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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.”

The "Greatest Generation" Is A Myth (Part 1 of 3)

I call the idea of the “Greatest Generation” a myth for four reasons. First and foremost, to call these men the “Greatest Generation” robs the brave ones of their true glory. These were ordinary men. Just like you and me. On occasion, a handful of these ordinary men found within themselves the courage to do extraordinary things. And that is what we should honor. To say they were some kind of supermen does a terrible disservice to the men who fought bravely and to the men who died bravely.

The true measure of their courage is that they weren’t supermen at all but regular men who were scared out of their wits most of the time but fought anyway. Courage doesn’t mean one is free from fear. Courage means that one acts in spite of fear. (And I asked a US Navy SEAL this question and that is the answer he gave me.)

The second reason I call the “Greatest Generation” a myth is that I have known, talked to, and interviewed dozens and dozens of World War Two vets and not one of them took the expression the “Greatest Generation” seriously. To a man they thought it was specious. A good friend of mine who fought on Okinawa said, “it’s a bunch of bullshit. No one wanted to go. No one. We didn’t feel called upon by history. We just got stuck with it and there was no choice. We had to do it.” Private Webster whom I have written so much about in my last posts, says in his memoirs that his enthusiasm for war was very limited even at the start and vanished as he fought through Europe.

And for those who disagree, I would respectfully suggest you visit the Vietnam Memorial in DC. On that black granite wall are the names of the 55,000 young men who gave their lives during the Vietnam War. They wanted to live. Weren’t they as great? People have enjoyed giving President Clinton hell for taking advantage of his student deferments and thus not serving in the military during Vietnam. Curiously, few have criticized Vice-President Cheney during his time in office for doing the exact same thing. I point this out because Cheney was the most ardent advocate for war against Iraq of any public figure and struck a bellicose pose throughout his tenure in office. Yet during the Vietnam War, Cheney received five student draft deferments because, as he told the Washington Post, “I had other priorities.” So did the young men whose names are on that wall, Mr. Cheney. (Cheney stated this in an interview with the Washington Post in 1989 and the comment is not disputed. As cited in Magic and Mayhem: The Delusions of American Foreign Policy from Korea to Afghanistan by Derek Leebaert.)