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Citizen Soldiers

Chickenshit

Converted for the Web from "Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army From The Normandy Beaches, To The Bulge, To The Surrender Of Germany" by Stephen E. Ambrose

The guys who were permanent jerks were the usual suspects -- officers with too much authority and too few brains, sergeants who had more than a touch of sadist in their characters, far too many quartermasters, some MPs. The types were many in number and widely varied in how they acted out their role, but the GIs had a single word that applied to every one of them: chickenshit.

Fussell defines the term precisely. "Chickenshit refers to behavior that makes military life worse than it need be: petty harassment of the weak by the strong; open scrimmage for power and authority and prestige... insistence on the letter rather than the spirit of ordinances. Chickenshit is so called -- instead of horse -- or bull -- or elephant shit -- because it is small-minded and ignoble and takes the trivial seriously. Chickenshit can be recognized instantly because it never has anything to do with winning the war."

There were some at the front, not many. In most cases they were visitors who didn't belong there. Captain Colby led an attack down a road in the hedgerow country. His company got hit hard and dove into the ditches. A firefight ensued. After a half hour or so, Colby looked up to see his regimental commander standing above him, "nattily attired in a clean uniform, and his helmet was clean and sported a silver star. He was the picture of coolness."

"You can't lead your men from down there," he snapped. "Come up here and tell me what happened. Try to set an example of how an officer should behave."

"Come down here, sir, and we can talk about it," Colby replied.

"Come up here," the general replied. "That's an order."

To Colby's relief, a mortar round went off a few meters from the general. "He joined me in the ditch."

Most chickenshits were rear-echelon. There are innumerable stories about them. Sgt. Ed Gianelloni remembered the time in Luneville when his division was temporarily out of the line and the opportunity came to take the first showers in two months. For the officers, there was a public bath, where Frenchwomen bathed them. For the enlisted, there were portable showers in the middle of a muddy field. Everyone undressed, piled up clothes and weapons, and stood around shivering, waiting for the hot water.

"All right, you guys," the engineering sergeant in command barked out, "you got one minute to wet, one minute to soap, and one minute to rinse off and then you get out of here."

A private standing near the weapons pile reached in, grabbed an M-1, pointed it at the sergeant, and inquired politely, "Sergeant, how much time did you say we have?"

The sergeant gulped, then muttered, "I'll tell you what, I am going to take a walk and check on my equipment. When I come back you ought to be done."

General Patton had more than a bit of the chickenshit in him. He was notorious for being a martinet about dress and spit-and-polish in Third Army. He ordered -- and sometimes may have gotten -- front-line infantry to wear ties and to shave every day. Bill Mauldin did a famous cartoon about it. Willie and Joe are driving a beat-up jeep. A large road sign informs them that "You Are Entering The Third Army!" There follows a list of fines for anyone entering the area: no helmet, $25; no shave $10; no tie $25; and so on. Willie tells Joe, "Radio th' ol' man we'll be late on account of a thousand-mile detour."

But it was no joke. Patton's spit-and-polish obsession some times cost dearly. It not only had nothing to do with winning the war, it hurt the war effort.

Twenty-year-old Lt. Bill Leesemann was in a reconnaissance section of the 101st Engineer Combat Battalion, attached to the 26th Division. On December 18, the 26th, along with the 80th and the 4th Armored, got orders to break off the attack in Lorraine, turn from east to north, and smash into the German southern flank of the Bulge. This required frenetic activity. Leesemann's job was to go from division headquarters in Metz to the Third Army Engineer headquarters in Nancy, to pick up maps -- no one in the attacking divisions had any maps of Luxembourg. It was a sixty-kilometer drive. Leesemann and his driver took off late on December 19, as the 26th was forming up to head toward Luxembourg. It wouldn't be able to move out until the maps arrived.

It was raining; the road was muddy; troops moving north caused delays. It was full dark by the time Leesemann got to Nancy. He stopped at a crossroads, where "a real spit-and-polish MP was directing traffic." Leesemann asked directions to the Engineers hq. The MP took one look at the dirty, unshaven lieutenant and driver and ordered them to the MP post. He said they could not proceed into Third Army area until they had washed the jeep, shaved, and put on clean uniforms. Leesemann replied that such things were out of the question and explained the urgency of the situation. The MP called his corporal.

Twenty minutes later the corporal arrived. After further interrogation, he called the sergeant. The sergeant came, more talk, finally he called Engineers hq. Permission to come on was granted.

Leesemann drove to the hq, "a large chateau with surrounding gardens. The sentries at the large iron gate entrance gave us the same routine with threats of being arrested; 'No way will we be responsible for admitting you two into the Command area.'"

Another call, another wait. Eventually, but not without further adventures in the maze of Third Army, Leesemann got the maps and returned to 26th Division hq. It was 0500 hours, December 20. The division had been ready to move since 0100 hours. It was waiting for the maps.

Copyright © 1997 by Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc. Converted for the Web with the permission of Simon & Schuster.

This text is from Chapter 14 of Stephen E. Ambrose's book "Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army From The Normandy Beaches, To The Bulge, To The Surrender Of Germany." To read another online chapter, "Expanding the Beachhead, June 7-30, 1944," click here. Click here for purchasing information from Amazon.

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