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As the United States prepared for WW2, the military conducted the largest military maneuver to date--half a million men and 19 divisions.
Troops are on the move in the field during the huge Louisiana Maneuvers exercise in 1941.

Troops are on the move in the field during the huge Louisiana Maneuvers exercise in 1941. Maneuvers were held in Louisiana in 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, and 1944, but the 1941 maneuver was the largest and was called, “The Big One.” U.S. Army

After Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, the government leaders in America thought that the United States could become involved in a war. The military was expanding and needed a place to hold a large exercise. Louisiana seemed like a good place.

General Lesley McNair and Colonel Mark Clark, using a Louisiana road map, laid out the maneuver area. It involved 20,000,000 acres secured from 94,000 landowners and covered 3,400 square miles from the Sabine River, east to the Calcasieu River and north to the Red River. In Colonel Robert S. Allen’s book, Lucky Forward, he calls the area “a 40 by 90 mile sparsely settled, chigger and tick infested bayou and pitch pine section between the Sabine and Red Rivers.”

It would be the largest maneuver ever held at that time and would involve nearly half a million men and 19 divisions. Although the Army was starting to use tanks, some of the cavalry units were still using horses. Maneuvers were held in Louisiana in 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, and 1944, but the 1941 maneuver was the largest and was called, “The Big One.”

M3 light tank

Horse cavalry with a modern M3 light tank. This is probably the last time that horses were used by the U.S. military. U.S. Army

Headquarters for the maneuvers was the newly built Camp Polk (later Fort Polk). The camp was named for West Point-educated Rev. Leonidas K. Polk, the Episcopal bishop of Louisiana. At the start of the Civil War, Polk put aside his clergy duties and was commissioned into the Confederate Army. The “fighting bishop” was killed in a skirmish at Marietta, Georgia in June 1864.

During the latter part of July 1941, soldiers were arriving at nearby camps with as many as 300 to 400 Army vehicles passing through Alexandria each day. On July 30, 5,000 troops arrived, 10,000 more came on July 31, and 5,000 more on August 1.

The maneuvers were scheduled for August and September 1941, but a week before the start of the maneuvers a hurricane struck Louisiana. All of the rivers were swollen, causing trucks to become stuck in the mud. This was just the beginning of the hardships for the soldiers.

Lieutenant General Ben Lear (left) was in command of the Second (Red) Army, while Lieutenant General Walter Krueger (right) was in command of the Third (Blue) Army during the 1941 Louisiana Maneuvers.

Lieutenant General Ben Lear (left) was in command of the Second (Red) Army, while Lieutenant General Walter Krueger (right) was in command of the Third (Blue) Army during the 1941 Louisiana Maneuvers.

The Second (Red) Army, with 130,000 troops, was commanded by Lieutenant General Ben Lear and would be deployed in an “egg shaped” area in north-west Louisiana near Shreveport. It was comprised of the 1st and 2nd Armored Divisions with 600 tanks. To denote that they were the Red Army, the men wore a red armband and a “tin hat” (M17A1 helmet).

The Third (Blue) Army, was commanded by Lieutenant General Walter Krueger, who had come to the United States from Germany at age 8 and, after serving as an enlisted man in the U.S. Army, was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1901. The Third Army would be deployed near Lake Charles and Deridder in southwest Louisiana and was made up of 215,000 men with three anti-tank divisions — but fewer tanks during the first stage of the maneuvers. The men wore blue armbands and fatigue hats. The umpires wore white armbands and white bands around their campaign hats.

Some units did not even have weapons and used signs to indicate a weapon. James Bollich of Lafayette states in his book, Bataan Death March — A Soldier’s Story: “Instead of having actual machine guns, anti-aircraft guns, foxholes, etc., there were wooden signs all around to indicate these.” The Blue Army was to act as a foreign army that had invaded Louisiana from the coast. The maneuvers began in the early morning darkness of Monday September 15, 1941 with the Red Army making the first move. The advance guard of the 2nd Armored Division slipped across the Red River with the peep (later called the jeep), motorcycles and scout cars leading the way. They were followed by M-2 “Stuart” medium tanks, M-3 lighttanks, mobile infantry and artillery of Brigadier General George Patton’s 2nd Armored Division.

The Blue Army, using Colonel Dwight Eisenhower’s detailed plans, edged north toward the Red Army. As the two armies converged, the rain made the roads slippery and dangerous.

The Blue Army launched a powerful counteroffensive to the east, with infantry and cavalry moving toward Alexandria. The Blue Army captured Alexandria, but the Red Army tanks continued to attack in the west. The Blue Army stopped this attack by rushing in their anti-tank units. There was fighting around Peason Ridge, which was described as a stump-knobbed sector that had been part of the virgin pitch pine forests.

For several days, a battle was fought at Mt. Carmel, just to the south of Many, with the town changing hands several times along a 100 mile front. The Red Army tanks sprang a trap when they charged the Blue Army from camouflaged positions underneath the trees. U.S. Army Signal Corps trucks began blaring out the sounds of whining bullets, diving airplanes, booming artillery and tank sirens, adding realism to the battle. The Blue Army met them with 75mm cannon and 37mm anti-tank guns, putting four Red Army tanks out of commission. The Red Army was outnumbered and began a retreat covered by Red Army airplanes strafing and bombing the Blue Army. The umpires gave the battle to the Blue Army.

