COMPANY INTERVIEW AFTER COMBAT
Lt. Col. S.L.A. Marshall, Inf.
Nature of Company Interview After Combat
Company interviews are, in essence, a detailed recording of the complete company experience during a sustained action or through an episode which is significantly related to a larger action. They are the means, finally, of rounding out the battle history of the regiment and the division and of closing up the gaps in a narrative which might be drawn from the organizational journals and orders. When a company had fought a pivotal or a particularly obscure action, when one would otherwise have to use the word 'confused' in referring to its share in the action as a whole, or when its contribution to the general battle was of such decisive and outstanding importance that its role stands above all others and is therefore deserving of the most minute searching so that the battle history may be organized with balance and perspective, there is need for a company interview after combat. Once the Historical Officer ascertains that a company experience within a particular general action calls for such special treatment, he should proceed to his mission at the earliest opportunity, according to the availability of the company and the willingness of the Divisional and Regimental Commands. It will be found that after Division gives its sanction to the process and passes on to the Regimental Commander its desire that the Regiment cooperate, an expression by the Regimental Commander will be sufficient to assure the required action and attitude on the part of the company.
When the Interview Should Be Sought
What one learns by examining the Regimental and Battalion journals, supplemented by what one hears from Staff Officers, or Commanders, or for that matter from any other personnel either in extension or in explanation of the records or in casual comment on a battle which is being fought or has been fought, provide the keys to the Historical Officer's estimation of when a detailed inquiry into small unit action is required. To cite a few examples: One examines the journal and finds that company B of the --- Regiment captured Hill 250 and reported the loss of 87 men. The losses elsewhere in the Regiment on that day are relatively light. Yet the Battalion had been in check in front of this position for two days, and immediately after capturing it, was able to press on at a rapid rate. Inquiry from Division G-3 or Regiment S-3, or for that matter, from other sections of either staff, may elicit the information that the effect was decisive for the time being and that Company B bore the brunt of a fight which resulted in a general retirement by the enemy force. It is not likely to yield more than that. An heroic small unit action deserving of five thousand words may be compressed in the journal to four or five typewritten lines. The Historical Officer then makes note that company B's capture of Hill 250 is a proper subject for a company interview. He then seeks the first opportunity to close the interview, his own dispositions and the convenience of the company considered. If the Battalion has been in the lines for some days, it may already have returned to a reserve position. Men do not ordinarily object to being interviewed about their battle experience at this time; in fact, they relish it. It comes as a relief and as partial recognition to them. Companies have been interviewed this manner within 30 minutes after leaving the front and their Battalion officers have participated willingly. To cite another example: In going over the journal and in discussing it with the Battalion Executive or S-3, or with members of a Regimental Staff, the Historical Officer may hear it said: 'Company F got into a bad situation there and was badly mauled. We don't know in detail what happened to it. They got out-flanked and lost one platoon but they managed to hold their ground. They at first told us that they would have to retire.' That is a signal to the HO of a situation which calls for special inquiry. Confusion almost invariably attends any attack by the enemy upon our defensive position, especially when it occurs at night and where our losses are acute. That is true, also, where our forces encounter enemy strength where they have least expected to find it. Under these circumstances, the combat organizations do not have the resources for a detailed inquiry into what happened. The record and the regimental knowledge will usually be cognizant only of the result. Yet such episodes are a most fertile field for the HO's searching (1) Because the Regiment is usually as anxious to know what happened as is the HO, and (2) Because such actions are especially relevant of small unit character and of what happens to our soldiery under conditions of unusual stress. The most vital battle stuff to be had for the furtherance of history and of military knowledge comes of careful inquiry into such experience.
Value and Analysis of Company Evidence
The theory of the Company Interview After Combat is based upon three fundamental propositions (1) That every eyewitness has a part of the story (2) That a number of eye-witnesses and the cross-checking of their experience is invariably more valid than the dogmatic assertions of any one witness (3) That it is the position of the witness with reference to the action under inquiry and his ability to tell his story of what he saw, heard, felt and said which determines the value of his evidence. Relative rank does not bear on the weight of the evidence as to what matured during the fire fight. A man knows best what he saw happen right around him and in the main, he is not likely to be mistaken as to his role in the combat, especially if there are others with him who can confirm and supplement his story, or on the other hand, correct him if he deviates from the straight line of truth. Hearsay evidence (what one man heard another man say as to what happened to some other element of the unit) is rarely to be used. There is one general exception to this rule: One must take the word of a living man for what their dead or badly wounded comrades did and said, as it will be found almost unexceptionably that they played a conspicuous part in the action and that the living are especially concerned with being exact in relating what befell them. The word of a superior as to what a detail or a man did should not be allowed to prevail against the direct testimony of the man himself, provided ft is supported by the circumstances or by the evidence of other witnesses. It will be found that company officers invariably accept such statements as correct and valid even where they are corrective of the officer's own concept of the situation.
