The Magnificent Infantry of WWII


By Nolan Nelson

The Army deployed 65 infantry divisions for the Second World War.  Each was a small town with its own equivalents for community services plus eight categories of combat arms.  Units such as artillery, engineering, and heavy weapons engaged the enemy directly.  Yet of all categories, the foot soldier faced the greatest hazard with the least chance of reward.  Except for the Purple Heart and the coveted Combat Infantryman’s Badge, recognition often eluded them because so few came through to testify to the valor of the many.  The infantryman confronted the most dismal fate of all whose duty was uninterrupted by missions completed or a fixed deployment time.   They were enveloped within the most chaotic, barbaric, and brittle existence against extraordinary enemies where victory often required actions well beyond prior limits for impossibility. 

Omar Bradley said, “Previous combat had taught us that casualties are lumped primarily in the rifle platoons.  For here are concentrated the handful of troops who must advance under enemy fire.  It is upon them that the burden of war falls with greater risk and with less likelihood of survival than any other of the combat arms.  An infantry division of WW II consisted of 81 rifle platoons, each with a combat strength of approximately 40 men.  Altogether those 81 assault units comprised but 3,240 men in a division of 14,000…..Prior to invasion we had estimated that the infantry would incur 70 percent of the losses of our combat forces.  By August we had boosted that figure to 83 percent on the basis of our experience in the Normandy hedgerows.”

Nearly a third of the 65 divisions in the Pacific and European theaters suffered 100% or more casualties.  However, their regimental staffs saw frontline units obliterated three to six times over.  To deal with this problem there were never enough infantrymen coming from the states, though large numbers were transferred from Army Service Forces and Army Air Forces to Army Ground Forces.  Replacement centers overseas continually reassigned artillerymen, machine gunners, cooks, and clerks to infantry duties.  The situation in Europe became so severe that rear area units in France and Great Britain were tasked to supply soldiers for retraining as infantrymen.  Those suffering battle fatigue came off the line for a few days for clean uniforms, bathing, hot food, and sleep.  However, scarcity compelled their repeated return until crippling wounds, mental breakage, death, or victory brought final relief.

For example the 4th and 29th Infantry landed on D-Day and suffered about 500% battle casualties in their rifle platoons during the eleven months until VE-Day.  Added to these numbers were half again as many non-battle human wrecks debilitated by trench foot, frost bite, pneumonia, hernia, heart disease, malaria, arthritis, etc. and most never returned to duty.  In the jungles of the Pacific non-combat losses exacted an even greater price.   But somehow the infantry crossed Europe and the Pacific and always remained in the forefront of attacks.   

Ernie Pyle said of them, “The worst experience of all is just the accumulated blur, and the hurting vagueness of being too long in the lines, the everlasting alertness, the noise and fear, the cell-by-cell exhaustion, the thinning of the surrounding ranks as day follows nameless day.  And the constant march into the eternity of one’s own small quota of chances for survival.  Those are the things that hurt and destroy.  But they went back to them because they were good soldiers and they had a duty they could not define.”