History, Infantry & Sobriquets

Posted on: November 1st, 2013 by Will Rodriguez 26 Comments

American Infantrymen have had nicknames since the nation’s founding.  Traditionally, they have almost always had their roots in derisive comments by our enemies or even fellow branches that have looked down on the “Queen of Battle”.  That term in itself seems insulting unless one is aware the Queen is actually the most powerful piece on the chessboard able to go anywhere and in any direction just like the Infantry on the battlefield.  Time and again on our battlefields, history has seen the Infantry’s accomplishments and unmatched sacrifice turn epithets into honored noms de guerre desired by many and adopted by some.  

“Yankee Doodle” was among the first coined from a song of the same name.  British troops used it to mock colonial soldiers.  Doodle is supposedly derived from the German “dudel” for fool or simpleton.  The term came to be one of pride by the early colonials as a rag tag army resisted the best army in the world and after eight years earned our nation’s freedom.  For much of our history and outside the US, “Yankee” has been a term not just descriptive of Infantrymen but all Americans, a phenomenon that would be repeated again and again. 

Historically, the next most popular term came to be “Billy Yank” & “Johnny Reb”, referring to the combatants of the North and South respectively during the Civil War.  The nicknames source is pretty straightforward considering the common names and struggle between the “Yankee” North and Rebellious South.

“Buffalo Soldiers” became a term of use for the black soldiers of the 10th Cavalry during our frontier days.  Some say it was coined from the similarity to the soldier’s hair, others for their courage and others for the common use of buffalo coats by the troopers.  In any case, “Buffalo Soldiers” became a term of honor.

During World War I “Yank”, short for Yankee, became a common term popular well into WWII and after but the period is defined by the nickname “Doughboy”.  “Doughboy” actually tracks back to the Mexican American War of 1846.  It most likely originated from the appearance of American Infantry after long road marches on primitive roads.  Dust would cover the troops giving them the look of unbaked dough.  Later in WWI some surmised the term was one of derision by British troops because of American troops’ lack of experience.  Belleau Wood, the Marne, Amiens and Meuse-Argonne clearly demonstrated America’s expertise in the profession of arms and especially the pluck of American Infantry.  “Doughboy” came to be applied to all soldiers and even the few Marines to fight in WWI to their dissatisfaction.

World War II saw the widespread use of “G.I. Joe”, often shortened to “G.I.”.  “G.I.”, short for General Issue, is a military logistics term applied to many of the sundry items generally issued each soldier.   As with the ubiquitous nature of general issue items, so the nickname was applied to most American uniformed troops to include the other branches. 

Infantrymen on the other hand have throughout time had the ignominious honor of being compared to various animals, few as memorable as the term “Dogface”.  “Dogface” as an infantry nickname came into popular use in World War II.  Its derivation could be from the identification tags worn by all soldiers that were commonly referred to as “dog tags”, but Phillip Leveque who served in the 354th Infantry put it this way: 

“Perhaps I should explain the derivation of the term “dogface”. He lived in “pup tents” and foxholes. We were treated like dogs in training. We had dog tags for identification. The basic story is that wounded soldiers in the Civil War had tags tied to them with string indicating the nature of their wounds. The tags were like those put on a pet dog or horse, but I can’t imagine anybody living in a horse tent or being called a horseface. Correctly speaking, only Infantrymen are called dogfaces. Much of the time we were filthy, cold and wet as a duck hunting dog and we were ordered around sternly and loudly like a half-trained dog.”

“Dogface” owes a lot of its popularity to Bill Mauldin’s cartoon characters Willie & Joe who epitomized the day to day existence of the Infantryman in WWII.   His cartoons are classic.

“The Dogface Soldier”, written in 1942 by Cpl. Bert Gold and Lt. Ken Hart, was adopted by Maj. Gen. Lucian K. Truscott Commander of the Third Infantry Division and remains that division’s song today.  It sold 300k copies in 1955.  It was popularized in the movie “To Hell and Back”, the biography of Medal of Honor awardee Audie Murphy who played the title role.  Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of WWII, served in the 3rd ID.  Its lyrics are an uncharacteristic, not often publicly stated testament of the Army Infantryman’s fierce pride.

