World War II; Life for the Enlisted Man

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World War II; Life for the Enlisted Man

Land War in Europe

Faced with the Russian hurricane, we ran whenever we could. But often we had no choice, and became heroes without glory, who were somehow able to conjure up a strength superior to the enemy’s. We no longer fought for Hitler, or for National Socialism, or for the Third Reich-or even for our fiancées or mothers or families trapped in bomb-ravaged towns. We fought from simple fear, which was our motivating power. The idea of death, even when we accepted it, made us howl with powerless rage. We fought for reasons, which are perhaps shameful, but are, in the end, stronger than doctrine. We fought for ourselves, so that we wouldn’t die in holes filled with mud and snow; we fought like rats, which do not hesitate to spring with all their teeth bared when they are cornered by a man infinitely larger than they are.

...Every two hours another quarter of the men went back to the dugouts to make room in our precarious sleeping quarters for those who would return white with cold. The winter was now serious: fifteen degrees below zero, according to the thermometer of our radio group. As before, our general state of filth aggravated the situation. Any desire to piss was announced to all present, so that hands swollen by chill blains could be held under the warm urine, which often infected our cracked fingers.

My eyes hurt me, and my nose was so inflamed by frostbite I could no longer bear to leave it uncovered. We hid our faces like Chicago gangsters, with our collars raised and tied around our faces with scarves or strings. An hour later, the pink light turned violet, and then gray. The snow turned gray too, and then it was dark-from mid-afternoon until nine the next morning. With darkness, the temperature always plunged sharply-often to thirty-five or forty degrees below zero. Our material was paralyzed: gasoline froze, and oil became first a paste and then a glue, which entirely blocked the mechanism. The forest rang with strange sounds: the bark of trees bursting under the pressure of the freezing. Stones cracked only when the temperature fell to sixty degrees below zero. For us, the horror we had been dreading for so long had arrived.

We lit fires under the Panzers, to try to thaw them slowly before making any attempt to start them...

One night, the Russians sent a human wave of Mongols in a direct assault against our positions. Their function was to knock out the minefield, by crossing it. As the Russians preferred to economize on tanks, and as their human stockpile was enormous, they usually sent out men for jobs like this.

On another evening, when the cold had attained a dramatic intensity, the Russians attacked again. We were manning our positions in a temperature which had dropped to 45 degrees below zero. Some men fainted as the cold struck them, paralyzed before they even had a chance to scream. Survival seemed impossible. Our hands and faces were coated with engine grease, and when our worn gloves were pulled over this gluey mixture, every gesture became extremely difficult. Our tanks, whose engines would no longer start, swept the spaces in front of them with their long tubes, like elephants caught in a trap.


For sheer ghastliness in World War II, nothing exceeded the experience of the Germans caught in the Falaise gap. Feelings of helplessness waved over them. They were in a state of total fear day and night. They seldom slept. They dodged from bomb crater to bomb crater. “It was complete chaos,” Pvt. Herbert Meier remembered. “That’s when I thought, This is the end of the World.” All this time the 1,000-pound bombs, the 500-pound bombs, the rockets, the 105s and the 155s , the 75s on the Shermans, the mortars, and the .50 caliber machine-gun fire came down on the Germans. Along the roads and in the fields, dead cows, horses and soldiers swelled in the hot August sun, their mouths agape, filled with flies. Maggots crawled through their wounds. Tanks drove over men in the whether dead or alive. Human and animal intestines made the roads slippery. Maj. William Falvey of the 90th Division recalled seeing “six horses hitched to a large artillery gun. Four horses were dead and two were still alive. Those few men, German or American, who had not thrown away their gas masks had them on, to the envy of the others. The stench was such that pilots in the Piper Cubs threw up.

World War II, The Western Front Citizen Soldiers. Ambrose, Stephen E.

The War at Sea: The Battle of the Atlantic

Life on The Surface Ship

The sea is getting up under the impetus of that shrieking wind; for the next few hours we shall be punching into the teeth of the freshening gale, and already a lot of us are having sudden doubts about our stomachs. There are retching sounds from behind us on the bridge, where one of the new signalmen is bringing up his innards as he greets his first Atlantic gale...

