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Face of Battle
Training Combat Aftermath
“That’s one thing that everybody worries about. They may be so afraid that they can’t do their job.  But the way the Marine Corps trains you, they trained you to do the job regardless of how afraid you are.  Everybody’s afraid.  And the ones that’s not afraid, they get killed.”  — Ray Pittman

Unlike the professional armies of Germany and Japan, the armed forces that young American men rushed to join after Pearl Harbor had been totally unprepared to wage a world war. In 1940, the U.S. Army had been smaller than that of Rumania: only 174,000 men in uniform, wearing tin hats and leggings issued during World War I, and carrying rifles designed in 1903. The Army still owned tens of thousands of cavalry horses.

To make up for lost time, Congress had federalized the National Guard. In Luverne, 129 local boys, members of the Minnesota National Guard, were called to active duty. The entire town had turned out at the depot to say goodbye. Then, in the fall of 1940, Congress enacted the draft, and every young man in America began to worry when his number would come up.

“It was a disappointment to me because all my dreams disappeared for the next duration,” Harry Schmid said. “I had many dreams. I wanted to do things.”

“When somebody got their ‘greetings’ – long envelope, you know, and when you opened it up it would say ‘Greetings. The President of the United States and your neighbors have selected you to be drafted into the Armed Forces for to protect the country, etc.’” William Perkins said. “And so in December of 1943, I was down to a friend of mine’s – Howard Lopes, and we all kind of gathered there. And so he got the letter and he opened it up and he was drafted. Now Howard had three children. And so, whoa, we just laughed and roared.”

“When I enlisted, I never gave it a thought — what my mother and father said or thought. I just enlisted.” Earl Burke said. “Three days later, I was on a train. Before I got on the train, my mother and father took me down to the depot, and my dad shook my hand and hugged me. Mom kissed me and hugged me. No big deal at the time. You know? I didn’t feel anything. I was going on an adventure.”

“It was really interesting to follow people from such a completely different background and that in itself was very fascinating about the Army,” Burnett Miller said. “You really met such different people, and some you, of course, you were quite disdainful of at the time, thought, God they were terrible. And other ones you just, you adored.”

Once accepted in the armed forces the men were soon on their way to basic training. The goal of basic training was to turn undisciplined boys into fighting men whose comradeship and loyalty to their unit would help them withstand the worst that battle had to offer.

“It was a real shock,” Paul Fussell said. “We got to MacArthur and we got to be cursed out all the time. ‘You bastards, move those things over there.’ And so on. The first thing I was assigned to do was to work in a uniform warehouse carrying big bundles of overcoats around and so on. And being harangued and brutalized by a cruel sergeant. The main thing it did was to show me what I really was underneath.”

“Basic training often started with newcomers exiting a bus with their cheap suitcases and filing into the barracks for breakfast with a serenade of ‘You’ll be sorreee!’ from every Marine not in formation that they passed,” Eugene Sledge wrote in With the Old Breed.

Soldiers found they would be sorry, at least at first. They had numbers, not names, now. Their heads were shaved. They were stripped of civilian clothing and personal belongings; everything except their wallets was tagged and sent home. Naked, they stood in line and were issued new shirts and pants and socks and underwear and a canvas seabag into which all these items and more had to be precisely folded. They were given a pair of dress shoes, too, and a steel bucket filled with toilet articles and a sewing kit, for all of which they were charged $25 -- $4 more than they were to be paid a month.

“I was eighteen. I was real young,” Walter Thompson said. “I had been away to college for about, I don’t know, seven months before I was drafted, and coming into an environment where all these adult men were different walks of life. You didn’t know who what or where. And for the first one or two nights you were just scared to death until you become accustomed to the environment that you are around. And I ... I actually cried the first night, because I was scared, you know. Strangers. I never saw any of those guys in my life and all walks of life, all sizes and all shapes. Lonely for your parents, your home, your friends. No one in the barracks that I knew. And so it was just an eerie feeling to be in that situation.”

In the Marines, boot camp traditionally last 12 weeks, but Pearl Harbor had cut that time in half. Everything was accelerated. The result was what Sid Phillips remembered as “a contrived nightmare,” intended to transform “silly young men” into “serious, useful warriors” willing to die for one another.

“The training was very difficult,” Bill Lansford said. After Pearl Harbor, he volunteered for Carlson’s Raiders, an elite Marine commando unit, and trained for guerillar warfare. “[The drill instructor] started us by walking because he knew we were going to have to walk or run wherever we went. And in the mornings before breakfast we might go for a 10-mile hike. Eventually a 20-mile hike. And they would give you maybe raw food and you had to learn how to cook it. Once a week we would have to go out and hunt our food or else we would go hungry. He concentrated on anything that was close combat like knife-fighting, fighting without any weapons and he armed us with automatic weapons, so that every squad had the fire power of potentially of a section or a platoon in an ordinary Marine unit.”

