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Exercise Southern Pine Illustrated Cold War Era Priorities

In August 1951, before the term “jointness” was widely used, the Air Force and Army worked together to deploy 100,000 soldiers and 400 warplanes to defend North and South Carolina from a Soviet invasion.

Of course, the Soviets didn’t really invade the Carolinas.

It was an exercise, called Southern Pine. It unfolded during a period of heavy fighting in the Korean War and reflected the Pentagon’s priority at the time: Real fighting in Korea took second place behind preparations for war with the Soviet Union.

Exercise Southern Pine, carried out near Fort Bragg, N. C. between Aug. 13 and Sept. 2, 1951, was one of the largest military war games of the era. The exercise tested three Army combat divisions against a Soviet-like foe who was identified simply as “the Aggressor.”

The Aggressor made heavy use of armor, just as the real-life Soviets did. The emphasis was on air-to-ground operations, including movement of soldiers by air. “Blue” troops (friendlies) often arrived from the air and nominally waged the mock war partly with nuclear artillery.

According to the terms of the exercise, the fictitious foe arrived “well equipped, ably led and with high morale as a result of successes in the Caribbean last year.” The idea of an adversary attacking from the Caribbean pre-dated by a decade tensions between Washington and Moscow over Cuba where, in 1951, Fidel Castro was an unknown.

Facts about Exercise Southern Pine are sparse. Donna Tabor, command historian for the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, and Betty Rucker, collections manager for the 82nd Airborne Division Museum, both said their files contain no documents about the exercise, nor do the files of the Fayetteville Observer, the newspaper closest to Bragg. Mark Morgan, historian at the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command, found some items that confirm the Air Force’s role in moving troops quickly and supporting them.

Despite the Caribbean context of the war game’s premise, Exercise Southern Pine was meant to prepare American soldiers to defend Western Europe from an armored assault by the Soviet Union and its allies.

The Aggressor made heavy use of armor, just as the real-life Soviets did. The emphasis was on air-to-ground operations, including movement of soldiers by air. “Blue” troops (friendlies) often arrived from the air and nominally waged the mock war partly with nuclear artillery.

Participating in Exercise Southern Pine were the 82nd Airborne Division “All American,” 28th Infantry Division “Keystone” and 43rd Infantry Division “Winged Victory.” The Air Force contributed combat planes and troop carrier aircraft. Before the exercise began, a trade journal predicted on July 14, 1951: “Greatest stress will be laid on paratroop drops, close air support of ground troops, and improved aerial resupply techniques.”

New ideas and equipment were tested. The troop-carrying H-12 helicopter was evaluated in Southern Pine, but never became operational. Later, the H-12’s maker, Bell, introduced the Vietnam-era UH-1 Huey, which was initially called the XH-40.

An Associated Press story of Aug. 14, 1951, told of the 28th and 43rd divisions assembling east of Fort Bragg “to prevent this huge encampment from seizure. With the capture of Fort Bragg, the enemy would have easy sailing in its drive toward the Raleigh-Durham industrial area, the objective of Aggressor forces in the operation.” The AP report said the exercise was to prepare these divisions for duty in Europe and was “the armed forces’ biggest training effort since World War II.”

The 28th and 43rd divisions did, indeed, transfer to Europe. In 1951, an atomic war with the U.S.S.R. was a real prospect that seemed as important to Pentagon decision makers as Korea did. In the end, of course, there was no such war – in part because of the readiness fostered by rehearsals like Exercise Southern Pine.

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-19794">

    Thanks. I have an envelope with a cachet for Exercise Southern Pine cancelled at Fort Bragg on August 12th, 1951 and I wondered what it meant.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-56030">

    I have a few pictures from my father’s collection attending the exercise at Southern Pines.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-56083">

    I’d like to see those, too. I bet Mr. Dorr would as well.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-194270">
    Charles Echols

    I have a couple of newspaper clippings about this exercise from my father. He was with the 3rd ACR part of the aggressors. One clipping is about a 20 year old paratrooper’s death when his chute failed to open.