Infantryman: A Day in the Life of an Infantry-Man in World War II
A Day in the Life of an Infantry-Man in World War II

A Day in the Life of an Infantry-Man in World War II

Larry Holzwarth - July 14, 2018

Of the American combat troops which served on the continent of Europe during the Second World War about 15% were frontline infantry. They served in squads, led by a junior officer and experienced sergeants, slogged through and slept in mud and snow, maintaining contact with the enemy, taking and holding ground. In previous American wars volunteer units were often composed of men from the same communities, but not in World War II, when a typical squad included members from all over the United States. When they first arrived in Europe the squads had often been together since their basic infantry training, but casualties and replacements inevitably changed their composition.

The combat infantryman, and for the most part their immediate superiors at the front, had little information about the overall situation of the war. Their war was what they encountered. News about the war was disseminated in newspapers such as Stars and Stripes, but few found their way to the front, and when they did they were often several weeks old. The infantrymen didn’t know the reasons why they had to fight and too often die for a particular hill, or seemingly useless French farm or village, they simply had to do what they were told.

A Day in the Life of an Infantry-Man in World War II
The United States Fifth Infantry Division advances in Lorraine in the fall of 1944. US Army

Here are ten examples of what life was like for the combat infantryman of the Second World War.

A Day in the Life of an Infantry-Man in World War II
USS West Point, shown here bringing American troops home in 1945 following the Victory in Europe. US Navy

Getting there

The Americans who served in the Army in Europe were recruited and trained at various bases and camps in the United States before being sent to points of embarkation near major East Coast ports for transport to Europe. Some embarkation ports were near major military installations, such as Norfolk, Virginia. Others were encampments such as Camp Myles Standish, outside of Boston, Massachusetts. Camp Standish was both a staging area for embarking troops and a prisoner of war camp. It was capable of processing an entire division for embarkation in a single day, but it seldom did due to the nature of shipping schedules from the Port of Boston.

The Army considered its use as an embarkation point a secret, and so warned the young soldiers when they arrived. While remaining at the camp, soldiers were told that they would be allowed to leave the facility and visit Boston, or Providence and other locations. Transportation was provided, and troops were not allowed to wear unit insignia outside the camp, nor discuss their unit or the camp with civilians. Impressed with this secrecy and their implied importance, many of the soldiers discovered that civilians in Boston knew of the camp, its purpose, and the fact that the soldiers being temporarily held there were on their way to Europe.

The American army traveled to Europe by ship, and by a wide variety of ships including troop transports designed and built for the purpose, Liberty ships, converted freighters, and the great ocean liners of the Allies. The liners had been gutted and great rows of tiered bunks filled their hulls. SS America, renamed USS West Point, could carry nearly eight thousand troops and its speed meant it could sail without escorts, capable of outrunning German U-boats. Aboard ship, the troops, most of whom had never been on a ship before, endured crowded conditions, jammed mess halls with waiting lines of up to an hour, seasickness, and boredom.

American troops disembarked in ports in England and Scotland, Iceland, and North Africa, and as the war went on, directly on the continent in Marseille and Toulon in the Mediterranean, and Cherbourg and other Channel ports. They were marched or trucked to holding areas, where they encamped in accordance with their division procedures to await the arrival of their heavy equipment and logistics facilities. Despite these encampments being located in secured areas, the army being the army demanded sentries around them, and sufficient make work was scheduled to give the men something to do. The infantryman’s first encounter with the French or Italians usually took place near these camps.

The young Americans soon learned the essential words in French to address their immediate concerns, such as mademoiselle, vin, biere, and other useful phrases and terms. Depending on the season in which they arrived, the camps could be pleasant or miserable; for example, Mediterranean fall sunshine or the bitter Mistral winds of winter. While waiting for their orders for deployment the food was at least usually hot and plentiful, opportunities to fraternize with the welcoming French were frequent, and the mail arrived regularly bringing news from home. It was a lull before the storm, since more and more infantrymen were needed at the front.

