One Day in a Very Long War

Men of 2nd Platoon, D Company, 39th Infantry Regiment in action during the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest

Men of 2nd Platoon, D Company, 39th Infantry Regiment in action during the
Battle of the Hurtgen Forest

World War II Today examines aspects of the war on a daily basis. In many cases the background to any individual incident featured here could form the basis of a whole book, and in many cases they have been written. John Ellis took an alternative approach when he wrote One Day in a Very Long War – he looked at the entirety of the war through a wide variety of different incidents happening on one day, 25th October 1944.

To illustrate his approach three different short extracts are reproduced here, illustrating just a few off the diverse perspectives on the war that illustrate the impact of a truly global war.

The personal experience of the infantrymen who were on the front line of the conflict in western Europe. Here he examines:

the relentlessly grim day—to—day existence all along First U.S. Army’s front. In 28 Infantry Division, for example, there was a growing number of non—battle casualties. Many were trench-foot cases, also known as immersion foot, a term of First World War vintage and describing a condition very akin to frost-bite.

It was the result of getting one’s feet wet and not being able to dry them for hours, even days on end. The feet went numb, turned purple and in extreme cases the nerves died and gangrene set in. In such circumstances toes and sometimes the whole foot had to be amputated.

The only effective way to keep trench—foot at bay was to wash and vigorously massage the feet twice daily, apply liberal amounts of talcum powder and, above all, change into dry socks. It was a cause of particular frustration, therefore, that at this time socks were one of several items of winter clothing in short supply.

Behind the divisional lines the dressing stations and field hospitals were full of such cases.

“If they were lucky the medics caught the complaint in time and they would be put to bed in long lines of cots on which lay soldier after soldier, their feet sticking out from under the blankets, with a little ball of cotton wool separating each toe.”

One such rifleman spent fully ninety days in hospital in the autumn of 1944 after taking his boots off for the first time in two weeks. His feet appeared blue and frozen as soon as he removed his socks but he simply fell asleep while trying to rub them back to life.

The next morning “my feet were like balloons, so red and swollen I couldn’t put my shoes on. Some guys had big black blisters and a couple of guys had to get their feet cut off. The doc says you get that from not changing your socks when your feet are wet. Christ, what the hell you gonna do when you’re living in a hole for two weeks and the water’s up to here and Jerries are shooting at you so you can’t go no place? Christ, I’m lucky I’m here at all.”

U.S. Navy destroyers and destroyer escorts laying a smoke screen during the Battle of Samar, 25 October 1944. Note the splashes from Japanese shells.

U.S. Navy destroyers and destroyer escorts laying a smoke screen during the Battle of Samar,
25 October 1944. Note the splashes from Japanese shells.

The strategic perspective of two great forces of the United States Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy as they clashed off the Philippines during the Battle of the Leyte Gulf. The two surface fleets met at the Battle of Samar on the 25th October:

Admiral Kurita had spotted the Americans at almost exactly the same moment that he was discovered. He reacted to the sighting just as quickly as Sprague and gave immediate orders for ‘General Attack’.

Unfortunately the order came only a few minutes after an earlier one to deploy from a five—column cruising formation to a circular one on a more easterly heading. ‘General Attack’ was very much a free-for-all manoeuvre, leaving direction and choice of targets to individual captains, and coming in the middle of another change of formation it caused considerable confusion.

Even before battle was joined, in fact, Kurita had already made his most serious mistake, attributable, no doubt, to the fact that he had now gone 72 hours without sleep and was still not recovered from his bout of dengue fever.

No historian of the battle has seriously quarrelled with S. E. Morison’s judgement that the order was “a fatal error. Kurita should have formed battle-line with his . . . battleships and . . . heavy cruisers, which would have allowed his superior firepower to count, and he should have committed [destroyers] immediately for torpedo attack. But complete surprise seems to have deprived the Admiral of all power of decision, and the result was a helter—skelter battle. His ships . . . were committed piece- meal and so defeated.”

A B-29 Superfortress in flight.

A B-29 Superfortress in flight.

Also considered are the technological achievements that were winning the war for the Allies, not least the extraordinary developments in aeronautical engineering that had taken place in just a few years. Now from some of the remotest parts of the world the US was able to launch devastating firepower against Japan itself:

On this bright morning, at each of the nine bases around the Kwangchan—Likiang—Kumming triangle, some fearsome aircraft were taxiing forward for take—off. They were carrying 500—lb M—64 general-purpose bombs and M-67 incendiary bombs, at a ratio of two to one, and fully loaded each aircraft weighed 65 tons.

The four engines revved up to their maximum 8,800 horsepower and then, at fifty-second intervals, the planes slowly started off down the mile—and-a—half runways. Though the thunderous pounding of piston engines was heard instead of the whine of jets, the Superfortresses were very much the ‘Jumbos’ of their day, dwarfing other bomber types and with extremely slender wings whose slight swaying seemed altogether inappropriate to the task of getting even the four massive engines airborne let alone the rest of the enormously long plane.

A major consideration on the 25th October mission, as on any long- range sortie, was fuel efficiency.

After take-off the planes levelled out at about 5,000 feet and the pilots eased back the throttles and settled down to a ‘lean burn’ cruising speed of around 200 m.p.h. Greater speed could have been achieved at 20,000 feet, in the more rarefied atmosphere, but the climb would consume lots of fuel as the aircraft was still very heavy with well over 6,000 gallons of aviation gasoline in the tanks.

So wherever possible the climb was delayed until they neared the target area and the enemy defences, by which time climb would consume probably 20 per cent less fuel.

The planes remained at high altitude over the target itself and each man donned his flight suit and oxygen mask as the planes were depressurised to prevent explosive decompression if the hull should be punctured by enemy fighters or flak.

See John Ellis: One Day in a Very Long War

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