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Band Of Brothers: The Island

Veterans and Replacements

Converted for the Web from "Band Of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest" by Stephen E. Ambrose

Winters' replacement as Easy Company commander failed to measure up. He came in from another battalion. Pvt. Ralph Stafford was scathing in his description: "He really screwed up. He not only didn't know what to do, he didn't care to learn. He stayed in bed, made no inspections and sent for more plums." He was shortly relieved.

Other replacement officers had also failed. Christenson said of one, "Indecision was his middle name.... In combat his mind became completely disoriented, and he froze. We, the N.C.O.s of the platoon, took over and got the job done; and never did he complain, for he realized his inability to command under pressure."

Webster wrote about a platoon leader in the Nuenen fight: "I never saw him in the fracas. He never came to the front. He failed to live up to his responsibilities; the old men in the platoon never forgave him. For an enlisted man to fail in a grave situation was bad, but for an officer, who was supposed to lead his men, it was inexcusable."

Malarkey related that in that fight, Guarnere "was giving hell to some officer who had his head buried in the sand, telling him he was supposed to be leading the platoon.... The same officer was later seen at an aid station shot through the hand, suspected of being self-inflicted."

A combination of new officers and men who had not been trained up to the standard of the original Currahee group, the rigors of constant pounding by artillery and the danger of night patrols was taking a toll on Easy. The conditions exacerbated the situation.

Paul Fussell has described the two stages of rationalization a combat soldier goes through -- it can't happen to me, then it can happen to me, unless I'm more careful -- followed by a stage of "accurate perception: it is going to happen to me, and only my not being there [on the front lines] is going to prevent it." Some men never get to the perception; for others, it comes almost at once. When it does come to a member of a rifle company in the front line, it is almost impossible to make him stay there and do his duty. His motivation has to be internal. Comradeship is by far the strongest motivator -- not wanting to let his buddies down, in the positive sense, not wanting to appear a coward in front of the men he loves and respects above all others in the negative sense. Discipline won't do it, because discipline relies on punishment, and there is no punishment the army can inflict on a front-line soldier worse than putting him into the front line.

One reason for this is what Glenn Gray calls "the tyranny of the present" in a foxhole. The past and, more important, the future do not exist. He explains that there is "more time for thinking and more loneliness in foxholes at the front than in secure homes, and time is measured in other ways than by clocks and calendars." To the soldier under fire who has reached his limit, even the most horrible army jail looks appealing. What matters is living through the next minute.

Gray speculates that this is why soldiers will go to such extraordinary lengths to get souvenirs. At Brécourt Manor, Malarkey ran out into a field being raked by machine-gun fire to get what he thought was a Luger from a dead German. In Holland, on October 5, as Webster was limping back to the rear, in an open field under fire from a German 88, he spotted "a German camouflaged poncho, an ideal souvenir." He stopped to "scoop it up." Gray explains the phenomenon: "Primarily, souvenirs appeared to give the soldier some assurance of his future beyond the destructive environment of the present. They represented a promise that he might survive." It is almost impossible to think of anything but survival in a life-threatening situation, which accounts for the opposite phenomenon to souvenir-grabbing -- the soldier's casual attitude toward his own possessions, his indifferent attitude toward money. "In campaigns of extreme hazard," Gray writes, "soldiers learn more often than civilians ever do that everything external is replaceable, while life is not."

What is not replaceable is the esteem of comrades, but to the replacement soldier, just arrived, there is no comradeship, so there is nothing to hold him to his post. Gray tells the story of a deserter he found in a woods in France in November 1944. The lad was from the Pennsylvania mountains, he was accustomed to camping out, he had been there a couple weeks and intended to stay until the war ended. "All the men I knew and trained with have been killed or transferred," the deserter explained. "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 soldier 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.

At the front, not only spit-and-polish discipline breaks down. Orders can be ignored, as supervision is not exact where danger of death is present. "Old soldiers have learned by bitter experience to be independent and to make their own decisions," Webster wrote his parents shortly after he was wounded. "Once our lieutenant told my squad leader to take his eight men and knock out some anti-aircraft guns that were firing on a flight of gliders. Nine men with rifles fighting dual-purpose 88s and 40 mms! The sergeant said yes (censored). By using his own judgment he saved our lives in a situation where a new man would have rushed in blindly. This same lieutenant later ordered two scouts into a German position, but they, knowing better, got (censored)."

Veterans tried to help replacements, but they also took care not to learn their names, as they expected them to be gone shortly. It was not that the old hands had no sympathy for the recruits. "Our new members," Webster wrote his parents, "representatives of the 18-year-old draft, were so young and enthusiastic-looking it seemed a crime to send them into battle. We paratroopers get the best men in the army, but it's a hell of a fate for somebody who's never been away from home or high school to come here."

No man in Easy had been in combat before June 6, 1944, but by October all the men who took off from England on the evening of June 5 who were still alive in Holland had been through two combat jumps and two campaigns. Many of them had been wounded; some of the wounded had gone AWOL from the hospital to go to Holland. This was not because they had a love of combat, but because they knew if they did not go to war with Easy, they would be sent to war with strangers, as the only way out of combat for a rifleman in ETO was death or a wound serious enough to cost a limb. If they had to fight, they were determined it would be with their comrades.

Replacements could seldom reach this level of identification. Further, as the army was speeding up the training process to provide men for the battle, the replacements were not of the quality of the original Currahee men. At Veghal, Webster saw a replacement named Max "moaning and clutching his right hand."

"Help me! Help me! Somebody help me!"

"What's wrong? Shot anywhere else?"

"No, no. It hurts!"

"Why don't you get up and run?"

"He didn't feel like it. He was in shock so bad he just wanted to lie there and moan.... It's a funny thing about shock. Some boys can have their foot blown off and come limping back to the aid station under their own power, while others, like Max, freeze up at the sight of blood and refuse to help themselves. They say that shock is largely physical, but it seems to me that one's mental attitude has a lot to do with it. Max wasn't aggressive, he wasn't hard, he wasn't well-trained."

That officers and men broke under the constant strain, tension, and vulnerability is not remarkable. What is remarkable is that so many did not break.

Copyright © 1992 by Stephen E. Ambrose. All rights reserved. Converted for the Web with the permission of Simon & Schuster.

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