Rule-Breaking Custom in the U.S. Army during World War II

At the end of World War II, U.S. troops in Europe had little to do and were generally restless.  To entertain themselves, soldiers would take leave without permission and—more interestingly—challenge each other to take leave without permission. Here are some examples of this military tradition, from my informant’s wartime experiences:

“During the journey, some of the soldiers came down with Scarlet Fever, so all of the men who had been on our ship were quarantined. After a week or more in quarantine, some of the guys began to get restless.  They noticed that it was possible to sneak out by crawling across the road on one’s belly between the guards when they were marching in opposite directions.  About a dozen of us sneaked out together to explore the countryside.  The Allies had heavily bombed Le Havre to create a diversion from the main D-day landing to the North. Given the resulting ill feeling of the locals towards Americans at that moment, our excursion wasn’t very sensible.  The guys practiced firing their pistols, and after a few hours we sneaked back into camp.  The only other noteworthy event during this period was that one of the idiots in the camp fired off a pistol, making a small hole in the tent about a foot above my head.

“We finally arrived in Namur [in Belgium] and were taken to the kaserne (a barracks surrounded by a 10- or 12-foot high brick wall). During the first few days at the kaserne, only soldiers who had arrived earlier were granted passes to go into town.  There was, however, a section of the wall that was blocked from view by other buildings in the kaserne.  By having one person climb onto another’s shoulders, and a third scramble over the two of them, it was possible to form a chain and scale the wall.  The third guy climbed on top of the wall, assisted the second to get up, and then lowered him by the ankles so that the last could be pulled up.  It was difficult and painful, especially for the man on the bottom.  We went into town and had a great time drinking beer, but somehow it was more difficult to climb back into the kaserne.  We managed to accomplish it without anyone getting hurt.

“The next time that I got a pass [to take leave], Foti had forgotten to get on the request list, and did not have a pass.  There was only a single guard who stood opposite the entrance to the main gate.  I noticed that some of the men would just wave their pass at the guard and say that they were going to turn it in at the orderly room, and that he let them go by without checking.  I convinced Foti that he should come out with me and that we would do the same thing.  When we came back at about 2 AM, I waved my pass at the guard, but he lowered his carbine and said: ‘Soldiers—You’ll turn in your passes here.’  So, I handed him my pass, and told him: ‘That’s his pass—I’ll look for mine.’  To give Foti time to get back to the barracks and into bed, I proceeded to leisurely go through every pocket in my overcoat, jacket, and pants, and then turned over every piece of paper in my wallet four times.  The guard finally started to lose patience with me, demanded my dog tags, and took down my name and Army serial number.  He said: ‘We’ll find out whether or not you had a pass’ and he let me go.  At the next morning’s roll call, with about 1,000 men standing at attention, the Colonel called out my name and told me to march front and center; I did so and saluted him.  He shouted at me: ‘NO ONE MAKES A MONKEY OUT OF MY M.P.’S.  I’M GOING TO COURT MARTIAL YOU IF IT’S THE LAST THING I DO!’  The following day we were ordered to move to Germany, and the Colonel told me that he was going to let me off.

“I suppose that my involvement in these escapades reflected annoyance at the seemingly arbitrary regimentation and restrictions of the Army.  In retrospect, resentment and boredom overcame common sense; it’s fortunate that no one was harmed by any of this.”

Analysis: Aside from providing the soldiers an outlet with which to escape from their boredom, this tradition forces soldiers to demonstrate their guts, thereby reaffirming their manliness. By taking leave without permission, soldiers could prove themselves to the group and gain acceptance through the process. Especially in a high-risk, wartime environment, it seems reasonable that young men would search for ways in which to establish themselves as courageous amongst their peers. Thus, this practice reflects the pressurized situation of war.

Similarly, in Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried, which is based upon the author’s experience of fighting in the Vietnam War, the soldiers’ behavior to one another often tends to be characterized by false bravado—the men endeavor to mask their fears so that they can appear braver than they feel in actuality. For instance, Tim O’Brien portrays a soldier named Curt Lemon, who initiates such dangerous games as “pass the smoke grenade” as he endeavors to exhibit a total lack of fear. (Tragically, he steps upon a mine while playing one of these games, and in this way meets his end.)

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1990. Print.