The Glory of Being a Soldier
by David Chrisinger
“We replacements were like lambs being led to the slaughter; we didn’t really know what we were getting into. We had heard about it, read books about it, seen movies and engaged in simulated training exercises. But — the reality that we were about to experience was beyond our comprehension.” –Russell E. McLogan, Boy Soldier: Coming of Age during World War II
During the Second World War, very few people had any idea of what “our boys” were really going through — or even when the war would actually end.
Ernie Pyle, “America’s eyewitness to the twentieth century’s supreme ordeal,” offered readers a way of seeing the war that skirted despair and stopped just short of describing the full range of destruction and heartbreak experienced by so many.
As James Tobin has pointed out, “If Ernie Pyle himself had not won the war, American’s mental picture of the soldiers who had won it was largely Pyle’s creation.”
“He and his grimy GIs, frightened but enduring,” Tobin continues, “had become the heroic symbols of what the soldiers and their children would remember as ‘the Good War.’”
Pyle was not alone, of course. The war correspondents who saw the truth of the war and were in a position to tell the American public all about it did not linger very long over the death and destruction that was the principal business of our combat units in Europe and in the Pacific.
On top of that, those who served in the military were in for “the duration.” They didn’t get to serve out a specified time and then return home — at which point they could tell everyone what they had been through.
The only contact with the home front most soldiers had after leaving for war was what one author has called a “fitful stream of officially censored letters fluttering back from the remoteness of the world to say that everything was still OK.”
When my grandfather was drafted into the Army in 1944 — almost three years after the war began — he left for the service essentially as innocent of the realities of combat as those men who had enlisted before Pearl Harbor.
It wasn’t until basic training that most new recruits met their first combat veterans. These men were real soldiers and Marines who had rotated back home to serve as instructors. They weren’t like other veterans. There was something odd about them.
One Marine later said the combat veterans who instructed him during boot camp had “an intangible air of subdued, quiet detachment…as though lost in some sort of melancholy reverie.”
My guess is most recruits didn’t bother to stop and wonder what might have prompted such a change. Most of them were too caught up in the glory of being soldiers.
As proof, after they had graduated from basic training, many — my grandfather included — rushed out to photographers’ studios with their fresh and new uniforms to have their moment in history documented.
To this day, many a mantel and nightstand serve as the final resting place for these relics of glory: soldiers posed with quiet dignity, half turning to face the camera with an expression both proud and unknowing.
It wouldn’t be long before many of these young men would find themselves in some of the worst places on earth—worse than even their darkest imaginings.
David Chrisinger is the grandson of an Army tank driver who fought in the Battle of Okinawa during the Second World War. For the past five years, he has been researching his grandfather’s story to help his family make sense of the man who came home from the Pacific forever changed. He has also worked with dozens of post-9/11 veterans, helping them to tell their stories of war and coming home. This past fall he began teaching a class on the history of veterans coming home from war for new student veterans at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.