Private Ryan was a hero, but there were bums, too
'Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army From the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany'
By Stephen Ambrose
By Stephen Ambrose
Web posted on: Wednesday, August 05, 1998 4:41:18 PM EDT
(CNN) -- Historian Stephen Ambrose continues where he left off in his #1 bestseller D-Day. Ambrose again follows the individual characters of this noble, brutal, and tragic war, from the high command down to the ordinary soldier, drawing on hundreds of interviews to re-create the war experience with startling clarity and immediacy. From the hedgerows of Normandy to the overrunning of Germany, Ambrose tells the real story of World War II from the perspective of the men and women who fought it.This chapter contains language that may be offensive to some readers.
Jerks, Sad Sacks, Profiteers, and Jim Crow
The GIs in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) were highly selected in age and physical health, somewhat selected in intelligence, well disciplined. The Army's training system added inches to their chests and leg and arm muscles. It also instilled a sense of responsibility, along with a fear of the consequences of disobeying an order, not to mention criminal behavior: nicely summed up in the old drill sergeant's saying, "The Army can't make you do something, but it sure as hell can make you wish you had." It also did a good job of recognizing and promoting talented young men who were capable of standing the stress and leading effectively.
The Army was unlike civilian society in most ways, but ETO and the home front were together in their shared sense of "we." It was a "we" generation, as in the popular wartime saying, "We are in this together." In the Army, this general attitude was greatly reinforced. The social bond within the Army was like an onion. At the core was the squad, where bonding could be almost mystical.
Lt. Glenn Gray (after the war a professor of philosophy) put it well: "Organization for a common and concrete goal in peacetime organizations does not evoke anything like the degree of comradeship commonly known in war. At its height, this sense of comradeship is an ecstasy. Men are true comrades only when each [member of the squad] is ready to give up his life for the other, without reflection and without thought of personal loss."
After the squad came succeeding layers, the platoon, company, on up to division, all covered by the loose outermost layers of corps and army. The sense of belonging meant most GIs wouldn't dream of stealing from or cheating a buddy within the squad or company, or of slacking off on the job, whether as front-line infantry or driving a truck.
But the Army was so big -- eight million men at its peak, from a low of 165,000 four years earlier -- and put together so quickly, that thousands of sharp operators and sad sacks, criminals and misfits, and some cowards made it through the training process and became soldiers in ETO. Some were junior officers in infantry divisions and the price for their incompetence was casualties. More were rear-echelon soldiers, completely free of a sense of "we," who in one way or another took advantage of the opportunities presented by the war.
Joseph Heller's character Milo Minderbender in Catch-22 is an exaggeration, but not an invention. The United States was sending to Europe colossal quantities of goods. Given the amounts involved and the constant need for haste, there was a vulnerability that a few soldiers found irresistible. More than a few, really -- the figures on stolen goods are staggering. The matériel for the Americans fighting in Italy came in through the port of Naples. It came in day and night -- weapons, ammunition, rations, fuel, trucks, electrical equipment, and much more. Every item was eagerly sought on the black market. One-third of all the supplies landed in Naples was stolen. In Italy, once an entire train carrying supplies to the front simply disappeared.
The cornucopia of American goods coming into a Europe that had been at war for five years led to the greatest black market of all time. Most American soldiers participated in it to some extent, if in no other way than by trading cigarettes for perfume, or rations for jewels. A few got rich off it.
At the opposite extreme from the young entrepreneurs were the sad sacks, those guys who could never be found when there was a patrol to run or a job to be done, who had mastered the art of getting lost in the Army so well they became practically invisible. In between were the jerks and assholes, usually men who had been made NCOs or junior officers who exploited their rank in chickenshit ways, but at the head of the list there stood the formidable figure of the general in charge of all supplies in ETO. At the bottom of the list were the cowards, and Jim Crow.
They were all part of the U.S. Army in ETO, and this chapter is a glance at a few of them.
Most GIs did their job, fought well, managed to stay out of serious trouble, and were generally regarded as "good guys." The ones who slipped and became jerks for a night, or a day, or a week, could usually blame it on wine, which was present in almost every cellar in France and Belgium (in sharp contrast to the Pacific Theater, where the men drank homemade stuff, always vile, but with a punch). Paul Fussell, in Wartime, catches the situation exactly in his chapter title "Drinking Far Too Much, Copulating Too Little."
When it came to drinking, the men of ETO were just boys. Growing up in the Depression, their experience with alcohol was pretty much limited to a few beers on graduation night, and a lot of beer on Saturday nights in training camp in Georgia or wherever, and in English pubs. This in no way prepared them for the challenge France had to offer.
