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U.s. Infantrymen Under Fire

May 2024
1min read

Some explanation is needed for the fact that so few of my generation saw fit to challenge Marshall’s assertions.

As military riflemen, the men of all the Company K’s, however valorous, were poorly trained. Judged by ideal standards of the Old Army—that of the thirties—they were not trained at all. What they needed was extendedorder drill and musketry. What they got was “sneaking and snooping” and a little individual marksmanship—just enough to shake whatever self-confidence they had acquired at Coney Island shooting galleries.

What angers me, as an Old Army NCO and a World War II armored-infantry officer, is Marshall’s unexamined assumption that individuals naturally have choices as to when and if to fire. Excepting sentinels, scouts, and such, this violates centuries of military doctrine. A rifleman is, in principle, part of a shooting machine controlled by officers and noncommissioned officers. A rifleman ordinarily does his duty when he obeys orders. In the absence of orders he is usually right in doing nothing. In the fog of battle voluntary firing could (and often did) kill his own comrades.

Moreover, the riflemen in World War H had never been given standard musketry drill (in the art of using rifles collectively). Unfortunately, officers who had seen it demonstrated at the infantry school were never allowed the time, space, facilities, and ammunition to drill their men in it. As for NCOs and riflemen on battlefields, they could not recall ever having heard of anything like it. If they did at some time fire with .22s at paper “landscape targets,” the experience made no impression. So far as they understood, the rifle was just a personal weapon for sniping at targets of opportunity. In battle who ever saw a rifleman so much as change his sights? Leaders merely pointed out targets to their BAR men. Fire commands were almost never given.

Although the principal infantry weapons are rifles, bayonets, grenades, carbines, machine pistols, light machine guns, and hand-held rocket launchers, the infantry of course also uses heavy weapons: mortars, heavy machine guns, antitank cannon, infantry howitzers, and armored fighting vehicles. It is reasonable for the riflemen in many situations to expect the heavy weapons to beat down the enemy enough so that assaulting elements may close to grenade range and use rifles only for pointblank firing until the enemy surrenders at bayonet point. Thus the rifle becomes almost a hand-to-hand weapon even though designed to kill at ranges up to a thousand yards. It does not make sense, therefore, to say or suggest that riflemen who fire little are shirking. Historians should understand this clearly. Perhaps Marshall was too much of an amateur observer.

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