World War II and the F-Word
'Fuck' shaped the lexicon of millions of American servicemen
According to John Babcock, a mortarman in the U.S. Army’s 78th Infantry Division, during World War II and every war before or after, the word “fuck” “was, and still is, the most frequently used crutch-word in the military.”
J. Glenn Gray, another World War II soldier, agreed. “The most common word in the mouths of American soldiers has been [‘fuck.’] 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.”
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 dog-face talk.”
The reliance on “fuck” as a universal descriptor was the downfall of many World War II servicemen who, during a rare visit to their families, asked “a younger sister or sweet old grandmother to ‘pass the fucking butter.'”
Glenn Fisher of the 102nd Infantry Division noted that a “real master of Army language rarely uttered a sentence without using it at least once.”
Even soldiers such as Fisher, who 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 were.
But how did “fuck,” the “ultimate in obscenity” at the time according to Fisher, become “the most frequently used crutch-word in the military”?
U.S. Army staff sergeant James Jensen receives a late Christmas present while Pvt. 1st Class Eddie Yecny studies a pair of field glasses in France in February 1945. Army photo
“Among 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,” noted Paul Fussell, an historian and platoon leader in the 103rd Infantry Division in World War II.
“If you couldn’t oppose chickenshit any other way, you could always say, ‘Fuck it!'”
Fisher said he doesn’t disagree with Fussell’s rationale, but also theorized some other reasons for the rampant use of “fuck” in the World War II G.I. lexicon. First, he said he believes that the use of “fuck” by senior non-commissioned officers with little education masked their poor vocabulary.
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.” 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 said he suspected “the misreading was caused by an unconscious denial. Their little boy would not use that word.” Third, he concluded that it may have been part of the brutalization process, hand-in-hand with the Army’s teaching recruits to break other societal taboos … such as killing.
It’s important to note that the use of “fuck” required nuance. “Ranting and railing in fuck-ese was a boring turnoff, the last refuge of the inarticulate,” Babcock said.
When he demanded the attention of his listeners for critical activities such as weapons instruction, Babcock said he “avoided the fuck-word and swearing in general. [The soldiers] took me more seriously, knowing instinctively that empty expletives lack substance and credibility.”
U.S. Army staff sergeant Thomas Comiskey on Okinawa in May 1945. Army photo
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. “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,” the expert quipped.
This overuse of the word “fuck” in G.I.-lingo could tax even the most understanding listeners. Ernie Pyle, the famous war correspondent, is reported to have bemoaned the overuse of the word. “If I ever have to hear the [fuck] word again I’m going to throw up,” Pyle said.
“Fuck” was popular because it could express any emotion. A casualty could mutter, “I fucked up. I fucked up.” A soldier could tell his platoon sergeant to “go fuck himself” after being ordered to wear his helmet in the chow line.
By World War II, the word “fuck” had become, undoubtedly in varying degrees, a critical part of the vocabularies of millions of men. After the war, many returning veterans struggled to retire — or at least restrain — their impulsive swearing.
“It was impossible to speak without cursing,” 1st Marine Division veteran Sidney Phillips recalled after he returned home from two years of combat in the Pacific. “We had been doing it so long.”
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 Fussell said he believed that the word had become common, and even boring, by the Vietnam War.
Even though it is conspicuously absent in many World War II memoirs, there can be little doubt that “fuck,” perhaps more than any other single word, embodies the experience of the World War II serviceman.
Babcock, John B. Taught to Kill: An American Boy’s War From the Ardennes to Berlin. Dulles, VA: Brassey’s, 2005. Pages 9-10
Gray, J. Glenn. The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1998. Page 61
Fisher, Glenn W. Not to Reason Why: The Story of a One-Eyed Infantryman in World War II. Philadelphia: Xlibris, 2002. Pages 80-81
Fussell, Paul. Wartime, Understanding & Behavior in the Second World War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Pages 95-96
Bourne, Tom, Jr. George and Me: The Saga of an Infantryman in World War II and The Company With Whom He Fought. Unpublished manuscript. Page 73
Court Martial Record of Walter J. Bocquet, Affidavit of 1st Sgt. Thomas C. Mulligan. May 1945
Sidney Phillips. Profiles of the Pacific. HBO, 1:35. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EFamV1Ifc0M