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The anti-war song 19 by Paul Hardcastle claims that:

In World War II the average age of the combat soldier was 26... In Vietnam he was 19.

Are these figures accurate?

I'm more interested in the claim about Vietnam, but ideally I'd like an answer that covers both figures.

  • 1
    Statistics about Vietnam can be found here – Oliver_C Jun 11 '12 at 9:02
  • 2
    Draft age for Vietnam was 19 to 25, draft age for WWII until 1942 was 21 to 45, in 1942 changed to 18 to 38. – vartec Jun 11 '12 at 9:23
  • What is the definition of a "combat soldier?" Soldiers who actually participated in combat, or was it sufficient to have been deployed into Vietnam in a combat position? (But, i.e., recalled before actual combat) – Flimzy Jun 11 '12 at 13:54
  • 4
    Are you only talking about US soldiers or also other soldier that participated in those wars? – Christian Jun 11 '12 at 20:10
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    @Christian: I understand the claim to be about US soldiers – Tom77 Jun 11 '12 at 20:26
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Vietnam

Taking KIA's as a good cross-section of the serving force, the average age (according to (Combat Area Casualty File) November 1993) was 22. However, using publicly available information, it appears this figure is closer to 23 (see below).

Assuming KIAs accurately represented age groups serving in Vietnam, the average age of an infantryman (MOS 11B) serving in Vietnam to be 19 years old is a myth, it is actually 22 [CACF]

Source: http://www.vhfcn.org/stat.html

We can also easily verify this data using the casualties by age statistics on the archives.gov website (Thanks @Oliver_C). Using this data (and extrapolating slightly) to assume that the 4,927 deaths of soldiers 30-39 were evenly spread across each year of age, and making the same assumption for the 40-49, 50-59 and 60-62 age bands gives us the following table of data:

Age Casualties
17  12
18  3103
19  8283
20  14095
21  9705
22  4798
23  3495
24  2650
25  2018
26  1414
27  917
28  768
29  710
30  492.7
31  492.7
32  492.7
33  492.7
34  492.7
35  492.7
36  492.7
37  492.7
38  492.7
39  492.7
40  115.6
41  115.6
42  115.6
43  115.6
44  115.6
45  115.6
46  115.6
47  115.6
48  115.6
49  115.6
50  12.1
51  12.1
52  12.1
53  12.1
54  12.1
55  12.1
56  12.1
57  12.1
58  12.1
59  12.1
60  40.33333333
61  40.33333333
62  40.33333333

A weighted average gives us a figure of 22.96 (Standard Deviation: 5.85) which is pretty close to the linked information above from the CACF. Somewhat interestingly, the median of this same data set is 21 - one year the opposite way from the quote at the start of this answer!

Furthermore, it appears that in times of war when a Draft is in operation (as it was for the Vietnam conflict) soldiers are drafted using a lottery process starting with 20 year olds, followed by 21, 22, 23, 24 and finally 25 year olds (source). It would seem that this would further the argument that the average age of combat soldiers was into the early 20's as this would have been the largest group of drafted soldiers.

WWII

The average age (according to General William C. Westmoreland before the Third Annual Reunion of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association (VHPA) at the Washington, DC Hilton Hotel on July 5th, 1986) was 26

The average man who fought in World War II was 26 years of age. [Westmoreland]

Source: http://www.vhfcn.org/stat.html

Finding similar data to the above for Vietnam in order to verify with some simple statistical analysis is proving hard.

  • 9
    I don't buy the conclusion made here at all. First, use of KIAs is a terrible idea, as one might argue that an older "grizzled" veteran might have a better chance of living longer than a kid who just got thrown onto the front lines. – user3344 Jun 11 '12 at 12:09
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    Second, one must be careful about use of the arithmetic average versus the median. Very often a median is a better measure compared to the arithmetic average, and the median may have been used by whoever made that original claim. Of course, the two measures can be quite different when a skewed distribution is involved. – user3344 Jun 11 '12 at 12:13
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    Most drawn-out wars use younger (and older) soldiers as the conflict goes on (and the "prime" candidates are "used up"). So if a large number of 17 year-olds were enlisted/deployed, it would have been in the final months, and they would likely not have died in as great numbers. – Flimzy Jun 11 '12 at 13:52
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    Not to mention during the vietnam war, that it was North vs South. Not everyone was drafted in an army, the viet cong or NLF were not drafted, but mostly farmers. I'm doubting that these will be added in the KIA list. – Lyrion Jun 10 '13 at 9:29
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    @Lyrion - Very good point. I always read this as "The average age of American combat soldiers", whereas thats never explicitly stated. And that could very well drive the average down. – Jamiec Jun 10 '13 at 9:50
10

The Paul Hardcastle single 19 contains many samples from the 1982 ABC TV documentary Vietnam Requiem - and the statement that the average age of a Vietnam "combat soldier" was 19, is one of those samples. We can assume that the ABC journalists sourced the claim somewhere - but where?

I was able to find the same claim elsewhere, with a claimed source. The New Jersey State Council of the Vietnam Veterans of America repeats the claim in their Vietnam War Statistics page. They also repeat the claim that the average age of a WWII soldier was 26.

Their stated source for the claim is:

Vietnam Veterans of America, Speakers Bureau Handbook provided by the Public Affairs Committee

This is a handbook produced by the VVA, as a resource for its members.

Several other sources refute the claim, based on the average age of soldiers killed in action. I'm not sure that it's reasonable to assume that deaths were evenly distributed among ages.

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