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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
But then, many things were coming. We know it now. We know that officers who have spent their youth and middle age unknown to anyone will of a sudden find the fate of millions hangs upon their decisions, as they bestride the globe, dictate terms, govern conquered countries, consort with prime ministers and dine in palaces with kings and queens, go on to be corporation presidents, be elected to and appointed to the most powerful posts their country possesses, and finally retire wreathed in glory for the writing of their memoirs.
Back then could they have dreamed of such things? What kept them in the Army those long and dismal years, the two decades of going nowhere? Partially it was the schools. Officers took courses in foreign languages and the Bombardment Course and Motors Course, went to the Chemical Warfare School and the advanced school of their arm, the Infantry School, the Field Artillery, the Cavalry.
Then, ten or twelve years into their careers, the best were taken for the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth. The entire post was kept as silent as possible, Mrs. Mark Clark remembered, and the wives spoke in whispers and shushed the children while the husbands and fathers worked on plans for paper forces that took into account the disposition of a great army and the advances, withdrawals, river crossings, amphibious landings it must make, its unit integrity, logistics, communications, administration, and supply while operating over mountains, gaps, plains. They planned great campaigns against great enemies and then, when finished at Leavenworth, went back to marking time, worrying about camp hygiene and how the team would do, the AWOL rate, and how the colonel would mark their efficiency reports. After a few more years, when they had about twenty years in, the very best were sent to the Army War College at Fort Humphreys, now Fort Lesley J. McNair, in Washington. That was the top, with preparations made there for command on the highest level, great speculations on how they would deal politically with Britain, economically with Japan, what policy should be followed with Germany.
The others who did not get to the two top schools soldiered on. Not everyone is cut out for the peak of his profession. Uniting such with those for whom one day boulevards would be named, to whom foreign governments would award Grand Cross of this and Order of that, there was something else. It brought in even the enlisted men—even them, or at least most of them. An Army post in the twenties and thirties was one of the most boring places on earth, the corporal’s son William Jay Smith felt, but perhaps, he thought, there was a rhythm to be heard if you listened carefully in those years of the eye of the hurricane between the two world wars, and it gave meaning to lives that otherwise might have known none. For there was retreat with the flag fluttering down the polestaff, the beat of a thousand feet hitting the ground at the same instant and a thousand hands slapping rifles, the spit-and-polish uniforms for which even privates bought custom-made shirts and better brass and belts and leggings than the government issued, and the drums rolling and bugles calling, white-gloved honor guards for the uncased colors, the sweet horses men learned to love, memories of group singing on the poop deck of the transport Ulysses S. Grant as she creaked along at her slow ten knots an hour, four times a year, out to the Pacific ports and back, the swagger and sharpness rooted down deep in things better not talked about, such as discipline, honor, courage, austerity, fortitude, duty and the country and the profession of arms that made you different from everyone else. There is something about a soldier.
The war was coming. It would come too late for the high officers, Marshall knew. They were old and had minds too set in outmoded patterns, he told an intimate one month after taking office in 1939. Who would replace them? “I’ve made a little list,” Marshall said. “I’ve looked over the colonels, lieutenant colonels, and some of the majors.” Of 1939’s twenty-one major generals of the line, not a single one did anything of note in the Second World War with the exception of John L. DeWitt, whose contribution was to supervise the internment of the West Coast’s Japanese-Americans. Many of the old generals went to their graves hating Marshall for not giving them something big to do, for they had been his friends for years, their wives had entertained him at dinner. But something greater was involved: It was the Army and the country. The men for whom elementary and high schools are named were on his little list.
The war was coming, and then it came. In Honolulu after the Japanese planes flew away, Schofield Barracks’ men were trucked through the streets for the beaches to repel an expected invasion. Girls waved and threw kisses, and the mothers of those girls urged them on.