Why Bayonets?

The following excerpt is taken from my highly-prized, personally inscribed copy of the late Colonel David H. Hackworth’s memoir About Face (Touchstone 1990). I met Hack at VMI

Colonel David H. Hackworth, US Army (Retired), in 1995. He died in 2005.

during a lunch with other cadets in October 2002. Since I was the only person present to have read his book – and had a copy of it with me – Hack ignored everyone else and engaged me in friendly conversation. He signed the book:

Nathan,

Sempre Fi And Lead From the Front. It was great Meeting you –

Warmest Regards,

HACK

I forgave him the spelling mistake (Semper Fi) because, first, he had been an Army grunt and everyone knows grunts can’t spell, and second, he was the most decorated living American soldier. Some grace was appropriate.

Colonel Hackworth’s Shadow Box, including 2 Distinguished Service Crosses, 10 Silver Stars, 8 Bronze Stars and 8 Purple Hearts.

I include Hack’s (admittedly) rough perspective about effective training due to a comment made by the Commander in Chief during last night’s Presidential debate – not because of his view of bayonets as largely irrelevant in modern times, but because of the underlying theme of austerity at the expense of military readiness. Colonel Hackworth wrote the following lines to address similar sentiments under President Eisenhower (pp 305-307):

Training had always been the bane of all the armed services. After WWII it went soft, well attested to by the horrific casualties in the early days of Korea. The American people were shocked: how could the government have allowed their sons to go off to war so ill-prepared? Those of us who’d been trained well and fought through those bleak days wondered the same thing; those who survived to become training madmen in Korea carried the same passion into their subsequent commands. There, we were thwarted before we’d hardly begun: with neither the means nor the blessings of the powers that be, apparently there was no room for training madmen in this peacetime Army.

                Ike’s budget cuts were the first obstacle toward maintaining a combat-ready Army ground force. Gasoline, live ammo, and adequate training facilities all cost money; Ike’s austerity kick gave us barely enough dough to conduct morning PT. Then there was the draft, which brought into the Army not just uneducated kids from the wrong side of the tracks, but university graduates with minds of their own. Many were pampered punks for whom a drill sergeant had two choices: either spoon-feed them into acquiescence or ramrod them into submission. Most (good) sergeants chose the firm-but-fair latter course. The Army was never meant to be a democratic organization; on the battlefield there’s no time to say “please” or to take a vote on who’s going to knock out a machine gun. The fact is, a soldier’s response must be automatic, and based in a philosophy about hands-on training, in the control of a seasoned, hard-assed NCO, can often mean the difference between life and death for a boy on the battlefield. Take the case of Willie Lump Lump, whose tragic story – well known among my men – went something like this:

                After WW II, a boy named Willie Lump Lump enlisted in the Army. He went to Fort Benning to take his infantry training, sixteen weeks of sweat and tears and lots of punishment, to turn him into a hardened soldier. Along about the seventh week of training, a sergeant stood up in front of his class and said, “Gentlemen, I’m Sergeant Slasher, and today I’m going to introduce you to the bayonet. On guard!” With that, the sergeant went into the correct stance for holding the bayonet. “On the battlefield,” he continued, “you will meet the enemy, and there will be times when you will need this bayonet to defeat the enemy. To KILL the enemy! Over the next weeks you’ll be receiving a twenty-four hour block of instruction on the bayonet, and I will be your principal instructor.”

Marine Bayonet Training. Photo from Marines.com

            Willie Lump Lump went back to the barracks, deeply upset. Man, that was so brutal out there today, he thought. The war is over. We’re living in peace and tranquility, and still the Army is teaching us how to use these horrible weapons! “Dear Mom,” he wrote home. “Today the sergeant told me he’s going to teach me how to use the bayonet to kill enemy soldiers on the battlefield.”

                Willie’s mother was shocked. She got right on the phone: “Hello, Congressman DoGood? This is Mrs. Lump Lump. I want to tell you what’s happening down at Fort Benning, Georgia. Here it is, 1949, and they’re teaching my baby to kill with a bayonet. It’s uncivilized! It’s barbaric!”