On December 15 Dutch Schultz, 82nd Airborne, stationed in an old French army barracks, got a pass to Reims, champagne capital of the world. There he ran into three high school buddies from another outfit. The corks popped. "This was my first experience with champagne," Schultz recalled. "I started drinking it like soda pop." He can't recall anything that happened in Reims after the drinking started, but he does remember what happened when he got back to barracks.
"I headed for my bed which was an upper bunk on the second floor of my building. When I got to my bed, I found someone sleeping in it."
Dutch shook the man awake. "What the hell are you doing in my bed?" he roared.
The soldier roared back: "It's my bed, what the hell do you think you are doing? Get the hell out of here!"
They started throwing punches. The lights went on. Every man in the room wanted to kill Schultz. To his consternation, he discovered he was not only at the wrong bed, but also the wrong room, the wrong barracks, the wrong battalion. "I made a hasty retreat."
"Jerk!" the men called out as he fled, using a variety of obscene adjectives to express their feelings.
The guys who were permanent jerks were the usual suspects -- officers with too much authority and too few brains, sergeants who had more than a touch of sadist in their characters, far too many quartermasters, some MPs. The types were many in number and widely varied in how they acted out their role, but the GIs had a single word that applied to every one of them: chickenshit.
Fussell defines the term precisely. "Chickenshit refers to behavior that makes military life worse than it need be: petty harassment of the weak by the strong; open scrimmage for power and authority and prestige...insistence on the letter rather than the spirit of ordinances. Chickenshit is so called -- instead of horse -- or bull -- or elephant shit -- because it is small-minded and ignoble and takes the trivial seriously. Chickenshit can be recognized instantly because it never has anything to do with winning the war."
There were some at the front, not many. In most cases they were visitors who didn't belong there. Captain Colby led an attack down a road in the hedgerow country. His company got hit hard and dove into the ditches. A firefight ensued. After a half hour or so, Colby looked up to see his regimental commander standing above him, "nattily attired in a clean uniform, and his helmet was clean and sported a silver star. He was the picture of coolness."
"You can't lead your men from down there," he snapped. "Come up here and tell me what happened. Try to set an example of how an officer should behave."
"Come down here, sir, and we can talk about it," Colby replied.
"Come up here," the general replied. "That's an order."
To Colby's relief, a mortar round went off a few meters from the general. "He joined me in the ditch."
Most chickenshits were rear-echelon. There are innumerable stories about them. Sgt. Ed Gianelloni remembered the time in Luneville when his division was temporarily out of the line and the opportunity came to take the first showers in two months. For the officers, there was a public bath, where Frenchwomen bathed them. For the enlisted, there were portable showers in the middle of a muddy field. Everyone undressed, piled up clothes and weapons, and stood around shivering, waiting for the hot water.
"All right, you guys," the engineering sergeant in command barked out, "you got one minute to wet, one minute to soap, and one minute to rinse off and then you get out of here."
A private standing near the weapons pile reached in, grabbed an M-1, pointed it at the sergeant, and inquired politely, "Sergeant, how much time did you say we have?"
The sergeant gulped, then muttered, "I'll tell you what, I am going to take a walk and check on my equipment. When I come back you ought to be done."
General Patton had more than a bit of the chickenshit in him. He was notorious for being a martinet about dress and spit-and-polish in Third Army. He ordered -- and sometimes may have gotten -- front-line infantry to wear ties and to shave every day. Bill Mauldin did a famous cartoon about it. Willie and Joe are driving a beat-up jeep. A large road sign informs them that "You Are Entering The Third Army!" There follows a list of fines for anyone entering the area: no helmet, $25; no shave $10; no tie $25; and so on. Willie tells Joe, "Radio th' ol' man we'll be late on account of a thousand-mile detour."
But it was no joke. Patton's spit-and-polish obsession some times cost dearly. It not only had nothing to do with winning the war, it hurt the war effort.
Twenty-year-old Lt. Bill Leesemann was in a reconnaissance section of the 101st Engineer Combat Battalion, attached to the 26th Division. On December 18, the 26th, along with the 80th and the 4th Armored, got orders to break off the attack in Lorraine, turn from east to north, and smash into the German southern flank of the Bulge. This required frenetic activity. Leesemann's job was to go from division headquarters in Metz to the Third Army Engineer headquarters in Nancy, to pick up maps -- no one in the attacking divisions had any maps of Luxembourg. It was a sixty-kilometer drive. Leesemann and his driver took off late on December 19, as the 26th was forming up to head toward Luxembourg. It wouldn't be able to move out until the maps arrived.
