Signing Up The Greatest Generation

People today often believe that the United States started building up for World War II on December 8, 1941.

The fact is, the upper echelons of the Roosevelt administration saw war as more or less inevitable, going back to the thirties.  FDR started one of the greatest naval shipbuilding programs in history back in the early thirties – partly as a “stimulus”, but largely because the Navy, which had slipped into obsolescence after its huge World War I building surge, was woefully unequipped to deal with the expanding Japanese fleet.

USS Salmon; a make-work project in 1935, it became one of the workhorses of the World War II submarine fleet.

USS Salmon; a make-work project in 1935, it became one of the workhorses of the World War II submarine fleet.

What’s even harder to explain – especially with an entire generation that has no concept of “selective service”, which has been gone for nearly four decades, is the extent to which warfare was an industrial, all-society undertaking.  That was really a very rare thing, historically, having entire nations devote their entire industrial base and manpower to waging war against other nations.  It really started, at least in the West, with Napoleon, who introduced broad conscription throughout France and the occupied territories to keep his armies (which, for all of Napoleon’s genius, suffered grievous casualties) manned.  The US Civil War was the first to bring a developed nation’s entire industrial might to bear against an enemy; the Franco-Prussian War, the first to pit two developed industrial nations in mass war with conscipted masses of troops; World War I, lineups of the same on both sides.

Cartoon lampooning Napoleons conscription

Cartoon lampooning Napoleon's conscription

Big War and Big Government, naturally, go hand in hand; you can’t fight a big war without a big government, directing big industry and raising big manpower.

It was seventy years ago today that Franklin D. Roosevelt, the patron saint of Big Government, signed “peacetime” conscription into law. It was the first peacetime draft in American history.  It ran, through three wars and the Pax Eisenhower, for 33 years.

FDR signs the Selective Service Training Act

FDR signs the Selective Service Training Act

It was a huge change in the way the US military, especially the Army, did its business.  A “professional” army – volunteers who sign up to serve of their own free will, and often make careers of the service, and who treat fighting as their job – are usually able (says conventional military wisdom) to do things that draftees can’t.

Imagine this (and the imagination is difficult to impossible for those who’ve not been there, but I’m recycling things I’ve read from other writers who have); you’re advancing through a town; the Captain has told you to take the church, so you can use the steeple as an observation post.  Your squad – eight other guys just like you, and a sergeant who leads you – takes fire from the church.  One of your guys is hit, and goes down to the ground, screaming in pain.  If you and your squad are volunteers, who’ve made a career out of training for this sort of thing, you are more likely to go about your mission, to haul the wounded guy out of harm’s way and put down covering fire on the church to allow one or two guys to get across the street and start chucking grenades in there.  If you and your eight – well, seven – comrades are all draftees who had eight weeks of basic training and would all rather be driving tractors or jerking sodas or building pole barns or finishing high school back in Kansas or Chicago or Montana or California, your sergeant is going to have to work real hard to get you to run out under fire to get the wounded guy, and then aim you at the church to try to finish the job; you will be much more likely to hide out in a cellar and wait for someone else to do the job, if you can.

US Infantry advance through Waldenburg, Germany, 1945

US Infantry advance through Waldenburg, Germany, 1945

And then, if mortar rounds start raining down, and you hear a tank moving up behind the church, who do you suppose it more likely to grab a bazooka and find a place to lay in wait, and who is more likely to sprint for the rear when the sergeant turns his back?

This has always been the great conundrum of militaries; small,  professional armies of volunteers are more likely to perform reliably, even spectacularly.  Britain’s army in 1914, the “Old Contemptibles”, was about 10% the size of the German and French armies. All volunteers, all trained to the highest standard (especially marksmanship; German units thought they were facing machine guns, not guys with bolt-action Enfields), they shredded the first waves of German attackers along their front.  And the second wave.  And so on.  Until they got killed or wounded in subsequent waves.  And were replaced by newbies and, finally, draftees.  In the meantime, armies of draftees are frequently unreliable in combat, sometimes spectacularly so, especially when fighting on turf not their own.

