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The Last and Largest Wargame Before World War II: The Louisiana Maneuvers

By mid-1941, the U.S. Army’s ranks had more than doubled, from 620,000 in December 1940, to 1,460,998 men. In the hands of these men were new weapons and in their heads new doctrines. Well before his army was blooded, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall wanted it to be tested. Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair was responsible for training, and he and his staff designed three war games to be staged: in Tennessee, Louisiana, and the Carolinas. The Louisiana Maneuvers, an army-level exercise, was the largest of the three, involving 472,000 troops who “fought” across the entire state of Louisiana and parts of east Texas.

“I want the mistake [made] down in Louisiana, not over in Europe, and the only way to do this thing is to try it out, and if it doesn’t work, find out what we need to make it work.”

Gen. George C. Marshall

Taking into account the German army’s blitzkrieg armored success, McNair said the Louisiana maneuvers would be  “. . . a test of tank warfare and antitank defense . . . we are definitely out to see . . . if and how we can crush a modern tank offensive.”

Louisiana Maneuvers

Sgt. Carl Hardy, of Shelby, N.C., stalking a tank on maneuvers with the Second Army in middle Tennessee, one of the three great wargames staged before the U.S. joined World War II. The simulated twenty-nine pound TNT satchel charge laid on the bogey of the light tank will “wreck” it, and possibly “kill” the four operators within. Library of Congress photo

Recognizing the broad sweep of training inadequacies among the troops, McNair instructed his deputy Brig. Gen. Mark Clark that when he prepared the exercise he was to “keep the directive as simple as possible.” Using a gasoline station roadmap for reference, Clark worked out his scenario, the attack/defense of Louisiana. In Phase I, Lt. Gen. Ben Lear’s Second Army would be the “Red” force attacking Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger’s Third Army, the “Blue” force.

“War” was declared at noon on Sept. 15, 1941. Lear, a hard-nosed and hot-tempered disciplinarian with an abrasive manner that made him unpopular with his troops, was not known for his tactical brilliance. Krueger, a stern, demanding, but fair commander described as “one of the Army’s best educated and most perceptive officers, was 62 years old, in superb physical shape, and among the first to exploit the possibilities of armored warfare. He proved so adept in its tactics that his armored forces nicknamed themselves “Blitzkruegers.”

He proved so adept in its tactics that his armored forces nicknamed themselves “Blitzkruegers.”

Lear’s assault plan was pedestrian, and even though his armored forces included Maj. Gen. George Patton’s 2nd Armored Division, his army was soon defeated by an imaginative defense orchestrated by Krueger and his chief of staff, Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In Phase II, the roles were reversed. With the attacking armor force under Krueger, Patton fared better, conducting a 400-mile end run flanking maneuver that resulted in the defeat of Lear’s army.

Louisiana Maneuvers

While the original caption claims this is an “airborne Infantry officer using a ‘walkie-talkie,’ a radio field telephone, during maneuvers of the Third Army, commanded by Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger,” this soldier is clearly wearing the “indian head” insignia of the 2nd Division, and that, along with his canvas leggings and other uniform items, would seem to rule out his being an airborne trooper. Library of Congress photo

Post-maneuver assessments identified successes and failures and corrective recommendations were made. McNair, an antitank advocate, believed the maneuvers confirmed the superiority of tank destroyers over tanks. Actual combat later revealed otherwise.

Command deficiencies were dealt with ruthlessly. Of the 42 corps and division commanders, 31 were relieved outright or reassigned to career-ending duties. Omar Bradley, Matthew Ridgway, James Van Fleet, and J. Lawton Collins were among the new generation of commanders put on the fast track. Eisenhower found himself skipping a grade, promoted to brigadier general.

Eisenhower found himself skipping a grade, promoted to brigadier general.

Krueger went on to command the 6th Army under Gen. Douglas MacArthur, retiring with the rank of general, the first soldier in the U.S. Army to rise to that rank from private. Shortly after the maneuvers, Lear suffered the ignominy of having his career derailed and receiving the humiliating nickname “Yoo Hoo” Lear as a result of an incident involving himself, a group of women golfers, and truckloads of National Guard troops. Though he never commanded troops in battle, Lear eventually became a deputy theater commander under Eisenhower in Europe and was later promoted to general on the retirement list.

Officers were not the only ones to display imagination and ingenuity during the maneuvers. Eisenhower witnessed an example in the enlisted ranks. He later wrote, “An umpire decided that a bridge had been destroyed by an enemy attack and flagged it accordingly. From then on, it was not to be used by men or vehicles. Shortly, a corporal brought his squad up to the bridge, looked at the flag, and hesitated for a moment; then resolutely marched his men across it.

