly. Cinder particles from the coal-powered engine filtered through closed, loose-fitting train windows, adding to the gritty discomfort of our sweat-soaked uniforms. Repeatedly, I cleared my nose or spat out inhaled cinder particles. About an hour into the move, the train slammed to a halt with the same abrupt violence it had begun with at Camp Kilmer.
"Let's go. Let's go Let's go. Line up in formation on the platform," a voice bellowed from the darkness outside our car windows. The voice was answered by a chorus of profanity from within our car. This brought laughter and more swearing, for the non-com outside couldn't possibly identify those who had yelled back at him. It was a small victory for us all, and in the Army small victories were important and to be savored. Men pushed and shoved, trying to find their gear as each fought for the platform doors, impatient to be rid of the train and out into what had to be cooler, fresher air.
We had no idea where we were, having been told only that we were soon to embark on a ship headed for the European Theater of Operations (ETO) to face the Germans. But how, when and where were secrets still locked in the minds and briefcases of the brass.
Eventually, the dim appearance of the Manhattan skyline informed us we were on the New Jersey side of New York harbor. The old army axiom, "Hurry up and wait," had not been left behind at Fort McClellan, Alabama or Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, my Army homes before Camp Kilmer. It had followed us all the way north to New Jersey, because once outside the wheezing train, we stood around and waited and waited, and then waited some more.
After what seemed an interminable length of time, small groups of us were loaded onto a ferry where we were able to test our sea legs. As the dirty and malodorous harbor oozed along behind us, we could make out a dock fingering its way out at us through the fog and drizzle. An hour of shifting from one foot to the other passed before a gray, overcast dawn broke. I found myself miniaturized by a huge, ramshackle, sheet metal warehouse on one side and the most gigantic ship I had ever seen on the other. I read the paint-peeling name on the prow: Edmund B. Alexander. The 786-foot troop transport, commissioned in 1928 and considered the largest of its class, was manned by a merchant marine crew.
The Alexander had been pressed into emergency wartime transport service and the neglect of maintenance caused by such urgent, nonstop usage showed everywhere. Expansive steel plates, mostly buckled and dented in need of repair or replacement, formed the ship's hull. Looking at the rusted corrosion, I wondered about the ship's seaworthiness. The anchor chain was also heavily coated with rust, giving the once-trim ship the appearance of an oversized tramp steamer straight out of a Humphrey Bogart movie. A volunteer group of Red Cross women wended their way through our ranks, dispensing hot coffee and doughnuts in an attempt to bolster our now sagging morale.
The milling crowd of GIs, more a mob than an orderly formation, inched its way forward, one step at a time, toward a steeply angled gangplank emerging from the drizzle. Finally, my turn came. Struggling to carry or drag all my gear, which had become heavier every hour, I eventually made it to the top of the gangplank to be greeted by a stone-faced Army clerk with a clipboard and an endless printed list of names and company designations.
"Blunt, Roscoe C. Jr., Company L, 333rd Regiment" (84th "Railsplitter" Infantry Division), I gasped. Like a robot, an emotionless voice barked out my sleeping quarters assignment, gave me a meal ticket that had to be punched at every meal, and then I was directed below deck. Bulling myself along the rail toward the stern of the ship, I hoped I could remember the directions I had been given. As I repeated them over and over in my mind, the GI behind me gave me a nudging shove. I, in turn, did the same to the bewildered GI in front of me.
The line wormed its way around a large hatch nearby like a flock of lost sheep trying to find its way back to the penin this case, our assigned sleeping quarters. Looking closer, I could see the line wrapped around the hatch at least six deep; any thought I might have entertained about getting to a bunk soon evaporated.
The line soon emptied into a passageway and a network of several flights of near-vertical maritime ladders as we worked our way lower and lower into the ship's bowels. Navy boot camp, I'm sure, trained sailors how to navigate these iron pipe ladders effortlessly while weighted down with arms full of gear, but Army basic training didn't.
