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The role of the noncommissioned officer (NCO) and officer are often misunderstood by living historians.  In order for units to function more efficiently in the field and in garrison, the following will present a comparison and contrast between the functions of each.  Though this is written for a recreated unit and not an actual troop unit, the functions of leadership necessary to efficiently and accurately portray Doughboys or Dogfaces are the same as our original counterparts.

There is a mistaken impression that the differences between Officers and NCOs are related to length of service, skill, or quality of leadership.  This is not exactly correct.  Both are leaders, may issue lawful orders, and are responsible for tasks and personnel committed to their care.  While officers and NCOs share leadership responsibilities, they have different functions.  To begin this discussion, let us make some broad generalizations.

Both officers and NCOs are responsible for mission accomplishment and taking care of personnel and equipment (“mission first, men always.”), but differ in specific responsibilities.  While officers formulate or translate the mission (what), NCOs are expected to know techniques to accomplish the mission (how).  Officers are selected and trained to take responsibility and make sure the overall unit mission is accomplished.  In the combat arms, they start out as platoon leaders and work their way up as commanders or staff officers through a chain of command.  They are trained as generalists in their branch, able to grasp the capabilities of what their arm of service should accomplish.  Officers, theoretically, are tactical experts.

NCOs, on the other hand, are technical experts.  They are trained at schools or within their units in a narrow spectrum of specialty within their branch.  Through specialization and experience, NCOs know how to get certain things done.  In practice, an officer at a team, platoon, or command level is paired with an NCO with several more years of experience in accomplishing the same specific tasks.  The less experienced officer brings general knowledge of a branch from schooling.  He has been taught the “bigger picture” of how the unit fits within the overall mission.  In addition, he learns techniques from the expert NCO, who also has experience in what works.

Another way of distilling the relation is to say that officers are ultimately responsible for equipment and NCOs are responsible for men.  Through hand receipts, commanding officers sign for all the equipment issued to their units.   If they’re smart, they sub-hand receipt all equipment down to platoon sergeants, section leaders, squad leaders, etc., to make the NCOs and their men responsible for maintenance and accountability of equipment.  While NCOs make sure equipment is serviceable, officers make sure it doesn’t get lost.

A soldier’s first line supervisor is a corporal or sergeant.  These NCOs make sure soldiers take care of themselves and their equipment.  They must know everything they can about the men in their charge.  In addition, they are responsible for ensuring each individual in their team is trained, equipped, well fed, rested, in good physical shape, and motivated to do their job.  Individual and team training is the responsibility of NCOs, while officers usually conduct unit training.

A brief note on the term, “commander.”  In the United States Army chain of command structure, the smallest size command is usually a company, troop, or battery.  Commanders are normally captains, though first lieutenants may be placed on orders as acting commanders.  These commanders are the lowest ranking officers: with powers to assess non-judicial punishment, who have the ability to place a soldier on leave or pass, who approve a school or special training, that may recommend an NCO for promotion, who gather and forward award narratives, and much more.  In combat arms units, they also are assigned forward observer teams from mortar and/or direct support field artillery units.  They are also the lowest level commanders to control elements of other units assigned or attached to their companies or troops.  Since World War II, an infantry company may become an infantry team if a tank platoon is attached or exchanged for one of his rifle platoons.  All other officers may be platoon leaders, team leaders or chiefs, or staff officers.

To sum up the comparison and contrast of the roles of the officer and NCO, consult this matrix taken from an old training document:


The Officer

Commands, plans, establishes policy, and manages the unit.

Focuses on collective training which leads to mission accomplishment.

Primarily involved in units and unit operations.

Focuses on unit readiness and unit effectiveness.

Focuses on standards, care and professionalism of all unit members, with particular attention to unit officers.



Conducts the daily business of the unit within established policy.

Focuses on individual training that leads to mission capability.

Places major emphasis on individual soldiers and team leaders.

Stresses readiness of individual soldiers and equipment to function as part of a team.

Focuses on standards, care and professionalism of NCOs and individual soldiers.


In living history outfits, as in the United States Army in all wars, officers and NCOs have different duties to perform.  Both are vitally important to a successful unit.  Too many reenactment leaders burn out, or are overwhelmed with detail, because they do not properly delegate tasks or try to accomplish tasks which are best done by a trained and experienced subordinate.  If you are willing to wear bars or stripes, it is critical that you are willing to learn the original job of the soldier you portray.  If you cannot, or will not do your duty, you should expect to be replaced.  You owe it to your peers.

Too often in living history military portrayals, those who reenact officers try to do too much and often step out of their realm of responsibility or experience.  When that happens, a good NCO should remark, “With all due respect, sir, that’s ‘Sergeant’s Business.’”

[Sergeant’s Business, Part II]

A Few Words from the Top Kick:
“Take Care of Your Men, But Take Care of Your Officers, Too.”

