World War II's 'Silent Army' Produced 'Silent Revolution'

By Gosoroski, David M. | VFW Magazine, October 1997 | Go to article overview

World War II's 'Silent Army' Produced 'Silent Revolution'


Gosoroski, David M., VFW Magazine


As the ultimate citizen-soldiers, WWII veterans became the engineers of massive social change and the architects of postwar American society.

When he died in July 1997, Jimmy Stewart was hailed as more than just a movie star. His military record was widely publicized. For a generation of Americans he was the quintessential WWII citizen-soldier and American hero.

An 8th Air Force pilot who flew 35 combat missions over Europe and recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, he once remarked, "My service in the military has made me a better citizen."

To many Americans, he symbolizes the best qualities of the 16 million Americans (then 9% of the U.S. population) who answered the call to serve during the war.

Today, they number less than 6.7 million. But as a group, they have had an impact on American society, politics and economic growth far out of proportion to their numbers in the nation.

`For Our Families Our Nation'

The Selective Service Act of 1940 conscripted eligible males ages 18-37 "for the duration and six"-the end of the war plus six months. Though draftees comprised the great majority of all forces in WWII (66%), some attempted to volunteer but were officially conscripted because of the manpower needs of the Army ground forces.

Those who were employed were guaranteed re-employment rights upon discharge by section 8 of the act.

The typical WWII soldier was single and 28-older than in most other American wars-and had finished the sophomore year of high school.

High school dropouts accounted for 28% of all American forces while 33% had completed only elementary school. (The demands of the Depression were overwhelming.) Some 14% of those in uniform had attended college, but only 3% had four-year degrees.

Support for the war was universal. Motivation for serving was best summed up by writer Jeremiah O'Leary: "The fire already was burning in most of our hearts. We all knew why. We did it because the American democracy, with all its wends and flows, was worthy of preserving.

"We fought Japan because we were attacked and we fought Germany because she declared war on us. We fought, of course, for each other, but we also fought for our families, our nation"

`Living the Life of a Savage'

Some 73% of GIs served overseas, with a distinct minority at the "tip of the spear" in Europe, North Africa, the Pacific and Southeast Asia. The ratio of support to combat troops was 10-to-1.

Women sent abroad numbered 17,000, while blacks made up 4% of troops overseas. Those who, through no fault of their own, remained stateside were derisively called "USO Rangers."

All told, American forces suffered 293,131 killed in action, 115,185 noncombat deaths and 670,846 wounded. These were only the physical casualties.

Battle fatigue, also called combat neurosis and combat exhaustion, affected some 1,393,000 men. Of all WWII Army ground combat troops, 37.5% were discharged for psychiatric reasons, found Richard Gabriel in No More Heroes: Madness eS Psychiatry in War. This was often sarcastically referred to by GIs as "nervous in the service" or being "fright-burned."

According to Dixon Wecter in When Johnny Comes Marching Home ( 1944), the most difficult of all rebuilding tasks was often restoration of nerves and minds shattered in battle.

After Guadalcanal, Marine Pfc. John J. Conroy wrote to his father on Christmas Eve 1942: "I have been shell-shocked and bomb-shocked. My memory is very dim regarding my civilian days. Of course I'm not insane. But I've been living the life of a savage and haven't quite got used to a world of laws and new responsibilities.

"The medics here optimistically say I'll pay for it the rest of my life. My bayonet and shrapnel cuts are all healed up, however. Most of us will be fairly well in six months, but none of us will be completely cured for years."

Mustering Out

Actual planning for demobilization had begun as early as 1942. …

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