Reading Rick Atkinson’s account of World War II on the European continent, titled The Guns at Last Light, I am struck by how different subsequent wars have been and how public attitudes on warfare have changed. Given that the American people have apparently embraced the notion that sending American troops into battle is okay, so long as no one on our side gets hurt. It’s almost as if John Douglas, the 9th Marques of Queensberry, came back to life and rewrote the rules of war.
This is not to say that The Korean War, the Vietnam War, and recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have not been sad affairs, with much heartbreak for the mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, and children of those killed or wounded. However, a comparison of the length of World War II and the number killed and wounded in that war, versus the duration of the Korean War and the Vietnam War and the number of Americans killed and wounded in those wars presents a sharp contrast.
For example, in the 3 years, 9 months, and 11 days of U.S. involvement in World War II, the U.S. suffered 1,078,160 casualties, with 407,320 dead and 670,840 wounded. In the 3 years, 1 month, and 2 days of the Korean War, the U.S. suffered 157,530 casualties, with 54,250 dead and 103,280 wounded. While in the 16 years, 4 months, and 29 days of the protracted Vietnam War, the U.S. suffered 211,450 casualties, with 58,150 dead and 153,300 wounded. The Korean War produced casualties at the rate of 140 per day, the Vietnam War produced casualties at the rate of 35 per day, while World War II produced casualties at the rate of 800 per day.
World War II was a “meat grinder” of men and machines. While allied ground forces were still slogging their way through eastern France, approaching the Rhine River, things were not going well in the skies above. During the first three months of 1944, the United States lost nearly 800 heavy bombers to German anti-aircraft fire and fighter-interceptors. During the summer of that year the U.S. Eighth Air Force lost another 900 heavy bombers. During the first six months of 1944, out of every 1,000 bomber crewmen, the U.S. lost 712 killed or missing and 175 wounded… a casualty rate of 89 percent.
With the open fuselages necessary to accommodate waist gunners, temperatures inside the planes plunged to -60° F. Frostbite was so prevalent that plastic surgeons learned to reconstruct burned-away faces and other body parts, sculpting new lips from grafted skin. After the lips were tattooed red, the surgeons added tiny black dots to simulate mustache whiskers.
My father-in-law, Charles A. Jones, flew 51 missions over eastern European targets as a waist gunner on a B-17. Of the 70 men of the 10 seven-man flight crews that started the war together, only he and two others survived the war, a 97 percent casualty rate.
In the spring of 1942, the U.S. bombing command undertook to inflict terror and chaos by burning German cities to the ground… cities populated by non-combatant men, women, and children. Atkinson tells us that allied bombers would ultimately drop 80 million incendiary sticks: 22 inch hexagonal rods with magnesium-zinc cases, the contents of which burned for eight minutes at a temperature of 2,000ᵒ F upon striking the ground or penetrating a building.
According to Atkinson, one German writer characterized the fire-bombing of Hamburg in the summer of 1943… an air campaign in which 41,000 Germans were killed and the homes of nearly a million residents were destroyed… as “simulating the atmosphere of another planet… one incompatible with life.” The massive bombing of Germany and France was an effective military tactic, one that military commanders of 2014 would be loathe to undertake, even when faced by a brutal enemy such as ISIS and the Taliban.
On the ground, the fighting was intense and unrelenting with staggering losses on both sides. In September 1944 the Germans fired 70,000 tons of mortar rounds and artillery shells at allied forces. In order to maintain an adequate fighting force, Adolph Hitler lowered the draft age to 16 and raised the top draft age to fifty. Yet even that was insufficient to replace the roughly 50,000 Wehrmacht soldiers killed each month. Atkinson reports that soldiers confined to hospital beds often tore open their wounds during the night in order to avoid being sent back to the front.
As the casualty figures mounted, young American men were no less averse to serving in the military. Atkinson writes that, “… the War Department had predicted that the infantry losses would amount to 64 percent of all casualties.” The forecast was much too conservative. By December 1944, the actual figure was 83 percent… In January 1944, the Army had estimated a need for 300,000 replacement infantrymen worldwide that year. The actual number was 535,000, nearly double the original estimate.
