Daily Archives: 19 April 2020

U.S. Army Readiness in 1939

From An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, Volume One of the Liberation Trilogy, by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt, 2002), Kindle Loc. 351ff:

In September 1939, the U.S. Army had ranked seventeenth in the world in size and combat power, just behind Romania. When those 136 German divisions conquered western Europe nine months later, the War Department reported that it could field just five divisions. Even the homeland was vulnerable: some coastal defense guns had not been test-fired in twenty years, and the Army lacked enough anti-aircraft guns to protect even a single American city. The building of the armed forces was likened to “the reconstruction of a dinosaur around an ulna and three vertebrae.”

That task had started with the 16 million men who registered for the draft in the fall of 1940, and who would expand Regular Army and National Guard divisions. By law, however, the draftees and newly federalized Guard units were restricted to twelve months of service—and only in the western hemisphere or U.S. territories. Physical standards remained fairly rigorous; soon enough, the day would come when new recruits claimed the Army no longer examined eyes, just counted them. A conscript had to stand at least five feet tall and weigh 105 pounds; possess twelve or more of his natural thirty-two teeth; and be free of flat feet, venereal disease, and hernias. More than forty of every hundred men were rejected, a grim testament to the toll taken on the nation’s health by the Great Depression. Under the rules of conscription, the Army drafted no fathers, no felons, and no eighteen-year-olds; those standards, too, would fall away. Nearly two million men had been rejected for psychiatric reasons, although screening sessions sometimes went no further than questions such as “Do you like girls?” The rejection rate, one wit suggested, was high because “the Army doesn’t want maladjusted soldiers, at least below the rank of major.”

Jeremiads frequently derided the nation’s martial potential. A Gallup poll of October 1940 found a prevailing view of American youth as “a flabby, pacifistic, yellow, cynical, discouraged, and leftist lot.” A social scientist concluded that “to make a soldier out of the average free American citizen is not unlike domesticating a very wild species of animal,” and many a drill sergeant agreed. Certainly no hate yet lodged in the bones of American troops, no urge to close with an enemy who before December 7, 1941, seemed abstract and far away. Time magazine reported on the eve of Pearl Harbor that soldiers were booing newsreel shots of Roosevelt and General George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff, while cheering outspoken isolationists.

Equipment and weaponry were pathetic. Soldiers trained with drain-pipes for antitank guns, stovepipes for mortar tubes, and brooms for rifles. Money was short, and little guns were cheaper than big ones; no guns were cheapest of all. Only six medium tanks had been built in 1939. A sardonic ditty observed: “Tanks are tanks and tanks are dear / There will be no tanks again this year.” That in part reflected an enduring loyalty to the horse. “The idea of huge armies rolling along roads at a fast pace is a dream,” Cavalry Journal warned in 1940, even after the German blitzkrieg signaled the arrival of mechanized warfare. “Oil and tires cannot like forage be obtained locally.” The Army’s cavalry chief assured Congress in 1941 that four well-spaced horsemen could charge half a mile across an open field to destroy an enemy machine-gun nest without sustaining a scratch. “The motor-mad advocates are obsessed with a mania for excluding the horse from war,” he told the Horse and Mule Association of America, four days before Pearl Harbor. The last Regular Army cavalry regiment would slaughter its mounts to feed the starving garrison on Bataan in the Philippines, ending the cavalry era not with a bang but with a dinner bell.

To lead the eventual host of 8 million men, the Army had only 14,000 professional officers when mobilization began in 1940. The interwar officer corps was so thick with deadwood that one authority called it a fire hazard; swagger sticks, talisman of the Old Army, could serve for kindling. Secret War Department committees known as plucking boards began purging hundreds of officers who were too old, too tired, too inept. Not a single officer on duty in 1941 had commanded a unit as large as a division in World War I; the average age of majors was forty-eight. The National Guard was even more ossified, with nearly one-quarter of Guard first lieutenants over forty, and senior ranks dominated by political hacks of certifiable military incompetence. Moreover, Guard units in eighteen states were stained with scandal—embezzlement, forgery, kick-backs, and nepotism.

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