About the seriesResourcesVeterans History ProjectFor educatorsPurchase The WarContact us
At HomeAt WarThe WitnessesSearch & Explore
Life in the InfantryFace of BattleTimelineFighting for Democracy
Face of Battle
Training Combat Aftermath
“We tend to call it the real war. The rest of it’s just the show biz war. The real war involves getting down there and killing people, and being killed yourself or just barely escaping it. And it gives you attitudes about life and death that are unobtainable anywhere else.”— Paul Fussell

The war was fought from the air, on the ground and at sea but all who saw combat – all who fought and killed no matter which branch of service –would never forget it.

“Combat is the acid test,” Eugene Sledge wrote in his memoir With the Old Breed.

“It’s like the state of being perpetually excited without any outlet,” Paul Fussell said. “And perpetually frightened without any outlet for it. And you have to depend entirely upon your quickness of spirit. If you see something over there out of the corner of your eye, and it’s not supposed to be there, you have to be quicker than that person is at leaping up and shooting him. And he’s going to do the same to you. So being alert and being quick all the time is very important. I hadn’t realized that much in training but I did after the first week on the line.”

“One thing about warfare that you sooner or later begin to realize, and that is the abnormal has now become the norm,” Ray Leopold said. “And things that were never considered as part of your life now are an everyday occurrence in that life, and you had either adapt or fall out of life.”

No two men reacted to the experience in precisely the same way.

“Basically, getting shot at or shelled is just plain scary,” Tom Galloway said. “You just hope that it misses you. When the artillery’s coming in, you think, ‘Oh, God, it’s covering such an area and I hope it doesn’t hit me. I wish they would just start using rifles.’ You know, when you get to where a bullet whizzes by your head, that’s personal. You better get out of the way.”

“While we were out there, all through the war from when I first went out ‘til I got back, you never knew from one moment to the next whether you were going to get torpedoed and sunk or shot or what,” Maurice Bell said. “Especially when we got around these islands and they were actually firing back. And our ship was hit several times by bullets from these islands where they were firing back at us. So we just never knew from one moment to the next whether it was your time. We were just hoping.”

“Dying is different for pilots, for aviation personnel,” Sam Hynes said. “On the ground, in the infantry, there’s a corpse. It might be blown apart, but there’s a foot or an arm or something. And it’s very close. In aviation, the planes tend to go away and not come back. Even if someone dies in the air with you, it is hit, the plane explodes, it falls to the ground at a place where you’ll never see. I had a number of friends killed during the war but I never saw any of their bodies.”

“I did volunteer for this job,” said Earl Burke, a ball turret gunner in a B-17. “And what went through my mind is how do you un-volunteer? But you know, after a while, you got so busy that you didn’t realize what you were doing or what was going to happen could happen to you. Flak was coming up. It’s all black and greasy. And I couldn’t hear anything because I’m down below the aircraft. But the fellows inside the aircraft could hear the flak hitting the aircraft much like hail on a tin roof. Well, flak is really out of a one-ninety millimeter gun. And it’s got a shell on it about that big around, coming up at you, with a proximity fuse that would blow up when it gets close to the aircraft. You could walk across the black puffs they were so thick. But fortunately most of them were below you or above you. Sometimes they were with you. The ones you were with could just take an airplane and it would blow it up completely. You’d be watching them one minute, bingo, it would disappear. No parachutes, no nothin’.”

“You don’t run away because every alternative is impossible,” Fussell said. “There’s no way out of it. There’s no way to change it. And you are there until you get killed or wounded. Or until you flee and, you know, allow everybody to exercise their instinct for contempt which is unthinkable to most people. So that, there’s no way out and that puts you in the situation that you’re never in, I think, in civilian life.”

“You just do your job and go on about your business,” Herndon Inge said. “It scares the daylights out of you, but you learn how to protect yourself. If you hear a round of artillery coming in, you hit the ground and flatten out making it far less likely that you would be injured. When you’re going through in combat, you don’t look back, you just keep looking ahead and keep going.”

Some soldiers kept going by focusing on the direct tasks at hand.

“There’s something happening every day and you’re so tired and you can’t lift your eyelids hardly,” Ray Pittman said. “And something happens. You get a call to blow up a pill box here, blow a pill box there. I mean, you wake up and go and do your job.”

“The sheer terror of knowing that the next one is going to have your name on it, when that goes on and on and on and on, you get a strange feeling in which you seem to become detached and you just think, well maybe this will end and maybe it won’t and maybe we’ll all be blown up and maybe we won’t, but who cares,” Sidney Phillips said. “And you learn to sort of live with it. It is just a matter of fate. You will either survive if the Lord is willing or you will not. So there’s really nothing you can do. And you just take it.”

Many men eventually snapped under the stress.

“Combat exhaustion is like a walking away from the reality,” Leopold said. “They have given up. They seemed to be staring into space. They don’t seem to be able to respond to conversation you are trying to have with them. There is a basic approach that you can use with them. If the circumstance is such that you can give them some coffee, and talk to them, briefly at least, that could help. Sometimes if you gave them a sharp slap across the face, this could bring them back to where you are and what you are doing at the moment and what the reality is around you.”

“You hear all of these stories about people panicking and not being able to take it,” Burnett Miller said. “You wonder what your reaction’s going to be. For the most part, guys just did stand it, and I think that for one reason, one reason being that you felt a certain loyalty to the guys you’d worked with all the time. You couldn’t let ‘em down. Sure you didn’t want to move across that river that was zeroed in and getting shot at, but if they were gonna do it you were gonna do it.”

