Once, as Kipling might have written, there was a second lieutenant
who was exceedingly stupid. Such things happened in every battalion
and regiment of the 3rd Armored Division, so I am not going to
name any individual or unit. It's the hard scrape of war - the
winnowing out of the misfits. If it's a cruel procedure, remember
that war demands fine leaders - else the rank and file must die.
He was out of the Deep South, no castigation intended, because
many of our finest junior and senior officers were Rebels. Indeed
he came to grief by challenging another Rebel, an armorer who
was both intelligent and efficient - although possessed of stripes
instead of bars. You will remember the old saw: "The mills
of the Gods grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine."
Our lieutenant was a 90-day-wonder, nothing unusual since
lots of jumped-up officers proved highly competent. This one,
unfortunately, had an exaggerated idea of his own importance.
On a morning when the front was quiet, he sought to impose his
will upon a subordinate.
The whole affair was ridiculous beyond belief. A half-dozen
GI's had gathered in the armorer's shack to discuss important
things - like local girls, booze, the possibilities of leave
and the supply of ammunition - in about that order. The stupid
second looey drifted in and added his tuppence. So far, so good.
But then, because men are men, the non-com armorer disagreed
with something the shavetail said. It had nothing to do with
war or the supplies we so desperately needed; it was just a difference
The lieutenant pulled rank. When he was bested in argument he
fell back upon that holiest of holies, the direct order. It didn't
The armorer said, and I quote accurately, albeit with beeps
for words which might offend the pink ears of civilians: "You're
out of your beep-beep mind, and you can blow that beep-beep idea
right out of your beep-beep barracks bag."
"I give you a direct order," the lieutenant said,
"to shut your mouth!"
And the sergeant, now furious, told the shavetail - in no
uncertain terms - where he could shove his direct order.
This might have been all - and would have been all - with
a line officer who knew his troops. Unfortunately, as I have
said, the lieutenant was stupid. He hurried to the company commander
and, receiving no support there, insisted upon going through
channels to the Colonel.
That harried individual eventually jeeped down to hear both
sides of the question. He talked to the disturbed shavetail and
he talked to the armorer. A direct order had been given - and
disregarded. In those days there was a code.
"You," he said to the armorer, "are busted
back to private. In a month you'll get your stripes back."
The lieutenant was very thoroughly chewed out (in private)
and within a week was transferred into an armored reconnaissance
company away out front. He didn't know anything about reconnaissance
(and he was a stupid type anyway) and within a week he was dead.
That's why I use no names. It happened. In that war we needed
the best of leaders, and we weren't very gentle about transferring
So far as I know, the armorer is still living very happily
in West Virginia. He was a good soldier all the way and he helped
to insure our victory in Europe. He meant no harm and the lethal
chain of events was none of his doing.
Nobody mentioned the incident, although the Colonel used to
drop in from time to time - to discuss company supply and drink
a cup of coffee brewed on a Coleman stove perched on crates of
The sergeant got his stripes back, as promised, and he rather
liked the Colonel, because that character was a smart West Pointer
who appreciated good soldiers and never gave a direct order unless
it was necessary. Both survived the war, and both were well decorated.
The fact remains: one man died because he was stupid, and one
had to give orders which were logical under the circumstances.
The rest of us were given an object lesson: the efficient
officer leads, cares for, and sets a good example for his troops.
He makes no unfair demands, else he courts disaster. We are not
playing parlor games when we go to war.