The easiest way was to drop your gear and weapons down the stairs to the deck below, where they landed with a clanging thud, and then scramble down and retrieve them before some sergeant, or worse still, a lieutenant, saw what you had done. At this point, fast approaching sheer exhaustion, the last thing I needed was an ass-chewing from some Mickey Mouse officer. The trick, I learned, was to hold onto your gear long enough so you didn't drop it on some hapless GI below you.
As I struggled down one of the ship's ladders, someone above me accidentally lost his grip and a full, heavy barracks bag crashed down on my helmeted head, knocking me down the remaining stairs where I landed on top of my gear. Profanity vied with apologies, but neither helped my now almost hopeless frustration. Recruiting officers never told us about the conditions we were now encountering. If they had, some of us might have defected right then and there to the Air Corps. But it was too late now. We were all committed and, in fact, trapped on this huge steel, floating bilge palace.
We were told that 6,500 men were being crammed aboard into smelly, temporary living quarters with hammocks and crude bunks strung from ceilings and bulkheads. Everywhere there was mass confusion as men fought for the most comfortable accommodations they could find. Too exhausted to care, I took what was left: the floor. With my steel helmet as a pillow, my numb body, drained by exhaustion, was mercifully asleep almost instantly.
When I awoke about six hours later and settled myself in, I became aware of sounds I had never heard before: the heartbeat of creaks and groans, throbbing turbines and the grinding of stretching metal would be my orchestral accompaniment for the next 13 days. The nauseating stench of diesel fuel permeated our sleeping quarters, a smell we would have to live with, but never really get used to, for the remainder of the trip.
While I slept, the ship had gotten underway. I was disappointed I had missed the passing of the Statue of Liberty as we sailed out of the harbor. I soon became aware of the subtle pitch and roll of a ship at sea. My first sea voyage started September 20th, but I was soon to find out its physical effects on me would make me pray it would be my last time on a ship.
Rested somewhat, I felt my excitement level rise again but it soon became apparent that the years had washed away an important childhood memory: my susceptibility to seasickness. The last time I had suffered from this malady was on my junior high school class trip from Boston to Provincetown six years previously.
Hunger reminded me we had not been fed for many hours. In the ship's dining room, I sat down to a merchant marine meal far superior to anything the Army had ever offered. Too bad it would stay with me for only a few minutes. Real seasickness, I can attest, is one of the few times in life when you actually hope you will die.
Between trips to the rail to vomit, I managed to survive on a few Saltine crackers each day. Calls of nature were kept to a minimum, for to stand up was to swoon. I couldn't even-make the mandatory daily lifeboat drills, I was so sick. Flat on my back, about all I could manage was to scratch out a few lines in letters home and a journal I tried to keep each day. This private time helped pass the hours that I hoped would bring the ship eventually to harbor and me to land.
Several days into the voyage, during a brief catnap, the ship was suddenly wracked violently by a series of explosions. Panicky word spread throughout the billeting area that we had been torpedoed and were sinking. Seasickness be damned as many of us scrambled for our lives toward the upper deck with Mae West life jackets under our arms. Why hadn't I made those life boat drills, I chastised myself as I struggled top deck. I hadn't even learned how to put the damn thing on.
Sheepishly, the excited mob of GIs forged out into the open only to be faced with the ship's gun crews practicing their anti-aircraft proficiency at an open sky. I hadn't even noticed the gun emplacements on the ship before and it was a secure feeling to know we were armed, even it it was only with anti-aircraft capability. If it is possible for a face green with seasickness, to change to red from embarrassment for having been part of the panic-stricken exodus, mine did. As innocuously as possible, I tried to melt back into the steel gray labyrinth of the ship.