A green one crashes aboard; peering over the dodger we can see its dark shape engulf our

foredeck, and we crouch for shelter as the ship plunges thunderously into it. A wall of water, tons of it, sweeps across our fo’c’sle to hurl itself against our bridge structure with a resounding thump. Water sweeps overhead; even in the shelter of the dodger we are drenched...

The mess decks of a corvette in bad weather are indescribable...There is absolutely no fresh air...Dim emergency lights, red or blue, provide the only illumination in the dark hours, and around the clock there is always at least one watch trying to catch a few hours of oblivion, while about them the life of the mess goes on; men coming and going from outside, or snatching a meal before going on watch. With the hammocks slung, there is hardly room anywhere to stand upright, and there is moisture everywhere - water swirling in over the coamings when the outside doors open, sweating from the chilled steel of the ship’s side, oozing from the countless pipe joints and deck-welds and rivets and deck openings, and all the other manifold places where water forces an entrance from the gale outside. Plunging into a head sea, the noise and motion of the fo’c’sle must be experienced to be believed; a constant roar of turbulence, wind, and water, punctuated by a crashing thud as the bow bites into another great sea, while the whole little world is uplifted - up, up, up - only to come crashing down as the ship plunges her bows over and downward, to land with an impact which hurls anyone and anything not firmly secured down to the forward bulkhead. …Monsarrat described the job of rescuing the survivors of a destroyer that had been torpedoed the night before;


Upright on the raft sat a handful of black-faced, oil soaked men, surrounded by prone figures, sprawling in the lazy attitudes of the dead. One man, who raised a feeble arm in greeting as we came alongside, had a shipmate’s head pillowed in his lap, his hand resting on the staring face with a cherishing touch which told the night’s story in a single gesture. Another, who filthy face split into a grin as we reached down for him, must have been in agony from his shattered leg. Of the others, some stared up at the ship as at a miracle; one might have been singing but, heard close to, was in fact groaning softly, all were in an extremity of cold.

We had to rig a tackle for the dead men; their bodies dangled like hung criminals as they were hoisted up, their heads fell forwards and sideways and forwards again in a cycle of extreme ugliness. The hands detailed for the job had faces of stone as they worked the tackle. These men were themselves.

Life Aboard a German U-Boat

In fact, whole thing is nothing but a steel cigar crammed with machinery and weapons. Anything not of iron or steel looks totally out of place.

Within this mechanical cloister, for weeks on end, forty-eight enforced celibates cohabited in close confinement...the majority were conscripts drafted to the U-boat arm and then subjected to a rigorous selection process to make sure that they had the stuff of real submariners; in a submarine there could be no odd-men out, no lone wolves in these packs...To accommodate all these men - often fifty or more -there were two lavatories, but one of these was frequently used as a storeroom holding extra provisions to keep the boat longer at sea. That meant one lavatory only, and even that could not be operated at depths below 80 feet. To use it above that depth involved

manipulating various valves in proper sequence..In prolonged rough weather, even on the surface, conditions inside the boat were purgatory:

The stench of 51 sweating seamen, diesel oil, rotting food, and moldy bread mingled with the noisome odors that emanated from the galley and the two tiny washrooms. The overbearing smells and the never-ending rocking made the men in the narrow drum dizzy and numb. Only the daily trim dive brought partial relief from the perpetual swaying...Down in the quiet depth we finished the work we otherwise could not perform, had a meal without losing it on the deck plates or in the bilges. And for an hour or two we recuperated while waiting for the next assault of water and wind. These routine dives were never long enough, and surfacing always came too soon.

U-Boat Statistics

Between 1939 and 1945 about 1,170 U-boats such 2,828 Allied cargo ships with a tonnage of 14,687,231 tons. In addition, the World War II U-boats sank 158 British Commonwealth warships and twenty-nine American. The losses suffered by the U-boats amounted to 784. The human loss in the second war was nearly six times that of the first; the 5,409 officers and men of the first war grew to 27,491 dead of 1939-45, whose names are recorded on the U-boat Memorial near Kiel, plus another 5,000 who became prisoners of war- a total of over 32,000; a casualty rate of 85%.

Terraine, John. The U-Boat Wars 1916-1945. Henry Holt, and Company, Inc. New York. 1989.


