Mistakes to be made

Cavalry and Tanks on the move in Louisiana

Cavalry and Tanks on the move in Louisiana

In two years Nazi Germany had occupied Poland, Holland, Norway, Denmark, Luxembourg, France and Belgium, Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Greece. The Axis Powers were pushing into North Africa, White Russia, the Ukraine, and the heart of the Soviet Union. In Europe, Britain stood alone, saved only by a channel of water that Germany’s tanks could not roll over.

In those two years, the United States had lain dormant, save lend lease and troops sent to Iceland, it remained in a state of self imposed hibernation from European affairs. In 1939 America’s Military ranked the seventeenth largest in the world with a standing army of 187,000 men and about 200,000 National Guardsmen . In October 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the first peace time draft in United States history raising the number to 1.6 million men in 1941. As the Axis conquered Europe, America trained its soldiers with World War I rifles, broomsticks labeled “machine guns”, and cars with “tank” written on them.

1941 Maneuvers Medal

1941 Maneuvers Medal

In 1941 General George Marshall decided to try the new Army in real combat conditions. Marshall wanted to see how his commanders adapted to modern warfare and how the soldiers performed through hardship. In September 1941, almost 500,000 troops battled on 3,400 square miles of Louisiana. The Louisiana Maneuvers of 1941 were the biggest war games ever seen on American soil. The men were split into two forces, the Blue Army was the invader, with blue armbands and fatigue caps; the Red Army, the defender with Red Armbands and steel helmets. Marshall knew his army would make mistakes. He wanted the mistakes to happen in Louisiana, not in Europe.

Blue and Red Armbands from the Louisiana Maneuvers

Blue and Red Armbands from the Louisiana Maneuvers

Massive battles took place around towns like Shreveport, Nachitoches, and Winnfield. The Maneuvers saw the US Army’s last use of mounted cavalry and its first use of paratroopers. Twenty six men died in the games, most in car accidents or drowning in river crossings. The Blue Army won in both defensive and offensive operations thanks in large part to plans from Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower and the tanks of George S. Patton.

Three months after the maneuvers finished, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and Germany declared war on America. The Army of Louisiana took the lessons it learned in the summer of 1941 and prepared to do what it had trained for. Units that had performed well in the games were already in the Philippines or were embarking overseas to prepare to fight in North Africa and New Guinea. When they would enter combat, only gained territory and body counts would tell the score. After Louisiana there would be no more umpires to watch the rules and any mistakes would be fatal.

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Greetings from the Mighty Eighth

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On Monday, August 17th 1942, twelve American bombers took off for Rouen, France. They were the main force of eighteen bombers sent under Royal Air Force fighter escort. Their target was a marshaling yard. They returned to base at exactly seven in the evening. Not a plane was lost, and the only significant damage to them was inflicted by a pigeon colliding with the nose of one ship.

 
That Monday was a great celebration for the Americans. It was the first US heavy bomber raid for a unit called the Eighth Bomber Command. It proved, at least in the minds of the Americans, that heavy bomber raids could be successfully carried out in daytime with minimal casualties. August 17th was the first sputtering of a machine that would later become the US Eighth Air Force. By the war’s end, the Eighth would be the largest air force of its type in the world, able to send 2,000 bombers and 1,000 fighters on a single mission. Of the 1.5 million Americans to pass through Britain during World War Two, 350,000 of them belonged to the Eighth Air Force. Their mission was to take out the German military, not in the field, but at home, depriving it of the ability and desire to make war. Their battleground would be the skies of Europe, and their front line, the green fields of East Anglia.

 
It was England and the English that had the largest effect on the daily lives of the Eighth Air Force. It was a country most of them had not known outside of books or geography class but a place that would become their home for their duration of the war. It was the fields of England that would say goodbye to them and greet their return from a mission, it was England that wounded planes and desperate men prayed to reach. At night, or on days off, the Americans would leave their bomber fields and bicycle down old roads into towns, drinking warm beer and meeting admiring ladies and school children. When these men were lucky, they could get a pass into London. There they could see a show, watch a movie or meet a girl and perhaps forget about flying for a bit. When night fell, and the city went black and the air raids sounded, the men would go to a shelter packed with women and children and remember why they were fighting.

 
England would leave an indelible mark on the lives of the Americans who served there. They in turn would leave their mark on England. Their legacy would be left on the men and women who met them, the children who grew up with them, and in the towns and fields of East Anglia, where the young Americans lived, played and died.

 

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Somewhere in London, someone bought a handkerchief and sent it home to loved ones, where it was kept as a reminder of England and the largest single air force in the world, the Mighty Eighth.

Christmas wishes from the Second to None

2nd Infantry Division Insignia

2nd Infantry Division Insignia

It seemed like the fighting in Europe was almost finished. The American Army was in Germany. In the east, the Red Army was in Romania, Yugoslavia, and Hungary, and the Canadians had entered Holland.

Now a group of men sat in a German basement less than 450 miles from Berlin. They had landed with the 2nd Infantry Division on Omaha Beach on D-Day+1. The men were proud of their division, which they called “Indian Head” after their shoulder patch. They were proud to be in a unit where their dad’s fought at Belleau Wood and Château-Thierry. They were proud of their motto “Second to None”. In four months they had travelled more than 400 miles from the hedgerows of Normandy, to St. Lo and the port city of Brest. By September 29th, 1944 they had passed through Belgium and took positions at St. Vith. Four days later, they had entered Germany.