It was raining; the road was muddy; troops moving north caused delays. It was full dark by the time Leesemann got to Nancy. He stopped at a crossroads, where "a real spit-and-polish MP was directing traffic." Leesemann asked directions to the Engineers HQ. The MP took one look at the dirty, unshaven lieutenant and driver and ordered them to the MP post. He said they could not proceed into Third Army area until they had washed the jeep, shaved, and put on clean uniforms. Leesemann replied that such things were out of the question and explained the urgency of the situation. The MP called his corporal.
Twenty minutes later the corporal arrived. After further interrogation, he called the sergeant. The sergeant came, more talk, finally he called Engineers HQ. Permission to come on was granted.
Leesemann drove to the HQ, "a large chateau with surrounding gardens. The sentries at the large iron gate entrance gave us the same routine with threats of being arrested; 'No way will we be responsible for admitting you two into the Command area.'"
Another call, another wait. Eventually, but not without further adventures in the maze of Third Army, Leesemann got the maps and returned to 26th Division HQ. It was 0500 hours, December 20. The division had been ready to move since 0100 hours. It was waiting for the maps.
The biggest jerk in ETO was Lt. Gen. John C. H. Lee (USMA 1909), commander of Services of Supply (SOS). He had a most difficult job, to be sure. And of course it is in the nature of an army that everyone resents the quartermaster, and Lee was the head quartermaster for the whole of ETO.
Lee was a martinet who had an exalted opinion of himself. He also had a strong religious fervor (Eisenhower compared him to Cromwell) that struck a wrong note with everyone. He handed out the equipment as if it were a personal gift. He hated waste; once he was walking through a mess hall, reached into the garbage barrel, pulled out a half-eaten loaf of bread, started chomping on it, and gave the cooks hell for throwing away perfectly good food. He had what Bradley politely called "an unfortunate pomposity" and was cordially hated. Officers and men gave him a nickname based on his initials, J.C.H. -- Jesus Christ Himself.
Lee's best-known excess came in September, at the height of the supply crisis. Eisenhower had frequently expressed his view that no major headquarters should be located in or near the temptations of a large city, and had specifically reserved the hotels in Paris for the use of combat troops on leave. Lee nevertheless, and without Eisenhower's knowledge, moved his headquarters to Paris. His people requisitioned all the hotels previously occupied by the Germans, and took over schools and other large buildings. More than 8,000 officers and 21,000 men in SOS descended on the city in less than a week, with tens of thousands more to follow. Parisians began to mutter that the U.S. Army demands were in excess of those made by the Germans.
The GIs and their generals were furious. They stated the obvious at the height of the supply crisis, Lee had spent his precious time organizing the move, then used up precious gasoline, all so that he and his entourage could enjoy the hotels of Paris. It got worse. With 29,000 SOS troops in Paris, the great majority of them involved in some way in the flow of supplies from the beaches and ports to the front, and taking into account what Paris had to sell, from wine and girls to jewels and perfumes, a black market on a grand scale sprang up.
Eisenhower was enraged. He sent a firm order to Lee to stop the entry into Paris of every individual not absolutely essential and to move out of the city every man who was not. He said essential duties "will not include provision of additional facilities, services and recreation for SOS or its Headquarters." He told Lee that he would like to order him out of the city altogether, but could not afford to waste more gasoline in moving SOS again. He said Lee had made an "extremely unwise" decision and told him to correct the situation as soon as possible.
Of course Lee and his headquarters stayed in Paris. And of course there was solid reason for so doing. And of course the combat veterans who got three-day passes into Paris could never get a hotel room, and had to sleep in a barracks-like Red Cross shelter, on cots. The rear-echelon SOS got the beds and private rooms. And their numbers grew rather than shrank. By March 1945, there were 160,000 SOS troops in the Department of the Seine.
The supply troops also got the girls, because they had the money, thanks to the black market. It flourished everywhere. Thousands of gallons of gasoline, tons of food and clothing, millions of cigarettes, were being siphoned off each day. The gasoline pipeline running from the beaches to Chartres was tapped so many times only a trickle came out at the far end.
Most of this was petty thievery. It was done at the expense of the front-line troops. As one example, the most popular brand of cigarettes was Lucky Strike, followed by Camel. In Paris, the SOS troops and their dates smoked Lucky Strikes and Camels; in the foxholes, the men got Pall Malls, Raleighs, or, worse, British cigarettes.