Since WWII a variety of Infantryman nicknames have been born.   Groundpounder, Crunchy, 11 Bang-Bang, 11 Boom-Boom, 11 Bush (the Army and Marines denote Infantrymen with a variety of numerical codes that include the number 11), Knuckle Draggers and Earthpig, but none are as well-known and have become so ubiquitous as “Grunt”.

It should be noted, Marine Infantry nickname history has mostly differed from Army Infantry history to this point except for the short use of “Doughboy” in WWI.  Marines have a long tradition of being Marines and rifleman first though there are great practical differences in being a rifleman and being an Infantryman.  It was during and after WWII that Marines started developing other specialties in support of the Infantry.  For example in WWII the Marines relied on the Army for artillery and armor support.  

The lineage of “Grunt” is difficult to ascertain.  Some associate the term with the sound a human makes when shouldering a heavy burden.  Others associate it with the term “grunt work” coined in the early 1900’s and often referring to physically demanding, difficult but not mentally challenging menial work. 

One of the most likely explanations comes from the shortage of Infantrymen in WWII where the shortage in Europe was by far the most acute.  All infantry units in WWII at one point or another suffered troop shortages and in the heat of battle impressed troops who were not trained Infantrymen into the front line.  Nowhere was it as bad as in Europe, where some infantry divisions suffered almost 200% casualties over the course of the war.  Infantrymen made up about 5000 of a 15000 man division. They typically endured 90% of all casualties.  Non-infantry soldiers from rear echelon units, as well as artillery and especially air defense soldiers were permanently reclassified as Infantrymen and pressed into the line.  Some would undergo short in-theatre training.  Many soldiers did not and often arrived at the front line never before having fired an M1 rifle.

These troops were categorized as General, Replacement, UNTrained, the likely birth of the term, “Grunt”.   I could find no documentation of a “Grunt” stamp or even the use of the word during WWII but the term slowly came into use with its heyday coming with Vietnam.  

Major H.G. Duncan USMC best communicated the spirit of the term “Grunt”, “Term of affection used to denote that filthy, sweaty, dirt-encrusted, footsore, camouflage-painted, tired, sleepy beautiful little son of a bitch who has kept the wolf away from the door for over two hundred years.”  “Grunt” has been in popular use since, but like many previous Infantryman sobriquets, some have bastardized it to describe many more than the Infantryman.

Personally, “Dogface” is my favorite Infantryman’s nickname.  Dogs come in all shapes and colors.  They are often mistreated, unwelcome in finer company or generally thought poorly of.  They aren’t the cleanest of animals, often have annoying habits and tend to make a mess.  Despite all those flaws they possess a quiet honor.  They are fierce in their owner’s defense, bottomless in their love and live to serve.  Truly, they are man’s best friend as the Infantryman is for every American.

Be Respectful, Candid and Pertinent. No Posers, No Trolls…
  • LauraKinCA

    Loved this one… always enjoy learning the origin of nicknames and slang. There were several that I hadn’t heard of previously, so you are adding to my “fun facts to know and yell.”  🙂

  • Txazz

    Great going, Maj!  Always enjoying the facts below the obvious level.  Yeah, Dogface does it for me, too.

  • ArcticWarrior

    Ernie Pyle’s Story of G.I. Joe – One of the better movies of the Infantry from WWII. Lots of scruffy, tired, dog faced bearded grunts. Similarities with the modern era grunts are eerie.

  • ArcticWarrior

    LauraKinCA Now we need one on the words people other then grunts have for us …..

  • ArcticWarrior CLASSIC movie.  Have my DVR set to record Pork Chop Hill in an hour or so on TCM, another favorite of mine.

    of the foundational issues that make up wartime environments are
    timeless.  I recently wrote this on FP.com about the sensationalization
    and popularity of SOF these days.
    “I suspect this time article is much of the same military populist BS
    popular here as it is there.  Everyone wants to claim we are in a new
    period and war is new where in actuality war is timeless and the basics
    just have new cool buzzwords.

    There is much ado these days over SOF and drones ref how they are
    going to remake war.  There was likely the same excitement over Adolphus
    use of the pike (like it was never used before). 