To this day, a half century later, I vividly remember the two weeks of constant seasickness experienced between the States and Europe. It was a torturous experience that no one should have to endure. I can only think back now that my indoctrination to sea travel must have occurred before the advent of anti-motion sickness pills, for we were never offered any. Even when I ventured on deck, thinking that fresh sea air might help, the debilitating nausea intensified and left me barely able to stand up, much less walk.
I endured each monotonous, seemingly endless day by reading, crawling evenings to an improvised movie theater, listening to canned music, or sitting on the fantail watching the ship's wake as we steamed eastward. And also there was the added burden of daily inspectionsin the Army, inspections never ceased, even when those being inspected were near death. They were a way of life but it always puzzled me how the inspection team non-coms and brass never seemed to be afflicted with seasickness as the rest of us were.
In the distance, I could see a phalanx of other troop transports, unarmed merchant supply vessels and the protective U.S. Navy destroyers that guarded our convoy stretching to the distant horizons on both sides and to our stern. Even with the Navy protection, I still felt naked for I knew the German wolfpack submarines were out there searching for us. I had not mentioned it to the others but I had been watching the ship's crew who were on constant alert with binoculars for submarine periscopes or, as I feared, torpedo wakes.
Toward the voyage's end, I was able to keep down some meatless bullion, dry cheese and an occasional apple or orange. If I hadn't, I'm sure the bodily effects of this unprepared-for malnutrition would have been far more severe. I was still too weak to make it unassisted to the galley but there were always a few kind souls not given to seasickness who would bring some small snacks back to the less fortunate.
The sameness of each day was broken up slightly one morning when green cloth Red Cross ditty bags were distributed, containing shaving equipment, playing cards, cigarettes, and other sundry items intended to make our suffering more tolerable. Some nights I tried sleeping on deck, hoping the cold air would suppress my nausea, but I soon learned that lying on my back watching the ship's masts gyrating around and around only intensified the sickness. A sympathetic merchant mariner who took pity on me suggested I watch the horizon, or better still, the sky. I very gratefully found out his suggestion helped somewhat.
On the twelth day, while lying on a deck in the hole enduring my discomfort, I became aware of an excited buzz emanating from the upper decks. Never one to be left out of any action, even in sickness, I managed to wobble and pull myself up several flights of passageway steel stairs from the dankness of the lower compartments and into brilliant sunlight.
Overhead, an antiquated, World War I, canvas-covered, open-cockpit bi-plane emblazoned with British Royal Air Force (RAF) insignia was circling protectively overhead. The plane, a relic of a bygone era, was still serving a purpose in Britain's defense as a coastal observation plane and, in doing so, was preserving its own niche in the combined war effort. We all waved furiously at this first symbol of the real war. The pilot and his "back seater" observer-gunner, their traditional white scarfs whipping in the prop wash, waved back and then, as quickly as they had appeared, were gone again. Still flush with the excitement of something new in our lives, we hung over the rail watching the tiny plane disappear over the eastern horizon, back to the safety of its airfield. "We must be getting close to England," I mused to myself before staggering back below to resume my siege of illness.
One day I asked a member of the ship's crew why a normal three-day voyage was taking so many days.
"U-boats. We have to take evasive action all the way across," he answered matter-of factly before returning to his duties. I learned later we had been zigzagging across the ocean trying to avoid patrolling German "wolf pack" submarines, well-known for their destructive proficiency sinking Allied shipping from the Azores to the Caribbean, and especially along the heavily traveled North Atlantic shipping routes between the United States and Europe.
For several days, unseasonably warm weather had allowed us some sundecking time, a wonderful respite from the foul-smelling hole where we were quartered. The warmth of the sun also moderated the dismal effects of my queasy stomach. A crew member told me we were passing through an area west of the British Isles where the water and climate were warmed by the Gulf Stream coursing its way northward from the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. For a few hours, it was almost like lounging on a cruise ship.