But a large part of the black market was run by organized crime. Here is a story told to me by a former lieutenant who worked as a criminal investigator for the SHAEF adjutant general's office. There was a colonel from the National Guard, born in Sicily, who was in Transport Command. His administrative job gave him the use of a C-47. On every clear day he flew, with a co-pilot, from London to Paris and back. He took in cartons of cigarettes and brought back jewels and perfumes. His trade flourished but there were a lot of payoffs to make, too many people involved. By mid-December, SHAEF's criminal investigators were ready to arrest him, but he got a tip and fled in his C47, with a co-pilot and a box stuffed with jewelry.
"Over the Channel," the lieutenant told me, "he shot the copilot, then smashed his face beyond recognition. He was a hell of a pilot; he landed on the edge of the water at an extremely low tide near Utah Beach. The plane with the co-pilot's body wasn't found until the next day's low tide -- and the major had left his dog tags on the dead man. We learned later that a French farm couple had watched an American pilot as he stole a donkey and cart, loaded a box onto the cart, slipped into peasant's clothing, and was last seen headed toward Sicily."
The German army had its fair share of jerks. There too they were often quartermasters. Colonel von Luck recalled that in early September, during the retreat through France, he came on a supply depot. His tanks, trucks, and other vehicles needed fuel; his men needed ammunition and food. He demanded it be handed over.
The sergeant in charge gave what Luck called "the typical, impudent reply: 'I can issue nothing without written authority.' When I asked, 'And what will you do if the Americans get here tomorrow, which is highly likely?' the answer was: 'Then in accordance with orders I will blow the depot up.'
"As my men advanced threateningly on the sergeant, weapons at the ready, I replied, 'If I don't have fuel, ammunition, and food within half an hour I can no longer be responsible.'" The sergeant looked at the grim-faced Luck and his men and gave them what they needed."
Similar scenes were enacted a thousand times and more during the retreat. At the other end of the scale, corps commanders in the Wehrmacht could be as crazy as Hitler. Like their leader, they moved long-gone regiments and divisions around on their maps. From the safety of their headquarters, they ordered counterattacks by phantom units. In January 1945 in Belgium, Lt. Col. Gerhard Lemcke of the 12th Panzer Division, a career soldier, had a typical experience. He had his HQ in a farmhouse on a hill. From the kitchen window he could see Sherman tanks in the process of surrounding his position. He got orders to attack, which he ignored.
A staff officer drove up. He had been drinking, to bolster his courage -- staff officers seldom came to the front, and when they did they were afraid of the combat commanders. In this case, the officer informed Lemcke that he had come to take Lemcke into custody.
"May I ask why?"
"You have not carried out the orders of the Corps commander."
"And what am I to do? Should I tell them to throw rocks? Or maybe snow, there's lots of that -- I have nothing else. The artillery battery behind me, they don't shoot anymore because they have no ammunition. But Corps has ordered them to stay and defend us. How about telling Corps HQ to take back their guns and send their personnel up here to become part of my infantry."
"You tell them," the lieutenant replied.
Lemcke got on the radio. Corps repeated the order to attack. Lemcke again refused. Corps then told the lieutenant to arrest that man and bring him in. As the lieutenant made to do so, Lemcke's men surrounded him. "These were soldiers who had been with me since Russia," Lemcke recalled. "A number of them had long since earned the Iron Cross 1st Class. They would not allow this lieutenant to take me anywhere."
Next to Hitler himself, the biggest jerks in Germany were Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering and Reichsfuehrer SS Heinrich Himmler. In November 1944 Himmler was put in command of the eastern bank of the Upper Rhine. Himmler knew a lot about how to terrorize and slaughter civilians, but nothing about military affairs. On January 3, 1945, he ordered Maj. Hannibal von Lüttichau to attack.
"I don't doubt that these orders were developed with the greatest care," Lüttichau told Himmler. "But we must have fuel."
"You don't need to drive," Himmler replied.
"But a dug-in panzer is easily destroyed from the air," Lüttichau explained. "The panzer's strength is to shoot and move. Suddenly pop up and fire and get out of there! Besides, I don't have ammunition. It doesn't matter how much heroism we have, we won't last a day before our soldiers know that we are crazy and stick their hands in the air and give up. What should I do about that?"
Himmler ordered him arrested. He was, but his Iron Cross 1st Class protected him and he survived.
In general, the American press corps covering ETO -- whether for the wire services, individual newspapers or magazines, radio, or the GIs' paper, Stars and Stripes -- did an outstanding job. The names of the top reporters, like the names Eisenhower, Bradley, Patton, Collins, resonate through the ages. The list included Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, Ernie Pyle and Andy Rooney, Eric Sevareid and A. J. Liebling, Martha Gellhorn and Anne O'Hare McCormick, John P. Marquand and Robert Sherrod, James Agee and William Shirer, among others. Best known of all was Ernest Hemingway, correspondent for Collier's magazine. If being a jerk is first of all being self-centered, Papa was one.
