The cornucopia of American goods coming into a Europe that had been at war for five years led to the greatest black market of all time. Most American soldiers participated in it to some extent, if in no other way than by trading cigarettes for perfume, or rations for jewels. A few got rich off it.
At the opposite extreme from the young entrepreneurs were the sad sacks, those guys who could never be found when there was a patrol to run or a job to be done, who had mastered the art of getting lost in the Army so well they became practically invisible. In between were the jerks and assholes, usually men who had been made NCOs or junior officers who exploited their rank in chickenshit ways, but at the head of the list there stood the formidable figure of the general in charge of all supplies in ETO. At the bottom of the list were the cowards, and Jim Crow.
They were all part of the U.S. Army in ETO, and this chapter is a glance at a few of them.
Most GIs did their job, fought well, managed to stay out of serious trouble, and were generally regarded as "good guys." The ones who slipped and became jerks for a night, or a day, or a week, could usually blame it on wine, which was present in almost every cellar in France and Belgium (in sharp contrast to the Pacific Theater, where the men drank homemade stuff, always vile, but with a punch). Paul Fussell, in Wartime, catches the situation exactly in his chapter title "Drinking Far Too Much, Copulating Too Little."
When it came to drinking, the men of ETO were just boys. Growing up in the Depression, their experience with alcohol was pretty much limited to a few beers on graduation night, and a lot of beer on Saturday nights in training camp in Georgia or wherever, and in English pubs. This in no way prepared them for the challenge France had to offer.
On December 15 Dutch Schultz, 82nd Airborne, stationed in an old French army barracks, got a pass to Reims, champagne capital of the world. There he ran into three high school buddies from another outfit. The corks popped. "This was my first experience with champagne," Schultz recalled. "I started drinking it like soda pop." He can't recall anything that happened in Reims after the drinking started, but he does remember what happened when he got back to barracks.
"I headed for my bed which was an upper bunk on the second floor of my building. When I got to my bed, I found someone sleeping in it."
Dutch shook the man awake. "What the hell are you doing in my bed?" he roared.
The soldier roared back: "It's my bed, what the hell do you think you are doing? Get the hell out of here!"
They started throwing punches. The lights went on. Every man in the room wanted to kill Schultz. To his consternation, he discovered he was not only at the wrong bed, but also the wrong room, the wrong barracks, the wrong battalion. "I made a hasty retreat."
"Jerk!" the men called out as he fled, using a variety of obscene adjectives to express their feelings.
The guys who were permanent jerks were the usual suspects -- officers with too much authority and too few brains, sergeants who had more than a touch of sadist in their characters, far too many quartermasters, some MPs. The types were many in number and widely varied in how they acted out their role, but the GIs had a single word that applied to every one of them: chickenshit.
Fussell defines the term precisely. "Chickenshit refers to behavior that makes military life worse than it need be: petty harassment of the weak by the strong; open scrimmage for power and authority and prestige...insistence on the letter rather than the spirit of ordinances. Chickenshit is so called -- instead of horse -- or bull -- or elephant shit -- because it is small-minded and ignoble and takes the trivial seriously. Chickenshit can be recognized instantly because it never has anything to do with winning the war."
Copyright © 1997 by Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc.
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