And each nation dealt with this conundrum differently.

The USSR drafted millions of men (and women), many of them deeply unhappy to be fighting for Josef Stalin.  For some, fighting for the Rodina against the enemy was enough; for the rest, the NKVD  would wait with machine guns, to kill anyone who failed to carry home the attack with gusto and vigor. Stalin also made it clear that being captured, even while incapacitated, was a capital offense likely to lead to nasty consequences for families left behindTo the Russian draftee, victory was the only alternative to death.  And they died in horrendous numbers, at both German and Soviet hands.

Soviet troops. It was pretty much Win or Die for Ivan, 2/3 of whom were killed during the war - many of them killed by fellow Russians.

Soviet troops. It was pretty much "Win or Die" for Ivan, 2/3 of whom were killed during the war - many of them killed by fellow Russians.

Britain had never been comfortable with the draft.  And so draftees, especially in combat units, joined regiments that had long, storied histories and traditions.   Picture the United State Marine Corps, only a good 100 years longer, in many cases, and most of them drawn from the same area in the UK, fighting often with friends and neighbors.  A British draftee infantryman wasn’t just a number in an anonymous, numbered unit, like an American soldier who might be underwhelmed to be posted to the 2nd Battalion of the 329th Infantry Regiment (which sprang into existence in 1942, and sprang back out in 1945); if he were from, say, Inverary, Scotland, he’d serve in the “Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders“, a unit with a long history of doing great things, led by officers and (especially) NCOs who had spent their careers marinating in that spirit.  Britain being a fairly traditional, caste-based society, it worked in a way that is probably foreign to Americans who’ve never been, say, Marines.

British troops of the 7th Battalion, the Worcestershire Regiment - largely draftees from Worcestershire.  The Woosters history goes back to 1694.

British troops of the 7th Battalion, the Worcestershire Regiment - largely draftees from Worcestershire. The Woosters' history goes back to 1694.

In the US?  A nation without much in the way of shared martial tradition (outside the South, which in fact provided a disproportionate number of soldiers and officers, then as now), but immense industrial power?  We made up for any shortfalls in British-style esprit de corps and Soviet-style brutality with immense firepower.  US troops may have been as reluctant a group of warriors as any mass body of draftees throughout history, but they had firepower beyond the dreams of their opponents and, largely, allies; from the rifle squads with their M1 Garands (the world’s first semi-automatic military rifle in general issue, which gave an individual grunt double the firepower of his British friend or German/Japanese enemy), to artillery and, finally, air support on a lavish scale.  The US Army could blast holes through enemy positions that would have swallowed up regular armies or, given draftee behavior, made them hide out in shell craters and rubble until there was a fair chance of moving forward or backward without getting torn apart.

Sherman tanks and infantry in heavy going

Sherman tanks and infantry in heavy going

Which is not to say draftees were cowards – far from it.  And it’s not to say they didn’t become good soldiers; after thirty days in combat, they’d be as capable as any Ranger.

If they survived.

But, as befitted an army fielded by a technocratic, “big” administration, the US Army adopted a personnel policy that may have been as lethal an enemy as any Japanese machine-gunner or German mortarman.

The US Army’s personnel policy would be recognizable to a production manager at any factory; if you had a machine on a production line, you could keep that machine running 24/7, provided you kept it stocked with power and materials.  And so the system was designed to keep the machines – the “Divisions” – stocked with supplies; fuel and ammunition and, by the way, guys in olive-drab uniforms.  The ideal was that the units, the divisions and their component regiments and battalions, would stay in the front line more or less nonstop, like a production machine; the Army would just keep feeding men into the units to keep them up to full strength.  But the newbies – “replacements” – would go, usually under cover of darkness, into units of complete strangers, to sink or swim, more or less.  The ones that survived became highly proficient soldiers, because they had to – but the casualty rates among replacement soldiers fed into the line was horrendous.

GIs of the 28th Infantry Division in the Hürtgen Forest, 1944.  The battle was one of the bloodiest in US history, and also the most pointless, serving no strategic purpose whatsoever.