As in the real Army, good officers take care of their men in reenactment outfits.  That is why we select them as peers to take on that responsibility.  More precisely, they ensure that their men are taken care of.  Noncommissioned officers (NCOs) usually take care of individual soldiers and small groups, but officers check to ensure that it is being done.  An illustration of the importance of the officer’s responsibility is illustrated in a recently published World War II combat soldier’s memoir:

“Just before he pinned on my bars, General Andrus, a brave and well-loved officer, inquired of me, “Sergeant, what would you say is the fault of many second lieutenants?”  My embarrassment was acute.  I could recall specific gripes against specific officers but nothing I could label a general fault.  I muffed the question and replied meekly, “Sir, I don’t know.”

He answered his own question.  “They don’t think of their men enough.”  Then, simply and with deep feeling, he spoke at length of an officer’s primary responsibility—his men.  When I left his headquarters half an hour later, I was proud and humble, conscious of a sense of dedication.” 1

A good company grade officer takes care of his men and his men take care of him.  Calls to go to the CP, paperwork, leader’s reconnaissance, operations orders, etc., all take a leader away from his own personal tasks.  In training and in combat, leaders get less sleep, find fewer chances to eat proper meals, find it harder to wash and shave, or even dig a slit trench.  Astute enlisted men notice this and save chow or dig foxholes for overworked lieutenants and captains.  They know that they are spending a lot of precious time taking care of their men instead of themselves.  A good top kick of a company or squad will respectfully remind an officer about “sergeant’s business” and that the sergeants can handle the inspection of the men and their equipment and that they should rest until a few minutes before moving out, etc.

When working with your men, it is important to remember to talk to them and ask if they have any questions or need any help.  We could all take a lesson from the veterans themselves:

“During the battle for St. Lo, according to an officer of the 30th Division

…in two weeks…there must have been at least a 75 or 80 per cent turnover in the [rifle] platoons…in order to fill the ranks, the replacements were sent  up to their squads without any satisfactory pre-battle orientation.  The squads never had a chance to get really organized and worked into a reasonable team.  Casualties among these raw recruits were relatively high.  From the viewpoint of these boys, things were really rather dismal, and had a natural tendency to discourage that dash and self-sacrificing spirit which one sees in the movies and picture books.2

Whether they are in garrison or in the field, leaders need to take any opportunity presented to them to work with individual new members or leaders.  It is a good way pass on the knowledge learned “going up” and helps others to operate smoothly when it is time for a formation, an attack, or a ceremony.

[This was included in an after action review on the Old Hickory Association Listbot after the 2000 Fort Indiantown Gap WWII event.]

Second, as a continuation of "Sergeant's Business," a few tactical notes:

We must seize opportunities for men to get training and experience as scouts and assistant squad leaders. If you want to wear PFC stripes, the privilege should be earned through achieving a standard rather than longevity. You may not be the best scout in the world, but you have to know what a scout must do before you move up to squad leadership. Owning an original manual or a copy of a training circular doesn't count. One must study, observe, learn, and practice before becoming proficient. Some have natural talent; all must be polished. As some folks learned at FIG 2000, it is one thing to know enough to follow commands, it is entirely another matter to issue commands and train others to follow them. Those guys who stepped up and accepted responsibility this year were mostly new to their jobs, worked hard for you, and did a good job. I wish we could have worked together as a platoon more before going to the field, but we did OK because a few of our peers played heads-up ball and earned our respect.

We talk a lot on this Listbot about events, platoon and company leadership, and how to improve the unit. Whatever our platoon, or higher, leadership come up with to give us a truly awesome period battle experience can come to naught if the privates in this outfit don't know what to do in tactical situations. We speak of grand movements of formations of troops, but cannot perform them well in the woods. Why? Observe what happens when the first shot is fired. It's like watching the movie, "Braveheart." Everyone becomes an individual warrior and rushes toward the shot and begins to use his trigger finger rather than his brain. Many don't pay attention to their combat buddy or their squad leader when in contact, so how can we fight a company? I have yet to see "tracer blanks" for squad leaders, so things can get out of hand in a hurry. Here are a few brief rules for individuals within rifle squads:

Know who your combat buddy is. If we dug holes to fight from, you would always know who that smelly guy is. He is critical to your survival in a meeting engagement or an assault, as well. "Hey, Joe, you cover me; I'll move to that tree." If you become a casualty, the buddy lets the squad leader know you are out of action, or lost. This is a real world safety consideration, as we are responsible for each other. Since we don't hunt Jerries every day, the squads have to be organized into buddy teams and BAR teams in the field for each scenario by the squad leaders with what is on the ground. Do it while still in an administrative formation or as soon as you know who is going into battle. When consolidating on an objective or following an enemy attack, that SL needs to get his men reorganized and ready to fight again, fast, and reports his status to the platoon sergeant. Not only should good sergeants know to do this, the privates should expect it and anticipate the need. New guys should be assigned to an old hand for them to watch and to get them to wake up. Watch new guys: they freeze when that first exciting blank pops and will bang away oblivious to their squad until somebody gets them to snap out of it. Sneaking around and firing blanks is fun when everybody has just blanks. After recruits get to buy that second bag of expensive blanks, some of the "cowboy" wears off. Until then, we must mentor them and show them what to do.