“A man’s ability to depend on his comrades and immediate leadership is absolutely necessary,” Sledge wrote.

Everything was under the control of the drill instructor (DI), a veteran sergeant whose loud bellow was the first thing the men heard when they flipped on the barracks light at 4:45 a.m. and continued unabated until evening mess call (when his equally loud assistant picked up the slack). When an unauthorized box of cookies arrived, baked by some boot’s fond but oblivious mother, the DI confiscated it, ordered the platoon to stand at attention, then made the men watch as he ate the cookies one by one. “Our natural human rebelliousness,” Phillips wrote, “was being removed and replaced with unquestioned obedience to orders.”

“Listen, when you’re a private in the Army and you’ve just been inducted, you say ‘Sir’ to everybody and you’re kind to everybody and salute everybody because you don’t know what’s going to happen to you,” Schmid said.

Boot camp ended with two rugged weeks on the rifle range, with recruits shivering in tents at night and spending hour after maddening daylight hour struggling to master their weapons.

“It was an exciting time,” Leo Goldberg said. “I’m learning how to fire a rifle, to fire a machine gun, to fire whatever it is. I’m learning how to take care of half-tracks and trucks and trailers and ... You know, I’m learning, having new experiences ... something I never had before.”

They were also being indoctrinated about the evils of the enemy.

"We had lots of training films about that," Miller said. "Showing us how bad the enemy was, how evil and so forth, and we'd learned about the same thing happening in World War I, so I think we were all quite cynical about these. We thought, these are training films. It's an awful lot of propaganda and baloney."

New experiences abounded as recruits and draftees were drilled in hand-to-hand combat, consisting mainly of judo and knife fighting. They learned survival techniques. And, for most, they discovered that there was a world outside their own.

To some like Sam Hynes, training was the shortest path to adulthood. “Growing up is a series of tests, inevitably,” he said. “Motivated partly by curiosity, about what it’s like to do things that grownups do that you’ve never done before. And partly, a series of tests of your readiness to be an adult, I think. That you, by passing the tests, you earn admission to this class of people that you think all know what they’re doing and are adults.”

“Soon as we were with this unit — it was a combat unit — and the whole perspective of the Army changed completely,” Miller said. “I mean, you were getting ready to go to war, which had not been the case before this. And, almost everyone felt the same. They trained and trained and trained. This unit had trained almost two years before we got there even. So these people were tired of training and wanted to use what they’d been doing. And I think we who came in from school sort of caught this fervor, and we also felt that this was an experience. This was going to be a major experience of everyone’s life. And the more of it that you could handle, the more enriching and the more exciting and the greater stories you’d have to tell.”

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NEXT: Combat is the real test of a soldier’s training »
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Nearly 50 million men would be required to register for the draft during the war. To serve, they had to be at least five feet tall, weigh 105 pounds, have correctable vision and at least half their teeth. Of the 18 million men examined by army doctors, 5-1/2 million were rejected on medical or dental or on what was called “moral grounds” – usually because they’d given what the army considered the wrong answer to the question, “Do you like girls?” At first, the men also had to be able to read and write, but when hundreds of thousands were rejected on that score, the requirement was dropped – and the Army set up special schools to make its citizen-soldiers literate.

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Sam Hynes
Video IconSam Hynes »
I made a decision that was going to change my life forever. And it did.

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Infantrymen train for a seaborne invasion by climbing the side of a fake landing craft. 1943
National Archives
Infantrymen train for a seaborne invasion by climbing the side of a fake landing craft. 1943

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Leo Goldberg
Video IconLeo Goldberg »
I enjoyed the whole concept of military life.

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African American Marines engage in bayonet drills at Camp Lejeune, NC. March 1943.

Library of Congress
African-American Marines engage in bayonet drills at Camp Lejeune, NC. March 1943.

See more about African-American soldiers in the war »
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Burnett Miller
Video IconBurnett Miller »
We came home and said goodbye to our parents. We had no idea what we were getting into.

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Burnett Miller (center) and four other young soldiers pose at their barracks in training camp.
Burnett Miller
Burnett Miller (center) and four other young soldiers pose at their barracks in training camp.
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Eugene Sledge
Jeanne Sledge
Eugene Sledge kept notes about his life as a soldier in a small Bible. Those notes became the basis for his memoir With the Old Breed.
Henry Sledge

Eugene Sledge kept notes about his life as a soldier in a small Bible. Those notes became the basis for his memoir With the Old Breed.

Read excerpts from Sledge’s memoir »
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Paul Fussell
Video IconPaul Fussell »
I learned a vast amount. It was a great, instructive educational experience.

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“The Nazis Strike” “The Nazis Strike”
Video Icon“The Nazis Strike” »
This government-sponsored “information film” is chapter two of Frank Capra's Why We Fight series created to motivate young soldiers in training. (40:39)

See the first “Why We Fight” film and learn more about propaganda »

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