When Hemingway sat down to write, he was the only person in view. His dispatches to Collier's were about what he saw, did, felt. His biggest moment came when he and his driver, Pvt. Archie Pelkey, hooked up with a Resistance group headed for Paris. It was August 19. The sun rose and "it was a beautiful day that day" and Hemingway got to carry vital information to headquarters. "I had bicycled through this area for many years. It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and can coast down them."
"Never can I describe to you the emotions I felt," he opened his report from Paris, before going on to three columns about how he felt.
There were many adventures with the Resistance group, and much drinking. As only he could, Hemingway loved these French fighters for their courage, elan, and simplicity. They wanted to have one more drink, one more kiss from the barmaid, and be off for Paris. So did Hemingway. But on the edge of the city they were ordered off the road by an American MP.
That evening it rained very hard but Pelkey and Papa were snug in a bistro, with a bottle of wine and some cheese and bread, looking down on Paris. They talked about their newfound French friends.
"They're a good outfit," Pelkey said. "Best outfit I ever been with. No discipline. Got to admit that. Drinking all the time. Got to admit that. But plenty fighting outfit. Nobody gives a damn if they get killed or not."
"Yeah," Papa replied. Then, he concluded his dispatch, "I couldn't say anything more, because I had a funny choke in my throat and I had to clean my glasses because there now, below us, gray and always beautiful, was spread the city I love best in all the world."
Ernie Pyle didn't see the war that way, which is why he is read a half century later, and Hemingway isn't. In a 1995 two-volume anthology of the best of World War II reporting, done by the Library of America, there are twenty-six dispatches from Pyle, one from Hemingway. Everyone knew that Hemingway was brave, foolish, and sentimental. What they wanted to know was what the GIs and the high command were doing. That was what Pyle and nearly all of the others gave them.
Rumors and wisecracks help men endure the unendurable, which is why they are integral to every war. In ETO, thousands of rumors circulated. Some were frightening ("we're going to jump into Berlin" among the paratroopers, for example), but most were hopeful. They promised an end: Germany is in revolt; the war will be over before Christmas; Hitler is dead; and so on, endlessly. Or the rumors promised reward: every paratrooper (or combat infantry, or artilleryman, or medic, or whatever) was going to get a free car from Henry Ford when the war was won. Others promised relief: our division is being withdrawn from combat and returned to the States to train new troops. In POW camps, it was that an exchange of prisoners is imminent.
Pvt. Harold Snedden of the 28th Division marched through Paris on liberation day. As he paraded down the Champs-Elysées, he heard a rumor, one that spread almost instantly up and down the long columns: "The brass has decided to keep us here to police the city." Sadly, Snedden was quickly disabused.
Pvt. Ed Jabol of the 1st Division had the satisfaction of getting a reward from a rumor he started. In the hedgerow fighting, he and his buddy told one other person each that the local water was contaminated, just to see how long it took to get back to them. The following day, word came down from headquarters to drink only wine until the water could be treated.
Wisecracks and clichés abounded in ETO. Most of them were coarse, sexual, and punctuated by the vilest language. But some were directed to specific complaints and were heard almost as often as the words "GI" or "dogface." They included, "You never had it so good," "You've found a home in the Army," and "What more could you possibly want." Others were teasing: "Too bad you were asleep when the girls came by" or "I hear you are getting promoted." Some were just devilish: "I hear you are going to reenlist."
There were thousands of ordinary criminals in ETO. Hundreds of them were caught, tried by court-martial, and sentenced to the stockade or, in the case of rape or murder, to death by firing squad. Sixty-five men were ordered shot. Eisenhower had to pass the final judgment. In sixteen cases he changed the sentence to life in the stockade; forty-nine men were shot.
Desertion was also punishable by death by firing squad, but the U.S. Army had not carried out such a sentence since 1864. Desertion was a serious problem in ETO, partly because it was relatively easy to do in Europe (there were no desertions on the Pacific islands), partly because of the never-ending nature of the combat, partly because the Army tried to get deserters back to their outfits and give them a second chance, meaning deserters could figure there wouldn't be any punishment if they were caught.
In November 1944, Lieut. Glenn Gray, on counterintelligence duty, found a deserter in a French woods. The lad was from the Pennsylvania mountains, he was accustomed to camping out, he had been there a couple of weeks, living on venison, and intended to stay until the war ended. "All the men I knew and trained with have been killed," the deserter told Gray. "I'm lonely....The shells seem to come closer all the time and I can't stand them."
