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

The fourth reason the “Greatest Generation” is a myth is that the treatment of US front line infantry was nothing short of dereliction of duty on the part of rear echelon units of the army. While the grandfathers and great-grandfathers of many people fought bravely, lots of others had sticky fingers and stole stuff all the time. Most of the stolen goods were immediately sold on the black market. The constant theft of food, equipment, fuel, clothing, et al from shipments being sent to front line units has been forgotten in the glow of the “Greatest Generation.”

Yet the thousands of US Army soldiers arrested for theft in the ETO by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Units and the Provost Marshal, who commanded the military police, is mute testimony to the constant thieving. The front line units knew they were being deprived of all sorts of critical items because they were being used or stolen by support units. As you imagine, they were deeply embittered by this. One can understand. An incredible 2 million soldiers in the US armed forces in World War Two were court-martialed for varying offenses, resulting in 80,000 felony convictions. (Time Magazine 18 November 2009)

The only group of men consistently praised in memoirs by US combat troops in the European Theater is the Field Artillery. They were almost always there when needed and close support artillery, short range howitzers for instance, weren’t more than three or four miles behind the front line. During the Battle of the Bulge, a number of US Army artillery units became isolated from their protecting infantry and rather than retreat and leave the infantry without fire support, a number of the cannoneers would be ordered to pick up their M1s and keep the German infantry at bay. At least most of the time. Sometimes they fled, other times they were killed to a man.

While long range US artillery was powerful and plentiful, if their forward observers couldn’t see anything because of weather or ground cover or lack of a good vantage point, then the artillery fired blind and usually way over the Germans for fear of erring on the side of firing too short and hitting our own troops. In any region of Europe which was fought over, the steeples in almost every church were knocked down by artillery fire. The reason: steeples were the best vantage point for front line artillery spotters for the Allies or the Germans.

US infantry typically scorned American tank units because they were often hesitant to advance. They had good reason: the standard American M4 Sherman tank could not stand up to German tanks or to the deadly German panzerfaust. Although the US Army learned this within a few days of the landings in Normandy, the nation with the ability to manufacture unlimited quantities of almost anything, failed to produce a battle worthy tank which could stand up to the Germans until the very end of the war. And that was simply a Sherman tank which was upgunned and had thicker armor added in the front.

Given that our tanks could not withstand a hit by the Germans, it is no wonder they would not advance. But this hardly impressed the infantry who had to advance anyway and often did so without armored support because the tanks would not advance. General Gavin wrote that he had to train his parachute infantrymen how to drive tanks and self propelled artillery because the US soldiers in those vehicles often abandoned them and ran for the rear in the event of a serious attack.

This seems pathetic yet these statistics on the US Third Armored Division (as cited in Armageddon) give one an understanding of why US tankers abandoned their tanks from time to time. The 3rd Armored Division landed in Europe with 232 Sherman tanks. Each time a tank was destroyed, it was quickly replaced with a new tank (and usually a new crew since Sherman tanks quite easily “brewed up” as the British said and the crew burned to death). From their landing in France until the end of the war in the ETO, the Third Armored lost 648 tanks destroyed outright. Another 700 were temporarily damaged but repaired. I don’t know about you, but I might have jumped out of my tank if faced with certain death in the form of a German tank. As an aside, American tanks ran on gasoline as did German tanks. Curiously, the Soviet tanks ran on diesel which is not as flammable. Even more curious, the Germans invented diesel fuel.

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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: http://charlesmccain.com/

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