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The Secret Of The Soldiers Who Didn’t Shoot
Slam Marshall, who is regarded as one of our great military historians, looked into the heart of combat and discovered a mystery there that raised doubts about the fighting quality of U.S. troops. But one GI thought he was a liar…
March 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 2
Leinbaugh and Campbell spent years conducting research on their book and on the war that had killed off so many of their friends. When Leinbaugh first came across Marshall’s ratio-of-fire statistics, he dismissed them out of hand. “If you’re over sixty,” he says, “have earned the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, and were lucky enough to survive a month without picking up a Purple Heart, you know Marshall’s charges are absurd, ridiculous, and totally nonsensical. How many six-man patrols would have to be dispatched before Marshall’s odds give you one or two men who are willing to fire their guns? Statistically it wouldn’t be at all difficult for a rifle company to end up with a platoon entirely devoid of firers.”
Leinbaugh talked to a number of former infantrymen, privates to four-star generals. None of them recalled any experience of failure to fire. One old K Company sergeant asked, “Did the SOB think we clubbed the Germans to death?”
K Company had entered combat with a strength of two hundred men and had turned over once by war’s end—meaning that it had suffered two hundred casualties—and Leinbaugh believed these men, along with the other American troops he knew about, had tried hard to kill Germans: “Somebody had to persuade them to go back to Germany.” But Leinbaugh had noticed that people who hadn’t been in rifle companies had a number of eccentric notions about how wars are fought, and at first he didn’t trouble himself about Marshall’s misconceptions.
But when Leinbaugh read John Keegan’s influential 1976 study of men at war, The Face of Battle, he was irritated to come across Marshall’s ratio of fire. “Even in ‘highly motivated’ units,” wrote Keegan, “and even when hard pressed, no more than about a quarter of all ‘fighting’ soldiers will use their weapons against the enemy.”
Then Leinbaugh read Max Hastings’s 1984 account of the Normandy invasion, Overlord, and discovered the author citing Marshall to the same effect: “American research showed that, in many regiments, only 15 percent of riflemen used their weapons in any given action.”
It seemed to Leinbaugh that American infantrymen were being maligned. Richard Holmes, the deputy head of war studies at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, England, reported that “on average, only some 15 per cent of American infantrymen fired during actions in the Second World War.” The American historian Russell F. Weigley reported in Eisenhower’s Lieutenants that “the infantry on which they [American officers planning the 1944 campaigns] would rely as their main combat resource was not particularly aggressive” and repeated the ratio-of-fire assertions, adding: “Nor did these figures mean that 15 to 30 per cent of the riflemen fired continually throughout a battle. They indicated only the number who tried to shoot at the enemy at least once.”
None of the writers cited any other source for the ratio-offire numbers; Marshall was all there was.
Leinbaugh admits to taking the charges personally. “Our company went into battle for the first time at Geilenkirchen in the Siegfried Line. We captured more than a hundred and fifty Germans in that brief initial battle. We must have killed or wounded another fifty. We fought more than three miles up the Siegfried Line, slogged forward in deep mud, spent sleepless nights in freezing water-filled foxholes, and lost more than half our company to nonstop German mortar barrages and machine-gun fire. Twelve men in K Company were killed during that one brief engagement.
“We did our job, and then Marshall comes along and, in effect, criticizes not only our efforts at Geilenkirchen but the performance of every American rifle company that did battle in World War II.”
Leinbaugh’s certainty that Marshall was wrong about the ratio of fire was rooted not only in his experience as a man who had led an infantry company in combat but also in his knowledge that K Company was in no sense an elite unit. “We came into line halfway through the European campaign, and we were as average as chance and the draft could make us.” The 333rd had been mass-produced and was in no way distinguishable from the thousand-odd other American rifle companies that had fought their way across Europe.
There were many instances where not firing made perfect sense to Leinbaugh. “Tight fire discipline was enforced in most veteran outfits. In many tactical situations it was deemed essential that the line of defensive positions not be disclosed to the enemy. That’s elementary, basic frontline logic.” But the figure of 85 percent remained ludicrous, and Leinbaugh determined to discover its source.
He read through Marshall’s published work and began to notice a series of unconvincing details. In Bringing Up the Rear Leinbaugh was struck by an incident alleged to have occurred when Marshall and a colonel visited a forward position following the siege of Bastogne: