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View Full Version : What % of U.S. soldiers actually fired their weapons in combat in WWII?


Ringo
05-18-2003, 01:21 AM
What percentage of U.S. soldiers actually fired their weapons at an enemy target in combat in WWII?

If you can dig that up, can you summon up a similar figure for the Vietnam conflict?

patchbunny
05-18-2003, 01:58 AM
Originally posted by Ringo
What percentage of U.S. soldiers actually fired their weapons at an enemy target in combat in WWII?

If you can dig that up, can you summon up a similar figure for the Vietnam conflict?

S.L.A. Marshall did a study on this some years ago. I believe his numbers for WWII were around 10-20% of people in combat actually did something useful. Those operating crew served weapons had higher rates. I've seen numbers for Vietnam, but I'll be danged if I can remember them. I do know that the numbers have been increasing.

Now to see the comments from folks that have the references handy, and not tucked away in their storage unit.

--Patch

SenorBeef
05-18-2003, 02:06 AM
I think he may be asking how many soldiers saw combat, as a percentage, rather than how many of them actually partook actively in combat once engaged.

doctordoowop
05-18-2003, 02:13 AM
As an aside read today a guy got a Purple Heart because he cut his finger on some glass in international waters while on duty & during military conflict. This was in the LA Times, not the Star, so it has a little credibility. And yes 10-20%, with20% at the high end rings a bell.

amarone
05-18-2003, 06:43 AM
Not quite answering the OP with respect to actually firing weapons, but in WWII there were 1.7 support people per combat person. See table half way down here (http://www.cbo.gov/showdoc.cfm?index=301&sequence=3). That would give 37% as combat troops.

Paul in Qatar
05-18-2003, 08:08 AM
It is worth noting that S.L.A.M. was a hellva a nice guy. Chief Historian for the US Army during your World War II, told greeat stories about his time with Blackjack Pershing.

He was most probably a liar.

Several scholars have come forward saying they cannot backup the "How many fired their weapons" number from his data. He seems to have exagerated for effect.

No cite. Sorry.

OTOH I would love to see some modern reseach on this subject.

Ringo
05-18-2003, 08:18 AM
No, I'm not asking about combat v. support troop ratios. The question is pretty straightforward. What percentage of U.S. WWII soldiers actually squeezed off a round* in the general direction of live enemy troops?

hermann
05-18-2003, 04:54 PM
I don't understand how they could come up with a seasonably accurate number. It's not like you kept a log of ammo issued and fired, and by whom.

RickJay
05-18-2003, 05:24 PM
As per Paul's comments, S.L.A. Marshall's claims that only 20% of soldiers in combat fire their weapons, while the other 80% never pull a trigger, are not supported by any other observation, objective evidence, or common sense. Virtually all soldiers who have seen combat, and I've known some of them, fire their weapons and the one I've spoken to assure me everyone else does too.

Monty
05-18-2003, 05:32 PM
patch: Every Soldier's job is "something useful."

Ringo
05-18-2003, 05:52 PM
I guess it may have been Marshall's statements that I had run across in the past. I dimly remembered a study based on interviews with the troops that claimed a surprisingly low number actually fired their weapons. I'm having zip luck searching, but I have looked at a lot of photos of M-1s and BARs this afternoon.

Ringo
05-18-2003, 05:59 PM
OK, found some stuff; Marshall's book is Men Against Fire.

Paul in Qatar
05-18-2003, 08:50 PM
His best book is A Soldier's Load and the Mobility of the Nation. I doubt some of the ideas he presents as fact there too.

Also of course he wrote The River and the Gauntlet.

Spavined Gelding
05-18-2003, 11:39 PM
Originally posted by Paul in Saudi
It is worth noting that S.L.A.M. was a hellva a nice guy. Chief Historian for the US Army during your World War II, told greeat stories about his time with Blackjack Pershing.

He was most probably a liar.

Several scholars have come forward saying they cannot backup the "How many fired their weapons" number from his data. He seems to have exagerated for effect.

No cite. Sorry.

OTOH I would love to see some modern reseach on this subject.

While Marshall's data are subject to question and criticism, the man did cause a significant change in the way the Army teaches recruits to shoot. In the old days a soldier was trained on a known distance range with bull's eye targets. The soldier was also taught that wasting ammo was a major sin. From Marshall's reports it was concluded that soldiers were not firing because they did not have a clear target and were afraid to waste ammo. The new system trained soldiers on "train-fire" ranges with pop up targets. The idea was to get a soldier to ID a target quickly and fire at it right now and to forget the Sergeant York model of musketry.

Jman
05-19-2003, 01:14 AM
Thank you, Monty. You got to him before I did.

patchbunny
05-20-2003, 03:34 PM
Originally posted by Monty
patch: Every Soldier's job is "something useful."

Every soldier's job may be "something useful", but that doesn't mean they're doing it. My job is "something useful", but I'm certainly not doing it now.

If you're a rifleman in combat, and you're sitting behind a tree, watching what's going on and not firing at the enemy, you're not doing something useful.

If you're a rifleman in combat, and you're cowering in your foxhole and not firing at the enemy, you're not doing something useful.

If you're a rifleman in combat, and you're putting rounds blindly downrange, your usefulness is questionable.

If you're a rifleman in combat, and you're taking aim at enemy positions and firing your weapon, you're doing something useful.

There are other ways to be useful, but I think the point is made.

Paul in Saudi's comments ring a bell, but I've never seen it expanded upon other than something along the lines of "he's wrong". I would like to see more on this issue as well. For now, Marshall's work is all I have as a reference.

Hmmm.. mebee time for a web search when I get home tonight.

--Patch

Monty
05-20-2003, 04:30 PM
You're welcome, Jman.

Patch: You are incredibly mistaken in your view of what a Soldier's "job" is. I say this as both a former US Army Sergeant and as a retired US Navy Petty Officer First Class: Part of the "job" of a member of the Armed Forces is to be prepared. If you're not keeping yourself prepared, then perhaps you've made the wrong career choice?

pravnik
05-20-2003, 04:33 PM
In his book On Killing, Lt. Col Dave Grossman states that the percentage of combat soldiers actually willing to shoot at and kill the enemy has traditionally been very low, 15-20% (quoting Marshall). This he compares to a 15-20% literacy rate among proofreaders. By Vietnam, our Armed Forces developed specialized training designed to increase this percentage through conditioning, and got it up closer to 95%, although the psychological cost on the soldiers increased as well.

RickJay
05-20-2003, 05:13 PM
Yes, pravnik, but the problem is that Marshall's 15-20% claim is probably nonsense.

pravnik
05-20-2003, 05:33 PM
Yeah, I included that he was quoting Marshall because I didn't want anyone to mistake him for an independent source. Plus, although intelligent, qualified (former Army Ranger, West Point Psych professor), and an interesting guy, Grossman is very firmly in the "Quake and Doom are the direct causes of Columbine, etc., television and video games cause murder" camp, so make of him what you will.

Sofa King
05-20-2003, 06:32 PM
I think that if you refer to the enormous introduction to John Keegan's The Face of Battle, you'll be able to track the citations which show S.L.A.M.'s observations on troops firing in anger to be erroneous. But I too am going to have to go to the vault to look that up, for the reasons I name below.

Going purely from memory (of Keegan's work and other sources), I believe that Marshall's observations sprung from his work on Makin Atoll, which I happened to ask about in another facet of this topic (http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?threadid=85416&highlight=makin). In fact, in that thread zut and mhendo came to the mathematical conclusion that, if a triangular system of reserves was employed, and no reserves were committed, only about 20% of a division would actually see combat.

I would say that the 20% figure may have spawned from Marshall, except now I can't find where Marshall said anything about reserves OR the number of troops who fired shots in anger.

Back then, I was bad enough to not provide any decent citations--I recall having trouble finding them. Now, our good friends at the DoD have put the final report on Makin online (http://www.army.mil/cmh-pg/books/wwii/makin/mak-fm.htm) for us to peruse.

A quick review only provides a reference to "indiscriminate" fire in the Conclusion. But I also find no reference to the "triangular" reserve problem I asked about in that other thread. Obviously, I have to read it in full, but right now I'm wondering exactly where I learned the damned Marshall-reserves problem to begin with! The link above is to the final report, not Marshall's work, which was "edited and partially rewritten."

I'm thinking that the two issues may have shaken out like this: Marshall may have concluded that too many troops were held in reserve; the final report writers may have come to the conclusion that the real problem was too many soldiers firing indiscriminately at night. (I recall that after Makin troops were encouraged to use grenades rather than their rifles when night fighting.) The 20% firing myth may have also spawned from this very same issue.

Sorry to confuse the issue even worse. If I can find the time to look into this I'll offer any answers I find.

Searching For Truth
05-20-2003, 09:11 PM
I think it's really interesting that this came up. I read about Marshall's statistics in Newsweek earlier this year.

"The war of nerves: And how the troops preparing for conflict with Iraq are coping with it." January 26, 2003, By Evan Thomas
http://war-in-iraq.org/military/war-troops-260103.html
The great combat historian of World War II, S.L.A. Marshall, wrote that fear affects all men, even those in the most highly motivated units. Marshall found that no more than a quarter of the men actually fired their weapons on the battlefield. Religious scruple against killing was one reason. A bigger factor was shock. In one study of a division that saw heavy fighting in World War II, a quarter of the soldiers admitted they had been so scared that they vomited. Almost a quarter lost control of their bowels. Ten percent urinated in their pants.

Ringo
05-20-2003, 09:30 PM
Since this thread sprang from my dim memory of having run across what was apparently a Marshall artifact years ago, and not having as yet run across the actual Marshall text, I have to ask - this figure bandied about is 15-20% of whom?

Obviously, there were many WWII service members (half or more?) who never had an opportunity to fire a weapon at an enemy. My father was a low-on-the-totem pole intelligence functionary who followed the traffic between the Japanese embassy in Moscow and Tokyo. I doubt, after he watched the Pearl attack (as a civilian), that there was a shot fired in anger within a few thousand miles of him during his WWII military service.

Similarly, many military other occupations had almost zip opportunity to actually fire on the enemy.

So I suppose the question regarding the (I've yet to actually see) figure of 15-20% bifurcates into a.) the questions of will, resolve, consciense and training addressed by Marshall and Grossman and b.) who is the total population referred to?

Exapno Mapcase
05-20-2003, 10:01 PM
My World Almanac lists troop strength in WWII as 16,353,659.

Simply put, in no organization, bureaucratic or otherwise, with 16,353,659 members is every job or every person useful.

Now, my copy of The Face of Battle has a discussion of Marshall on pp. 73-4.

Newsweek accurately quotes the 25% figure, which is the percentage of all "fighting" soldiers who will use their weapons against the enemy. Battle quotes from Marshall:
[The Army] must reckon with the fact that he comes from a civilization in which aggression, connected with the taking of life, is prohibited and unacceptable. The teaching and ideals of that civilization are against killing, against taking advantage. The fear of aggression has been expressed to him so strongly and absorbed by him so deeply and pervadingly - practically with his mother's milk - that it is part of the normal man's emotional make-up. this is his greatest handicap when he enters combat. It stays his trigger-finger even though he is hardly conscious that it is a restraint against him.

Keegan never refutes this with facts. He says:
It was [Marshall's] conviction that success in battle depended upon structuring an army correctly; and in arguing his case for a new structure of small groups or "fire teams" centered on a "natural fighter", he was undoubtedly guilty of over-emphasis an special pleading. ... A dose of Marshall is a useful corrective but it is not a cure-all for the ills of military history.

patchbunny
05-20-2003, 11:21 PM
Originally posted by Monty
You're welcome, Jman.

Patch: You are incredibly mistaken in your view of what a Soldier's "job" is. I say this as both a former US Army Sergeant and as a retired US Navy Petty Officer First Class: Part of the "job" of a member of the Armed Forces is to be prepared. If you're not keeping yourself prepared, then perhaps you've made the wrong career choice?

I feel like we're talking in two different things, here.

1) What soldiers are supposed to do in combat

2) What they actually do in combat

It may well be their "job" to be prepared, but what actually happens when the bullets start flying is something else altogether. Being willing to stick your head up and fire your weapon when people are trying to kill you is something you're not going to know you can do until you're in that situation, regardless of whether or not your job description says "be
prepared". And that's the crux of Ringo's question -- how many soldiers are actually doing that "job".

My response was, in brief, 'not a lot, but it's improving.' That appears to be the general direction the answers have headed, and folks agree that we need better references than Marshall. Why you're quibbling over job descriptions is beyond me.

If you wish to make the point that "Part of the 'job' of a member of the Armed Forces is to be prepared," fine. The question then simply becomes:

"What percentage of U.S. soldiers were actually prepared enough to fire their weapons at an enemy target in combat in WWII?"

So far, the consensus appears to be "not a lot, but it's improving."

--Patch

"I can't get no lower, Willie. Me buttons are in the way."
--- Bill Mauldin, Up Front

Bookkeeper
05-20-2003, 11:23 PM
I suspect that there is some confusion over "firing their weapon" and "firing their weapon at a specific target" in some of these statements. One of the credible studies to come out of WW2 indicated that the vast majority of rifle, and to a lesser extent, machine gun fire was simply pointed in the general direction of the enemy for the purpose of keeping their heads down, rather than aimed fire at a target.

This is known as supressive fire, and actually has some use on the battlefield. There was probably a lot of panicky blazing away or freezing in fear too, but I doubt that the level of "useless" soldiers was anywhere near 80% in actual combat units, even for green troops, and I expect the actual level would improve with experience.

(This study is one of the reasons why armies eventually dropped the M1/Lee Enfield/Kar 98 type of rifle for cheaper and more easily manufactured assault rifles - they decided that the level of accuracy provided by these weapons was rarely used in actual combat. Rifles of this type are now considered to be specialized sniper weapons rather than standard GI issue.)

patchbunny
05-20-2003, 11:32 PM
Originally posted by Ringo
So I suppose the question regarding the (I've yet to actually see) figure of 15-20% bifurcates into a.) the questions of will, resolve, consciense and training addressed by Marshall and Grossman and b.) who is the total population referred to?

I believe Marshall was referring to troops on the front line who are directly involved in the action. Like you, I need to track down my original source on this.

--Patch

Little Nemo
05-20-2003, 11:34 PM
So I suppose the question regarding the (I've yet to actually see) figure of 15-20% bifurcates into a.) the questions of will, resolve, consciense and training addressed by Marshall and Grossman and b.) who is the total population referred to?
Ringo, I think I understand your question. I've read Grossman's book and he clearly is referring to what percentage of troops who were supposed to be shooting the enemy actually did so. In other words, Grossman was claiming that during WWII, of the American soldiers who were in combat and had an opportunity to shoot at an enemy soldier only 15-20% would actually shoot at the enemy with the intent to hit him.

Duckster
05-20-2003, 11:55 PM
<hijack=slight>
In a recent History Channel program about helicopters and their role in combat, the average soldier only saw, on average, approximately 40 days of actual combat per year for the four years, on average, they were in action.

However, thanks to helicopters, the average soldier in Vietnam during their one year tour of duty, saw more than 260 days of combat.
</hijack>

slipster
05-21-2003, 07:53 PM
One of several questions under discussion here is the very interesting issue of what proportion of soldiers in combat are actually taking aim and trying to hit the enemy as a general practice.

While an important question, I doubt it is really amenable to being reduced to a certain statistic; how are we to know, after all, if an individual soldier in the chaois of battle is actually taking careful aim or just faking it?

For whatever it is worth, when I was in military school as a boy (the 70s), an active duty U.S. Army sergeant who was one of my instructors said that the Army figured that about 40% of U.S. soldiers in World War II were really trying to kill the enemy, as compared to about 80% in Korea and 90% in Vietnam.

He attributed this trend to improved training and conditioning. Assuming that such a trend actually existed, I wondered--and still wonder--if part of it had to do with the fact that a good many of the enemy in World War II, like the majority of U.S. forces, were Caucasian, while the enemy in the later conflicts was Asian.

As Paul Fussell has written at some length, American troops were widely able to treat Japanese soldiers differently than German and Italian troops during the Second World War, objectifying them to an extent European troops were not. As an illustration of his point, in an essay in Fussell's book Thank God for the Atomic Bomb there is a photo which appeared as a human interest in Look magazine; it shows a pretty young American woman showing off the love letter sent to her by her Marine boyfriend. He had written it on the skull of a Japanese soldier.

tspnyc
06-01-2013, 11:36 AM
I think you guys are WAY off in your stats.

Or rather, these percentages like 25% or 40% are referring specifically to combat soldiers in front line engagements.

Combat units made up only a small portion of the military during the Second World War.

As I understand it, the percentage of U.S. military personnel that saw combat in WWII is something like 9%.

Of that percentage, many never fired a weapon in anger. For every rifleman there were many more support and service soldiers. And many officers and their staff likewise never directly engaged the enemy.

I do not know if that 9% figure refers only to the U.S. Army or if the Navy and Army Air Force is included.

From the time combat operations began in 1942 until the end of hostilities there were typically less than 35% of U.S. Army personnel assigned to what was called the Strength Army Ground Forces - the combat part of the Army.

Inside that figure, less than half were assigned to the combat divisions at the height of Army population, in March of 1945. While some of the non-divisional personnel consisted of unassigned combat operations units, the greater majority were not fighting men.

Even within the combat divisions there were many more cooks, truck drivers, medical orderlies, clerks and typists, non-combat engineers, etc. than combat soldiers. Many served in combat areas, and were trained in small arms. But most came only in harm's way during bombing raids or long-range shelling.

Of the 91 combat divisions, three did not see any combat, the 98th Infantry division, 13th Airborne division, and the 2nd Cavalry division.

That all being said, the question of how many soldiers and marines in combat companies actually fired on their enemy would be impossible to know. After the war they found out that the stress of being on the line reduced combat effectiveness much sooner than anyone realized - anyone not on the line of course. There were likely many instances of soldiers in holes who chose to stay there, or patrols who were less than aggressive when away from the officers who sent them out to make probe the enemy line.

Musicat
06-01-2013, 12:05 PM
I think you guys are WAY off in your stats. Since 10 years have passed since the last post before yours, perhaps you have some more recent stats we should look at?

AK84
06-01-2013, 12:29 PM
As per Paul's comments, S.L.A. Marshall's claims that only 20% of soldiers in combat fire their weapons, while the other 80% never pull a trigger, are not supported by any other observation, objective evidence, or common sense. Virtually all soldiers who have seen combat, and I've known some of them, fire their weapons and the one I've spoken to assure me everyone else does too.

I know this is a 10 year old post but what so you mean by soldier or in combat? Officers rarely discharge weapons. A tank driver or a forward observer for an artillery battery will not actually fire weapons themselves but they are in combat.