The Blue Army used Esler Field, near Camp Beauregard, and Lake Charles for their airplanes. At Esler Field they painted a mock orchard on the runways for camouflage, built false houses and dummy airplanes, and installed machine gun nests as protection against paratroopers.

The Blue Army positioned itself in front of the Red Army near Provencal, south of Natchitoches. On September 17, the Blue Army dropped 127 paratroopers behind the Red Army lines, where they fought toward a pontoon bridge across the Red River at Clarence, south of Campti. They captured truck drivers, rolled a smoke bomb into a Red Army command post and disrupted Red Army supply and communications. One paratrooper captured a Red Army headquarters where a general scolded the paratrooper for being foolish and ordered him to lay down his gun. The paratrooper refused and replied, “Nuts to you, General! This is war.”

Each army began the exercises with more than 400 airplanes. As the skies cleared, more surveillance airplanes were seen. The bombers found more targets and the fighter aircraft engaged in dogfights. The Blue Army had air supremacy by flying more missions and using more airplanes on each mission.

Red Army tanks were pinned down in swamps or destroyed by anti-tank guns. In 24 hours, General Patton’s 2nd Armored Division lost 20 percent of its tanks. The Red Army began to retreat in the Horse’s Head Maneuver Area near Natchitoches which led to the entire Red Army retreating along the one hundred mile front. The Blue Army aircraft began dropping propaganda leaflets on the retreating troops which stated, “Your commanders are withholding from you the terrible fact of your impending defeat...Your food stores have been captured. No one is going to bring up any of the steaks that the men of the 310 Army will have tonight. Rout, disaster, hunger, sleepless nights in the forest are ahead of you. Surrender while there is yet time.” General McNair monitored the reports and on Friday, Sept. 19, ordered a cease fire. This ended the first phase of the maneuvers after five days of “war.”

Although the Blue Army outperformed the Red Army in the first phase of the maneuvers, military authorities considered it a success. There were, however, 17 soldiers killed during the first week. Seven died in motor vehicle accidents, five were killed in airplane crashes, two drowned, two died from disease and one committed suicide. This was much lower than the 130 the army had predicted.
The second phase of the maneuvers began at noon on September 24, 1941 with General Krueger and the Blue Army making the first move.

The Blue Army held a large number of tanks in reserve near Lake Charles, including General Patton’s 2nd Armored Division, which had been moved from the Red Army to the Blue Army. The 1st Cavalry Division crossed the Sabine River into Texas and turned north while the Blue Army in Louisiana advanced along a front between the Sabine and Red Rivers.

Meanwhile, General Patton’s 2nd Armored Division crossed the Sabine River into Texas at Orange and on to Beaumont before turning north.

The Red Army stiffened its defenses in Louisiana with a battle erupting at Mansfield. The Blue Army’s 1st Cavalry crossed the Sabine River at Logansport, Louisiana and Carthage, Texas and attacked Shreveport from the south. Patton’s forces then crossed into Louisiana and attacked Shreveport from the north. The Red Army was caught in a vice and General McNair realized that the Red Army was surrounded. He called a halt to the second and final stage of the maneuvers on September 28, 1941, after only four days.

The 1941 Louisiana maneuvers, the largest ever held in the U.S. until that time, was considered a great success. All of the umpires agreed that the Louisiana weather was unpleasant with the American soldiers struggling through rain, mud, dust and heat.

General George Marshall stated before the end of the maneuvers, “I want the mistakes made in Louisiana, not made in Europe. If it doesn’t work, find out what we need to do to make it work.”

Some of the officers that were involved in the maneuvers went on to fame during World War II. General George C. Marshall served as Chief of Staff of the Army; Dwight D. Eisenhower became Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and Mark Clark commanded the 5th U.S. Army in Italy. J. Lawton “Lightning Joe” Collins, who was from New Orleans, commanded the 25th Infantry Division on Guadalcanal before going to England to command VIII Corps.

General Omar Bradley, known as the “Soldier’s General,” served as an observer during the maneuvers. He relieved General Patton as commander of the II Corps in North Africa, commanded the 1st Army during the D-day landings and then became commander of the 12th Army Group.

The flamboyant George Patton, known by his men as “Blood and Guts,” developed armored tactics during the Louisiana maneuvers and proclaimed at that time, “If you could take these tanks through Louisiana, you could take them through Hell.” He then commanded II Corps in North Africa and the 7th Army in Sicily. After the D-day invasion, he commanded the 3rd Army, which fought across Europe. He was injured in car wreck near Mannheim, Germany on December 9, 1945 and died on December 12.

Lieutenant General Lesley J. McNair was killed on July 25, 1944 during Operation Cobra, the U.S. Army breakout from Normandy toward St. Lo, France, when bombs fell short of their targets and onto U.S. positions. Lieutenant General Walter Krueger went on to command the 6th Army in the Pacific, serving under General Douglas MacArthur. Lieutenant General Ben Lear became commander of European Ground Forces in 1944 after General McNair was killed. In the closing phases of World War II he became Deputy Commander of the European Theater of Operations.

In December 1944, Generals Marshall and Eisenhower were promoted to 5 star generals (General of the Army) to make them equal to the British rank of Field Marshal. General Bradley was promoted to 5 star general in September 1950.

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