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I - A Desert War in Black and White
An Army at Dawn: The War in Africa, 1942-1943 is Rick Atkinson's Pullitzer Prize-wining story of America's early campaigns in World War II:
September 1, 1939, was the first day of a war that would last for 2,174 days, and it brought the first dead in a war that would claim an average of 27,600 lives every day, or 1,150 an hour, or 19 a minute, or one death every 3 seconds.A war for which the US was not prepared. The book describes an Army at something less than what we now call level 1, but one we well know was able to ultimately achieve that status, albeit at great and painful cost:
Jeremiads derided the nation's martial potential. A Gallup Poll of October 1940 found a prevailing view of American youth as "a flabby, pacifistic, yellow, cynical, discouraged, and leftist lot"... Time magazine reported on the eve of Pearl Harbor that soldiers were booing newsreel shots of Roosevelt and General George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff, while cheering outspoken isolationists.Arguments were put forth that mounted cavalry would still be the most effective fighting force:
Equipment and weaponry were pathetic. Soldiers trained with drainpipes for antitank guns, stovepipes for mortar tubes, and brooms for rifles. Money was short, and little guns were cheaper than big ones; no guns were cheapest of all.
"The idea of huge armies rolling along roads at a fast pace is a dream," Cavalry Journal warned in 1940, even after the German blitzkrieg signaled the arrival of mechanized warfare. "Oil and tires cannot like forage be obtained locally." The Army's cavalry chief assured Congress in 1941 that four well-spaced horsemen could charge half a mile across an open field to destroy an enemy machine-gun nest without sustaining a scratch... The last Regular Army cavalry regiment would slaughter its mounts to feed the starving garrison on Bataan in the Philippines, ending the cavalry era not with a bang but with a dinner bell.Although combat had been ongoing in the Pacific, it was late October 1942 - nearly 11 months after Pearl Harbor - before an allied invasion fleet set sail for North Africa, and America's first real confrontation with Hitler's Wehrmacht:
As the hour of departure grew near, anarchy ruled the docks. Sometimes Patton contributed to the disorder. On one especially hellish morning his quartermasters changed the loading plan six times between eight and nine A.M.One example of such was the acquisition and outfitting of the proper ships for the mission:
More usually however, Patton, [Navy Rear Admiral Henry] Hewitt, and their lieutenants demonstrated the inventive resolve that would characterize the American way of war for the duration.
No less dramatic was the saga of the S.S. Contessa. The War Department for weeks had sought a shallow-draft ship capable of navigating a dozen miles up a serpentine Moroccan river to the Port Lyautey airfield, one of Patton's prime objectives. A worldwide search turned up the Contessa, a salt-caked, rust-stained scow that drew just over 17 feet and had spent most of her undistinguished career hauling bananas and coconuts from the Caribbean. She was ordered to Newport News. There the skipper, Captain William H. John, a thick-browed Briton with an untended mustache and a long, saggy face, learned he was to load more than a thousand tons of bombs, depth charges, and high-octane aviation fuel for a destination to be named later. The crew promptly jumped ship.Fortunately, most of the 34,000+ GIs converging on the area did not require armed guards. Still...
...Captain John and a Navy Reserve lieutenant named A.V. Leslie then headed for the Norfolk jail, which state corrections officials recently had identified as the most squalid lockup in all Virginia. John and Leslie interviewed fifty inmates. Many were bibulous seamen, said to be "bleary-eyed and unsteady on their pins," but game for a voyage described only as high-paying, dangerous, and far from any Norfolk cellblock. Fifteen men were chosen and their sentences commuted. Navy guards with riot guns escorted them to the Contessa.
Military policemen patrolled the tracks and bus stations to watch for deserters. The Army in the past six months had charged more than 2,600 soldiers with desertion and convicted 90 percent of them. Indiscipline also plagued units that had been staging in southeast Virginia for weeks. So many men were sentenced to the crowded brig at Solomon's Island in Chesapeake Bay during amphibious training that there was a waiting list to serve time; on October 3 alone, thirty men had been court-martialed for various infractions.In spite of the obstacles, in late October Task Force 34 set sail, launching Operation Torch. The rest, as they say, is history.
The idea that victory was inevitable is one that only arose years later - nothing tangible about the world of 1942 supports the theory. But by late that year the sleeping giant was awake, and America's ability to produce material and soldiers coupled with an overwhelming desire to win led ultimately to victory. "Americans love a winner", Patton said, and of the Army described above he said this: "We have the finest food, the finest equipment, the best spirit, and the best men in the world. Why, by God, I actually pity those poor sons-of-bitches we're going up against. By God, I do".
If Americans love a winner they love a victorious underdog even more. And as should be obvious, the US Army of 1942 was not the odds-on favorite. But as another blunt leader once stated, you go to war with the army you have. So in late October of that year America's sons began the long march to the Rhine.
The cost to the world of that unprepared underdog's long march to victory was noted at the beginning of this post; 27,600 lives every day, or 1,150 an hour, or 19 a minute, or one death every 3 seconds.
(Part two is here.)
For those interested, Amazon currently offers An Army at Dawn: The War in Africa, 1942-1943, Volume One of the Liberation Trilogy as a bargain book - the hardcover version at the paperback price.
I really like this blog site and as you can see I'm sorta new on this thing.
I retired back in 91.
I read this book about a year ago. Highly recommended reading, it is the first of a trilogy that he is writing about the US Army in WW2. The next one covers the Italian campaign.Posted by jaybear at October 9, 2005 10:27 PM
Cavalry may have been obsolete for the US, but the Russians were still using horses in 1945 - they brought them to Berlin.Posted by Don Cox at October 10, 2005 10:01 AM
My father served in the 124th Cavalry Regiment in WWII. The "last active duty cavalry regiment" in Bataan was probably truly the last one to serve with their horses. My father trained with horses in 1942 and 1943 in Marfa, TX (He was a farm boy, so horses were pets to him). When they deployed to Burma in 1944, as part of the Mars Task Force, which followed up the successes of Merrill's Marauders, they traded in their horses for mules and became dismounted cavalry. I can assure you that life was not easy for the cavalry in those days.
So the portrayal of the regiment on Bataan as the last active duty cavalry in the war is not technically accurate, but is close enough to Truth to be the spitting image. And those battles and the slaughter of Polish and Russian cavalry during the war was the death knell for mounted cavalry. When the 124th was decommissioned at the end of the war, they were the last horse cavalry regiment (dismounted, of course) in the Army, ever.
My Dad fondly remembered his horse, "Lippy", till he died in 1981. And he vividly remembered his service and the difference between American soldiers and the Japanese and German Armies. There is no doubt that the American GI is the finest ambassador we have. The dogfaces exemplified by "Willie and Joe" cartoons are fondly remembered by the Japanese, Thai, Filipino, Burmese, Chinese, English, German and Italian people who lived through that bloody war and its aftermath and it continues today, despite what we read in the press. Those who don't know better (those born after 1950) would be wise to read Mr. Atkinson's book to find out what life in 1944 was truly like.
This is a great post, and makes me ever more certain that we live in amazing times and in a country that cares more about humanity than any other in the world. It is easy to gripe about what Americans do. It is harder to find people who will act for the good of other people instead of wishing for good works. As they say, in TRs Man In The Arena speech, we know where the credit for a better world belongs.
Rest easy, Dad. Your children and grandchildren are pressing on.
SubsunkPosted by Subsunk at October 10, 2005 04:39 PM Hide Comments | Show/Add Comments in Popup Window(4) | (Note: You must refresh main page to view newly posted comments here)