GIs of the 28th Infantry Division in the Hürtgen Forest, 1944. The battle was one of the bloodiest in US history, and also the most pointless, serving no strategic purpose whatsoever.

It got to the point that the Army figured a replacement could do any job at all, with a little practice in the front line; raw replacements were sent not only to the infantry, but to serve in tank units, which suffered grievous losses as well (more on that when we get to the chapter on the Sherman Tank) but, theoretically, required some training to handle the complex mechanics of running the tank, to say nothing of firing a cannon and driving off-road in a 30-ton vehicle.  The raw replacement crews fared very, very badly; during the Battle of the Bulge, a group of seventeen replacement tanks, with seventeen veteran crewmen as commanders and 68 rank newbies who’d never been in a tank before serving as drivers, loaders and gunners, was infiltrated by a single German tank, which destroyed each of them in turn, killing and maiming dozens as their crews vainly tried to figure out their complex machines, which they were driving for the very first time.

Sherman tank, knocked out in Normandy.  Hatches are open; some of the crew may have survived.

Sherman tank, knocked out in Normandy. Hatches are open; some of the crew may have survived.

But firepower won the day.  The Germans and Japanese had little respect for American infantry (although units that spent enough time in the line with low enough casualties to develop some collective experience earned some grudging praise), and German tankers ridiculed the Americans’ Sherman tanks – but our enemies around the world all feared American air power and, especially, the artillery, which was accurate, quick to get on target, and available in crushing weight.

American 155mm self-propelled gun - mobile and crushingly powerful

American 155mm self-propelled gun - mobile and crushingly powerful

And so we won the war with an army of draftees.  And we fought the next one to a standstill with the younger brother of that same army, only on a shoestring.

And then the son of that army went to Vietnam – just in time for war to change.  A military designed to shred tank attacks with artillery, armor and air power was very poorly adapted to fighting peasant guerrillas in a counterinsurgency war.  Draftees with enough firepower could bludgeon an industrial enemy into submission at acceptable cost – but winning a war that involved as much winning of hearts and minds as destroying enemies in close combat was another whole animal.

US troops in Vietnam

US troops in Vietnam

And the American draftee adapted, yet again – but again, at immense cost.

Today’s the birthday of our last draft.  Some would bring it back; they’d do it for reasons that would have resonated with Franklin D Roosevelt.

I say good riddance.

Even as I deal with teenage kids.

12 thoughts on “Signing Up The Greatest Generation

  1. Interesting observations, Mitch.

    My dad and three of my uncles served during the Korean War. My dad never got over there, but two of my uncles did. One of them, by a twist of fate, would have been at the Chosin Reservoir, but a medic saw him limping and sent him to have his foot checked. He had the early stages of trenchfoot.

    I was very fortunate that both of them shared, although reluctantly, many of their experiences with me. Perhaps my stint in Viet Nam gave me the cred to hear them. They told me about the fear they had. Including times when they were so scared that they wet themselves and they weren’t the only ones; like, when 2 T-34s were coming down the road and their bazooka rounds either misfired or bounced off of them. They quickly learned to take out the tracks, but not without casualties.

    They also said that they had many guys that were so scared that they ran, but that was typically a death sentence because they usually made their break when the commies were too close for them to get away. Obviously, most followed orders and in fact, they both witnessed many selfless acts of bravery.

    I loved the funny stories of individuals that they remembered. For instance, one of them relayed a tale of an 18 year old freckle faced kid from a farm in Kansas that was scared of his own shadow, yet, when the shooting started, he was cool as a cucumber. He claimed that the guy “could shoot the eye out a gnat at 100 yards” with his M1 and hit everything that he shot at, proclaiming him a bargain for the US taxpayer in that he didn’t waste ammo.

    We owe so much to all of those guys that put themselves in harms way, yet after WWII, they had no clue as to why they were doing it.

  2. It’s interesting compare the percentage of American soldiers at the front in WW2 compared with the other combatants. It’s quite a bit lower, and that’s due to the American’s dependence on air power and artillery in particular. Of course, that dependence wasn’t without downsides, as the Battle of the Bulge showed.