    Seems most think we are only going to be fighting insurgents in the
    future.  Just goes to show why the observation “we prep for the next war
    like we fought the last one” is so true. 
    They’ll be hard to find, forget what they said or just take the
    opposite position (like Tom recently did) without a stumble when the
    next balloon goes up.  They’ll be pontificating about how the Army
    wasn’t prepared to employ conventional forces like it was in Desert
    Storm or even early in OEF or OIF and how obvious it was. 
    The acolytes will be nodding their heads in synchronized empty headedness marveling at how wise they all are.” http://ricks.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/10/30/special_operator_toms_wrong_to_worry_about_sof_as_the_heart_of_military_culture_but

    those comments are specific to the SOF sensationalization (and don’t
    get me wrong, I respect and admire our high speed brethren) the same can
    be said for the minimization of the role of the Infantry in today’s
    & tomorrow’s fight.  War is not about push buttons, drones and
    precision munitions.  Those are the exception rather than the rule. 
    Cultural sensitivities, learning the language and CST are all well and
    good as enablers but don’t mean a hill of beans until the Infantry has
    secured the battlefield.  It’s like focusing on the end zone dance and
    not the drive and touchdown play.   BTW, here’s a plug for my
    personal hero and an time classic movie about the Infantry AND they have
    the tune to dogface Soldier in the pass in review… 😀 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8jJuJNMcFE

  • ArcticWarrior

    majrod ArcticWarrior During the movie one of the Grunts laments to Pyle that he is shocked he is rolling with them as everyone in the press wants to cover the flyboys. More things change, more they stay the same.
    Infantry has been written off for millennia, and yet we are still here. Someone has to take and hold land, clear trenches, clear streets and close with the enemy. Infantry has never been in vogue, never will be.
    Most of the SOF guys I had interacted with were all pretty good guys, especially the Group 18Bs, 18Ds and E’s who always were willing to share tips, tricks and laugh along about the same things.  Our SOF brethren, whom on the Army side were mostly birthed as 11Bs, do great things and deserve the kudos they get for sure.
    The Queen of Battle is not going away. Of that we can be sure.
     Bellavia’s “House to House” is something anyone wanting to know how savage Infantry fighting can be in the WOT should read.
    Audie Murphy, that’s a good one. Cant go wrong. For me it was Plumley.

  • LauraKinCA

    ArcticWarrior  Thanks for posting this AW… I started it on my computer, but think I will switch to my tv for better viewing enjoyment. Ernie Pyle stories are great.

  • ArcticWarrior

    LauraKinCA ArcticWarrior They don’t make embeds like Ernie anymore that’s for sure. Make sure you watch past the end when it goes black, it swipes to the real Ernie interviewing his “guys”.

  • LauraKinCA

    ArcticWarrior  Oh wow! Thanks for that tip… I will look for it.

  • ArcticWarrior majrod  Sobriquet?  Yes, I can be an “intellectual” at times.  🙂
    I was going for the rhyme/rap factor…

  • ArcticWarrior

    majrod ArcticWarrior I asked my wife who was working out behind me “What does sobriquet mean?”   “Like an appellation” was her reply. WTF Did I wake up in bizarro world????

  • BSchroe

    Interesting. That is “likely origin of term grunt “. During the ‘Nam we thought it was involuntary groan as the pack straps of that monster settled on to aching shoulders.
    Willie and Joe of Maudin fame. Spent a  lot of time as a kid going thru those cartoons. Was reading To Hell and Back and Those Devils in Baggy Pants so I was interested in what infantry did , how they lived and fought. Also remember reading about the siege at Dien Bien Phu .Brings back memories.
    I am an old codger now but I still read everything I can find on infantry .
    Thanks Major Rod

  • Txazz

    majrod ArcticWarrior yepper love Audy in his own movie.  Classic

  • Txazz

    LauraKinCA Let’s see if these ‘likes’ stay – the past few days I hit like and when I next look they are gone again.

  • ArcticWarrior majrod   Ah, you married an intellectual!

