WW II military words (long!)

Mike Salovesh t20mxs1 at CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU
Fri Jun 11 09:14:33 UTC 1999

Barry gives us a delightful period piece out of the ARMY AND NAVY
REGISTER, 18 November 1939, pg. 3, col. 2, from an article called  _ARMY
HAS WORD FOR IT_ .  It cites Col. L.B. Magruder, an army recruiting
officer for New York, as the source for terms he explains to new

I can't resist some discursive comment.

Among the terms Col. Magruder speaks of are the following:

>>"Dogface" is a soldier in the Regular Army; a "Doughboy"
>>is an infantryman; a "Red-leg" is an artilleryman;
>>a "Yellow-leg" a cavalryman.

Pay close attention to the date given for these definitions.  "Doughboy"
was a common term for WW I soldiers.  During WW II, use of the word
marked the speaker as a civilian.  "Dogface" was an in-word in the army,
a play on the word "doughboy". It was used for men in the infantry,
particularly those serving on the front line.  (Roughly equivalent to
the Viet Nam war's "grunt".)  The general term for soldiers during WW II
was "GI", derived from the abbreviation for "Government Issue".  Regular
Army soldiers were called "RAs", in reference to their Army Serial
Numbers.  Serial numbers for draftees began with the letters "US";
people who volunteered for service had serial numbers beginning with

"Red-leg" and "Yellow-leg" originally referred to the stripes on trouser
legs in artillery and cavalry uniforms. In Col. Magruder's day, the U.S.
Army still put cavalrymen on honest-to-God horses, and it still used
mules to haul cannons.  The horses weren't fully phased out of combat
units until the invasion of Poland made it obvious that "hoss calvary"
was not likely to be of much use.  That should have been clear from what
machine guns did to trench warfare during WW I, but sometimes you have
to hit mules and generals over the head with a board to get their
attention.  Speaking of which, Col. Magruder says:

>> The word "typewriter" identifies a machine gun.

"Typewriter" (a variant of "Chicago typewriter") meant the Thompson
submachine gun, not machine guns in general.

>> "Goof off," to make a mistake...

I think that definition is a mistake.  "Goof-off" could be the
pejorative term for one who avoids work: a shirker.  As a verb, it also
could have neutral affect and mean to relax, lounge around, etc.  The
word for making a mistake is "goof".

>> "Cabbage," American money...

Probably a civilian term.  It belongs in the same set as "lettuce" and
"kale", more distantly related to "the long green".  I note the word
here  to provide an excuse for mentioning a slightly later term, used by
servicemen (mostly Army) serving overseas during the Korean War and for
some time before and after.  The word was "MPC", for Military Payment
Certificate,pronounced "empeecee".

MPCs were a special paper currency, issued in place of ordinary U.S.
dollar bills and coins.  (Servicemen were forbidden to carry ordinary
dollars or standard U.S. coins while serving overseas.)  In theory, MPCs
could only be spent by servicemen and their dependents in places run by
the U.S. military services.  MPCs could be exchanged for local
currencies (e.g., yen in Japan, marks in Germany) to spend in civilian
establishments.  Again in theory, legal exchange of MPCs for local
currency was supposed to be limited exclusively to servicemen and their
dependents.  The idea, we were told, was to stop "The Enemy" from
acquiring actual general-purpose U.S. currency.  The forbidden standard
dollar bills were called "greenbacks", a return to an earlier colloquial

The whole business of MPCs was hardly effective, as far as I could see.
U.S. civilians were free to use "real" dollars wherever they went.
Black markets routinely used MPCs as standard currency, even though
civilians were not supposed to possess them or have any practical use
for them. In Japan and Korea, to stick with what I saw myself, you could
spend MPCs in civilian bars and restaurants (among other places) at the
standard rate of exchange.   Civilians even managed to spend their MPCs
at Post Exchanges and other military institutions. Usually, purchases
were made through some serviceman acting as an  intermediary.  Often,
however, civilians went up to the counter and bought things for
themselves in places where supervision was lax.

Every few years there would be an overnight change in MPCs. That was a
top secret operation, designed to take place at the same time all over
the world -- usually on a weekend. The entire body of MPCs in
circulation would be called in and  exchanged for new MPCs of different
designs and colors.  In 48 hours  all the old-style MPCs expired and
were valueless.  I just missed one of those exchange days; old friends
still in Japan wrote me to say that they were unexpectedly confined to
their bases one Friday night, without explanation.  That Saturday they
were told to exchange their MPCs for the new ones.  Their reports were
that black marketeers threw duffel bags full of old MPCs over the camp
fences, in hopes that they would get some return from their regular old
customers later.

Returning to Col. Magruder:

>> "O. D.," woolen uniform...

O.D. also means "Officer of the Day".

O.D., when it means "woolen uniform", refers to the color "olive drab",
used in the U.S. Army "Class A" uniform.  The color was retired from
Class A uniforms in the mid-1950s.  Its first replacement was called
"O.G.", for "olive green".

"Class A" was the ordinary uniform that was worn with dress shirt and
tie. OD was its winter variant.  It was distinguished from "dress
uniform", the label for certain special uniforms of restricted use.
("Dress uniforms"  included fancy formal dress for officers, the
uniforms of such special guard units as the guards at the Tomb of the
Unknown Soldier, and the concert uniforms of the U.S. Army Band, among

Uniform colors weren't the only things that changed during or after the
Korean War.  Note, e.g., my use of "Tomb of the Unknown Soldier",
appropriate to the WW II era, rather than "Tomb of the Unknowns".

Even more revealing is my casual reference, above, to troops serving on
the "front line".  You see, grandchildren, back in those days wars were
fought by opposing armies who faced each other across an invisible line
. . .

--  mike salovesh             <salovesh at niu.edu>        PEACE !!!

P.S.:  The imperative, "PEACE !!!", in my signature line reflects my
convictions.  As a Quaker and a conscientious objector, I enlisted to
serve in the U.S. Army Medical Corps during the Korean War.  That put me
in the anomalous position of being a CO and an RA at the same time: a
living oxymoron.

Not for the first time.  Or the last.

More information about the Ads-l mailing list