Louisiana Maneuvers

A Jeep on maneuvers crossing rough terrain pulling a 37 mm anti-tank gun. The Jeep would be a vital tool for the Allies, but the 37 mm was already obsolete as an anti-tank gun for the European Theater, although it was still effective in the Pacific. Library of Congress photo

“The umpire yelled at him, ‘Hey, don’t you see that that bridge is destroyed?’

“The corporal answered, ‘Of course I can see it’s destroyed. Can’t you see we’re swimming?’”


DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-dwight-jon-zimmerman bypostauthor even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-9849">
    Dwight Jon Zimmerman
    Dwight Jon Zimmerman

    Some additional information about how Lear got his nick-name. Not long after the Louisiana maneuvers, Lear was playing golf with a group of women golfers when a convoy of National Guardsmen drove by. The Guardsmen issued wolf whistles and assorted raucous come-ons to the women, with some of the Guardsmen offering to be Lear’s caddy (Lear being in civilian clothing).Lear told the soldiers to behave, and they responded by telling him to shut up. Lear had an explosive temper and it got the best of him. As the National Guard unit was part of his Army, he leveled some excessive punishment on the soldiers which included a forced march of 15 miles in record-breaking heat. The national press learned of the story, with the result that this became a political tempest in the teapot. But, his career was blocked and he got the humiliating nickname. He retired in May 1943, was recalled to active duty when Lt. Gen. McNair was killed in July 1944.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-9853">

    Sadly, Lt. Gen. McNair was killed by friendly fire, the second highest-ranking American general killed during World War II. During Operation Cobra, Gen. Bradley had decided to have 8th Air Force bombers carpet bomb German positions to help the attack overwhelm the stubborn defenses. Inevitably some of the bombers were off target, bombs hit within the American lines, and McNair, who had been observing the 30th Division was killed in a foxhole.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-171198">
    David Polewka

    Mansfield, Louisiana, Aug. 21, 1941
    To: Editors, Life Magazine, New York NY
    Dear Sirs:
    Over a period of 3 weeks I’ve watched mile after mile of troops
    in convoy & 100s of every kind of vehicle used by soldiers & I
    have yet to see a single vehicle which even approached similarity
    to the one you pictured in Aug 18th Life. They may look like
    that in camp but they do not while preparing for maneuvers.
    (Our town of 4,000 has been host to about 100K soldiers of the
    8th Army while they were in bivouac here & I believe every citizen
    of the town will agree that these soldiers are just as fine as
    Gen. Kreuger says they are & as well-disciplined as Gen. Lear
    would have them.

    For one sloppy soldier in this group, there are 500 who are
    amazingly neat. I say amazingly neat for civilians in our part
    of the country find it hard to keep fresh & neat at this time of
    the year even with the aid of bathtubs & laundries. It was
    interesting to see these young men after they had reached camp
    & returned to town, jump down out of their trucks & arrange their
    ties & hats by the rear-vision mirrors of their trucks. It was
    also interesting to see them in their camps with a small pan of
    water or by a creek, washing out their uniforms & hanging them on
    bushes in a special way to make them look pressed.

    The soldier on duty is an entirely different soldier than that of
    a year ago. When troops passed thru here then, they acted like
    college boys enroute to a football game. Whether it’s a result of
    the “Yoo-hoo” incident, low morale, or the fact that the novelty
    of army life is wearing off or seriousness of the world situation,
    it’s evident the soldier today realizes he isn’t on a picnic. If
    a composite picture could be made of the soldiers on the Jan 20,
    Apr 21, May 12, Jul 7 & Aug 18 issues of Life, I believe it would
    portray the soldier of today, & I should think it would scare the
    life out of anyone who expected to meet him on the battlefield.
    I wonder if the expression on the face of the soldier which is
    often thought to be that of discontent or boredom isn’t really a
    realization of the seriousness of his job & the grim determination
    to see it thru to a successful finish.

    No one can deny that there is griping — whether it’s healthy or
    unhealthy remains for someone more proficient in diagnosis than I.
    In spite of the “conchies”, the “cry-babies”, the “panty-waists”,
    there are still plenty of he-men in the army & in the U.S.A. who
    will still be in there pitching if & when their country needs them.
    The question is not whether or not the soldiers can take it, but
    whether we civilians can & will take our part in National Defense.
    Are we willing to make the sacrifices we expect the soldiers to
    make or will we continue to “dream of colored bathtubs” & go about
    our “business as usual” way of life. The soldiers don’t need to
    be pitied or coddled. They need our faith, our praise, our
    gratitude & most of all our cooperation. Will they get it?

    Olive Wingfield Gilchrist