What I did in World War II: chapter 8
By Neilson Rogers
Jul 27, 2021
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The life expectancy of soldiers in the U. S. Army of World War II was not uniform and was not and could not be fair. The infantry divisions’ rifle platoons fought in the front lines and were primarily responsible for winning the war. They fought in the most dangerous places and suffered the most casualties. The danger gradually decreased as the distance behind the front increased.

A World War II division of 14,000 men would have only 3,240 in its rifle platoons. Only one in five of its troops were most exposed to danger. Behind the division, the Army maintained an elaborate support structure that was necessary to keep the division’s rifle platoons and other troops properly supplied and directed. When these additional troops are added, 15 soldiers behind the front were required to supply and maintain one man in a rifle platoon. During the major battles of the war in Europe, the causalities in rifle platoons were high and depleted their strength because replacements were not available or were slow to arrive. 

When I was drafted in 1941, the odds were 15 to 1 that my life expectancy would be longer than that of a man in a rifle platoon. When I was sent to a medical unit for training in the Medical Corps, my life expectancy increased further. While some Medical Corp soldiers working in aid stations close to the front were in considerable danger, most of us were well to the rear. We were unarmed, protected with large red crosses and not considered to be combat troops. When I was assigned to a Medical Gas Treatment Battalion in a war where gas would not be used, my life expectancy increased again.

When it was all over, I was proud of my service. I had been a private, corporal, sergeant, second lieutenant, first lieutenant and captain in the army. Upon returning to my parent’s home in Washington, D. C., the Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives gave me two tickets to the Army-Navy Football game and, although I had forgotten most of my earlier legal education, my father saw to it that I was licensed to practice before the U. S. Supreme Court, the Court of Claims and the Tax Court. I did not feel entitled to the respect I was given. My service had subjected me to very little danger, and it was apparent to me that my parents had suffered more during the war than I had.

Now, over half a century has passed, memory has faded and only the indelible events remain. To me, the two great cities of the war were London and Paris. When I first saw fog-shrouded London it was cold and damp, a battered victim of the first large air assault on a major city. It had borne the carnage with brazen courage and was being threatened with a new German terror machine, the buzz bomb (the first unmanned, jet-propelled aircraft carrying a bomb).

The buzz bomb’s engine made a rattling sound that could be heard as it approached its target. It generally took off from France with its guidance system set in the direction of London. It carried a measured amount of fuel that would be depleted when it arrived over the city. When its fuel expired, its engine ceased to function and it would fall to earth and explode. The people of London could hear it coming, and when its engine fell quiet, they had little time to take cover. 

A later German terror invention gave no warning of its approach. The first German rocket-propelled missile was its V-2 rocket bomb. It blasted off from France into space and fell in the vicinity of London. Its explosion, as it struck the ground, was the first notice of its approach. The London I saw was an eerie town that was suffering as it bound up its wounds.

The last time I saw London (recently), its historic buildings, the palaces, government buildings, museums, churches and entertainment halls had been repaired and bore no evidence of the carnage that had been inflicted upon the city. It was the vibrant citadel of the English-speaking world and seemed to exist as though no war had occurred. It is a beautiful monument honoring the stamina, culture and spirit of the English people.

The first time I saw Paris it was the most beautiful city I had ever seen. Its people were beautiful, hilariously happy, mostly smiling while some joyfully cried. Entering this oasis, a sanctuary from death and destruction, was the embodiment of peace and beauty. On recent visits the city is as it was, except somehow it isn’t. The method of arrival and the circumstances are different.

The last time I saw Paris I had traveled from England crossing below the English Channel on a luxurious train. As an old man, an American tourist, I observed the same great monuments, avenues, museums and structures along its great river that had been there before. To me this city can never be as great as it was when I arrived there from the killing fields of war as a liberating soldier.

“Old man, what World War II accomplishment are you most proud of?”

“I never killed anyone.”

What a cop-out!

For the better part of five years, I had been a part of one of the most massive human slaughtering machines ever devised by man. We do not know how many humans we killed, maimed or crippled.  The most powerful nations on earth had devoted their entire energies to creating machines, instruments and the training of soldiers for one purpose: to destroy, kill and maim human beings. While in that small German village I would have favored dropping a dozen atomic bombs on Japan had it been necessary to end that war.

For many years since the war I have displayed in my Sherman office a large portrait of President Truman. I believe he was our greatest 20th-century president. That poor man had to make the decision to drop the bomb. He had to order the use of the Atomic Bomb because of me--and you. We would have impeached him had he failed to use the bomb with full knowledge that casualties could amount to a staggering total had we established beachheads, buildups and breakouts on the islands of Japan. Using the atomic bombs was the largest terrorist act in the history of mankind. I feel responsible for that and other similar sins incident to World War II.

Looking back on the record of the United States during the 20th century, one is forced to say that we were a war-like nation. By my third birthday my father, a lawyer, was in France, a Major, a Judge Advocate of the U. S. 35th Division, during World War I—“the war to end all wars.” My mother had six brothers; five of them were in that war. Her youngest brother was in the U. S. Army in France while I was there in World War II; a war dubbed by our supreme commander a “Crusade in Europe.”

These were followed by the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Between each of these wartime ventures we usually lived in a war-like threatened condition, particularly during the Cold War. There was a continuation of wars and revolutions between and in other nations. I don’t believe there was a single year in the 20th century when all the nations of the world were at peace. Does the human being demand war and is he incapable of creating peace of earth?

Also troubling, it is politically advantageous for our country to be at war because the voters in the United States support wartime presidents. President Roosevelt was re-elected so many times during World War II that after his death a constitutional amendment was passed limiting the presidency to two terms. It was feared a long war might result in the creation of a monarch.

When I face my maker, with full knowledge that I have violated the great commandment (THOU SHALL NOT KILL), how can I plead my case?

Dare I say: “Dear Lord, if you will forgive me of my sins, I will forgive you for creating humans who are incapable of living in peace.”

Better not to try to barter with the Lord, for I believe he knows what I have done.

This leaves me with only a plea for mercy.