*An earlier version of this article appeared on Warisboring.com on July 17, 2017.

"The most frequently used crutch-word in the military"

Near midnight on November 24, 1944, troops of Company K, 333rd Infantry Regiment, 84th Infantry Division moved back from the front lines around Geilenkirchen, Germany. For days their company had taken heavy casualties attacking German positions. As the exhausted soldiers marched in the rain and mud through the blacked out town a military policeman repeatedly admonished them to put out their cigarettes, worried that any visible light would draw enemy fire. Platoon Sergeant George Pope waited until he was nearly opposite the policeman before saying “Why don’t you shut your fucking mouth?” [1]

According to John Babcock, a mortarman in the 78th Infantry Division, "[d]uring WWII and during every war before or after, the word fuck was, and still is, the most frequently used crutch-word in the military." [2]  Another WWII solider, J. Glenn Gray agrees that "[t]he most common word in the mouths of American soldiers has been the vulgar expression for sexual intercourse. This word does duty as adjective, adverb, verb, noun, and in any other form it can possibly be used, however inappropriate or ridiculous in application." [3]  At times it was used as a placeholder while thinking of another "more appropriate word, but more often it was "a pure expletive that automatically insinuated itself into dogface talk." [4]  Even combat infantryman Raymond Gantter of the 1st Infantry Division believed that “the GI would be virtually speechless if a certain four-letter would beginning with F were lifted from his vocabulary.” [5]

A pamphlet printed by The Sunday School Times in 1942 that cautioned servicemen against the use of foul language. Other pamphlets in this series were titled "Can a Soldier Be a Christian?", "Shall I Take a Friendly Drink?", "What's the Harm in Gambling?", and "Why Keep Pure and How?" 

New recruits were in some cases shocked by the sudden exposure to the F-word upon joining the Army. Frank Branco, a South Philadelphia “street kid” never heard his parents swear but from hanging around with kids on his block was no stranger to foul language. Still, even the most misbehaved kids in his neighborhood almost never used the F-word. On his first morning at Camp Wheeler, Georgia, one soldier shouted to another at the breakfast table “pass the fucking butter” and Branco recalled, “so it began”. The F-word became part of his new vocabulary, and “eventually it became so normal that it seemed to fit in any conversation.” [6]  William Devitt, a young Second Lieutenant awaiting orders at Camp Robinson, Arkansas, was representative of many young Americans suddenly acclimated to the use of the F-word in Army parlance:

I was raised in a household in which in the mildest forms of profanity were not used, not by my father, mother, two brothers, sister, not myself. The strongest language in my family came from my mother who, from time to time, upon reaching the end of her patience, would exclaim, exasperated, 'Oh sugar!' My friends might of occasionally dropped a 'hell' or a 'damn' and in extreme circumstances let fly a 'shit' . . .
At my initial meeting with the first sergeant, he made my friends sound like bush leaguers in the profanity game. He was telling one of his men, 'You tell those mother fuckin' recruits that I don't want no mother fuckin' excuses for not changing the mother fucking' sheets on their mother fuckin' beds.'
He seemed to use that quaint phrase at least once or twice in each sentence. . . I was stunned. I didn't know that such vile talk existed." [7]

New recruit James Nichols recalled that in basic training he “was still very nervous of the F-word (frig being the current substitute, but I avoided that, too)” but a Sergeant in his training company “impressed me with repetition, if not invention. I lay in my bunk one evening and counted the number of times ‘fuck’ occurred in his conversation. It occurred every four and a half words, though I was counting mentally and might have missed some.” [8]  Thomas E. Street, an infantry replacement gives one example of how non-commissioned officers used the F-word to train new recruits. During his basic training his sergeant stressed to Street and his follow trainees that, “you got to take this training serious [sic] so you won’t fuck up over there and get yourself killed and maybe get somebody else killed. And you got to learn everything you can so you can come back. I don’t want no fuck-ups around me when I’m over there.” [9]  While undergoing basic infantry training at Fort McClellan, Alabama, John T. Dorsey, Jr., recalled that the F-word was sprinkled throughout a popular marching cadence which included the following lines:

Highty tighty, Christ almighty! Who the fuck are we? Zim-zam, goddamn, the fucking infantry/
We’re up, we’re down, we roll around, in shit and piss and mud; When blowed on our ass, we’ll land, we ask, in somebody else’s blood/
You lose an arm, you lose a leg, the sergeant says, "Let’s go!"; You’ll get his bayonet up your ass, if he thinks you get up too slow/
The captain says, "Where the fuck are we now? Who’s got the goddamn map?" Lieutenant says, "Oh, is that what it was? I used it to take a crap"/
The colonel’s the man, with a lunatic plan, to take some fucking hill. Sends each battalion the wrong fucking way; dogface pays the bill/
The Army’s fucked up beyond all repair, nobody knows what to do; Maniacs plan, and morons command—and who gets fucked? Guess who?  [10]

"Fuck it!"