  • ArcticWarrior

    majrod ArcticWarrior LOL…an Infantry story. I came home on leave and soon realized I had zero in common with most of the people I had been friends with in school. It happens. I went to a party with a friend of mine up on the North Shore just to go out. I was introduced to the girl who would become my wife and proceeded to strike up conversation. It was one of those disaffected conversations, she was just tolerating me and being polite kind of things, hoping a friend would bail her out situation. All I knew about her was she went to a high dollar Catholic Prep School and University.  It went like this. She – ” So are you in the Air Force?”   Me- ” No I am in the Army, please don’t insult me like that”      She- ” So you fly helicopters or something?”     Me- ” No Im a Paratrooper”    She ” So you jump out of airplanes?”    Me- “Yes, Airborne Infantry”   I could see the look on her face saying please let him be anything but that.    She- “So you are a Lieutenant or something?”      Me – ” No I am in the Spec4 mafia”   She- “So you’re not an Officer, you’re a grunt?” With a look not quite of disappointment.  Me- ” Yes ma’am, I have a blue cord and Im enlisted, 3/505 of the 82d Airborne Division”   Her- ” Sounds like fun I think I saw some of them at the Parade (the Desert Storm Parade in NYC)… uhhh I need to use the rest room, it was nice meeting you.”  And she walked away, just left me flat

  • TeufelshundeUSMC

    ArcticWarrior Ouch!!! Sometimes you just gotta fake it to make it, AW. But glad everything turned out your way, bro, living out the Reality Bites soundtrack, instead of the Singles soundtrack–“Seasons” in Man of Steel was the icing.

  • BSchroe Very welcome.  Thanks for visiting/posting.  I have a whole reference section coming 🙂

  • ArcticWarrior majrod   Similar experience.  Wy wife didn’t know what an officer was, never heard of West Point and admitted later wasn’t sure she liked me.
    I know!  Like c’mon!  What’s not to love!  🙂

  • TeufelshundeUSMC

    majrod ArcticWarrior ” Cultural sensitivities, learning the language and CST are all well and good as enablers but don’t mean a hill of beans until the Infantry has secured the battlefield. ”
    I had a 03, Gunny was fond of saying, “I speak 5.56, when I’m using the honorific, I switch to 7.62”. Sometimes you just gotta use the universal language to be understood.

  • BSchroe

    Names for infantry.I have read that infantry was called ” walk a heaps” by some of the Indians of the frontier in later 1800’s .That would fit .

  • steelhorse

    Great post Maj love the history enjoying your page keep up the good work

  • YankeePapa

    …In the Marine Corps of course, the term “Leatherneck” went back to the collar inserts… Fiendish devices… designed not so much to “protect from sword cuts”  (as often claimed…) but a British invention to keep troops heads erect…  The inserts vanished, but the name stayed.  In WWII, some tried on the name “Gyrene” but the consensus was that the term sucked.  The term Yanks is used to this day by the Brits… and was used by Americans in WWI… but by early WWII the term pretty much vanished in the American forces (except for “Yank” magazine…)

    …One term that some Marines used in Vietnam was “snuffies…” (as in getting snuffed out…)  It was an ugly term that could apply to all, but especially to the “new meats…”  I only heard a couple of Marine officers (talking to each other where they could be overheard) use the term (not my officers thank God…)  Instantly lost all respect for them.  They were supposedly commissioned as “Officers of Marines” not snuffies…

    …The British came up with “PBI” (“Poor Bloody Infantry”), which, while not cheerful… is a mixture of reality and respect.  
    …In Rhodesia it was a shock (as it must have been to their ancestors in the UK in two wars and in Australia and New Zealand in WWII  for American lads from the deep South to be called “Yanks…”  Most just learned to take it in stride…

  • YankeePapa

    that infantry was called ” walk a heaps” by some of the Indians of the
    frontier in later 1800’s…”  …You are correct.  Infantry had certain limitations on the Plains… but often proved useful… By the last years of the Plains wars they proved decisive.  
    …At some point I will be publishing an article here about the U.S. Army Infantry in the Plains Indian Wars, 1866-90… 

  • ArcticWarrior

    YankeePapa BSchroe Very much so look forward to that article

  • BSchroe

    Yankee Papa,
    I’ll be looking for your article YP. I live in Wyoming and I think  about frontier infantry  often. I have found very little but a brief mention of infantry in western history.
    I do remember reading where Col Nelson Miles used 5th Infantry , wearing heavy coats , in a successful winter op.