    But that dependence on air power and artillery was not without reason. The Americans had some pretty good aircraft, and some of those were really good at ground attack like the Jug. And they had good communications technology and some excellent artillery making the artillery a very powerful component.

    But I don’t know of anyone who sings the praises of the Sherman as a tank. Gas compared to diesel in case of a hit? Lousy armor and gun compared to what everyone else in the European theater had? At least it was cheap and there were a lot of them: 40K+ Shermans vs. less than 2K Tigers of all stripes and many of those on the Russian front and a paltry 5K Panthers. The only reason that Shermans survived combat was that they generally faced the older German tanks that couldn’t compete on the Eastern Front, and when they did fight modern armor they could swarm and overwhelm the vastly superior German tanks, but at great cost to the American tankers.

    Those were gutsy guys back then. It was amazing listening to the few occasions when my grandfather and his relatives would even touch on the subject, but they never talked about it very much or long.

  3. nerdbert;

    I recently saw a piece on the Military Channel about that very thing, from the perspective of some surviving British tankers that drove them. One “chap” said that the Germans called them Tommie Cookers because of the Sherman’s inherently explosivity. They illustrated how a tank platoon coming up against say a Tiger, might lose three tanks before the fourth could haul ass to get behind the Tiger and take it out. That was the tragedy. Even if was just equipped with a bigger gun, it would have made a huge difference in it’s survivability.

    Of course, the fact that the Shermans, for the most part, used a Ford V8 engine, was pretty smart, as it cut down training time. Almost every guy in the field, including those assigned to to mechanical career fields, already knew how to fix them, to the point of being able to jury rig them in emergencies, to get them rolling.

  4. Even if was just equipped with a bigger gun, it would have made a huge difference in it’s survivability.

    The Brits did field the “Firefly” version, with a “17-pounder” antitank gun, in 1944. The 17 pounder was a match for the German 75/L70 and 88/L56 , and could take out Tigers and Panthers at most practical ranges. It was also twice as long as the regular 75mm gun, making it easier for German tanks and antitank guns (often firing from concealment at advancing British units) to pick out and hit first.

    But more on that after April 16 – the 70th anniversary of the first Sherman. Yes, it’s largely written already.

  5. My father’s cousin, whose name I bear, was one of those late 1944 replacements. With basic training and even three months of infantry training, he couldn’t have been sent in earlier than December 1944, but I know he was with the Eighth Division by his nineteenth birthday in January, somewhere in Belgium I suppose. I never got to hear any of his stories. He survived the winter, but was KIA in early April, just weeks before the fighting ended.

  6. I remember that. They had to install it sideways.

    British Rules or Engagement were quite different from the Americans during WWII, which probably led to more of their men getting taken out than were necessary. Either that or their recon wasn’t very good. Interestingly enough, one example of the stupidity of some of those Rules was illustrated in Band of Brothers. Despite being told that a German tank was hidden behind a building by a GI, the British tank commander wouldn’t shoot because he couldn’t cause “unnecessary damage”. As illustrated further, his whole platoon was kocked out.

  7. Good points. In my family, there were a number of men who made **** sure they didn’t end up in infantry or cavalry, and I think I know why now…..

  8. The Firefly was a nice improvement in that it kill the Tiger, but it still couldn’t do the frontal glacis of the Panther. It fell to the tank destroyers the Americans fielded to threaten the modern German tanks. Although the tank destroyers were poorly deployed and less effective than the Americans thought it would be.

    The gyro stabilizer in the Sherman was nice and that probably made the biggest difference in combat between the Sherman and the Mk IVs they more typically fought since the Americans could run and shoot at the same time better than the Germans.

    Still, it was the Panther that slaughtered the Sherman. In terms of overall effectiveness it had the most impact of the German tanks. It was less than half the price of a Tiger, more reliable and maneuverable, offered better protection, and it was nearly the same price as the vastly inferior Mk IV. As badly as the Shermans fared it would have been far worse if the Germans had been equiped with only Panthers instead of 50/50 Panthers and Mk IVs.

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