One morning, I awakened to find the Alexander rolling more violently than usual and even though there had been no solid food in my stomach for more than a week, my heaving and gagging became much more frequent. Hanging on to railings for dear life, I clumsily made my way to the upper desk and was almost knocked over by gale-force winds. A dungaree-uniformed mariner scurried by, swaying deftly with the ship's seasawing motion, bracing himself against the wind. Seeing my surprised expression, he said, "We're entering the Irish Sea. It's always like this."
As I stood mesmerized by mountainous swells, threatening, it seemed, to inundate the Alexander, the ship veered north, rolling sharply onto its starboard side as it did so. I hung onto a rail, wondering whether it was a desperate maneuver after a submarine sighting. But it had not been anything as dramatic as that; it was only a last-minute course change away from Le Havre and Cherbourg, France's two major seaports on the English Channel, where heavy Luftwaffe bombing and submarine activity had been reported. Cherbourg had been our intended destination but now, we were informed through the rumor factory, we would disembark in Scotland instead. For once, the rumor mill proved accurate. Other units of the 84th Division were also diverted away from France and were heading for Liverpool and Southampton in England. Eventually, the division would reassemble in the countryside surrounding the English city of Winchester, inland from Britain's Channel coast.
The ship cautiously slowed its passage northward through the outer reaches of St. George's Channel, past Bristol Channel, southwestern England's most important commercial shipping lane, and finally the Isle of Man before entering the southern extremity of the Irish Sea. In almost two weeks, the ship had covered about 3,300 miles.
Now, for all practical purposes, we were out of effective Luftwaffe range and we could relax a little. The submarine threat still existed but English aerial patrols were so intensive, we were told, that U-boats seldom ventured this close to the channels. Hours later, the ship passed between Donaghadee, Ireland on the port side and Drummore, Scotland on the starboard. The land masses were so distant on the horizon, however, they looked like indistinguishable islands on each side of the ship.
On the thirteenth day, I awakened to find land on sight off the starboard bow of the ship. Now I knew how Christopher Columbus must have felt after so many days of landless sailing. I celebrated by running to the ship's galley and eating an entire meal and, for the first time, I was able to keep it down.
Excerpted from FOOT SOLDIER by Roscoe C. Blunt Jr.. Copyright © 2001 by Roscoe C. Blunt Jr.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Roscoe C. Blunt, Jr., was the youngest soldier to be awarded the Expert Infantry Badge. He also received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. After the war, he became an award-winning investigative journalist and author. He lives in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.
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once i started to read this, I just couldn't put it down. it's really a good book about war.
this book is surprisingly good, Its personal account of the war is spectacular. I haven't read a war book like this one, it's very easy to understand, and unlike many others it's even funny sometimes. This book is totally worth it.
I loved this book!!! I think everybody should read it. It teachs you a lot of things, and it's not boring at all. the greatest greatest book I have ever read!!!!!!! It's simply the BEST!
This is my favorite book about war. It's just so real! Read it, you will see. I loved this book so much, and you will too. It's OUTSTANDING!!! THE BESTEST!
God this book is one of the best books that i have ever read. It brings me great sarrow to know a sliver of what are great veterans did in world war two. And this book realy smacks you in the face with the REAL facts about the war. It does not hold back on the on the things that happen in war. And i feel that every one should read this book and learn about what these men did. For most of these men will not be with us in a couple of years.
If there are some book that you just can't put aside, then this must be one of them. It's one of the best War story I have read so far. Extrodinary!!! Just read it, I swear you will love it as much as I did. The author is really funny, it's not boring at all. I wonder how can he be so hilarious while writing a war story about himself, maybe that's just the best part.
You are not gonna believe how much I liked this book, it's extrodinary!! I'm obssessed with WWII stories, and this is the best book that I've read about wwII so far. It brought the old momeries of war into reality. It's unbelieveable funny, yet through its words, you also can see the ruthless of wars, fears of death, and outstanding heroism. One thing that I love about reading war books is that I can learn to appreciate life through the comparison. and from this book, I learned how lucky I am to born in a place where is freedam, and to be borned in such a great time...I think after you read about this book, you will too. And again, I want to say thank you to those who served, whether in WWII or in Vietnam or in the Korean war or the Gulf war etc. Thanks to you all I can have the good life I have today, I really owe you guys so much.