                The congressman immediately got on the horn. “Hello, General Playitright at the Pentagon? This is Congressman Dogood. I understand the Army is still giving bayonet training.”

                “Yes, we are.”

                “Do you think it’s a good idea? I don’t think it’s a very good thing at all. It’s even… somewhat uncivilized. I mean, really, how many times does a soldier need his bayonet?”

                “Not very often, sir, it’s true. Actually, I was just reviewing the Army Training Program myself, and I was thinking that the bayonet is a pretty obsolete weapon. I agree with you. I’ll put out instructions that it’s going to stop.”

                The next day, seven hundred miles away: “Gentlemen, I am Sergeant Slasher. This is your second class on bayonet training –“ The sergeant was interrupted by a lieutenant walking purposefully toward him across the training field. “Stand easy, men.”

                “It’s out,” the lieutenant whispered.

                “What!” said the sergeant.

                “It’s out,” the lieutenant whispered again.

                The sergeant nodded, his mouth wide open in disbelief. He returned to his class.

                “Gentlemen, we’ll have to break here. It looks as if bayonet training has been discontinued in the Army.”

House to house fighting in Seoul.

A year later, PFC Lump Lump, the model soldier, deployed to Korea with the 1st Battalion, 15th Regiment, 3d Infantry Division. He was standing on a frozen hill and the Chinese were coming at him – wave after wave after wave. Willie stood like a rock. Resolutely, he shot the enemy down. Suddenly he realized he was out of ammunition. He looked at his belt – not a round left. He saw a Chinaman rushing toward him. He remembered the first class on bayonet training. He reached down and pulled his bayonet out of his scabbard. Shaking and fumbling, he tried to fit it on the end of his weapon, but by that time the Chinese soldier was standing over him, with a bayonet of his own.

                The Secretary of the Army signed his thousandth letter for the day: “Dear Mrs. Lump Lump: It is with deep regret that I must inform you that your son, PFC Willie Lump Lump, was killed in action 27 November 1950.”

                Heartbroken, Mrs. Lump Lump wrote to some friends of young Willie’s in the company. “How?” she asked. “Why???” “Willie wasn’t trained,” they wrote back. “He didn’t know how to use his bayonet.” Now Mrs. Lump Lump was not only heartbroken, but outraged. She didn’t even bother to call Congressman DoGood. She barged right into his office.

                “Why?” she cried and screamed. “Why wasn’t my son trained for war?”

                The mythical Willie Lump Lump was my training aid. I used him in every unit I commanded, to explain two things to the troops: first, that the training they were about to receive was in their best interests, and second, that the civilian population didn’t know diddley-squat about the realities of war.

 

About Nate

A 2003 graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and former Marine infantry officer, Nate is the Chief Operating Officer of Hire Heroes USA, a nonprofit organization that helps veterans get jobs. He holds a Master's in Public Administration from the University of Georgia. Nate lives with his wife and dog in Alpharetta, Georgia.
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3 Responses to Why Bayonets?

  1. CSML says:

    As I have said elsewhere, I used my KABAR every day in country. On my first tour I also had two other knives strapped to my flak just in case, and I was by no means exceptional. Always, always bring your knife to a gunfight.

  2. Dave Wojta says:

    I recall when Desert Storm was ramping up, the Army had a video program concerning budget slashed training called “No more Task Force Smiths”. It covered the subject well and referenced a n under-trained task force sent to Korea in the 50s. They were basically annihilated.

  3. COLV says:

    Bayonet training…yes, there is a component of the training that deals with the brutal act of stopping your enemy with a fatal puncture wound…nevermind that he is now close enough to inflict the same upon you. And do not forget that bayonets are usually a measure of last resorts…not the primary means of overcoming the enemy. More applicable to bayonet training is instilling, in the soldier’s psyche, the confidence and attitude of being a warrior. Remember that story about Sheep and Sheepdogs…and the attitude inherent in each. The Sheep cower and run from a threat…the Sheep Dog faces the threat directly. A Soldier must have that determination and confidence to destroy the enemy…not shy away from him.
    The Spirit of the Bayonet!!

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