Preparation for Interview of Company
The progress of the interview, and in fact its whole concept, is according to the nature of battle. Here again there are two fundamental truths to be considered: (1) It is never the case that all elements of a company are actually engaged at one time though all may be present, and (2) Battle is never a maelstrom into which all are drawn equally, but is rather a continuing line of small eddies which are sometimes tactically related and sometimes not. The thing to do is to find the starting point-the point where some element of the company firstfires upon the enemyor isfiredon by him in the action under inquiry-and then develop that episode and all subsequent episodes in chronological order and in relation to one another. This starting point should be determined before ever the company is assembled by inquiry among the company officers and platoon noncoms. That is a part of the briefing process before the HO is fully prepared to develop the company narrative. The HO should inform himself fully on how the company action is related to the general battle and the movements of the regiment. He can get this regimental view of the matter from the Regimental Staff or Command. If possible, he should also get the Battalion view of the action-what the company did with relation to the other companies of the Battalion-from that Headquarters. He should also familiarize himself with the ground over which the action was fought, either by going over it in detail or by map study. In other words, he should know the larger significance of what the company accomplished more than the company itself knows. This sounds difficult, but is extremely easy, since combat companies have invariably only a local knowledge of their achievements. Armed with this information, he is then in the proper position to appear before the company, since then he can relate all that he hears to the context of the battle, without having to be led around by the hand by the company. Having so prepared himself, he is ready to proceed to the interview.
How the Interview Is Carried Forward
The company is assembled. All of the company officers should be present. It is desirable that the Battalion S3 and S2, and either the Commander or his Executive also be present, and when they understand what is sought, they are usually more than willing to accommodate. The HO already knows the starting point of the action. He has pegged down two or three witnesses, perhaps the Company Commander, or the leader of one of the platoons, or the noncom in charge of the group which first engaged. The HO explains the reasons for the assembly. He tells them something of this sort: "What you did is considered of sufficient importance that the Army believes it should be a part of recorded history. We are here today to determine the facts. It is your duty to relate what you know of them to the best of your ability, holding nothing back and exaggerating nothing. Here, you are all equal as witnesses. For the time being, we all stand on the same ground. If you hear any man present, whatever his rank, say something which you think to be incorrect or which you feel requires some additional information, it is your duty to stand up and speak your piece. If you hear me make a statement which you feel is a faulty interpretation of your action, you should be quick to stand up and call it to my attention. If it occurs to you that I am missing an important line of inquiry in trying to develop your story, you will be doing the Army and the country a service to tell me so out loud. Whatever you say, speak audibly so that all present will hear you: That will help them to remember and will encourage them to participate. Your commanders are desirous that you should tell your part in the battle as fully and as frankly as possible. h is not the time to be modest about it. What is learned here today may help save the lives of other American soldiers or add to your own company efficiency. Such vital information has come out of these company interviews before this, and it may well happen here today. 'The HO then calls his first witness. As this witness brings in the names of other men, they should be called upon to add their bit of information about the opening incident. This helps break the ice. The opening of the interview is also a propitious time to call on the platoon leaders to describe the ground over which the action was fought. After they have described it, the men as a whole are asked to add whatever details of ground are within their recollection. This subject should be developed fully at the beginning of the interview not only because of its significance but because it is the easiest way to get the men talking freely. After the dam once breaks and they become interested participants, the interview will carry itself so long as the HO continues to guide it along the main channel of the action.
