Rossmann: World War II, a steep learning curve

Rossmann: World War II, a steep learning curve

Updated: 5 days, 13 hours, 46 minutes, 29 seconds ago

College history courses that focus on war are rare. War has seemed perhaps too uncouth, even anti-intellectual, for liberal arts programs. This may be changing.

A recent online course offered by Yale University studied the American experience of World War II in Europe and the Pacific, and counterinsurgency warfare in the Muslim Philippines, 1889-1913. Reading consisted of "If You Survive" by George D. Wilson, 1987; "With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa" by E.B. Sledge, 1981; and "American Datu" by Ronald K Edgerton, 2020. ("Datu" means "chief" in a local language.)

Neither Wilson nor Sledge is an historian or journalist; both experienced combat firsthand and lived to write about it. Wilson was born in Georgia and drafted on Sept. 19, 1942, out of Michigan State, where he had been awarded a football scholarship. He had previously been turned down by the Navy and Marines because he wore glasses.

Sledge, a freshman at Marion Military Institute in Alabama, enlisted in the Marine Corps on Dec. 3, 1942, “out of a deep feeling uneasiness that the war might end before I could get overseas into combat.” His parents were appalled at his being “mere cannon fodder"; his brother Ed, a Citadel graduate and a second lieutenant in the Army, thought he would be more comfortable as an officer. Sledge compromised by signing up for V-12, the Marines’ officer training program.

Wilson spends seven weeks at basic infantry training. Near the end, the men are told they can sign up for Officer Candidate School, and Wilson and 77 others apply. But it’s not that simple; each man must go before a board of six officers chaired by a colonel and undergo what Wilson calls “a third degree.” Despite their efforts to confuse him, Wilson answers their questions and — more importantly, he thinks — maintains his poise. He and only 16 others are admitted to the school.

Ed Rossmann

A four-week course in the Non-Commissioned Officer Academy follows, and Wilson is promoted to corporal. Wilson describes it as “rough and intensive.” The next three months are spent at the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia. “It was a damn good, rough, tough, cram course on weapons, tactics, map reading, close order drill, field maneuvers and basic infantry training,” Wilson wrote. On May 8, 1943, Wilson is commissioned a second lieutenant: “Ninety-Day Wonders,” some called them. Wilson is one of only two remaining from the original group. A few weeks after D-Day, June 6, 1944, Wilson is in France.

Sledge — his first name is Edgar — disappointed and bored by the college-like V-12 program at Georgia Tech, which seems to be preparation for desk work, flunks out, determined to join the corps as an enlisted man. Half his classmates do the same. He is assigned to eight-week boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.

Most Americans have at least a general idea of Marine boot camp and the legendary drill instructor. Sledge’s instructor is Cpl. Doherty: “PLATOON, tee-HUT! Right HACE forward HUAH! Double time, HUAH!” Sledge is a more colorful writer than Wilson. “He (Doherty) stood about five feet ten inches, weighed around 160 pounds, and was muscular with protruding chest and flat stomach.” His accent places him from around Boston. “His eyes were the meanest, coldest green I ever saw.”

The drills of the following eight weeks — the marching, inspections, firing and cleaning the rifle several times a day, taking orders and executing them without question, from 4 a.m. until 10 p.m. is not meant to produce automatons, but men who will be able to give and execute commands under fire: Fear in battle is natural, but it should not be allowed to turn into panic (although this happens).

Because he has a choice, Sledge chooses to specialize in the 60 mm mortar, described as “a smoothbore, muzzle-loaded, high angle-fire weapon” manned by a four-man crew. The assembled gun weighs 45 pounds, and consist of a tube (or barrel), a bipod and a base plate. Its high angle of fire permits it to hit troops in defiles or behind walls or ridges. It is useful for showering attacking troops with shrapnel. “Of course, the Japs have mortars and know how to use ’em too,” Sledge is informed. Sledge is also issued a Ka-Bar knife, with its 7-inch blade, useful for opening K-rations and confronting “any Japanese infiltrator who finds his way into your foxhole.”

On Feb. 28, 1944, Sledge’s battalion ships out to the South Pacific theater. (To be continued.)

Ed Rossmann lives in Aurora and has been an educator most of his life, including 17 years in high school.

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