A Day in the Life of an Infantry-Man in World War II
American parachute infantry advance in the Huertgen Forest in February, 1945. US Army

Personal health

The infantrymen of World War 2 slogged across Europe from the spring of 1944 through the early spring of 1945. He encountered the open fields and farmlands of France, the dense woods of the Ardennes, the mountainous terrain in Italy, Les Voges, and Alsace, in all weather conditions. While at the front he faced not only a determined enemy, but ice, snow, rain, mud, bitter cold and stifling heat. Through it all, he carried all of the gear he needed to survive in the field, protect himself from the elements, and defend himself from the enemy. Of all the gear he carried, other than his weapons and ammunition, none was more important to him than clean socks.

Marching through rain and mud, or in snow, soaked the feet, making them susceptible to blisters and trench foot. The Army provided waterproof boots and galoshes, which made the feet sweat on marches and could cause the same problems. Besides being painful blisters could easily lead to infections. Care of his feet was paramount to the infantrymen since they were his primary means of conveyance. Tired, footsore soldiers experienced difficulty keeping up with the rest of their unit, and traveling alone was far more dangerous than within the unit itself, for both the straggler and the rest of the unit. In some conditions, infantrymen would change their socks at any opportunity.

Bathing and shaving were unheard of luxuries at the front, and when units did receive an opportunity to shower it was often through the use of a lister bag shower. A lister bag was a large canvas bag with a shower head attached to the bottom. Holding approximately 36 gallons of water, the bag was suspended about five feet above the ground. The infantrymen would have just enough time to wet down, lather up using GI soap, and rinse off. The shower usually occurred at the same time as an opportunity to obtain fresh clothing, and the soldier would run from the shower to the clothing distribution center to receive an issue of clean clothes.

Since the shower and clothing issue often took place in the dead of winter and outdoors, it was an invigorating experience, but a not very frequent one. During some periods of intense combat more than a month could go by without clean clothes or a shower. Shaving could be accomplished in the field during lulls in the fighting, often with water heated inside a helmet, using a camp stove or the heat canister from a rations pack as the heating source. Since infantrymen spent a lot of time on or digging in the ground, most rotated out of combat for rest and recreation as a grimy, gritty, and unshaven lot, unconcerned with their non-parade ground appearance.

Toothbrushes and tooth powder were included in ration packs, and the teeth could be brushed using water in canteens, except for during the colder periods of the winter of 1944-45 when the canteens froze solid. Infantrymen used undisturbed snow as the source for the water to brush their teeth, as well as for drinking water and for mixing the powdered drinks from their rations. The ration packs also included tablets for the purification of water they encountered in the field from streams, ponds, and even wells, since it was unknown if the Germans had taken any steps to contaminate wells as they withdrew.

A Day in the Life of an Infantry-Man in World War II
An American infantryman inspects the body of a dead German in July 1944, near St. Lo in France. National Archives

Organization

The basic unit for any infantryman in the United States Army was his squad. A typical United States infantry division contained about 15,000 officers and men, divided into three infantry regiments, with supporting companies and battalions. A regiment contained an artillery company, an anti-tank company, and three battalions of infantry. Each battalion contained a heavy weapons company with machine guns and mortars, and three rifle companies of infantrymen. Each company, usually commanded by a Captain, contained three rifle platoons, and each of those was comprised of three squads of twelve men each (a company also included a light weapons platoon).

The infantryman ate, slept, marched, fought, and died with his squad. While the platoon was commanded by a commissioned officer, usually a Second Lieutenant, the squad was led by a non-commissioned officer, usually, a Staff Sergeant serving as squad leader, assisted by a corporal. An infantryman’s link to the desires of the officers of the division was through his squad leader. Second Lieutenant was the most junior commissioned rank in the Army and experienced squad leaders often had to make up for their commander’s lack of experience in the field, and with the Army overall.

Each rifle squad had one man assigned to carry a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) while the rest of them carried rifles, usually the Garand M1 rifle. Because the BAR had such a high rate of fire both the BAR man and another member of the squad carried extra ammunition for the weapon. All the members of the squad carried additional weapons, including a sidearm and bayonet, and when deployed in the field carried both smoke and shrapnel grenades. When a squad was ordered out on a patrol it usually fell to the squad leader to decide who went and who stayed behind, unless he had orders from the higher-ups directing him who to send.

