- - Tuesday, June 30, 2020

An axiom of British military history is that “the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton” — referring to the development of superior character by young men playing such games as cricket in boarding schools.

The claim can be reframed to assert that American military triumphs in World War II were won in obscure pastures in Louisiana, Alabama and other states in 1940—1941. The medium was field maneuvers that transformed a rag-tag assortment of officers and foot soldiers into a powerful military machine.

Paul A. Dickson relates the story of the birth of the modern American Army in a must-read book that explores a vital pre-war effort ignored by many Roosevelt-era historians. (Note: I have known fellow writer Dickson for 50 years.)

When Hitler plunged Europe into World War II in the 1930s, America’s Army had shrunk from 2 million in 1919 to 118,750 by 1935. It ranked 17th in the world, lagging behind such minor powers as Portugal. The Marine Corps had less men than the New York police department. Most soldiers carried bolt-action rifles dating to the Spanish-American War. Those who wished could buy a modern calibrated rifle for $35 (their monthly pay was $17.85). 

With 9 of 10 Americans strongly favoring isolation to avoid the war, President Franklin Roosevelt accepted political reality and made no overt moves toward strengthening the military. But with a nudge from the military, he persuaded Congress to establish the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as a relief measure to give jobs to single men aged 18 to 25 building national parks and similar facilities.

Military officials seized upon CCC for two reasons: to provide command slots for its over-abundant roster of officers, and to school young men in attributes that would be vital should they be called into the military. Gen. George C. Marshall, soon to be Army chief of staff, wrote that the CCC would be “a major mobilization exercise and a splendid experiment” for the military. He proved correct on both points.

As the Hitler menace deepened, such advisers as Henry Stimson convinced FDR that he must rebuild the Army. Legislation was written calling young men into service. Having walked with anti-war caution in the 1936 election, the president made sure the bill avoided the word “draft” — “muster” was a safe substitute. During one phase of the debate, House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas used parliamentary tricks to keep the bill alive by a 203-202 vote. It eked through. 

Even as the first draftees reported, the Army deployed existing troops in maneuvers along the Sabine River between Louisiana and Texas. Lack of equipment and trained soldiers meant the exercise proved a bust. For armor battles, trucks had the word “Tank” written on their canvas. Broomsticks mounted on wooden blocks served as machine guns. One journalist wrote that compared with the war raging in Europe, “the U.S. Army looked like a few nice boys with BB guns.”

Then came the draft, and the influx of thousands of men. Many draftees suffered depression-induced malnutrition and flunked physical exams. But performance increased many-fold in a series of exercises throughout the South. Most significantly, the Army replaced the mass division-sized assaults of World War I with smaller units with far greater mobility. 

After several warm-up preliminaries, the Army’s rebirth culminated in the autumn of 1941 in an exercise involving  ore than half a million men, centered in north Louisiana and spilling into adjacent states. Soldiers now had a surfeit of tanks. For the first time, paratroopers dropped into battle. Supply-truck convoys roared in from distant bases to keep men equipped — and fed. Light aircraft reported on enemy positions.

Several officers stood out. For instance, Robert Sherrod of Time magazine wrote that “a man named Ike … makes more sense than any of the rest of them.” A flamboyant George Patton showed a knack for bravery and exploiting unexpected situations. One journalist commented that he “exposes himself to danger as casually as a strip teaser does to the front row orchestra.”

Others failed, and Marshall and staff were harsh judges. When the exercise ended he “relieved” 31 of the 42 corps and division commanders. The National Guard also suffered hits. One example: 195 officers from Massachusetts were replaced “on the spot” by younger men. Lieutenants from Officer Candidate Schools, heavy with CCC men created in the late 1930s, filled the gap. 

At war’s end, Marshall gave his verdict on the maneuvers: “They gave us an 18-month head start on the war.” Mr. Dickson tells the story through deep research and gripping writing.

• Joseph C. Goulden, a retired Washington writer, is the author of “Korea: The Untold Story of the War” (Times Books, 1982). An expanded version of the book will be published in September.

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By Paul A. Dickson

Atlantic Monthly Press, $30, 418 pages

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