In a tactical situation, you will be in a double column or a wedge. You are only ordered on line (skirmish line) if you are preparing to conduct a group rush or assault with a limited objective in sight, i.e., a rush across a danger area like a road, or a Banzai charge. You are numbered while in formation ("count off") for a reason--to divide the squad into left and right halves of a wedge. Your combat buddy is not the man next to you in platoon formation. He is the man one dogface away in formation that is the even or odd numbered man next to you in tactical formation when you break down to a left or right side of the squad. This guy is your combat buddy. Know his name or nickname. Recognize him from behind and when lying down by observing his helmet or equipment. You don't move without his knowledge. He could cover you or shoot you by mistake. If you don't notice the squad leader's signal, your buddy should get your attention.

When in the woods, you should fight from a wedge and stay there unless your squad leader arm signals you to come up on line. If you cannot see the white horizontal bar on the back of your sergeant's helmet, you are no longer an asset to the group. This is vital, as the unit in close contact with the enemy is the one engaged. All other elements must be available to maneuver to a flank or rear to destroy the enemy or get them to move out. The one squad may keep a larger enemy group occupied while the rest of the platoon, or company, sideslip through to take an objective. That is “Fire and Maneuver.” It is the American Way. It won the war. Ask an American Indian, a Zulu warrior, or a Navy Seal. It usually works. But we privates must be able to do our part, or the group fails.

When you move, look out to the area you are assigned to observe, not just at your feet. Look out, look to your combat buddy, look to your squad leader. Look out, look to your combat buddy, look to your squad leader. Repeat this process, constantly. Move your head slowly, but keep your eyes sweeping. Your squad leader is watching the platoon leader and you. If you see something, you must let him know. If you see unidentified troops, pass the word and point your weapon upside down over your head in their direction to signal where they are and hold up fingers to show how many hostiles you ACTUALLY see. Each of us act as the eyes of the outfit in a tactical situation, not just the officers.

If you are in a double column or a wedge, your weapon must be carried pointing to the flank you are moving on. That means everyone but the BAR riflemen are temporarily left-handed firers when moving on the left side of a column. When you respond to a heavy ambush, or your squad leader tells you to fire, shoot lefty until you find cover. Then switch your position to fire ahead of you. That keeps you from blasting guys in your own outfit and allows immediate response to enemy fire. Fire a few rounds or a clip and look to your squad leader. If you have lost sight or sound of him, move with covering fire from your combat buddy until you are again a part of the squad.

The arm signal "freeze" does not mean get down and "take cover." Don't move. Unless you are very close, the enemy usually will only see movement in the woods, under a flare, or at a distance. You can hide in plain sight if you stay still and just move your eyes. Ask a deer- an old one. When moving toward an enemy in the woods, try to move slowly directly towards them when close. You will look like a tree until you start moving from side to side. When moving along a road or trail, each man automatically moves off on his side of the column and observes. Squad leaders will let you know whether to lean against a tree, take a knee, assume a prone position, or start digging in. Look out, look to your buddy, look to your squad leader. Be prepared to get moving without delay.

Do not shoot until you receive orders. Period. One flaming individual Kraut in the woods with a rifle should not stop a whole platoon. He can't see all of you. Often his orders are to shoot and scoot when somebody shows up. Don't stop. He is forcing you to halt, possibly deploy, and give away your position and unit size when you return fire. If you don't waste your rounds by popping off, the enemy leadership doesn't know where you are, how many men you have, or what weapons you have unless you pull the trigger. Chinese proverb: Do not use a cannon to kill a fly. You cannot move or "maneuver" while you are shooting accurately, or effectively. Freeze. Look to your squad leader, instinctively. If you have lost sight of him, you have screwed up. He does not have a leash on you--it is up to you to stay where he can see you, or where you can see his arm signals. There are six to twelve men in the squad for him to not only lead, but control. Control yourself. Get ready to move rapidly and fire on his order.

The assistant squad leaders and platoon guide bring up the rear for a reason. They see casualties occur, observe men fall out, stop straggling, and lead groups forward that become separated. They also assume leadership roles when others are reassigned or become casualties. They also check every man who drops to see whether he needs a medic or a corpsman. They are also assigned other roles as necessary, but their most important role is to keep track of their elements and to keep them moving.

1 Raymond Gantter arrived in Europe as an infantry replacement in November 1944.   He served to the end of the war with Company G, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st  Infantry Division.  As a private, he served as a squad leader and had assimilated several groups of replacements as an acting platoon leader before being promoted to sergeant.  Selected for a battlefield promotion, he was not awarded his Silver Star and commissioned until after his outfit halted in Czechoslovakia at the end of the war.  [Raymond Gantter, Roll Me Over.  New York: Random House, 1997, p. 379]. 

2 U. S. War Department.  St. Lo. (U.S. Forces in Action)  Washington: Government Printing Office, 1946, p. 72.  Quoted in John Ellis.  The Sharp End; The Fighting Man in World War II.  New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1980, p. 303.



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