Foot Soldiers was a great book for anyone who wants to fid out what war is realy like. My grandfather is a V.F.W. and he dosnt like to talk about his time served in the war. Aftor I read this book it realy gave a small sence of what it was like during W.W.2 this book dosnt hold back on the truth. And Oh yes people did loot off dead soldiers. If you want the truth read more than 1 book about W W 2.
This book is a mixed bag of memories, and we must remember that they are the memories of a late teenager, transposed, if you will, by the ripened soul of his elder self in modern times. There are many reasons for those of us who did not serve in WWII or WWI to hold in high honor every single person who was a part of those efforts (including the wives and good souls at home, doing their part), but I've become a bit more cautious lately about pinning the "Golden Generation" laurels on each and every person with a war story. I say this because my father-in-law, a man I love dearly, was in Patton's army, just south of this author's group, and he saw just about the toughest time any one of us could imagine. And his sense of dignity, honor and humanity remained several degrees more intact than our author of "Foot Soldier". When you read this book, try not to start off with any assumption that the author is one of our grand old heroes whose saintly sacrifice renders his every word and deed honorable and excusable. Sit back and observe exactly what he is saying, what he admits to doing. Reflect, too, on how much utter sequential detail he is able to remember. Draw your own conclusions. One thing must be said, the author makes no attempt to gloss-over his weaknesses and failings, and only once does he try to justify certain behavior (looting). So I give credit where it is due that he is not making an exaggerated attempt to sound heroic or flawless, and I respect that. This book left me with lots of questions for my 85 year-old father-in-law. I asked: "Did you take personal posessions from bombed-out homes in France, Belgium and Germany." "No. That would be highly dishonorable." I asked: "Did you take the effects, guns, clothes or anything else from dead German soldiers?" "No. That would be a disgrace to them and to myself and my unit." I asked: "Did you take clothes or other effects from your dead allied comrades?" "In our unit, that might get you killed or ostracized from the group such that you might not receive support in critical battle circumstances." My jaw was on the floor. This book had made these activities seem routine -- almost justified in the sense of being "part of battle" or, in the case of clothes-stripping allied dead, "practical". I asked: "Did you have trouble marching from Normandy to Belgium?" (Our author tells of unbearable toil and several collapses on the road.) "Most everyone had trouble, but most of us set ourselves to do it, and did it. Most evenings when I removed my boots, dried blood tore and scratched from my ankles and feet inside the boot. The pain was so bad that you just rose above it and moved forward." I asked: "If you had wanted to, could you have collected scores of personal belongings from homes and dead soldiers and sent them to the US for "keepsakes"? "What man would do that?" I was asked. "What man could weasel-up to another dead soldier and go to work stripping his belongings from him -- stealing from him?" "And even if I wanted to do that, my unit would not have tolerated it. Every man on the battlefield was a soldier fighting for his country, and his effects were his alive, and his family's when dead." "No one in our unit had the TIME or the opportunity to carry on such "commerce" and collection, anyway. We lost most all of our belongings several times over in Eastern Belgium. I'd say if a man had time for detailed notes and looting and collecting during the war, his unit was not doing much fighting." So there I had it. Not necessarily any sort of higher-than-thou "truth", but quite clearly A DIFFERENT TAKE ALTOGETHER ON DIGNITY AND HEROISM, DUTY AND HUMANITY. My father in law was found in a ditch in Bastogne, asleep and freezing, having eaten only bits of his chocolate bar for four days. He had two men left, with him, in a unit of 85 men. He weighed 125 lbs. instead of his normal 190 lbs., and was sent