Humor helped many soldiers cope.

“I think the American ability to laugh and American humor is what carried us through a whole lot of the Pacific war,” Phillips said. “Because Americans will make light of almost any bad situation. And Americans will find humor in almost anything.”

The men coined names for the chaos in which they often found themselves and the ineptitude of some of the officers who sent them there, employing language they would never have used in front of their mothers or their wives back home: SNAFU – “Situation Normal, All Fu&#*d-Up” and FUBAR – “Fu&#*d-Up Beyond All Recognition.”

But humor could not ease every situation. In addition to battling random violence, terror and brutality, men had to find ways to cope with the act of killing.

“The fact is, I wasn’t killing people,” Walter Ehlers said. “I was killing the enemy. I wasn’t trained to kill people. I was trained to kill the enemy. So, you know, that’s a different perspective. You don’t think of them as people; you think of them as the enemy, and that’s the way you have to do it, because otherwise it would drive you nuts.”

“You would think nothing of killing Germans because it was either them or you,” Charles Mann said. “So you develop that attitude with the training you had and what not, you know.”

“I was now in charge of three squads and a total of 41 men and then I began to realize why this was done,” Daniel Inouye said. “If you’re an engineer, you’re selected to be an officer because you know mathematics and logarithms and all of that. If you’re an artillery officer, I suppose they’ll select you because you know something about trajectory and physics. Why would they select someone for an infantry officer? Well, he has to know how to read the maps and the compass, but he has to know how to kill. That’s a horrible thought. I won’t tell you how many men I killed but there are some who count sheep, so they tell me. But there are times in my life when I count men. And that’s a terrible thought because I’m certain the average person, if he or she ran over a cat, you’d never forget that. So how in the world can you forget killing a man, you know?”

Hynes never saw up close the death he inflicted from above. He said, “What I saw was drifting smoke, explosions, shells coming in from the battle ships off shore. The targets we were diving on which were usually rather small scale. A cave that had a gun in it. What might be a Japanese emplacement or supplies or something like that. Or just bombs ahead of the advancing line of the troops. You see destruction, the town of Naha, the capitol of Okinawa had a single wall standing. Of all the buildings, just one wall. You see that and you can imagine the devastation, but you don’t exactly see it. You don’t see the dead civilians who died in their thousands. You don’t see the dead Japanese. You don’t even see your own dead. I dropped some bombs on buildings that blew up and if there was anybody in them, I suppose I killed somebody. I don’t know. I’d like to think I didn’t. But that’s what I was being paid for, was to kill people.”

“There’s nothing pleasant about war,” Dwain Luce said. “It’s dirty business. When you’re in the middle of a fight, you might say, you’re kind of occupied. But then when it’s all over you have to gather up the dead — and, of course, they had units to do that — but we also had to help. And it just is something that’s very regrettable. There’s nothing glorious about war. But it was necessary that we did what we did.”

NEXT: Victory, joy and sadness in the aftermath of war »
BackPage 2 of 3 Next
page decoration

One out of four Army men evacuated for medical reasons in Europe and the Pacific suffered from neuro-psychiatric disorders. There were many names for it – “shell shock,” “battle fatigue,” “combat exhaustion.” The office of the U.S. surgeon general sent Dwight D. Eisenhower a study by two soldier-psychiatrists that found “there is no such thing as ‘getting used to combat.’ … Each moment … imposes a strain so great that men will break down in direct relation to the intensity and duration of their exposure. Psychiatric casualties are as inevitable as gunshot and shrapnel wounds.” Army planners determined that the average soldier could withstand no more than 240 days of combat without going mad. By that time, the average soldier was probably dead or wounded.


Walter Ehlers
Video IconWalter Ehlers »
You forget about dying, you’re worrying about living.


Members of a tank crew pose in Tunisia, North Africa. November 23, 1942.
National Archives
A tank crew poses in Tunisia, North Africa. November 23, 1942.


Ward Chamberlin
Video IconWard Chamberlin »
He admired the guys that were scared, and did what they had to do.


Medics attend to a wounded soldier in the Hurtgen Forest, November 18, 1944.
National Archives
Medics attend to a wounded soldier in the Hurtgen Forest, November 18, 1944.

Role of Medics

The wounded found themselves in the excellent care of combat medics, trained soldiers responsible for providing first aid on the battlefield. Medics were paid ten dollars less per month than the men they tried to save. Many were pacifists and conscientious objectors, unwilling to take lives but willing to risk their own lives to save others. Like the men they tended, they learned to improvise in combat. During the Battle of the Bulge they kept morphine and plasma inside their shorts to keep it from freezing. In the Pacific, some dyed the red crosses on their helmets green to make themselves less likely targets for the Japanese. And everywhere, they were forced to make terrible choices.

Ray Leopold
Video IconRay Leopold »
It’s never pleasant to do the work of a medic, but it’s necessary.


A sign reflects the humor of Marines on Tarawa. June 1944.
National Archives
A sign reflects the humor of Marines on Tarawa. June 1944.


Maurice Bell
Video IconMaurice Bell »
A Japanese kamikaze plane crashed into his ship near Okinawa.


Quentin Aanenson
Video IconQuentin Aanenson »
Killing made him sick, but it didn’t change his resolve to do it again and again.


See all “Combat” photographs and media in “Search & Explore”»