But how did "fuck", the "ultimate in obscenity" at that time according to Glenn Fisher, become "the most frequently used crutch-word in the military"? Paul Fussell, noted historian and Platoon Leader in the 103rd Infantry Division in WWII posited that "[a]mong the working class 'fucking' had always been a popular intensifier, but in wartime it became precious as a way for millions of conscripts to note, in a licensed way, their bitterness and anger. If you couldn't oppose chickenshit any other way, you could always say 'Fuck it!'" [11]

"On a Channel ship taking them back to the Continent after 7-day furloughs in England. Sgt[.] John P. Fitzgerald, 9 Flavia St[.], Dorchester, Mass[.], (right) and fellow combat infantrymen talk over the 'swell time' they had in London." Circa March 31, 1945. (U.S. National Archives)

Glenn Fisher of the 102nd Infantry Division doesn't disagree with Fussell's rationale, but also theorizes some other reasons for the rampant use of "fuck" in the WWII GI lexicon. First, he believes that the use of "fuck" by senior Non-commissioned Officers (NCOs) with little education masked their poor vocabulary skills. Second, it was part of a bonding process which established among soldiers a "secret language that civilians did not know and, for the most part, didn't even know existed." [12] In fact, when Fisher said "fuck" in front of his parents they were astonished, and when he wrote "fuck" in a letter to them they believed that he had written "buck". Fisher suspected "the misreading was caused by an unconscious denial. Their little boy would not use that word." Third, he concludes that it may have been part of the brutalization process, hand-in-hand with the Army's teaching recruits to break other societal taboos, like killing. [13]  Perhaps "fuck" was used so often not only because it was grammatically versatile, but also because it could serve to express any emotion, whether forlornly by a casualty of a land mine muttering "I fucked up. I fucked up" or by a soldier telling his Platoon Sergeant to "go fuck himself" in disgust at being ordered to wear his helmet in the chow line. [14]  Marine Robert Leckie summarized the utility and seeming importance of "fuck" as:

It was a handle, a hyphen, a hyperbole; verb, noun, modifier; yes, even conjunction. It described food, fatigue, metaphysics. It stood for everything and meant nothing. . . one heard it from the chaplains and captains, from Pfc.'s and Ph.D.'s . . .  [15]

Leckie theorized, tongue in cheek, that to a non-English speaker who overheard any of his comrades' conversations that, "by measurement and numerical incidence that this little word must assuredly be the thing for which we were fighting." [16]

Glenn Fisher noted that "[a] real master of army language rarely uttered a sentence without using it at least once." [17]  Even soldiers like Fisher, who had only seen the word "scrawled on the walls of outdoor toilets" and occasionally heard it "pronounced by small boys who were well out of earshot of any adult" before joining the Army, embraced the use of "fuck" even if they did not feel comfortable using it as much as others. [18]  34th Infantry Division medic James W. Ruff recalled that the use of the F-word was "needlessly interjected" into conversations in order to gain vocal acknowledgement. According to Ruff, "so common was its usage that when you were in the mess hall, and asked for an object to be passed to you, such as the beans or the potatoes, the F-word had to precede the noun or no one had any idea you were talking." [19]

On occasion, even enemy soldiers would employ the F-word when facing American troops. During the Battle of the Bulge, American troops entrenched within earshot of a "talkative bunch” of Germans who would shout “‘Fuck the Americans,’ ‘Roosevelt eats crap,’ or worse, ‘Fuck Eleanor.’ Several men not overly fond of the president yelled back agreeing with the Germans comments.’" [20]  While Americans certainly did not have a monopoly over the use of the word, even soldiers from other nations seemed to associate the use of the F-word with American soldiers. Soldiers with the 84th Infantry Division, separated from their unit during an attack, were identified as GIs by British soldiers in an adjacent unit in part because of their use of the swear word.  Sergeant Johnny Freeman recalled that when he and a buddy were fired upon near their lines “I yelled, ‘You fuckers turn that thing off,’ to be answered by an English soldier asking “Is that a Yank out there?” Freeman yelled back “‘Who the fuck you think it is?’ Well, I guess the way we were swearing he knew we had to be okay, so he let us on through.” [21]

