Taught to Kill
An American Boy's War from the Ardennes to Berlin
Publication Year: 2005
Babcock lets us see the war through his eyesùjust over the rim of the foxhole. Undergoing his baptism of fire in the Battle of the Bulge, he endures the trials of combat, advancing through attrition to become the senior sergeant in the company. This ordinary enlisted infantryman in ôjust another combat divisionö takes the reader from infantry basic training and seven months of combat to postwar occupation duty in Germany and back home. It is one infantry riflemanÆs story rather than an account of how his division fit into the grander scheme of the war in Europeùthough the author relates to that by providing the reader with a roadmap of dates and locations taken. Babcock offers an intimate taste of combat, casualties, how he fought, and with which weapons (in clear ôcivilianö language), and both the heroism and cowardice of his fellow soldiers. Published in cooperation with the Association of the United States Army, it is a gripping account of how an ordinary American boy felt and experienced the so-called good war.
Published by: University of Nebraska Press
Title Page, Series Page, Copyright Page
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The best war stories are always less about battles than about the men who fight them. The extravagant stress of combat is a great revealer of character, refracting a soldier’s elemental traits the way a prism refracts light. We see the man’s mettle, for good and for ill. Writing well about war can never ennoble combat, but it can redeem those forced to wage war by affirming their humanity. We sense the skull...
Introduction: Time to Look Back
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Brisk wind out of the Northwest, hurried bursts of slanting sleet across a shallow trench in the middle of a snowy, thirtyacre cornfield. Through tinted shooting glasses, reluctant dawn gradually illuminated the icy spew and scudding clouds as I lay in that raw hole, eyes and ears tuned for the arrival of the magnificent Canadian goose. Fingers gnarled...
Chapter 1 Preparing for War
Lay That Pistol Down, Babe
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Half my three-year World War II military indenture, from 1943 to 1946, was served at camps or forts that trained infantry replacements. All ten million Americans who were in the service during World War II went through ‘‘Basic,’’ ‘‘Boot Camp,’’ or some sort of military orientation. For many, it was a harsh and cruel transition from life back home. Only combat itself justified the rigors and discipline...
A GI Word that Says it All
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Fuck. During WWII, and during every war before or after, the word fuck was, and still is, the most frequently used crutch-word in the military. There’s little doubt that, based on sheer frequency, it had special tenancy in the Infantry. So dissociated has the word become from its originally accepted application to gratuitous or forced sex that it is no longer...
From Home Front to The Front
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After sixteen months in uniform, I felt like I had the record for longest time in grade as a lowly private in military history. Finally the Army decided it should confer on me the distinguished rank of private first class, in recognition of my acquired professional status as mortar gunner. I wrote my mother that fifteen thousand divisional troops, in full dress splendor, passed in review to commemorate...
Chapter 2 Battle of the Bulge
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Final field maneuvers ended, and it was time to leave training camp and Slewfoot behind. Furloughs were passed out. My own bed felt good, Mom’s meals were great, but it wasn’t exactly like a comfortable vacation at home from school. Asked about my training and experiences, I was uncharacteristically taciturn. None of my pals were around town. I got drunk with some strangers a couple of times, and when I reported back to the company, I felt, strangely, more...
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Canvas-covered GI six-by-six trucks delivered Able Company late in the afternoon to the bottom of a steep, heavily wooded hill just inside the German border from Belgium. Out of sight beyond the top of the hill lay a thousand-yard stretch of snowcovered pasture sloping gently down toward the farm village that our green company was to attack at dawn the next morning. We felt no little uneasiness..
My Longest Day
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Iwas outpost guard in a foxhole that was the nearest thing to a home I had experienced since we had been committed to our first infantry attack a few days earlier. The Germans must have thought our untested infantry division was crazy. We launched our attack three days before December 16, 1944 when they threw their entire might...
Imo in Action
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Rube Beales admitted being bent out of shape as badly as I was during our unbelievable introduction to carnage. We farm boys found out in a hurry that confronting a real, live enemy was a long call from an overnight deer-hunting jaunt. It wasn’t just that the quarry shot back at you with rifles and machine guns; it was their awesome artillery, ‘‘them eighty-fucking-eights’’ as GIs eloquently described..
Living with Death
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Able Company sector was still chaos. Frozen corpses lay all about, some of them our guys. One of the reasons so many more enemy dead still lay in our zone was the difficulty in getting help into town to haul them out. The field we had put to use for our attack was in sight of the enemy and salted with snow-covered land mines. The only...
Home in the Bulge
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Every detail of the key village we held in the midst of the Siegfried defense line had been plotted in detail on German military grid maps: pillboxes, anti-tank pits and dragon’s teeth, mine fields, supply roads, every building, tree, even the slightest depression or knoll. Unlike troop shelters with a single wall of thick concrete, many critical pillboxes had double walls. They were designed so that if a shot or shell came...