For the most part, the members of the squad had no idea of the overall strategic situation or even the local tactical situation. For the infantryman, the war was limited to how it affected his squad, and the need to protect and defend it. The squad became the infantryman’s family, social system, and workgroup. Fellow members soon learned the strengths and weaknesses of each other, who could be relied on and who would shirk his duties. Bad apples were dealt with first at the squad level, and if that didn’t correct the perceived deficiency the problem was presented to more senior personnel by the squad sergeant.

The system made the success of American infantry operations almost wholly dependent on the ability of the squad leaders to direct their men in the field. Squad leaders were given limited objectives, leaving them to speculate for the most part on aspects of an operation outside of those in which they and their men were participating. For example, infantry units directed to disrupt German lines in Les Vosges in January 1945 had no idea they were preventing the reinforcement of troops involved in the Battle of the Bulge. To the men, it appeared they were fighting for useless hills. It was up to the squad leaders to keep them fighting in brutal weather, without asking why.

A Day in the Life of an Infantry-Man in World War II
Men of the 47th Infantry Regiment pass through Remagen on their way to the Ludendorf Bridge, March 1945. US Army

What they carried

An infantryman carried on his back and in equipment bags and pockets everything he needed to survive in the field during a patrol or while en route to an ordered destination. In winter this included wearing underwear, long johns, woolen pants and shirt, one or two heavy sweaters, woolen socks, an overcoat, a rain poncho, a woolen cap, a helmet and a liner, gloves, boots, and galoshes. His clothing alone weighed more than twenty pounds. He also carried an equipment bag, ammunition bandolier, backpack, entrenching tool, grenades, rations, canteen, spare socks, a blanket, a half shelter (to sleep under), and whatever personal items he wished. Altogether his burden was over eighty pounds.

He also carried a weapon. The M1 rifle, which was the standard rifle for American infantry in 1944, weighed over ten pounds loaded, and the twelve eight-round clips in his cartridge belt added another six and a half pounds to his load. The BAR man carried a weapon which weighed over 20 pounds loaded, and he carried another 20 pounds in ammunition. The infantry rifleman during winter bore a load of over eighty pounds, the BAR man nearly one hundred. With these loads, they trudged through mud or snow during the winter of 1944-45, the coldest and snowiest in Europe in over fifty years. Sore feet and sore backs were part of life.

The infantryman often reached a designated point and had to dig in for the night. His entrenching tool could be used as a pick and a spade, but the often frozen ground encountered in late 1944 resisted his efforts stubbornly. Digging in was an exercise which added to sore backs blistered hands as the entrenching tool chipped away frozen ground. There were instances when some men used grenades to try to blast the frozen soil, a practice which was quickly stopped by the sergeants. Foxholes were dug by individuals, with each man responsible for his own hole, or in the case of weapons teams, dug together for joint occupancy.

During the winter sleeping bags were issued. Tapered at both ends, the bags were difficult to get into and even worse to get out of, and the men took to calling them mummy bags. In the case of a night attack, the men could not exit the bags quickly, and most infantrymen quit sleeping in them, preferring to stay on top of the bag and cover themselves with their overcoat or blanket. When in close proximity to the enemy smoking at night was forbidden, as were cooking fires or open flames. This meant that rations in the field were often frozen, as was the water in the canteens carried by the men, adding another eight pounds to their load, but entirely useless.

Members of the squad carried other equipment besides their personal load, as assigned by their sergeant. Axes were useful, but not all men in the squad needed to carry one. A radio operator carried the normal load for a rifleman, as well as a radio which weighed nearly forty pounds. Sometimes walkie-talkie sets were substituted, they weighed far less but offered a more limited range. All infantrymen were issued gas masks, but by the time they reached the front-most had discarded them as being unnecessary since there had been no indication that the Germans were planning on using poisonous gas, as they had in the First World War.