Nor was the F-word used only by enlisted men. Lieutenant Paul Fussell recalled that his Company Commander’s normal reaction “to any silly order” emanating from high headquarters was “Fuck’em!” [22]  On route to the frontline in Normandy and unaware that his driver was lost, replacement officer Chester H. Jordan recalled that a lieutenant lying on the side of the road flagged down his jeep and told him “[a]nother 100 yards and you are going to be in the middle of the whole fucking German army!” [23]  Jack Graham, an infantryman of the 34th Infantry Division fighting in Italy recalled the greeting a replacement lieutenant received when he ordered an enlisted man to dig him a foxhole. The new lieutenant "looked around at our position and walked over to the smallest man, who was busily digging his own foxhole, and said, ‘Private, dig me a hole.’ The private looked up and said, ‘Dig your own f----- hole.’" Enraged, the lieutenant, with Graham and two sergeants in tow, trudged down the hill the unit was positioned on to relate the exchange to the company commander, a captain. The company commander listened to the lieutenant’s account and then said “Sonny Boy! There is a g----n war going on around here. Now, take your ass back up that hill” and after thoroughly chastising the new lieutenant for his ignorance, added, “Oh! One more thing, Lieutenant, dig your own f----g hole.” [24]

"The Last Refuge of the Inarticulate"

It is important to note that the use of "fuck" required nuance, because as Babcock recalled "[r]anting and railing in fuck-ese was a boring turnoff, the last refuge of the inarticulate" and that when he demanded the attention of his listeners for critical topics like weapons instruction, "I avoided the fuck-word and swearing in general. [The soldiers] took me more seriously, knowing instinctively that empty expletives lack substance and credibility." [25]  However, Babcock included the caveat that if his soldiers did not pay attention he “would have fucking killed the assholes!” [26]

Nevertheless, "fuck" was omnipresent. So much so that a Japanese language expert on Guadalcanal was able to anticipate a Marine's account of a recent patrol by remarking "Yes, I know, you saw the fucking Jap coming up the fucking hill and raised your fucking rifle and shot him between the fucking eyes." [27]  This overuse of the word fuck in GI-lingo could tax even the most understanding listeners. Famous war correspondent and serviceman favorite, Ernie Pyle, is reported to have bemoaned the overuse of the word by commenting, "if I hear another fucking G.I. say ‘fucking’ once more, I’ll cut my fucking throat." [28]  Even combat infantrymen could be fatigued by the constant bombardment of F-words, Raymond Gantter of the 1st Infantry Division recalled that one night in a rest center he overheard GIs playing poker use the F-word thirty-four times in just two minutes. Gantter was not offended by the word itself, merely “the dreary monotony of hearing it over and over again, a repetition that would be equally wearing if the word were innocuous – ‘consumed’ or ‘blasted.’ It’s the paucity of expression, fraying the nerves like the dripping of the faucet in the night.” [29]

78th Infantry Division mortarman John Babcock recalled that the F-word was “embraced generally in the shorthand of military lexicon to describe futility, failure, and in particular, inefficiency.”  Numerous acronyms for phrases incorporating the F-word pervaded GI slang:

SNAFU stood for Situation Normal, All Fucked Up. Anyone who holds that the F in SNAFU stands for "fouled" instead of "fucked’" is simply not with the fucking program. While many soldiers didn’t really know what the letters stood for, just that SNAFU described a screwed-up event as in: "Was that field exercise yesterday a SNAFU?" "Shit, it was worse than that. It was fucked up." Small and gross catastrophes took on variations. FUBAR: Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition. TARFU: Things Are Really Fucked Up. FUBB: Fucked Up Beyond Belief.  [30]

"It was Impossible to Speak Without Cursing"

By the end of World War II the word "fuck" had become, undoubtedly in varying degrees, a critical part of the vocabularies of millions of men. The reliance on "fuck" as a universal descriptor was the downfall of many WWII servicemen who, during a rare visit to their families, asked "a younger sister or sweet old grandmother to 'pass the fucking butter.'" [31] The pressures to avoid using the word could also cause inadvertent slip-ups. At his parents' home for dinner Emmett T. Lang's father said to him, "The Army certainly has changed you! You used to be talking all the time but I don't think you have said two words during this meal. What's the matter?" Lang's reflexive response was, "Aw gee Dad, I guess I'm just afraid of f—g  up." [32]