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‘‘Talk about tense. You couldn’t drive a needle up my ass with a post maul. Sons ’a bitches. When we finally feel a little like we can relax, they’re on us again. It’s like they know just how much we sweat between rounds.’’ My buddy Rube succinctly described our feelings of suspense and sick anticipation between enemy artillery...
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As sure as a soaring hawk scatters a barnyard flock of chickens, the overshadowing threat of enemy artillery decreed that combat GIs not seek comfort in groups. ‘‘Spread out, men. One shell could get you all,’’ was oft repeated and universally obeyed in the Infantry. The whine of incoming mail broke up crowds of as few as two people. Except for brief..
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The stubborn Huns whomped us unexpectedly and often in our ruined cellars and foxholes. We yearned to get back at them. With plenty of time and some good binoculars (Coleman’s, actually), I spent a lot of idle hours examining the hill ascending to the enemy fortress. Twice we caught white-clad daytime patrols working their way toward our lines. Our mortars chased them back once, and..
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Idle time with no measure had to be coped with during the Bulge, right along with lingering dread of the next hostile shell or enemy counterattack. Our Fourth Platoon had it pretty good when it came to a haven during those long days. The barn that was part of our village farmstead was between us and the enemy, concealing most of the house itself from direct observation. Occupied by a dozen frozenstiff cows (and for a..
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In every one of my letters that piled up at home in a large stack, tumultuous emotion and trauma had thwarted my ability to describe fully, on a one-page mailing form, just what war was to me. The words I came up with had the stale flatness of a snapshot taken of a skidding, roaring race car passing on the track at high speed. The print...
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Friendly Belgian natives had outfitted a homey, warm dining room next to the U.S. Army rear-area shower point and rest camp. The chow was a welcome relief from boxed rations and field kitchen fare: fried veal cutlets, boiled potatoes (real, not dehydrated), canned string beans, freshly baked bread with loads of butter and tasty local jam, real milk, and hot apple pie. Maybe the apples were..
Chapter 3 Hard Road to Remagen
Dreaded Second Round
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We hiked in the dark to the rear from the ruins of our familiar Bulge village on well worn but frequently shelled supply routes, through the cleared mine fields, to our initial Line of Departure and the village a mile behind it that now served as regimental headquarters. The tattered core of our original group that had launched our first attack was convinced we were on the way to a long, well-earned...
Fight in the Open
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Soldiers of Able Company waited uneasily in the dark, cobblestone square of an obscure German farm village,* stomping on one foot and then the other to encourage circulation in the subzero cold. Raw fear supplanted the vague dread that had preceded our first taste of battle. Underlying worry about the unknown had been overlaid by searing, recent experiences of reality. The broken...
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As a stingy dawn slowly shed light, the one-time pasture we occupied looked like a farm field freshly plowed by a reckless, idiot farmer. Snow cover was visible in only a few patches that were not random shell craters or impact areas covered by earth blown out of the craters. That only three of our company had been killed during the nighttime barrage was an amazing testimonial to the efficacy...
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The no-man’s-land bomb crater in which I sought protection was certainly deep enough, but so big around as to risk being invaded by an incoming artillery round. I clung to the slope of the crater nearest the enemy, apprehensive that an explosion against the far wall would probably be fatal. There was no choice. There was no other place to hide. And I had no energy to seek a new hiding place, if indeed...
Uniform of the Day
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We were given little time to rest and recuperate in the big concrete shelter we shared with the Kraut doctor and his wounded charges from both sides. We were ordered at daylight to move on out. There were scattered villages to be mopped up, but for the most part we were deployed in open country to ‘‘take the high ground...
The Buddy System
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He had a Mexican first name like Pedro or Pancho or something, but he answered to Stocky or, when his last name was shouted at roll call, to Bourquez. Problem was, frequently he was not there to sound off at formations in the States. He inevitably ended up in detention after the military police picked him up back at his hometown in Texas, or on rare occasions...
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On the move in late February, toward the end of our second long battle in the forested Ardennes, two of our five-man light weapons squads hastily dug foxholes at the end of a short winter day. We hurried because dark in the foreboding pine forest was blacker than the inside of Dick’s hatband (an old countryboy expression), almost...
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One of the biggest and most frustrating management jobs in my war—maybe any war—was caring for the wounded. There are five to six times as many casualties who live as who die, and the odds improve with every war. The primary link to professional help on our battlefield was the medic. Our medics were officially members of Battalion Headquarters Company, assigned for duty...
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Infantry divisions in World War II were organized in a triangular configuration in strategic design (the big picture) as well as tactical deployment (our smaller perspective). Roughly, this meant that two of three basic military units engaged the enemy, while the third element served as a backup, an uncommitted reserve. Two divisions would be on the line, a third held as backup. Next step down..