Atkinson tells us that, “To swell the ranks, the Selective Service exemption for fathers was belatedly abolished: one million would be drafted in 1944-45.” The average age of draftees climbed from twenty-two in 1940, to twenty-six in 1944, and many new privates were over age thirty-five. A ban on shipping eighteen-year-olds overseas was rescinded in August 1944, and induction standards for “physically imperfect men,” already loosened, were further reduced in October. A three-page primer advised examiners how to detect malingering, including feigned epilepsy, bed-wetting, and tachycardia, “induced by ingestion of drugs such as thyroid extracts.” The primer suggested that would-be draft dodgers “may shoot or cut off their fingers or toes, usually on the right side, and that some may put their hands under cars for this purpose.”
When I was called to take my pre-draft Army physical at age 18, during the closing months of the Korean War, three of the draftees who took their physicals on the same day held small bars of Ivory soap in their armpits for several hours before being examined. As a result, they all developed low-grade fevers. They were sent home and none were ever called to duty.
In the ground war in Europe, as Eisenhower’s troops fought their way across Belgium, France, and the Netherlands, they had no idea what was in store for them during the coming winter.
Atkinson writes that, on the morning of December 16, 1944, as American GIs on the front line dug in deeper using steel helmets and canteen cups as entrenching tools, their commanders thought that it was “just another day at the office.” But it wasn’t “just like any other day;” the German bombardment with infantry and artillery fire represented the first day of the month-long Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes. As Atkinson reports, “hours would elapse before American commanders realized that the opening barrage was more than a feint…”
Shortly before 6:00 AM on Sunday, December 16, German panzers rolled into Honsfeld, in Belgium, finding cold and exhausted American GIs asleep inside buildings, their vehicles parked in the road outside. The atrocities began as eight GIs were rousted outside in their bare feet, dressed only in their underwear. As Atkinson described the scene, the Americans shouted, “Kamerad, I surrender.” Nevertheless, the eight were lined up in a street and gunned down with machine gun fire. Five others emerged from a house with a white flag; four were shot and the fifth, pleading for mercy, was crushed beneath the tracks of a panzer tank.
At nearby Bullingen, a number of GIs “hiding in a cellar, strangled their pet dog to keep her from barking, but two hundred other men were rounded up. Before being marched to prison cages in the rear, GIs were forced to fuel the German panzers with jerricans…” Ten hours later, in the town of Malmedy, ten miles west of Bullingen, 140 men of Baker Battery, 285th Field Artillery Battalion, stopped for lunch. After resuming their ordered retreat, at the crossroads hamlet of Baugnez, Baker Battery was confronted by the panzers of SS Colonel Joachim Peiper. For two minutes, the Germans peppered the GIs with machine gun and tank fire. A few GIs were killed, some ran and hid in the woods, but more than 100 were captured.
At approximately 2:15 PM, German machine guns fired on the captives as they stood with their hands still in the air. As one survivor, PFC Homer D. Ford, described the massacre, “At the first outbursts of fire everyone fell to the ground, including myself.” He went on to describe how, for two minutes, gunfire tore into the “writhing, bleating ranks.” Then SS men stalked through the bloody pile, kicking groins and… with the fatal verdict, “Da kriegt nach einer Luft!” (This one’s still breathing)”… firing pistol shots into the skulls or hearts of those still alive.
It was the first day of fighting in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge, the bloodiest single month in the history of modern warfare. According to post-Bulge estimates, the number of U.S. battle casualties in the 41 days between December 16, 1944, and January 25, 1945, came to 105,000, with 19,246 dead. Of all of the U.S. casualties in World War II, one in ten casualties were suffered in the Battle of the Bulge.
Although it is impossible to imagine all of the individual tragedies of World War II, a reading of Atkinson’s, The Guns at Last Light, should serve as a stark reminder of how truly horrible all-out war is. Nevertheless, we cannot forget that there have always been, and always will be, men like Adolph Hitler, with dreams of world conquest. The jihadists of radical Islam are such a force.
Such men cannot be permitted to live, and if we Americans are to fulfill our unique role as the last bastion of freedom on planet Earth, we must not hesitate to confront and destroy the forces of evil, such as the Islamic State in Iraq. Like it or not, we have but two choices: we can either allow ourselves to be the victims of radical Islam, or we can choose to be their executioners. It’s as simple as that. In the present conflict the enemy has set the rule of engagement and they are not pretty. So let us pray that our leaders of today and tomorrow will have the courage to do what must be done and the stomach to see it through. Nothing less will do.