He begged Gray to leave him. Gray refused, said he would have to turn him in, but promised he would not be punished. The deserter said he knew that; he bitterly predicted "they" would simply put him back into the line again -- which was exactly what happened when Gray brought him in.
One deserter only, Pvt. Eddie Slovik, went through the process from confession to court-martial to sentence to execution by firing squad. Slovik got to France as a replacement in August. On the 25th, he spent the night in a village, dug in with some other replacements. There was shelling. In the morning, when they moved out, he stayed behind. That afternoon, he hooked up with some Canadian infantry, with whom he spent the next six weeks. Then he was turned over to American MPs, who escorted him back to the company to which he had been assigned.
Slovik told the CO he was too frightened of the shelling and swore, "If I have to go out there again I'll run away."
He later put that warning in writing, at the end of a written confession of desertion. He wanted to spend the rest of the war in the stockade. Bad luck for him; by the time he came to trial it was November 11, and the strain of the fighting at the Siegfried Line was leading to an increase in desertions. The high command was looking to set an example. Slovik fit perfectly. He was found guilty and sentenced to execution. By the time Eisenhower gave the case its last review, on January 30, the Bulge had made desertion an even greater problem. Eisenhower did not intervene. On January 31, Slovik was executed.
Slovik's case excited comment and controversy. There was a hue and cry about Army justice. Eisenhower never backed away from his decision. He thought the case about as clear-cut as one could get. But whatever the merits, it helps put the Slovik execution in some perspective to mention that during the course of the eleven-month campaign in Northwest Europe, when Eisenhower had one deserter put to death, Hitler had 50,000 executed for desertion or cowardice.
One of the stressful strains on platoon and company commanders was recognizing and dealing with battle fatigue. The best of them could anticipate the breaking point with an individual before it occurred, and get them some rest. Severe cases went to the rear, for treatment. A few returned to the front line; many more were put on limited duty. The temptation to fake combat exhaustion was there.
One evening in the Hurtgen, Lt. George Wilson welcomed two replacements, radiomen, to his company, and directed them to a foxhole. There was some shelling. In the morning, the smaller of the two replacements dashed over to Wilson's foxhole and dove in.
"He was shaking violently," Wilson remembered, "and tears streamed down his face. His whole frame quivered with the spasms, and he was barely able to tell me between sobs that he couldn't take it. He just had to get the hell out; I had to let him go to the rear. He sobbed like a baby during the entire outburst and beat his head on the ground."
Wilson tried talking to him, to no avail. Wilson tried getting tough: "I told him angrily that I had been in front-line combat for over five months and no one would let me go back. Since he had just arrived, he sure as hell wasn't going back."
That brought on more hysteria. He sobbed that he would desert. Wilson said go ahead -- and you'll get shot. Next Wilson told him how ashamed his parents would be. He sobbed that he didn't care. "I'm just a dirty, no-good, yellow, Jewish SOB."
Eventually he calmed down and returned to his foxhole. But later that day his buddy, a big man, came to Wilson and put on a similar performance, but he wasn't as convincing as the first guy. "I blew my top," Wilson wrote, "and shouted at him that the two of them were trying to play me for an idiot, and I'd had it with them.
"Surprisingly, he readily admitted it and even went on to describe how they had spent the night before planning the charade. It seems they had both been actors in college and had had some training."
The following day, another shelling. The bigger of the two replacements went bonkers. Tears streaming down his face, he begged Wilson to send him to the rear. "I turned on him angrily and pointed my rifle at his chest, saying that if I heard one more word out of him I'd shoot. He stopped bawling instantly."
The shelling resumed. The man got a piece of shrapnel in his arm, the million-dollar wound. He was out of there. Wilson never saw him again. Nor the first guy, who took himself to the rear and talked his way into a hospital as a battle fatigue case.
In the popular World War II cartoon strip The Sad Sack, the character was a naive, confused, lazy, bumbling private, but happy enough and almost lovable. In real life, a sad sack was a miserable person. Perpetually unhappy himself, he tried to make everyone around him equally miserable. He was filled with hate -- for his officers, for the Army, for blacks, Jews, Italians, whoever. Whenever he could get away with it, he was a bully. He was a habitual liar. He disappeared when real work or fighting had to be done. Not only did he fail to carry his weight, he was a constant and serious drain on the Army's efficiency. At his extreme, the sad sack was a mean, vicious son of a bitch, without a redeeming virtue.
The worst sad sack of all was Jim Crow.