Even while still in combat rifleman Raymond Gantter observed that he would have to watch his language when he returned home to his wife and children, because his “vocabulary [was] increasingly narrowed to the elementary one- syllables, some of them not designed for mixed company or the eager ears of little children.” [33]  

A January 1946 National Geographic article on the return of troops from the European Theater reports how the appearance of Women's Army Corps personnel caused the soldiers' "tone of talking" to swiftly change to "friendly boy-girl banter" and that "the soldiers' favorite words had died, as if a dose of DDT had swept through the train." One young soldier remarked, "we've got to fumigate our language, now we're home!" But when the soldiers discovered the windows of their train car would not open their language reverted to "these so-and-so things were harder to open than a so-and-so Kraut pillbox." [34]  Chester H. Jordan, a Company Commander in the 9th Infantry Division recovering from wounds sustained in Germany saved a copy of a humorous pamphlet he acquired at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, that provided practical advice for servicemen returning to the United States from overseas that included the following tip:

The returning soldier is apt to find his opinions differing with those of his civilian associates. One should call upon his reserve of etiquette and correct his acquaintance with such remarks as "I believe you have made a mistake", or "I’m afraid you are in error in that." Do not say "brother, you’re really fucked-up." This is considered impolite. [35]

Many returning veterans struggled to retire (or at least restrain) their impulsive swearing. 1st Marine Division veteran Sidney Phillips recalled that when he returned home from two years of combat in the Pacific, "[i]t was impossible to speak without cursing, [because] we had been doing it so long." [36]  69th Infantry Division artilleryman Alex Kormas, traumatized his mother at a family dinner after he returned from overseas:

My mother prepared a lamb and turkey for about twenty of us. I said "Pass the f--ing tomatoes." It got really still. I said it again, only louder. My brother passed me the tomatoes. My mother went out of the room and my brother kicked me. Later he took me out on the back porch and asked, "Do you know what you said?"
I said, "Yeah."
My mother was crying in the kitchen. . . She thought that I was going to Hell. That was my homecoming. [37]

Frank Branco, a mortarman in the 100th Infantry Division recalled that his use of the F-word was so ingrained that “when I finally got home it took some doing to eliminate it from my vocabulary after a number of slips at family dinners.” [38]

The use of "fuck" by servicemen in World War II and the years following it de-stigmatized its effect to a large degree, so much so that Paul Fussell believed that the word had become common, and even boring, by the Vietnam war. [39] Even though it is conspicuously absent from many World War II memoirs, and that some veterans maintain that they “didn’t talk like that,” there can be little doubt that "fuck", perhaps more than any other single word, embodies the experience of the World War II serviceman. [40]


Footnotes

[1] Harold P. Leinbaugh, and John D. Campbell, The Men of Company K: The Autobiography of a World War II Rifle Company (New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, 1985), 69.

[2] John B. Babcock, Taught to Kill: An American Boy's War From the Ardennes to Berlin (Dulles, VA: Brassey's, 2005), 9-10.

[3] J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle (Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), 61.

[4] Babcock, Taught to Kill, 9.

[5] Raymond Gantter, Roll Me Over: An Infantryman’s World War II (New York, NY: Ballantine Books), 145. While this article is focused on the use of "fuck" by American troops they by no means held a monopoly on the word. British troops were so reliant on the word and adept at its use that one American soldier reminisced, "I used to think that the American soldiers could curse, but, we could take lessons from the British. Cards and spades, they'd beat us." Frank A. Gimpel, Oral History Interview, February 9, 1995, by G. Kurt Piehler and Alaina Chip, Page 27, Rutgers Oral History Archives. Online: https://oralhistory.rutgers.edu/images/PDFs/gimpel_frank.pdf (Last Accessed: May 4, 2021); Paul Fussell, Wartime: Understanding & Behavior in the Second World War (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1991), 92-94.

[6] Frank Branco, E-mail to the author, September 30, 2019. Other soldiers were similarly introduced and indoctrinated in the use of "fuck" in Army parlance, with one explaining "[Fuck] was used to describe every condition or happening" and it, along with other swear words, "were contagious and became habit forming." Ed Sullivan, Memoirs of a Medic, (Eugene, OR: Insta-Print, 2003), 36.

[7] William L. Devitt, Shavetail: The Odyssey of an Infantry Lieutenant in World War II, (St. Cloud, MN: North Star Press of St. Cloud, 2003), 11.

[8] James W. Nichols, An Amateur Soldier (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014), 40.

[9] Thomas E. Street, How To Survive Combat As Point Man If You’re Lucky … And Lose Friends If They’re Not (N.p.: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012), 12.