Soldier of the 2nd Infantry Division writing Christmas cards

Soldier of the 2nd Infantry Division writing Christmas cards

The air was thick with moisture and laced with the smell of mildew and wood, wet leather and sweat. The floor was cold, with ammo and empty ration tins littered about. There was a wooden ammo crate that the men sat around. On this makeshift table were Christmas cards, printed by the division, and they took turns writing theirs, getting ready to mail them so they could reach home in time for the holidays.  Their fathers had written their parents from Europe on Christmas in 1917, in a different war with the same enemy. Now their sons did the same for them.

In 1939, Hitler gave a speech saying “No foreign soldier shall ever set foot on German soil.” The 2nd Infantry Division remembered that speech. They put it on their holiday cards and added their kicker: “Nevertheless, from somewhere in Germany, we wish you a Merry Xmas.”

By Christmas, the men of the Indian Head were no longer in Germany; they were in Belgium, near an area called Elsenborn Ridge, in a battle where 19,000 Americans would die. There, the Indian Head performed what General Eisenhower would later call “One of the finest divisional actions of the war” holding back the German 6th Panzer Army in the Battle of the Bulge.

In November and December, till the end of the war in 1945, the US Army would suffer more than 450,000 casualties, including more than 133, 000 killed in action, almost as many as the Army had lost in 1941,1942,1943, and until October 1944 combined.

A GI in that basement had written his family, before the German offensive, when the war seemed almost finished and another holiday away from home was ahead. He wrote them with pride and loneliness: “I guess Adolph had never heard of the Second to None. Have a big ‘Xmas and drink some for me, Love J.P.”

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The Sinews of War

The landings at Omaha Beach

The landings at Omaha Beach

When the darkness fell in Normandy on June 6th 1944, it gave time to reflect on what had happened that day. In the East, the British had secured their beachhead sectors at Gold and Sword, with the Canadians in the middle at Juno. To the West, the Americans had taken Utah and Omaha beach and scaled the steep cliffs of Pointe-du-hoc. Further inland, British and Canadian Airborne soldiers were dug in around the Orne Bridge. American Paratroopers banded together around towns like St. Mere-Eglise and St Come-du-Mont. Nearly 160,000 Allied soldiers had landed in France, another 197,000 were offshore. Now they waited for daybreak.

 
In later days, some people would call June 6th the “Beginning of the end of the war in Europe”. On this Tuesday night, that end was still a long way off. The Allies had gained a foothold, but completed few of their objectives. Hitler’s Armies had not been brought into action yet. His Armored Divisions and elite units of SS and Paratroops were still alive and well, lurking somewhere in the darkness. They too waited, to see what the next dawn would bring.

Helmet of Chief Carpenter's Mate Kennedy, 108th Naval Construction Battalion

Helmet of Chief Carpenter’s Mate Kennedy, 108th Naval Construction Battalion

On that night, Chief Carpenter’s Mate Bruce Kennedy pondered his fate around Omaha beach. He and his men had arrived in Rosneath, Scotland in October 1943. Over the next eight months they traveled from Rosneath, to Plymouth and Netley in England. They knew why they were there. All of South England was alive with men and material bound for the assault on Europe. They also knew they would be a part of it.They had painted their helmets with a blue band to identify personnel on the invasion beaches. Bruce and his group would come ashore on Omaha Beach, becoming part of the 73,000 Americans to land in France on D-Day.

 
The job given them was not glamorous or romantic or even heroic. They would not storm beaches and fight for ground inch by inch. Their task was mundane, a thankless job, but a dangerous and vital one. They were the men of the 108th Naval Construction Battalion (Seabees), and it was for them to feed the invasion, overpower the enemy not with brawn but with supplies.

 

Seabees watch trucks roll onto an Rhino ferry in Normandy

Seabees watch trucks roll onto a Rhino ferry in Normandy

Today, on D-Day, their work was curtailed by heavy seas, mines and beaches not cleared of enemy action. Tomorrow they would land more vehicles and material on flat ferries called “Rhinos” and set up piers and bridges along the shore. Tomorrow too, the Germans would start to shell them with 88mm guns, and the Luftwaffe would strafe them on the beaches.

 
As the Allies moved farther inland in Normandy, the men of the 108th Naval Construction Battalion stayed on Omaha Beach; spreading the thin trickle of supplies to the flood that eventually pushed Hitler back to Berlin. In October of 1944, the 108th was sent back to the USA and inactivated. Chief Carpenter’s Mate Kennedy would be transferred to Saipan and serve with the Seabees until November of 1945. He and the men of the Seabees were not the men in the foxholes and trenches, the men winning awards and adoration. They were the men that made the war go, made it move in a mechanical fashion ever forward, men without which battles would not be fought, and wars could not be waged. They were the men who provided the power behind the spear, the arm to the fist. They were the body without which an army could not move and support itself: the sinews of war.

Welcome to my blog

Welcome to Echoes of a War. I have had a keen interest in the Second World War since I was a child. In my blog I hope to share history, personal stories and artifacts that will be of interest to the historian, collector and anyone who likes to learn about and share history.

I am new at this so I hope to learn more about blogging as I go along and connect with some interesting people.

Thanks for reading.