During the Second World War men rose through ranks much quicker than they do today due to heavy losses and they went from private to corporal and corporal to sergeant after serving only a small amount of time.

But how much time was that, approximately? A few months? A year? Two years? Or perhaps more/less? I'm interested in the US Army after the US joined the war so think 1941-1944.

  • 2
    Are you looking for minimum reasonable (like perhaps for a story), maximum, or typical?
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 11, 2019 at 22:52
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    My father-in-law, born in 1916, went from private recruit (E1) to staff Sargent (E6) in less than 14 months, when he was discharged, in August of 1946. He mostly processed discharge papers, and as he could type, he was rapidly promoted to fill the place of those who had gone before. His service was all state-side. When your skills match an MOS that is in great need, promotions follow! Sep 12, 2019 at 22:37
  • The expansion meant also that privates who enrolled early filled sergeant slots when enrollment accelerated. Feb 15 at 10:54

2 Answers 2


Your question is premised on some incorrect assumptions:

  1. Casualties were not that high. The U.S. Army enlisted over 11 million men and suffered less than 500,000 killed and MIA, only a bit more wounded (but many of whom returned to service). Overall percentage killed was 2.2%. Yes, the U.S. military is known for its long tail, but even for the pointy end of the sword the percentage killed over the entire 4 years is certainly much less than 10%.

  2. Enlisted men aren't promoted beyond Corporal based on length of service. Leadership roles go to leaders, and in each batch of recruits the potential leaders would be promoted to Corporal early on. Barring truly exceptional battlefield performance, future sergeants are promoted, based on merit, exclusively from these early leaders.

  3. Most sergeants, and the best sergeants, are considerably older than both their men and their lieutenants. Long experience, both in life and in service, is a prerequisite for a good sergeant. Only very exceptional men between the ages of 18 and 25 can hope to possess the maturity looked for in a sergeant. This means that throughout the four years of the war, sergeants were mostly drawn from the older recruits and the existing cadres of corporals in December 1941.

  4. Sergeants must be respected by their lieutenants, who will usually be several to many years younger. The most foolish man in the army is a Second Lieutenant who won't request, and take, the advice of his lead sergeant. Again, this respect is given based on both the greater combat/military experience of the sergeant, and his overall greater maturity. Age matters.

  5. Sergeants are technical experts; the experts in each platoon and company. It is not necessary that he be the very best, but he must be amongst the three or four best, for every single task that his unit members must perform. A primary responsibility at all times is the instruction of his men into better soldiers. This requires intelligence, character, aptitude, empathy, and maturity.

So if you are wondering what sort of new recruit in Spring 1942 might get promoted to Sergeant by sometime in 1944:

  • already aged late twenties or early thirties
  • amongst the smartest few men of his company;
  • amongst the most consciencious few men of his company;
  • stands out across the entire range of company activities as very competent; and
  • stands out as a leader and mentor in bootcamp and gets an early promotion to Corporal.

Note that the biggest percentage, and thus most difficult, growth in the size of the U.S. Army had already occurred by Pearl Harbour: roughly eight-fold from just 184k in late 1939 to 1,142k in December 1941. It would double and a bit in 1942, double and a bit again in 1943, and only increase by another 14% in 1944. Most of the senior sergeants and warrant officers required by 1945 were probably already in uniform by late '41 or early '42.

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Update 2024-02-14 - in response to a comment today, here are the numbers I've used in (1) above, listing 2.5% killed for the USAF total, and 2.8% killed for the US Army specifically: enter image description here

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    Based on my own military experience I take strong umbrage with "amongst the smartest few men of his company". Very, VERY strong umbrage...
    – Marakai
    Sep 12, 2019 at 0:05
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    I think you overstate your case. Both my father and his brother were sergeants by the end of the War, neither joined early, nor were they very old: 27 and 29 at the end of the War. Additionally, from what I can gather, about 10% of the army was a corporal and about 10% was a sergeant -- that would imply a need for a million sergeants. There had to be large-scale promotions to sergeant even of men who joined in 1941 or 42. Nonetheless, your basic point is right. To the extent promotions were rapid, it was because the army was expanding rapidly, not because people were being killed off.
    – Mark Olson
    Sep 12, 2019 at 1:48
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    @TheHonRose: The US Army had the luxury of two additional years of preparation - and as my addendum notes made good use of it. Sep 12, 2019 at 3:19
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    Point no.1 is somewhat flawed. Casualties were not very high overall, but certain combat units did suffer severe casualties repeatedly . Examples would be airborne divisions, some armored units and infantry divisions on heavily defended parts of front (Italy, Hürtgen Forest ...). And of course outside of US Army, Marines also suffered heavy casualties. In those units sergeants bellow 25 were not that uncommon.
    – rs.29
    Sep 12, 2019 at 5:39
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    @MAGolding: WW1 =/= WW2. Question is about WW2 where the U.S. had 4 years instead of 1 to raise an army. Sep 12, 2019 at 16:12

My dad enlisted in Sept. 1942 and he told my mother he could not marry her until he made Sgt. They married in June 1943, so less than a year to go from Pvt. to Sgt stateside. I have his military papers and his performance reviews were GLOWING. This gives me the impression that while it might have taken time to rise through the ranks, rapid promotion was possible. In the case of my dad, he retired after 20 years as a CMSgt.

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