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A MEMOIR OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR Seeking the answer to a simple and terrible question: What was it like?
December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
Those guides are all about us in the form of books, certainly, but they are about us in person as well—perhaps our fathers and mothers, our relatives, our neighbors. Only a couple of years ago I discovered that a close relative, a sweet and decent man, had done the worst kind of fighting in the Pacific and had never uttered a word about it to me—until I asked. The soldiers of the old war, notoriously laconic as they are, have begun to speak more and more. They are even beginning to return to the deadly old places where they fought, visiting comrades they left behind in the ground, or elsewhere. What they, in written and personal form, have taught me about this war is beyond calculation, perhaps even beyond my expression. I remember this war—its most important parts—through them. I think it must be, in the end, the best way of all to know a war. What have they taught me?
Twenty million Americans were examined for military service in World War II; fourteen million were accepted. Yet in World War II, as in all modern wars, the fighting part of this vast number was relatively small. Most Americans in uniform during this war knew less than nothing about combat and, what is more, were not particularly anxious to find out. The service one entered, and when one entered, had a great deal to do with whether one would actually fight. In the Navy the chances of engaging in seaborne combat were very high if one happened to be part of the fleets deployed to contested waters or on convoy duty in the Atlantic, and indeed the bulk of early American casualties came from just these sources. As the war wore on, the casualty rate slowed. Next came the air forces, whether Army or Navy. Like the convoy sailors, they saw combat relatively early; unlike the sailors, they did not see their casualties decline until nearly war’s end. The story among the ground forces, the Marines and GIs, was precisely the reverse of the naval war: Their early casualties were “light”—always in war the most relative of terms—and intensified throughout the war until, like those of the air forces, their casualties declined at the end of the war.
Regardless of the medium in which they fought, the American combatants of World War II were not relentlessly fighting. In the naval war, combat was a series of episodes that interrupted days and sometimes months of steaming from one position to another. Surely the catastrophes of naval combat could kill or wound or drown several thousand sailors at one time, and the possibility just as surely preyed upon those who manned these ships, working its own special kind of stress on them. Aerial warfare had its own particular rhythms, and for the air crews there was at least a hint of war’s end in certain commands that allowed for a maximum number of combat missions for each flier. Yet on any one of their missions war’s end was never far away, and what is more, the air crewmen were often unwilling witnesses to the end of someone else’s war. If the “flyboys” seemed to have more opportunities to get away from their war than other combatants, as many foot soldiers grumbled, that only means we have misunderstood how their real war was composed. We do not hear the muffled sobs of fear in the squadron barracks on the night before a thousand-plane raid against Germany.
Soldiers found that all the defenses their society had given them in preparation for their war were too fragile to withstand the grind of combat.
The war on the ground was predominantly the infantry-man’s war. Despite notable advancements in the equipment and techniques of armored warfare, this war belonged to the GI. If one is searching for a picture of those in something close to sustained combat for long periods of time, this is where one finds it. Here, too, the disparity between those who fought and those who did not seems the greatest. Of the millions of Americans sent overseas by the Army during World War II, only 14 percent were infantrymen. Those 14 percent took more than 70 percent of all the battle casualties among overseas troops.
Even among the fighting parts of an army, a relatively small proportion actually suffered combat. The most combative of all the combat units was the infantry division. Within these American formations, combat troops of all categories counted for only 68 percent of the whole. One wartime study by a division commander, Lucian Truscott, estimated that 95 percent of his losses were sustained by his line troops. Harold Leinbaugh and John Campbell, officers of a rifle company in the fall of 1944 and into 1945, who later wrote The Men of Company K, put it less clinically: “We were the Willie Lomans of the war.”
All this means that during World War II there existed on this planet men in all varieties of uniform who belonged to a vast military underclass, and that still millions more of their fellow citizens were in the stands, so to speak, rooting them on. They fought in the service of causes that were radically, one might even say mortally, different, but the essence of the daily lives they led was not. It consisted, as Fussell reminds us, of “the experience of coming to grips, face to face, with an enemy who designs your death.” Under these circumstances, the popular wartime phrase “We’re behind you all the way” takes on a rather different meaning.