Unit Leaders May Take Lead In Interview
There is no need that the HO do all of the questioning. Indeed, it is desirable and beneficial for the Company Commander to lead the discussion where he is willing to do so. Or for that matter, if the Company action breaks down tactically into platoon action, it is desirable to put a fluent and able platoon commander in front of the body of his men and let him take the leading hand in developing the narrative. Where the platoon actions are quite distinct and the men have not become inter-mixed, it is often advantageous to work with one platoon at a time, completing each platoon narrative, and then recomposing the company narrative as a whole after dovetailing the incidents of the different platoons. When the unit leaders appear in this role, the HO stands forward with the officer who is doing the questioning. He keeps his mind on the context of the narrative as it is being developed to make certain that all of the parts are presented in proportion. He may either supplement the work of the chief interrogator by asking questions directly of the company or by feeding his questions to the interrogator. He must look constantly for cause and effect. It is not enough to know that men fell back; there must be a reason for their falling back. It is not enough to know that a squad went forward. How did it go forward? Did it rush, or did ft crawl? It is not enough to record that 10 men fell at a given place. What was the nature of the fire delivered against them? What effect did the casualties have upon those around them? How were the men re-grouped on the ground where they fell? It is not enough to know that at a given time, the Commander put his 60 mm mortars into action. What were the targets? Over what distance did the fire range? What were the observed results? How many rounds did the mortar section fire? It is not enough to ask at what time troops landed at a given point. Did they land wet or dry? Did they lose any equipment on landing? Did they go to ground immediately? How did they feel while they were pinned down by fire? It is not enough to ask what kind of radio or other communications facility the company had. Did it work? How well did ft work? When was it supplemented by runners? If communication failed, why did it fail? It is not enough to determine, in connection with a local episode, that M-1 s and grenades were used. How many men actually fired with the M-ls or threw grenades? Answers can be had with a showing of hands. The list of types of questions and of their amplifications is almost endless. The object of the search is to make certain that every vital point is covered. In line with this objective, no scrap of evidence is too small to be disregarded at the time of inquiry. It is often found that the key to all that occurred may be some fact known to only two or three members of the company and which they themselves considered to be of minor import. The thing to be done is to explore fully every lead stated by any of the witnesses.
Use of Blackboard Required In Interview
The mechanics of the interview are these: There should always be a blackboard, or lacking it, a wall with a piece of chalk at hand, or lacking both, a plot of sand or of clean dirt on which the witnesses can plot their position with relation to the action under inquiry. In the beginning, the Company Commander, or a junior officer or one of the sergeants is asked to make a rough sketch of the general position. There will usually be any number of men willing to volunteer for this duty. Then as other participants relate of their action, they are requested to come forward to the blackboard or wall and place themselves on the map. As this sketch develops, or more suitably, after the action is complete and all of the details have been added to it, the HO should make a small copy of it which is later appended to the narrative. This is SOP, as without the sketch, the narrative will not become cogent and readily understandable. Further, IT MUST BE DONE AT THE TIME, and not from the HO's memory of the sketch.
How the Interview Is Organized In Detail
The basic narrative is constructed out loud in the presence of the company. For this, the HO needs the assistance of one man, at a typewriter, or one man, writing in longhand. It is not necessary to have a stenographer who can take shorthand; the interview does not proceed at a speed which requires it. The HO may call on his own non-com to do this work. Or, when possible, he may get the assistance of a company clerk or one from Battalion or Regimental Headquarters. The most satisfactory routine is to dictate out loud one fact at a time as soon as each fact is clearly developed. For example, a sergeant is relating the action of his group. He says: 'I had 10 men with me and when we started forward we had no exact idea where the enemy gun was located. There was a small thicket ahead of us about 60 yards. We advanced to this thicket by bounds, using shell holes and other cover, two men moving out at a time. We received no fire during this advance.' Having obtained that much information, the HO does not wait until he learns what matured after the men got to the woods. He has one fact in his grasp; if he tries to get more than that, he will not be able to remember clearly everything that the witness said and his dictating to his assistant will become halting and confused, he will have to ask the witness to repeat, and the men of the company will lose interest in the proceedings. He therefore asks the sergeant to hold ft for a minute and he dictates out loud the gist of what he has heard. He does not have to repeat everything the witness has said as oftentimes the witness will include details which are irrelevant and immaterial. For example, if the sergeant in the continuity related above has said: 'Thompson and I left off, Smith and Jackson followed, George and White came after that, 'there would be no purpose in putting this into the record, since the advance was uneventful and all men reached the first objective. It would be found as a usual thing, however, that the men themselves have a correct sense of what is pertinent and vital and they do not tend to introduce extraneous facts. However, one word of caution should be given on this point. The record is supposed to be warm and human, since an army is a living, and not a mechanical, organism. It is as important to gather the facts on the moral side of war as on the purely physical side. Only so will the record be made to reveal the human nature of our Army. Suppose the sergeant said: "When we got to that thicket, the men were pretty badly worn out. They didn't want to go on and said so. So I told them to hold it for a few minutes and take a smoke, figuring that would steady them,' then all that he said would be pertinent to the record. The fact that men are munching on food or shooting crap at the moment when put under counterattack would be more revealing of their lack of anticipation of any danger than any such statement as: 'We thought the front was quiet and we weren't prepared for them when they came over.'
