The "Greatest Generation" Is A Myth (Part 2 of 3)

The third reason I think the “Greatest Generation” is a myth is less than 20% of the men in the armed forces did any fighting. The 80/20 rule was in effect. Most veterans of World War Two never heard a shot fired in anger because they were in support units. It took at least 25 to 30 men to support each soldier in combat. And believe me, from deep reading into the subject, the majority of those men took care of themselves before they passed anything onto the combat soldiers. The memoirs of the combat troops are filled with invective against the rear echelon troops.

An example is the lack of adequate food available to the front-line troops. They rarely had hot food in the front lines. Why? The cooks wouldn’t take it close enough to the front lines for the soldiers to eat it while it was hot. In the winter, by the time company messengers had lugged the food for hundreds of yards, it was frozen. But the rear echelons always had hot food, showers, and beds. It’s a disgrace.

The front line troops often existed on prepackaged K rations for weeks even months at a time. One K ration contained three meals: breakfast, lunch, dinner. If one ate every single bit of the entire ration, which wasn’t likely, then one received less than 3,000 calories a day, about 2,000 fewer than a combat soldier required. Original US Army regulations stated that K rations were not to be used for more than fifteen meals in a row. That got thrown out. So the “Greatest Generation?” I think not. If the men in the support units would do almost nothing to ensure the front line infantry received proper nutrition, then there isn’t much great about those people.

During the war in Europe, US infantry itself rarely displayed aggression and not one American division ever equaled the sheer fighting ability of a regular German Army division. The exception were the elite divisions such as the Big Red One, 101st Airborne, 82nd Airborne, and a few others, which were as good as any of the elite divisions of the German Army or the Waffen SS. Unfortunately, this resulted in those units being overused, kept on the front line too long, and taking far more than their share of killed and wounded in action.

Major General James Gavin, who commanded the elite 82nd Airborne, wrote during the war of the standard US Army divisions: “If our infantry would fight, this war would be over by now…We all know it and admit it, yet nothing is done about it. American infantry just simply will not fight.” (As cited in Armageddon: the Battle for Germany 1944-45 by Sir Max Hastings.) What Gavin doesn’t admit is that this is not a failure of soldiers but of the upper echelons who mapped out the training of the soldiers and junior officers. Nor were American staff planners willing to admit they vastly underestimated the force needed to fight the Germans.

By the end of the war, the US Army had eleven million men. Of those, only 2,000,000 were in the 90 infantry divisions – the number of divisions itself a terrible miscalculation. Of those 2,000,000, less than 700,000 men were in combat units. And that’s who fought the Germans in Europe – those 700,000 men. (As cited in Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War by Paul Fussell, himself a combat infantry veteran from the ETO.) In a US infantry division in Europe, the front line rifle companies took 90% of the casualties. (As cited in Armageddon by Sir Max Hastings.) 90%!!!

Part of the reason for the poor performance by US infantry is neither the men nor the officers were well trained. People find that hard to believe. “By God, this is America! We wouldn’t send untrained men into battle!” But we did, all the time. Just a month before D-Day, the Inspector-General of the Army reported to General Eisenhower that the majority of American divisions were not ready for combat. This is a sobering thought. Intense training was ordered but there wasn’t enough time to remedy all the shortfalls. Efficient and well trained armies are hard to create and the United States Army gravely miscalculated the time and effort necessary to create adequately trained, led, and motivated combat infantry units. Because of this, our combat infantry suffered unnecessary casualties and took longer than expected to defeat Nazi Germany.

A classic failure of US Army training was the constant emphasis on marksmanship during basic training. Soldiers were taught to look for a target and then fire. This resulted in a disastrous unforeseen consequence: unless they could see a German, most American soldiers would not fire their weapons. American military doctrine from the Civil War until today calls for saturating the battlefield with fire. Seeing the enemy is unimportant. Doctrine calls for firing everything you have in his direction. This prevents him from firing or moving.

Yet tens of thousands of American combat infantry never fired their rifles in World War Two because they were improperly trained. And those soldiers who did fire were rarely firing at someone, they were just firing in the direction of the Germans. I asked an older friend in Florida who had been a private in an infantry company in the ETO. “Did you ever see a German?” “See a German,” he said, “I would have been scared to death if I had seen a German. On a battlefield the whole point is not to be seen. If I could see the German, then he could probably see me. All I did was fire my rifle in the direction I was told to fire it.”

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website:

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