Best Defense

‘Fury’: The sergeant major responds to the writer/director’s defense of the film

Before I give cites to my comments, I thought I might give a vignette that I experienced in dealing with recollections made far after the fact.

Fury_2014_poster

 

By CSM Robert S. Rush, PhD, US Army (Ret.)
Best Defense movie reviewer

First, my Ph.D from Ohio State University is in Military History. Three of my published books look at the individual soldier under the different conditions in the different theaters of war and the fourth book looks at the regimental level. My experience as a career-enlisted soldier (infantry, ranger, and airborne) adds to the knowledge that I’ve gained going through extensive research in primary source records. As a former Army historian, I am considered a subject matter expert on small unit cohesion, unit rotation and individual replacement.

Before I give cites to my comments, I thought I might give a vignette that I experienced in dealing with recollections made far after the fact. In 1994, when I was conducting research on the Hürtgen Forest battle, I interviewed about 200 members of the 22nd Infantry Regiment who had been involved in the battle. Their narratives fit nicely together into what I had read in secondary sources. In 1997, now conducting research on my dissertation on the same topic, I discovered interviews conducted with many of these same soldiers; however, was dismayed that their recollections from December 1944 had little-to-no relationship with what they had told me in 1993 and 1994. To determine fact from fiction, I went into the unit daily morning reports and primary source documents (Daily SITREPS, unit journals, after action reviews, etc.) ultimately using five of the that I had conducted.

(One example from gunner Private First Class William Cooke: “I was in the heavy machine gun platoon of How Company in support of one of the rifle companies. Sgt. Anker and I were manning a machine gun in the wood line on the outskirts of Grosshau when we were hit by German artillery and Anker was killed and I was wounded — I don’t know what day it was.”)

I checked the daily regimental log and situation maps to determine that Fox Company was the rifle company and then checked the How Company morning reports and found that Anker was reported missing in action on November 26, when Cooke was wounded. Anker’s body was later found and the morning report was corrected.

I do not believe the former soldiers were deliberately misremembering, though some may have been. After the war, they were reading whatever books or magazines they could on what their unit did: sitting at reunions telling remembrances, in turn building a collective memory and watching movies. One story of someone seeing replacements being killed because they did something stupid or of prisoners being shot, soon became everyone saw this. I read many autobiographies — before the were published —from former soldiers where the same incident is mentioned, and I can pretty much pick out which book or movie it originated.

I do realize that no rational being would go to this much effort in making a movie — it would make no sense. That said, it probably would have behooved if someone to pull up the 66th Armored Regiment’s daily summaries as well as the monthly historical report, which gave an overview for the month of each of the staff sections, as well as the casualty breakdown.

Removal of Dead and Burial:

This was not even a thirty second piece at the beginning of the film and could have been forgone. As noted below, dead were kept away from the living.

I stand by my assertion that mass graves as depicted were not used in 1945 by either side in Europe as I found no reference outside interviews that this occurred. (This is not including those dug at the different extermination and concentration camps or from the bombing of cities.) For the United States to have done so would have been very hard to cover up.

This from:

It was recommended that unburied dead be removed as rapidly as possible and buried. The removal was to be carried out in a most considerate manner and with the least confusion in order to sustain the troops’ morale. Bodies were to be covered, especially if mangled or in an unpresentable condition, when carried or transported to the cemetery or other place of interment. Routes were to be selected in order to avoid contact with troops as much as possible, and places of burial were to be screened from roads if feasible. The removal of the bodies and remains was to be accomplished with a reverent attitude toward the dead. If any wounded were to be found, their removal would be the task of the Medical Department and troops detailed for that purpose. In all cases the bodies were to be wrapped in clothes, parachute material, sheets, blankets, mattress covers, or shelter-halves fastened securely with large horse-blanket safety pins before burial, if possible. When interments were made by Company Commanders they were instructed, as soon as possible, to report all facts to the GR personnel operating in the sector, in order to maintain complete data and records of the burials. https://www.med-dept.com/articles/quartermaster-graves-registration-service/

Also see:

Quartermaster Corps: Operations in the War Against Germany. Chapter XIX. Greaves Registration Service

Reports of The General Board, United States Forces, European Theater, Report 107 Section QM Subject Graves Registration Service

Replacements

My issue was with the inaccurate portrayal of a clerk typist with eight weeks in the Army being sent as an Armor Replacement. It might make for a good storyline, but it gives a wrong impression. It would have been just as good had a just-out-of-training infantryman been assigned to the tank crew, and might have created a different and more plausible dynamic.

The relatively low casualties in April, plus a record retraining output of nearly 25,000 that month, had resulted in the continued accumulation of replacements in the depots of the Replacement System. Toward the end of April the stockage reached a total of 86,000 men, and was beginning to exceed the capacity of the Replacement System’s accommodations.

While the expanded retraining program thus more than met the need for infantry riflemen, the shortage in at least two other rather critical categories— armored force enlisted men and infantry officer replacements—was never completely eliminated. The shortage of armored replacements, particularly tank crewmen, became especially acute in March and April 1945, when deficits ranged from 3,000 to 5,000. The War Department insisted that it could no longer furnish armored replacements in the numbers desired except by diversions from infantry training as well as di- versions of replacement tanks, conditions which the theater was reluctant to accept. The Replacement System itself was ill-equipped to offer the required training… Both army groups preferred to conduct their own training, converting either their own armored infantrymen or other infantry replacements into tank crewmen. See Logistical Support of the Armies Vol. II, 465 http://www.history.army.mil/html/books/007/7-3-1/index.html

Executions

Although the movie is a “craft of fiction” and though these were men of the depression, they were also men with perhaps more humanity than civilization possesses today. Real death was an everyday occurrence when they were growing up, and proper respect paid to those passed. As I illustrated in my original comments, there most certainly were instances when prisoners were killed, but as depicted in Fury, this was an act of murder that should have been reported like other cases.

From training and experience, when infantrymen are assaulting across an objective and an enemy soldier throws his hand up in surrender but is shot, that’s no crime. The same goes for soldiers lying wounded in the area being assaulted across. Now, if the soldier touches the enemy soldier he has in effect accepted the surrender, and it’s a crime if he then shoots him. Fast forward to the reorganization phase with soldiers being sent back across the objective to resweep the objective for missed positions and materials and wounded soldiers, both friendly and enemy — enemy soldiers found are not shot unless they resist.

As I wrote, I would recommend the movie Fury be seen, but with caveats. Some portions were most certainly not indicative of the U.S. Army in World War II, who were not Inglorious Basterds!

Dr. Robert S. Rush, during a career that spanned thirty years, served in leadership positions from squad leader through continental army command sergeant major. He served in various infantry units: Ranger, light, and mechanized. Upon retiring, he attended Ohio State University and earned a Doctorate of Philosophy degree in military history.  Later, he served two tours in Iraq as command historian for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Gulf Region Division and Multi-National Corps-Iraq. He is the author of several books, including Hell in Hürtgen Forest: The Ordeal and Triumph of an American Infantry Regiment, GI: The US Infantryman in World War II, The NCO Guide (6-9th Editions), and The Soldiers Guide (5-7th Editions). 

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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