For millions of men the war meant Training Camp as every nation turned civilians into soldiers. The expansion of the United States Army was especially remarkable, from 200,000 men in 1939 to over 8 million in 1945, with 4 million more in the Navy and Marines.
The process of instilling discipline and developing physical fitness was well developed and fairly similar between armies. That did not make the personal experience of every individual going through this rite of passage any easier. None of them knew it yet but many of the men in the U.S. training camps of 1943 were destined for the beaches of Normandy and the subsequent battles in Europe.
Private Melvin W. Johnson had arrived at his training camp on the 30th October 1943:
51 miles west of Fort Worth. It’s an Infantry Replacement Training Center. … This is the wildest, loneliest, most isolated, and most barren land I ever saw.
A week later he was beginning to get a measure of the place:
7th November 1943
They go at this training like killing snakes. The calisthenics, often twice a day, are routines in muscular anguish. The stories I’ve heard about some of the longer hikes – that men fall flat on their face, unconscious, from exhaustion. We jump from one session to the next, running on the double, over rocks and sand. Everything is strict discipline. The officers bawl hell out of you for the slightest mistake.
We’ll learn to use the Garand rifle, a Browning Automatic Rifle, a 50-caliber machine gun, mortars, and to thrown grenades. The camp covers, in all, 16,000 acres, and is made up mostly of sand, rock, and scrub oak. The camp area proper has thousands of men – the number I’ve forgotten. It’s a sad, hard life. But don’t worry. I’m getting along all right. The war won’t last forever.
Also, there’s something about it that gets in your blood a little. Don’t let anyone underrate the Infantry. They’re the toughest, proudest branch of the service. When I finish the other 16 weeks of this, I will have done something. I will be tougher than ever, even though I think I’m already in pretty good shape. I never dreamed a few calistenics this past week would make my legs and shoulders as sore as they did. This Texas sun will make me more tanned than ever. The food is rather poor – nothing like at Ft. L. – and sometimes the things you really like is in small amounts; but we go at it like pigs; our appetites are voracious.
14th November 1943
Saw the town of Mineral Wells (Home of Crazy Water Crystals) for the first time last night. First time we were allowed to leave the camp area. Not a whole lot there. Had 2 beers. The Baker Hotel, built in 1929, is the most famous landmark of Mineral Wells, TX sporting Mineral Hot Springs that brought both the ill and the elite from around the nation. First for a month or two (it seems anyway).
Brother, this camp is tough. I get along all right. But it’s really almost Mineral Wells, TX a form of slavery here. No let-up in the constant pressure of work, drill, practice, run, hike, climb, exercise, etc. Yesterday, practiced climbing down 40 feet of rope nets off side of ship (debarkation exercises).
Went through tear gas chamber twice; once with mask on and then without mask, at slow walk, to get discipline in gas conditions. Following that, we walked (without masks) through explosions of small gas charges to learn to recognize their smell. They were chloropicrin, phosgene – lung irritants – and mustard and lewisite – vesicants (burning gases).
They do everything here. And the non-coms are really tough. In fact, I don’t think I would have the necessary mental makeup to fill the position of many of these non-coms. They’re unduly rough in their treatment and Camp Wolters Ship Drill language, and I don’t quite see it that way: However, don’t misunderstand me; I’m getting along fine. I generally know what to do and keep pretty well out of trouble.
You may not be able to realize what a hard life a soldier has – or maybe you can.
You can read more of the WW2 letters of Private Melvin W. Johnson right through to his time in combat in Normandy, 1944.
WWII US Army Training Film: “Baptism of Fire” (1943)
Baptism of Fire is an US Army documentary that shows the anxiety associated with going into combat for the first time. This 1943 Army training film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1944, it sometimes possible to find it online.