- Historic Sites
The Seventeenth Largest Army
The old Regular Army, part fairy tale and part dirty joke, was generally either ignored or disdained. But its people went about their work with a dogged humdrum gallantry—and when the storm broke, they helped save the world.
December 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 8
Promotion was glacially slow. Patton was a major for almost fourteen years, and Bradley for twelve, Marshall a lieutenant colonel for eleven, Alfred M. Gruenther a first lieutenant from 1923 to 1935, as he wondered if when he got older, the Army would be large enough to have more than eight colonels. Working with troops meant essentially the same thing over and over for years: inspection of hooves and deflection of guns, charge at raised pistol and drill of infantry from squad column to skirmish line, and bellowing at men who offered sloppy salutes while all the time acting and being acted upon as if one were a great personage engaged in the most important of duties, chivalrous heir to the knighthood of the past at officers’ club hops or in attendance dinners there whose floral decorations and number of covers were carefully reported in the society section of the local paper and the Army and Navy Journal . Few officers were of the class of man who was commissioned into the regiment of the British army in which his father and grandfather and great-grandfather had served, nor were they seen abroad as professional soldiers, really, “Not as we understand that term,” remarked the future Field Marshal Harold Alexander of Tunis, but when they got some rank, they could live in great red-brick solid houses with huge kitchens, trunk rooms, high ceilings, and tall windows facing out across officers’ row to the manicured parade ground. Even a second lieutenant had an orderly or striker to polish leather and shine brass for dress or field uniforms. There were no fatigue outfits for officers. They did not exist.
One knew no civilians but worked with, played with, drank, and ate only with other officers, a brotherhood preoccupied with study of The Army Register to see who above might die or retire and so leave open a vacancy for filling. Creating a good record called for scoutmastership of a post Boy Scout troop, making sure one’s yard was in perfect order with not a weed to be seen or a child’s toy, diligent practice for the tennis tournament, rehearsal for the amateur theatricals, not slouching in the officers’ section of the post movie theater on better done-up seats than those for the enlisted men, with slipcovers. The display of equipment on Army Day was an important matter, with decisions to be made about floral displays on the floats. Wives gave costume parties and joined sewing circles and the post garden club, sedulously avoided any appearance of ever being overly tipsy, and put as good a public face upon the marriage as possible despite what the actual circumstances might be, for marital discord would find its way to damning mention on the efficiency report.
Church attendance was, if not mandatory, then the next thing to it. (Most officers were adherents of a religion known as “Army Protestant.”) Display of family money was a delicate matter. George S. Patton, who had a lot and married more, kept a yacht and a string of one dozen polo ponies, forgoing the usual utilization of Army horses for the sport, but Mrs. Mark Clark remembered all her life how a colonel’s lady expressed indignation that a junior officer’s wife should have elegant silver on her table and additionally drive a fully paid-for new car, the gift of her parents. There were constant bridge luncheons to give and to attend, Lady Bountiful attention to sick wives or children of the enlisted men of one’s husband’s unit, gracious applause for the winners of soldiers’ competitions in hand-grenade throwing, rope climbing, broad jumping, wall scaling, marksmanship mounted and marksmanship afoot, and wrestling on horseback. For Saturday dress parades the officers’ wives sat on the grandstand wearing hats and gloves to see the troops go by with snapping colors and guidons, looking from afar like smart toy soldiers, chocolate soldiers, tin soldiers all in a line.
The business of an officer is efficiently to slay the enemy, but for the entire period between the two world wars the United States Army motto might well have been Thou Shalt Not Kill. After the brief post-armistice intervention in northern Russia up until the moment when weapons were rushed up to the tops of barracks buildings for discharge at the Zeros swooping through Hawaiian skies on Pearl Harbor Day, the Army fired not a single bullet at anyone. Its only action of any kind at all came when the 3d Battalion of the 12th Infantry, the 2d Squadron of the 3d Cavalry, the 1st Platoon of Company B of the 1st Tank Regiment, and the headquarters company of the 16th Brigade, eight hundred men in all, formed at the Ellipse in Washington to drive away what was termed the Bonus Army, unemployed veterans of the World War who had come to the capital to ask that money scheduled to be given them in 1945 should instead be paid out in the summer of 1932. Chief of Staff MacArthur, against the advice of his aide, Major Eisenhower, took personal charge. (An abiding legend has it that the entire operation was held up long enough for Eisenhower to rush to Quarters Number One at Fort Myer across the Potomac in order to pick up MacArthur’s “pinks” with English boots and field tunic with rows of ribbons from the left breast pocket to the epaulet.)