A Day in the Life of an Infantry-Man in World War II
Vehicles of the US First Infantry division stalled on a Belgian road in late 1944. US Army

Moving to the front

After consolidating the division and its equipment infantrymen were moved to the front, which by December 1944 was nearing the Siegfried Line, defensive fortifications protecting Germany from invasion from the west. Troops were moved to the front to prepare for another offensive in the autumn of 1944, and then redeployed in response to the surprise German counteroffensive. How they got there depended on the condition of the roads and railroads between their consolidation point and where they were needed. For example, troops in the south of France were moved first by rail, then by Army trucks, to their destination blocking elements of the German army from reinforcing and resupplying the assault in the Ardennes.

These men were first loaded onto railcars from the French rolling stock which was called 40 and 8s. The name came from the labels painted on the sides of the cars, which in French read 40 Hommes – chevaux 8 meaning 40 men or 8 horses. The cars were antiquated, dating back to before World War I, and were unheated. Many were damaged, and the Germans had left them behind as they withdrew because they considered them useless. Sanitation facilities were a box filled with sand in each car. The Americans put about twenty men in each car when they moved by train, since with their full loads of equipment they could not fit in anymore, but conditions were still crowded.

When elements of the 276th Infantry Division were moved from their consolidation camp to the front it took a journey of four days, in freezing conditions, with many unplanned stops due to conditions on the railroad and at the front. Their officers traveled on the same train, but in passenger cars, which were marginally more comfortable but also unheated. Motorized elements of the division and the supporting logistics facilities traveled by road. The 276th was not going into combat as a division, but as a task force, meaning that it was used to plug gaps in the line in response to fluid conditions during the German attack in Belgium. Thus they were deployed without artillery of their own.

The troops found that in southern France the French were friendly and welcoming, crowding around the train when it stopped in villages and towns, trading wine and bread for chocolate and cigarettes. As they approached and entered the Alsace region this welcome became less enthusiastic. Alsace had for more than a century been a region disputed between the French and the Germans, and many of the residents there were more supportive of the latter than the former. The names of the towns and villages were meaningless to the men, most of whom had no knowledge of French geography nor what their destination was.

The rifle companies of the 276th Infantry Division arrived in the French town of Brumath on the day after Christmas, 1944. They didn’t know it, but they were about 60 miles from the Rhine River, which lay to the North, and less than one hundred miles east of Stuttgart, Germany. The combat infantrymen were unaware of their mission, tired and hungry having had little food other than frozen k-rations for four days, and about to enter combat with a German division which had been diverted from the Eastern Front in order to support the offensive which had stalled in the Ardennes at Bastogne. All they learned from their officers was that it was time to travel on foot.

A Day in the Life of an Infantry-Man in World War II
Veterans of the 289th Infantry Regiment on the road to St. Vith during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. US Army

Learning from experience

Infantrymen in the Second World War quickly learned that everything they needed to know to survive in the field was not part of the training curriculum in basic infantry school. The extra socks they needed to carry to protect their feet was one example. Men in the field soon learned to carry as many extras as they could, frequently stuffing them under their shirts and in empty pockets. When marching in heavy snow or mud the terrain pulled at their boots, which was both doubly fatiguing and created friction between skin and boots, leading to blisters which needed to be attended to as quickly as possible to prevent infection.

They also learned to never forgo any opportunity to rest. Stops on the march of more than a few minutes were to be used to grab any sleep they could. The future being unknown, the possibility of hours of sleeplessness was always present, and catnaps were a necessary precaution against hours of exhausting activity. Sleep was not a luxury but a necessity. So was the need to stay nourished, and despite the idea of eating unappetizing rations cold, due to the necessity of avoiding using cooking fires, it was better than nothing. Whenever and wherever possible, infantrymen in France traded with the civilians for food such as eggs and vegetables.

The most common trade items were cigarettes and chocolate, both of which Americans were amply supplied with, and the French civilians were not. In some instances, American troops received a type of chocolate which had been made for use in the tropical climate of the South Pacific, and which due to a typical Army error in administration ended up in Europe. Made by the Hershey Company, the chocolate was laced with paraffin, which helped keep it from melting in the tropical heat. In France, the bars were as hard as the frozen soil. The men couldn’t eat them anyway, so they made excellent trade items with the candy-starved French.