Basic Training: ETO
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The first two of three battle stars ultimately awarded our division were earned at the price of rows of pine boxes, and wards full of wounded. The Bulge claimed many early victims because of our overall inexperience, our innocence, really. The Hu¨rtgen Forest and wooded hills beyond brought even heavier losses among both veterans and new men, proving that no one was exempt from..
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When crack fighting units like the Airborne or Rangers were brought up to strength after battle losses, replacements came aboard with the necessary training to make them immediately useful. All that was needed was a little battle seasoning to blend them into a well-oiled machine. The people refilling our ranks were about as...
Chapter 4 Remagen: My Bridge Too Far
Regret to Inform You
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The calm I felt was something a hunted animal must experience when all signs of pursuit finally fade, and a haven has been reached that instinct signals is safe and invulnerable. For too many weeks, the threat of being maimed by a small arms bullet, grenade, artillery shell, mortar burst, air strafing, huge aerial bomb, or enemy...
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Having avoided medical evacuation and the scary official telegram that would have been sent home, I favored my wounded hip by riding the ammo jeep or chow weasel when a long march took place. Otherwise, I participated in the village-tovillage skirmishes that characterized the fighting after the Remagen bridgehead was secured. The weather was improving. The snow had given way...
Chapter 5 Mop Up and Finis
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Once it developed momentum, the final battle of World War II in the ETO was a roller-coaster ride with parts of the track missing. It was satisfying to take great chunks of land with relative ease. But about the time we got used to surging through villages with white surrender flags hanging from the windows, we’d encounter a strong point of dug-in Krauts firing rifles and machine guns at us. Sometimes...
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Aboy growing up during the 1930s and early ’40s had his share of conflict and competition. After a playground wrestling match and shoving matches in the school corridors, you found your place among your peers. If you were really enterprising and assertive, you could take those Charles Atlas ads for his bodybuilding course to heart, in the hope you might resemble old Chuck one day,...
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The pins on the Supreme Headquarters American Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) grand strategy map must have been moving fast as the German opposition crumbled. We wondered if they kept up with us. The end was in the air, in our hopes, in our hearts. But then, experts had thought Germany was crumbling back in December...
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An immense American supply system dubbed The Red Ball Express hurried food, guns, ammo, and fresh troops into the Ruhr.* Battle-savvy defenders could still exact a toll and slow our progress, but they could not stem the tide. They lacked our guns and butter. Red Ball stood for the swinging red lanterns that directed the traffic as deftly as New York City cops during rush hour. These experienced rear...
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We could almost smell the end coming. It had been too easy, too long. I regretted that Captain Goodspeed could not be along to see the end, after having looked to our welfare for so long. Maybe it was lucky that he had received some puncture wounds from stone fragments striking his face and neck; they had resulted from an enemy machine-gun burst that hammered the wall where he had taken cover...
Chapter 6 Ending with a Whimper
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After the fighting in the Ruhr Pocket wheezed to an end in May 1945, the division was scattered widely to secure the conquered nation among Western Germany communities judged to be of strategic importance. Non-fraternization enforcement was spirited at first, but it was difficult to forbid or regulate communication with a populace...
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After a month or so, occupation became a real drag. We all took pleasure from not being shot at, but the Damoclean threat of resuming mortal combat on some Asian shore persisted. It didn’t seem to bother the men who had not done hard time on the lines nearly as much as it preyed on us who endured the crucial battles, or had been wounded and returned to the Company. Between lectures...
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No more than a boy knows for sure when puberty is over does a young man recognize his passage from layman to warrior. But by the cessation of hostilities, as the government liked to call it, we few from the original Company that had shipped out in the fall of 1944 were legitimate battle veterans. Old soldiers. Combat hardened. Cynical. Arrogantly proud. We possessed awesome knowledge of life-and...It was a somber, slow procession of six-by-six trucks in early November 1945 that funneled our division from the American Zone in Germany, single-lane, through miles of Russian zone, to the bombed-out city of Berlin. We ran a gauntlet of Russian soldiers, stern, armed with machine pistols, and stationed only a few yards apart along
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It was a somber, slow procession of six-by-six trucks in early November 1945 that funneled our division from the American Zone in Germany, single-lane, through miles of Russian zone, to the bombed-out city of Berlin. We ran a gauntlet of Russian soldiers, stern, armed with machine pistols, and stationed only a few yards apart along...
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When our troop ship passed the Statue of Liberty and docked in New York on New Year’s Day 1946, the brass bands that had greeted boatloads of triumphant, returning ETO servicemen had themselves been disbanded. The ongoing chore of welcoming troops was left to the ever-loving Red Cross ladies with their trademark maternal cheer and donuts. But even their smiles seemed slightly distracted...
About the Author
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Born and raised in Ithaca, New York, John B. Babcock entered the Army in 1943 and saw combat in the European Theater of Operations with the Seventy-eighth Infantry Division. He earned a Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and the Combat Infantryman’s Badge during his service...
Page Count: 282
Publication Year: 2005