The world's greatest democracy fought the world's greatest racist with a segregated Army. It was worse than that: the Army and the society conspired to degrade African-Americans in every way possible, summed up in the name Jim Crow. One little incident from the home front illustrates the tyranny black Americans lived under during the Second World War.
In April 1944 Corp. Rupert Timmingham wrote Yank magazine. "Here is a question that each Negro soldier is asking," he began. "What is the Negro soldier fighting for? On whose team are we playing?" He recounted the difficulties he and eight other black soldiers had while traveling through the South -- "where Old Jim Crow rules" -- for a new assignment. "We could not purchase a cup of coffee," Timmingham noted. Finally the lunchroom manager at a Texas railroad depot said the black GIs could go on around back to the kitchen for a sandwich and coffee. As they did, "about two dozen German prisoners of war, with two American guards, came to the station. They entered the lunchroom, sat at the tables, had their meals served, talked, smoked, in fact had quite a swell time. I stood on the outside looking on, and I could not help but ask myself why are they treated better than we are? Why are we pushed around like cattle? If we are fighting for the same thing, if we are to die for our country, then why does the Government allow such things to go on? Some of the boys are saying that you will not print this letter. I'm saying that you will."
In ETO, many black soldiers were assigned to prisoner duty. It is the universal testimony of the German POWs interviewed for this book that they got better treatment from black than white guards, to the point that the POWs had a saying, "The best American is a black American."
Old Jim Crow ruled in the Army as much as in the South. Blacks had their own units, mess halls, barracks, bars -- State-side, England, France, Belgium, it didn't matter. There were no black infantry units in ETO. There were nine Negro field artillery battalions, a few anti-aircraft battalions, and a half dozen tank and tank destroyer battalions. Some did well, some were average, some were poor.
The 969th Field Artillery Battalion earned praise from Gen. Maxwell Taylor for its supporting fire during the defense of Bastogne. "Our success," Taylor wrote the 969th's commander, "is attributable to the shoulder to shoulder cooperation of all units involved. This Division is proud to have shared the Battlefield with your command." He put the battalion in for a Distinguished Unit Citation, which it received on February 5, the first Negro combat unit to be so honored.
Patton had not been eager to accept black tankers, because he fancied that black men did not have quick enough reflexes to drive tanks in battle. But when at the end of October the 761st Tank Battalion, the first Negro unit committed to combat, showed up assigned to the 26th Division, Third Army, Patton welcomed the black tankers warmly: "Men, you're the first Negro tankers to ever fight in the American Army....I don't care what color you are, so long as you go up there and kill those Kraut sonsabitches. Everyone has their eyes on you and is expecting great things from you. Most of all, your race is looking to you. Don't let them down, don't let me down."
They didn't. The battalion spent 183 days in action. Every commander it fought under sent his commendations. It won one Medal of Honor and many Distinguished Service Crosses.
The Negro 827th Tank Destroyer Battalion, however, had a poor record, so bad that the Army almost disbanded it and many commanders refused to have it. The causes were familiar: untrained, with white officers who were the castoffs of other units, poorly equipped. Shortly after the end of the war Walter Wright, chief historian of the Army, commented that the real trouble was the inferior officers. Blacks had to have the best, Wright insisted, because "American negro troops are illeducated on the average and often illiterate; they lack self-respect, self-confidence, and initiative; they tend to be very conscious of their low standing in the eyes of the white population and consequently feel very little motive for aggressive fighting."
Why should they, Wright went on, when every black soldier knew "that the color of his skin will automatically disqualify him for reaping the fruits of attainment. No wonder that he sees little point in trying very hard to excel. To me, the most extraordinary thing is that such people continue trying at all."
It wasn't only that the whites wouldn't reward a black soldier who did his job well; those blacks who did strive were ridiculed by their fellows for doing so. Isaac Coleman was the second oldest of fourteen children, raised on a farm in Virginia. He had quit school at age fifteen to work; besides, there was no public high school for blacks in his area. He enlisted in 1941 and moved up rapidly "because I was ambitious and did my job the best I could. I was obedient and accepted responsibilities. Others called me 'Uncle Tom' and worse, and I had a few run-ins with black soldiers, but I was satisfied. I made Master Sergeant when I was twenty-years-old." That meant $140 a month, most of which he sent home.
Sergeant Coleman fought his way through Europe. He got back to Virginia in January 1946. "When I got home there was snow on the ground and a white fellow at the bus station gave me a ride home. My father came out barefoot and picked me off the ground. Daddy cried and we visited and saw everybody that night. Daddy had seven boys in the war, six overseas at once, and we all came home. I wouldn't have minded staying in the Army but my wife was a teacher and didn't want to quit, so I gave in. I bought a farm with the GI Bill."