Infantrymen frequently found that their unit was transferred to the command of another division, a means of reinforcing units which had been engaged with the Germans and weakened as a result, or which needed additional men for a counteroffensive. Although the men were usually informed of such a move, their immediate officers and non-coms remained in place, as seldom was a transfer of less than company strength. Usually, these transfers led to the men being ordered to remove the insignia identifying their division from their uniforms, to deny the information to the Germans. Occasionally the men were transferred piecemeal.

When men were transferred out of their unit to join another division they were placed under the command of a different squad leader. Each was an unknown quantity to the other. This was both damaging to morale and weakened the reliability of the unit, and was avoided as much as possible, but became necessary during the rush to contain the German counteroffensive in the Ardennes in 1944. As usual, the average infantryman had little knowledge of the overall situation and why such transfers were necessary. In the absence of hard information, speculation and rumors spread, and the experienced infantryman learned to ignore the rumors and keep his mind on his job.

A Day in the Life of an Infantry-Man in World War II
American infantry from the 28th Infantry division march on the Champs Elysees in Paris. Some were in action later the same day. National Archives

Out of combat

The infantry rotated troops to and out of the front, either as it receded while the Germans withdrew to new defensive positions or as replacement troops took over, giving the squads an opportunity to rest, shower, obtain fresh clothing and recover from combat. Rest and recovery could be at the level of any of the units of command, or as little as the squad level. It was only in the direst of circumstances that an entire division was engaged in combat simultaneously, usually several units were held in reserve. When the reserves moved up the troops which had been in combat were withdrawn, and what luxuries the Army could offer were enjoyed.

These included cold beer, which was provided by American brewers, mandated by war regulations. Fifteen percent of all American beer production was set aside for the American military, and it was brought near to the front for resting troops to consume. Access to the field kitchens provided the men not engaged in combat with hot meals, though complaining about the food in all situations was a time-honored tradition, as in all armies. Mail – though censored – was read and written. Newspapers and magazines were available for the troops as were recreation activities such as baseball and softball, volleyball, and during the warm months swimming if a suitable body of water was near.

Even during the period of rest, the possibility of a sudden attack was always present. The Luftwaffe was still a potent threat during the summer of 1944 as the Allies pushed across France. The American lines in the Ardennes were thin when the Germans attacked there in 1944 in part because the troops stationed there were there to rest. After heavy fighting across France and the Low Countries, it was believed by the Allied High Command that the Germans lacked the ability or the will to launch an assault in the Ardennes, and the troops were there to rest through Christmas. Instead, they were soon engulfed in the biggest battle of US Army history.

Units which were depleted from battle casualties received replacements both while they were on the line and during periods of rest and recreation. Those who arrived during actual combat received a warmer welcome than those arriving while the squad was resting. Absent an opportunity to prove themselves, these arriving infantrymen found the squad wary of them, and sometimes almost hostile. Replacement infantrymen were often treated as an outsider, and no doubt already somewhat fearful of what they were getting into, they bore an additional burden of being considered to be little more than a casualty waiting to happen.

Again it fell to the squad leaders to decide when enough hazing had been conducted by the veterans of combat on the new arrivals. Some were necessary as a part of simply releasing the tension built up through combat and seeing friends wounded or killed, but it was up to the sergeants to establish what went too far. For all the men given a brief respite from the fighting, the possibility of the period being abruptly cut short was ever-present, as activities at the front demanded their immediate return to the battle line. As always during the war, the combat infantryman knew little of the overall situation and did as he was told ignorant for the most part of the reason why.

A Day in the Life of an Infantry-Man in World War II
A sled laden with ammunition is dragged by US infantrymen towards the fighting during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. National Archives

Weapons

The overwhelming majority of the combat infantrymen deployed during the Second World War carried as their primary weapon the Garand M1 rifle. The M1 was a semi-automatic rifle, allowing its operator to fire an entire eight-round clip simply by squeezing the trigger for each shot, without having to operate the bolt manually to chamber the next round. According to General George S. Patton, the M1 was, “the greatest battle implement ever devised.” The .30 caliber M1 was designed to be easily disassembled for cleaning in the field. It featured a reduced recoil, allowing an infantryman to more readily keep it on line with the target when firing multiple shots, and offered a simple range adjustment. It was rugged, reliable, and in the hands of a marksman deadly.