Attitude and Rules In Conducting Interview
The attitude which the HO can most profitably maintain in front of the company is one of warm interest and respectful attention. He cannot obtain the interest of the company and its complete participation in the work at hand unless he conducts himself as a student rather than a teacher. He must act at all times as if he is hungry for information, and equally, as ff all information given him is of consequence. He must remain keen. No matter how difficult it is to draw out the facts, he must not appear discouraged. Men vary from company to company, largely according to their relationship with their immediate superiors. In some cases, it is possible to establish a congenial atmosphere, conducive of frankness and interest, within 10 minutes of the start of the interview. In other cases, the HO may have to work patiently with the company for a day or more before the 'dam breaks' and the witnesses participate freely. If he talks offhand with some of the men in between the company assemblies, it will be useful in breaking down their reserve. To reconstruct one day of battle via the company interview method may require anywhere from one to three days of steady work. The following general rules on the conducting of the interview will contribute substantially to the success of the technique:
(1) All witnesses are equal at the time of the interview, the all-encompassing object being to arrive at the truth.
(2) All statements of all witnesses and all statements by the interviewing officer should be audible to all present.
(3) The record should not be regarded as closed at any , time. If upon being given time to refresh his memory on an incident which has already been recorded, and witness says that he recalls some new and vital fact, the record should be amended.
(4) The interviewing officer should never cut any witness short or look his disbelief at any statement. If the witness rambles on, a polite way should be found to terminate his statement. For example: 'Bring that up with me after the session!' or "That's not right on the thread of the story, so hold it until a little later.' To embarrass any witness will be to freeze many of the others. It is a good idea, always, to thank the witness.
(5) The interviewing officer should be ever ready with his praise. Where a man took a stout part in an action it is always helpful for the HO to commend him in front of the company. 'That was well done!' or "That took a lot of guts."
(6) Companies should not be interrogated for longer than 3 hours in any one session. After that, the men tire and interest flags. Three hours in the morning and three in the afternoon is a good day's work.
(7) Be exact as to rank and names. The company clerk should be present with the roster and as each witness appears, he should be completely identified. Say 'S/SgtJohn J. Smith' not "Sgt Smith.' When mentioning companies or platoons in the first instance, say who commanded them.
(8) The interview is not the time for teaching battle lessons. When the witness freely states that which proves that he made a mistake in combat, he should be treated objectively, not to say sympathetically. For any officer to take advantage of his honesty by attempting to point a moral lesson in front of the other men will defeat all of the purposes of the interview.
(9) The narrative should be complete. There should be no blank spots in the report of the action unless all participants are dead. When the narrative bogs down at any point, and around a particular episode, it is advisable to attempt to develop the subject further by exploring it from a fresh angle.
(10) The HO should check back to Battalion on any points concerning the company's action in relation to some other company; he should check back to other arms and units, wherever possible for verification of any statement made with respect to any other arm or unit. Such statements as 'We were fired into by our own artillery,' or 'We were hit by our own mortars" must be handled with extreme discretion. In many cases, this is mere supposition. Unless the point can be competently established, it should not go into the record.
(11) Above all the interviewer must remember he is there to get the facts. He is not conducting a critique, takes no part in tactical debate or becomes personal or emotional. He avoids any reflection on individuals as he would the plague.
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Source Document: Appendix A
TRADOC Historical Monograph Series
The Influence of S.L.A. Marshall on the
United States Army
edited and introduced
Office of the Command Historian
United States Army Training and Doctrine Command
Fort Monroe, Virginia