Most black soldiers never got a chance to fight. For a few, an opportunity came during the replacements crisis at the time of the Bulge. Within General Lee's SOS were thousands of physically fit black soldiers whose jobs could be done by limited-duty personnel. Lee offered them an opportunity to volunteer for the infantry, then be placed in otherwise white units, without regard to a quota but as needed.
When SHAEF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Walter B. Smith read a circular Lee had put out, he stormed into Lee's office. Smith had been in charge of "negro policy" for the Army in 1941; he told Lee, "It is inevitable that this circular will get out, and equally inevitable that the result will be that every negro organization, pressure group and newspaper will take the attitude that, while the War Department segregates colored troops into organizations of their own against the desires and pleas of all the negro race, the Army in Europe is perfectly willing to put them in the front lines mixed in units with white soldiers and have them do battle when an emergency arises."
Breathing deeply, Smith went on, "Two years ago I would have considered this the most dangerous thing that I have ever seen in regard to negro relations."
"I can't see that at all," Lee replied. (Whatever his faults, he stood tall on this one.) "I believe it is right that colored and white soldiers should be mixed in the same company."
"I'm not arguing with that, one way or the other," Smith snapped. "But the War Department policy is different."
Smith couldn't persuade Lee, but he did convince Eisenhower to maintain an essential segregation in ETO: the Supreme Commander declared that Negro volunteers would be trained as platoons and put into the line on that basis.
At this point, Catch-22 took over. The Replacement Depots were not prepared to train platoons, only individuals. Individual replacements were badly needed in the all-black artillery and tank battalions, but the depots could train only infantry. There were 4,562 volunteers, many of them NCOs who took a reduction to private to do so. The Replacement Depots were not prepared to handle so many.
On March 1, 1945, the first 2,253 volunteers had completed their training. They were organized into thirty-seven rifle platoons and sent to the front, where they were distributed as needed to the companies. The platoon leader and sergeant were assigned from the company, and of course were white. With some exceptions, the platoons preformed well. A few were outstanding. In general, their performance was so good it led many officers who served with them to reject segregation in the Army of the future. If anything, the judgment was that they were too aggressive. In one case, three black soldiers used a captured panzerfaust to knock out a Tiger tank. They were rewarded with a week in Paris. Thereafter, there were many black soldiers seen stalking the enemy's armored monster with panzerfaust in hand.
Maj. Gen. Edwin Parker, CO of the 78th Division, said of his Negro platoons: "Morale: Excellent. Manner of performance: Superior. Men are very eager to close with the enemy and to destroy him....When given a mission they accept it with enthusiasm, and even when losses to their platoon were inflicted the colored boys pressed on."
Jim Crow was on the run, but not done. In the last month of the war, the worry became: what happens when we move into barracks? It was unthinkable that blacks and whites would share the same barracks. In the event, that worry proved to be misplaced. After two months in an integrated barracks, a battalion commander in the 78th Division said he had no problems of any kind and explained, "White men and colored men are welded together with a deep friendship and respect born of combat and matured by a realization that such an association is not the impossibility that many of us have been led to believe....When men undergo the same privations, face the same dangers before an impartial enemy, there can be no segregation. My men eat, play, work, and sleep as a company of men, with no regard to color."
There were other hopeful signs that the Army would soon be rid of Jim Crow. Yank magazine did print Corporal Timmingham's letter. A couple of months later, he wrote again. "To date I've received 287 letters," he said, "and, strange as it may seem, 183 are from white men in the armed service. Another strange feature about these letters is that the most of these people are from the Deep South. They are all proud that they are from the South but ashamed to learn that there are so many of their own people who are playing Hitler's game. Nevertheless, it gives me new hope to realize that there are doubtless thousands of whites who are willing to fight [Jim Crow]." Yank noted that it had received thousands of letters from GIs, "almost all of whom were outraged by the treatment given the corporal."
After the experience of World War II, by the end of 1945 the ground had been prepared for Jim Crow's grave. Chief Historian Wright concluded his wartime report on the employment of Negro troops with these words: "My ultimate hope is that in the long run it will be possible to assign individual Negro soldiers and officers to any unit in the Army where they are qualified as individuals to serve efficiently." That was done, under the command and leadership of the colonels, majors, captains, and lieutenants of ETO, who had seen with their own eyes. Within a decade, the Army had changed from being one of the most tightly segregated organizations in the country to the most successfully integrated.
Copyright © 1997 by Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc.
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