An infantryman was trained to fire a full eight-round clip in battle before reloading the weapon. Although a partially discharged clip could be ejected from the rifle it was common practice not to do so. The rifle automatically ejected an exhausted clip, emitting an audible and distinctive ping. The rifle was accessorized to become a grenade launcher, firing the Mk 7 grenade with the addition of a modified sight. Cleaning tools and oil were kept in the buttstock. Infantrymen were trained to keep the rifle cleaned and well-oiled at all times, and since their lives depended on their weapon most were diligent about following this directive.

Infantrymen also carried a sidearm. During the Second World War, the US military purchased about 1.9 million Colt .45 semiautomatic pistols, manufactured by Colt Firearms and under license by the Remington Rand Typewriter Company, Singer Sewing Machine Company, and other contractors. The differing calibers of the two main weapons carried by the infantryman presented a problem. Most infantrymen did not carry additional ammunition for the .45, which was considered a defensive weapon of last resort, and those that did typically carried only one or two preloaded magazines.

Officers and sergeants frequently carried the M1 carbine, which used the same ammunition as the M1 rifle but was lighter and easier to handle in the field. The Thompson .45 caliber submachine gun was sometimes carried by a non-com to give a squad more firepower in the field, but it was not deployed as heavily as films and television depict due to its poor penetrating power and its weight. It was mostly used by specialty units rather than infantry. By February 1944 the US Army discontinued purchasing the Thompson, after approximately 1.5 million units had been obtained by the Army and Marine Corps. It was also shipped to both the UK and the Soviets as part of a lend-lease.

The Browning Automatic Rifle, of which each infantry rifle squad had one (and which was incidentally a favored weapon of Clyde Barrow of Bonnie and Clyde fame) was also a .30 caliber weapon. When US troops encountered German units with multiple automatic weapons, the US Army changed its approach, and authorized two BARs per squad, though in practice this was difficult to achieve due to the weight of additional ammunition which had to be carried by other squad members, and which led to some non-coms favoring the Thompson to counter the German automatic fire. The need for special training for BAR operators, including the proper method of cleaning it, also contributed to its being carried by only one squad member.

A Day in the Life of an Infantry-Man in World War II
A wounded American soldier is loaded into a halftrack converted to serve as an ambulance in Germany in early 1945. US Army

Medical Care

All members of an infantry rifle squad carried a first aid kit for the immediate treatment of wounds or injuries received in the field. While all rifle companies had assigned medics, they were not always in the company of squads on patrol or deployed in forwarding positions. Nor was treating wounded their only duty, they were responsible for the overall health of the men in their company, treating them for dysentery, routine illnesses such as colds and flu, blisters, sprains and broken bones, and other miseries encountered by the men. In combat they treated the wounded in the field, wearing helmets which were clearly marked with a Red Cross. They did not carry weapons.

The infantryman of World War II had a much better chance of surviving some wounds which would have been fatal during previous wars. Treatment of wounds using sulfa drugs and powder and the growing use of penicillin to prevent and treat infections were on his side. So was the increasing use of forward-deployed ambulances, and forward treatment stations, surgeries, and evacuation hospitals. A system for the treatment and evacuation of wounded was developed in the Mediterranean theater before the Americans landed in France, and by the end of 1944, it worked smoothly and efficiently, applying the knowledge gained by experience.

Depending on the severity of a wound, an infantryman injured in combat could find himself directed to a medical facility which was established in five levels or echelons. Walking wounded were usually treated at aid stations manned by the medical personnel of their own unit. More severely wounded were sent, by ambulance or by rail, to forward surgical posts. Other severely wounded men and those recovering from surgery were sent, if necessary, to hospitals operated by the Army, the International Red Cross, or the medical services of the nation in which they were located. Some wounded received convalescent leave far behind the lines.