World War II - Air War in Europe

A Luftwaffe Fighter Pilot at War

Now they had shifted their fire to me. I grasped the stick with both hands and the six-fold chains of blazing metal spurted from my guns, pouring their hundreds of shots into the huge fortress in front of me, crackling through the thin aluminum behind which nine men believed they were doing their duty like me. A few minutes before they had opened their bomb-doors and killed innumerable human beings, who knew joys and sorrows just as they did themselves. And now I was firing-mutilating the heads, eyes, feet, hands, teeth, scarcely fifty paces in front of me! The rear gunner is hit and hanging bloodily in his harness, his four barreled gun staring

downwards, silent and motionless. I can see no more enemies, in my sights. Perhaps they are all dead-all except the pilot, desperately holding his machine in the air.

The plane over there is carrying eight bodies through the air! I don’t want to shoot into dead flesh any longer, I don’t want to any more! My fingers leave the firing buttons and the guns go silent. What ought I to do now?

I hold on helplessly behind the bomber-but something in the turret is moving. The man I thought dead is raising his arm and staring at me. One of his comrades is trying to drag him out of his harness, and he, too, is staring at me in the same horror from behind his breathing-mask. Take it easy, take it easy, old fellow, I think, just get your friend away out of it-he hasn’t got to go on staring at my threatening guns-I won’t fire at you.

But now one of them’s training his guns on me once more. “Take your fingers off it, you idiot!” I roar. But the fellow there in front of me can’t hear- and I’m quicker than him. I touch the firing-button with one finger-and his gun turret is shattered. Pieces of metal fly past, striking against my machine. Then the whole rear gun-position breaks away and plunges into the depths below. Now I can see right through the hollow body of the aircraft into the pilot’s cabin. The pilot, sitting in front of his armour protection, still won’t tell his crew to jump. Doubtless he’s thinking of the wounded. But then I think of the thousands of human beings lying amid the burning ruins of our towns, and I know that this bomber will come back again with a new load of death.

I clenched my teeth and hurl my bursts of steel into the defenseless flying coffin until it dips its nose forward and hurtles earthwards. All this could only have lasted half a minute, but for me it was an eternity from which I had now been torn. It was a miracle I had not yet been shot down myself. But as I glanced to one side the miracle explained itself-Werner was flying watchfully beside me.

The Fire-Bombing of Dresden

The most famous bombing raid of the war, against Dresden on February 13-14, 1945, has been called the most barbaric, senseless act of the war. During the night RAF Bomber Command carried out a raid with 873 bombers dropping thousands of incendiaries and high-explosive bombs up to four tons. This set the city on fire and started a firestorm as the rising column of intense heat sucked up oxygen and burned it, creating hurricane-like winds and temperatures up to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. At noon, 311 B-17s from Eight Air Force released 771 tons of bombs on the flaming city, with the aim of catching firemen and rescue workers when they were out on the streets. The following day 210 B-17s dropped another 461 tons. The


firestorm raged for four days and could be seen for 200 miles. In Dresden people in air raid shelters suffocated or were baked alive. Kurt Vonnegut (the famous American novelist was a POW) described the scene in a letter he wrote his parents shortly after the war. “On February 14th the Americans and the RAF came over. Their combined labors killed 250,000 people in twenty-four hours and destroyed all of Dresden-possibly the world’s most beautiful city. But not me. But although Dresden is generally considered to be the most destructive raid in the European war, it was not. Just before Dresden, the Allied bombers had hit Berlin (a 1,000-bomber raid) and Leipzig even harder... What made Dresden special was its apparent absence of military or industrial targets... Further, the death toll at Dresden was initially wildly inflated, to as high as the 250,000 figure cited by Vonnegut. The Germans later revised the figure to 135,000. Recent disclosures put the figure at 35,000. No one knows for certain, as Dresden had many refugees in the city.

Ambrose, Stephen. Citizen Soldiers. 1997.

