American Humor on the Western Front
Bill Downs on Soldier Humor
January 17, 1945
The American soldier who landed in Britain in 1942 made the world chuckle when he remarked to his new Irish girlfriend "Pucker up, Babe, I'm coming in on the beam."The same American doughboy, when he landed on the continent, brought more than liberation to Western Europe. He brought a laugh and a gag with him—and God knows the people of Europe need laughter and gaiety.An incident on a London bus is a good example of the American soldier's high spirits in a foreign land. This particular soldier was completing 48 hours leave and was returning to his billet after drinking a good deal of beer. He felt so good he started singing—sitting alone and singing all the verses he remembered of "Dixie." The British, being modest, retiring people, were a little shocked, and some looked disapprovingly on the doughboy's good spirits. The lady ticket collector asked him to sing a little more softly—but this didn't faze him. He grinned and kept singing at the top of his voice. When he'd finished the last stanza he looked around at the passengers and said, "Now I'll stop singing—thanks for listening."That's more or less how the American soldier gets along with the people of foreign countries. He's independent and sometimes his jokes are beyond the understanding of people who don't know Americans. But generally people like him.Here's a story that's now told pretty much all over Belgium. A GI got on a train and went into a compartment and sat down opposite a very elderly lady. He was chewing gum vigorously. The old lady, who spoke some English, would look at him every once in awhile, but neither said a word. Finally she leaned over to the gum-chewing soldier and said, "Thank you very much for talking to me like this—but I'm deaf and can't understand a word you say."I can't tell you much about the GI front line humor—not over the radio. It's rough and vulgar and sometimes filthy. Analyzed coldly, away from the front, a lot of GI front line humor really isn't funny. But in the strain and violence, misery, bloodshed and death of the front line, men laugh at anything that comes along.Even the most unprintable words that a soldier uses somehow seem inadequate. They hate the frustration—the plain, simple discomfort of war are reflected in his words.But most GIs keep their sense of humor under the most trying circumstances. And they laugh mostly at themselves. I think it's because, underneath, it seems ridiculous to them that they should wear uniforms and be engaged in the business of killing. Underneath, they are still civilians. One of the most popular statements of the ordinary doughboy is, "Boy! It's good to be in a democratic army where a man can do as the sergeant tells him!"But the front isn't funny. The miserable situations go into comic relief only after the danger is passed—only after the wounded have been cleared and the dead buried.Then the GI remembers with relief the comic aspects of his narrow escape. For example, PFC Nathan Gorochowski from New York takes great delight in telling you he was smoking a (blanking) cigarette when a (blanking) fragment from an 88 millimeter shell knocked it out of his (blanking) mouth—then he'll tell you it was a (blanking) Lucky Strike cigarette, too.Sergeant Robert Weister, from Pittsburgh, will laugh when he tells how he was in the second story of a front line house—the best (blanking) observation point he'd ever seen—and he was calling down mortar fire directly on the German positions. However, after a while he found two (blanking) Germans on the other side of the (blanking) house, who were using the same position to direct 88 fire on our positions. Weister captured the Germans.Those things are funny now—but they certainly were not at the time.It's often been said that the Germans never understood the American sense of humor. But it's accurate to say that the GI can't understand why the Germans have none. But the other day it took an American to make a group of very scared, cold Germans to chuckle—and at themselves, too.
Eighteen Germans surrendered in a body to a company of the 30th Infantry Division north of Saint Vith. The Germans, it was discovered, had been ordered to fight to the last man and the last bullet. When the sergeant that marched the Germans back to the prisoner of war cages turned them over, saying "I guess those guys couldn't make up their minds who was the last man and who had the last bullet," one of the prisoners who spoke English translated the remark and to his comrades and they all grinned—except two who, being Nazis, couldn't see anything funny about it.