Those determined to be too severely wounded to continue their recovery in theater were sent to either England or the United States on hospital ships, and then routed to recovery hospitals on specially equipped hospital trains. Some of these men were discharged following recovery, while others remained in the service performing administrative or training duties. Their experience as front-line combat infantry was invaluable in training new recruits in what they could expect when it became their turn at the front.

Those who were killed in combat were identified by their dog tags, and buried by special details for the most part, although it was not uncommon for infantrymen to bury the dead of their units while on patrol, marking the location with a dog tag. That was the reason for two dog tags. One went back to headquarters to notify them of the death, the other remained at the grave so that the body could be identified. Infantrymen in France and Germany frequently encountered such temporary graves, most of which when found was opened and the body reinterred in cemeteries in Europe, where many still lie today.

A Day in the Life of an Infantry-Man in World War II
Parisians line the Champs Elysees to cheer the American infantry as they pass through the city in 1944. National Archives

The infantry’s role in the war

During the Second World War in all theaters, it was the infantry which bore the brunt of combat, be it ground units of the US Army or the Marines. The casualty rate for the American infantry was high. Seven out of ten suffered some form of injury or death. It was the infantry which carried the fight to the infantry of the enemy, battled the elements while out in the open, and carried on the grunt work of the advancing army. The loading and unloading of supplies at the front was performed by infantry units, as was the moving it forward to the men engaged at the front lines. Even when out of combat their comforts were few.

Infantrymen learned to survive without any creature comforts for the simple reason that anything that they kept they had to carry. Survival led them to shed those items which were not essential to their remaining alive. They lived in the mud and snow, not in the deep trenches of the First World War but in foxholes they dug themselves, or in shell craters created by the artillery of both sides. Living in the ground led them to be filthy, and staying alive drove them to tolerate it, of themselves and their squadmates. Some reported not having the ability to shower for as long as several weeks.

They endured the monotonous rations, lack of hygiene, bombardment by the enemy, accidental bombardment by their own artillery, constant tension, and the constant loss of friends because they were there to protect themselves and their fellow squad members, finish the job and go home. They accomplished the task with little knowledge of the tactical situation which drove them to take and abandon positions, engage and disengage the enemy, sleep in the open in driving rain, sleet, snow, or the hot humid summer of 1944. Once they were on the continent in 1944, other than the initial days of the Battle of the Bulge, there were few withdrawals in the face of the enemy.

At times in Italy and later in France, infantrymen learned to sleep as they marched, stumbling forward as if they were sleepwalking, which in a way they were. On the march, they saw first-hand the horrors of the war they were fighting, dead and maimed bodies of Allies and the enemy, many of them scarcely recognizable as human. They saw burned-out tanks and other vehicles, bombed-out villages and towns, civilian refugees with all of their remaining belonging in carts or on their backs. They learned to spend the night in foxholes back to back with another squad member, giving them a 360-degree range of vision, and creating the term, “I’ve got your back”.

They endured faulty equipment, inadequate clothing, the errors of logistics and judgment which found them being delivered winter boots in summer and the opposite in cold weather. Their war was a personal one, with the enemy when engaged in plain sight, and the casualties inflicted by themselves and their unit revealed before their eyes. For the most part, when they went home after the war they regathered themselves and used their GI Bill rights to get educations, buy houses, and create the baby boom and the suburbs. Few of them talked about the horrors they endured until much later in their lives, focusing, as they had during the war, on what was ahead of them instead of what was behind.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Company A, 276th Infantry in World War II”, by Frank H. Lowry, 1991

“Life in the Infantry”, by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, The War, PBS online, 2007

“Command Decisions: The 90 Division Gamble”, by Maurice Matloff, Center for Military History, Department of the Army, 1960, online

“The Infantry Organization for Combat”, by Hugh Foster, April 26, 2000, online

“The European Theater of Operations”, ed. by Jeffrey J. Clarke, Center for Military History, February 26, 1992

“Citizen Soldiers”, by Stephen Ambrose, 1998

“Ardennes-Alsace”, by Roger Cirillo, Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 2003, online

“American Battle Casualties and Non-Battle Deaths in World War II”, by the Combined Arms Research Library, Department of the Army, June 25, 1953

“World War II”, by Sean Callery, 2013

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