[10] John T. Dorsey, Jr., An Account by a World War II Combat Infantryman (N.p.:N.p.), 89, accessed October 22, 2019, http://103divwwii.usm.edu/assets/dorsey_final(07.11.12).pdf

[11] Fussell, Wartime, 95.

[12] Glenn W. Fisher, Not to Reason Why: The Story of a One-Eyed Infantryman in World War II (Philadelphia: Xlibris, 2002), 80-81.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Tom Bourne, Jr. George and Me: The Saga of an Infantryman in World War II and the Company with whom he Fought (N.p.: N.p.), 73, accessed October 22, 2019, https://www.marshallfoundation.org/100th-infantry/wp-content/uploads/sites/27/2014/06/399_G_Combat_Company.pdf; Court Martial Record of Walter J. Bocquet, Affidavit of 1st Sgt. Thomas C. Mulligan. May 1945.

[15] Robert Leckie, Helmet for my Pillow, (New York, NY: Bantom Books, 2010), 17.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Fisher, Not to Reason Why, 80-81.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Dr. James W. Ruff, The Other Hill, (N.p. : Dr. James W. Ruff, 2002), 53.

[20] Leinbaugh and Campbell. The Men of Company K, 141.

[21] Ibid., 26.

[22] Paul Fussell, Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic (New York: Little, Brown & Company Limited, 1998), 2.

[23] Chester H. Jordan, Bull Sessions World War II: Company K, 47th Inf., 9th Div. from Normandy to Remagen, (N.p.: N.p, 1991), 34.

[24] Jack D. Graham, The White Mule (N.p.: Page Publishing, Inc., 2016), 136-137.

[25] Babcock, Taught to Kill, 10.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Fussell, Wartime, 95-96

[28] James Tobin, Ernie Pyle’s War: Americas Eyewitness to World War II (New York: Free Press, 2006), 221.

[29] Gantter, Roll Me Over, 146.

[30] Babcock, Taught to Kill, 9-10.

[31] Babcock, Taught to Kill, 9. Those stories are not totally apocryphal, the January 15, 1945 issue of "Outfit" magazine includes the following story of First Sergeant Clifford W. Benedict of the 34th Infantry Division on rotation to the United States in 1944, "Careful as he was to avoid any uncivilized move that might shock the home folk, the sergeant says he slipped once, during his first meal home, when he asked somebody to pass the butter in a courteous GI manner: 'Pass the !?-x$! butter!'" "Mediterranean," Outfit, January 15, 1945, Vol. I No. 8, 6.

[32] Emmett T. Lang, Always a Soldier but Never G.I., (Denver : Outskirts Press, 2011), 32.

[33]  Gantter, Roll Me Over, 145. Another combat infantryman, Gustav Enyedy noted that in combat "Your language becomes foul no matter how hard you try to maintain decency" further substantiating the crudeness of language on the frontlines. Gustav Enyedy, Jr., Combat Diary : A Personal Record of in Europe, (N.p.: 103d Infantry Division WWII Association, 2011), 164.

[34] Frederick G. Vosburgh, “This is My Own,” National Geographic, January 1945, 114.

[35] Jordan, Bull Sessions, 173.

[36] Sidney Phillips. Profiles of the Pacific. HBO, 1:35, accessed October 22, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EFamV1Ifc0M

[37] David Wilmes and George Foster Provost. The Long Road: from Oran to Pilsen: the Oral Histories of Veterans of World War II, European Theater of Operations, (Latrobe, PA: Saint Vincent College for Northern Appalachian Studies, 1999), 296.

[38] Frank Branco, E-mail to author, September 30, 2019.

[39] Fussell, Wartime, 95-96.

[40] One example of a veteran self-censoring foul language in their memoirs is Marine T. Grady Gallant's, On Valor's Side. Gallant prefaces his account with the following disclaimer, "This book is as free of profanity as possible. The everyday language of the [Marine] Corps is almost pure profanity . . .  I do not feel it necessary to write in this way to give you the true picture of battle. The horrors of modern battle are in themselves enough to revolt those of a normal mind without the addition of words and phrases that I would not be proud for my children to read." T. Grady Gallant, On Valor's Side, (New York, NY: Avon Books, 1966), xiii. “HBO’s The Pacific: ‘We didn’t talk that way . . .,” Veterans Today Archives, June 14, 2010, https://www.veteranstodayarchives.com/2010/06/14/but-we-didnt-talk-that-way-by-randy-ark-staff-writer/