World War II - War in the Pacific

Japanese Atrocities in China

Some Japanese soldiers admitted it was easy for them to kill because they had been taught that next to the emperor, all individual life-even their own-was valueless. Azuma Shiro, the Japanese soldier who witnessed a series of atrocities in Nanking, made an excellent point.. He recalled that the highest honor a soldier could achieve during war was to come back dead: to die for the emperor was the greatest glory, to be caught alive by the enemy the greatest shame. “If my life was not important’” he wrote, “an enemy’s life became inevitably much less important... This philosophy led us to look down on the enemy and eventually to the mass murder and ill treatment of captives.”

After the soldiers surrendered en masse, there was virtually no one left to protect the citizens of the city. Knowing this, the Japanese poured into Nanking on December 13, 1937, occupying government buildings, banks and warehouses, shooting people randomly in the streets, many of them in the back as they ran away. Using machine guns, revolvers, and rifles, the Japanese fired at the crowds of wounded soldiers, elderly women, and children gathered in the North Chungshan and Central roads and nearby alleys. They also killed Chinese civilians in every section of the city: tiny lanes, major boulevards, mud dugouts, government buildings, city squares. As victims toppled to the ground, moaning and screaming, the streets, alleys, and ditches of the fallen capital ran rivers of blood, much of it coming from people barely alive, with no strength left to run away. The Japanese systematically killed the city dwellers as they conducted house-to-house searches for Chinese soldiers in Nanking. But they also massacred the Chinese in the nearby suburbs and countryside. Corpses piled up outside the city walls, along the river (which literally turned red with blood), by ponds and lakes, and on hills and mountains...the Japanese shot down any young man who passed, under the assumption that he was likely to be a former Chinese soldier. But they also murdered people who could not possibly be Chinese soldiers-elderly men and women, for instance...

From the Japanese military correspondent Yukio Omata, who saw Chinese prisoners brought to Hsiakwan and lined up along the river:


Those in the first row were beheaded, those in the second row were forced to dump the severed bodies into the river before they themselves were beheaded. The killing went on non-stop, from morning until night, but they were only able to kill 2,000 persons in this way. The next day, tired of killing in this fashion, they set up machine guns. Two of them raked a cross-fire at the lined up prisoners. Rat-tat-tat-tat. Triggers were pulled. The prisoners fled into the water, but no one was able to make it to the other shore.

Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking. 1997.

Saburo Sakai-Ace of the Rising Sun


Climbing back up to 13,000 feet, Sakai spotted what appeared to be a tight formation of eight Wildcats some distance ahead, and went after them. Just as he was about to open fire he realized his mistake: the machines were Grumman Avenger torpedo-bombers-and a total of sixteen rearward-firing guns was pointing at him. Sakai pressed the trigger, and at the same instant the Americans opened fire too. Sakai felt a violent blow tear at his body, the world dissolved in a blinding red flash and he passed out.

It was the wind howling through the shattered cockpit canopy that brought him round. The Zero was plunging towards the sea. Instinctively, Sakai pulled back the stick and felt the pressure as the fighter came out of its dive. He could see nothing except a red mist, but the wind force had abated and this told him that he must be approximately in level flight. Tears began to stream form his eyes, washing away the blood that was caked on his cheeks; he began to see again, although everything was just a blur.

The Zero raced across the water, past the dim outlines of American ships that blazed away with everything they had. Once out of range, Sakai eased back the stick and headed in what he hoped was the direction of Rabaul. His senses were gradually returning, and he was able to take stock of his injuries. A bullet had ripped across the top of his head, laying the skull bare. His left side seemed to be completely paralyzed and he was blind in his right eye, which was causing fearful pain. All in all, his chances of reaching Rabaul seemed slender indeed: but Sakai was determined not to give up easily. With considerable difficulty he improvised a bandage for his head wound out of his silk scarf and flew on, resisting an overwhelming desire to go to sleep...

Thirty minutes went by; an hour. Suddenly he saw a distant speck on the horizon... Fresh hope surged up inside him; he was only sixty miles from Rabaul. Forty-five minutes later, with only a few pints of fuel left in his tank, he made an erratic but safe arrival on Rabaul’s familiar airstrip. He taxied in and switched off the engine. Then, and only then, did he collapse into oblivion.... Sakai’s wounds kept him in hospital until the end of January 1943. On his discharge he reported to his old unit, the Tainan Fighter Wing, which was now based in Japan....




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