Good Intentions

Seventy years ago today, a 500-pound bomb from an American bomber that dropped its payload miles short of its intended target fell 20,000 feet, and landed squarely on top of Lieutenant General Lesley McNair.

General Lesley McNair, who died – spectacularly – 70 years ago today.

Literally. The bomb fell directly into McNair’s foxole, landing physically directly on top of the three star general. McNair was dead from being hit by 500 pounds of metal screaming earthward at 600 miles per hour, even before the bomb exploded.

But explode it did, further mangling the unlucky general’s body so badly that the only parts that were immediately recognizable were the three gold stars from his collar, found some distance away from the bomb crater that remodeled the general’s foxhole.

The graves registration detail found the parts the best they could – which is exactly as difficult a job as you might imagine for a body that had been almost literally wrapped around 400 pounds of explosives and 100 or so pounds of steel. His mortal coil thus uncoiled and then re-coiled, he was buried at the American Cemetary in Normandy – the senior American interred at this most holy of shrines to America’s sacrifice in Europe.

He was one of four American three-star generals killed in action during the war.

It wasn’t McNair’s first brush with death; he’d been wounded by German artillery in North Africa the previous year.

McNair (center) in Tunisia. The day after this photo was taken, McNair was wounded by fragments from a German artillery shell.

But neither his bad luck nor his bravery were the the most notable thing about General Lesley McNair. For while his death was one for the trivia contests, his life was of immense impact – much of it controversial to this day.

For while generals like Eisenhower, MacArthur, Marshall, Patton, Bradley, Clark, MacAuliffe and Gavin were household names in America, then and (mostly, and among historians) now, there were few men in history who had more to do with how America fought the war, and the lot of the American fighting man, than Lieutenant General Lesley McNair.

And most of the legacy was just as bad as McNair’s end was spectacular and bizarre.

McNair was born in Verndale, Minnesota in 1883. He graduated in the top sixth of his class at West Point, and was commissioned into the Artillery in 1904. But in the tiny US Army of the early 1900s, he served in many capacities – in the Vera Cruz expedition of 1914, and the raids into Mexico to chase Pancho Villa in 1916. Then, service in World War I in France, where at age 35 he became the youngest general in the US Army while serving in the First Infantry Division.

Like most career officers, he reverted to his permanent rank of Major after the war – but resumed his slow climb through the ranks through the twenties and thirties; he became a Lieutenant Colonel in 1928, Colonel in 1935, Brigadier (one-star) General in 1937.

Then came the frantic pre-war build-up of troops; McNair got a second star in September of 1940, and a third just nine months later. He commanded the General Staff College, and was then promoted to head of Army Ground Forces. An administrative command, it meant he was in charge of organizing and training the immense army that was forming in the US for service in both Europe and the Pacific.

And as such, he had an outsized influence on the way the new Army was being built, trained, and equipped for war.

And he used that influence in a broad, sweeping way that history records had deeply mixed results.

He had three policies that were of special importance to every US soldier that fought in the ground forces in World War 2.

Cannon, Tanks And Automobiles:  McNair was an old-school artilleryman.  But he was not the usual villain in these sorts of stories – the hide-bound, tradition-addled stuffed shirt general who spent the entire war fighting the previous war.  Far from it.  .  Unlike many US generals, in the thirties and the early years of World War 2, he saw what was going on in Europe – how the Germans had revolutionized ground warfare with the Blitzkrieg, based around tightly integrated units of tanks, infantry and mobile artillery, operating in close coordination with the air force.

And he figured he’d do the Germans one better.

Troops debarking from an M3 “Lee” medium tank during the Louisiana Maneuvers – the Armored Corps’ dress rehearsal – in 1940.

Not only did he create the Armored Force as a separate branch of service – breaking the tanks away from the Infantry and Cavalry, which had “owned” them and driven their development down two separate, abortive lines of design philosophy- but created a separate branch, the “Tank Destroyer” branch, in which all the Army’s anti-tank weapons would serve, regardless of type, towed or self-propelled.

An early “Tank Destroyer” – basically a 76mm antitank gun plunked onto a halftrack.

And McNair gave both of the new branches core doctrines.  Believing that the notion of tank-on-tank duels was outmoded and wasteful, he gave to the tanks the job of  driving through a breakthrough (a hole battered in the enemy line by the artillery and infantry) to find the enemy’s vulnerable rear-areas, as the Germans had done in France – all the while avoiding enemy tanks and anti-tank weapons (as the Germans had done in France, mostly because most of France’s tanks were bottled up in Belgium in 1940).

A “towed tank destroyer” – a towed 76mm antitank cannon. Unlike Soviet and German antitank guns, US towed anti-tank guns were largely both too immobile and not powerful enough for the enemy tanks they faced.

Fighting enemy tanks would be the job of the Tank Destroyers.  These would be a combination of light, lightly-armored, fast, relatively powerfully-armed self-propelled anti-tank guns, and traditional towed anti-tank cannon, which were treated more or less the same in the branch’s tactical doctrine.

It only looks like a tank. It’s an M36 “Jackson” Tank Destroyer. Its armor was only proof against small-arms fire and shell fragments, and the turret had an open roof. But the 90mm gun could deal with any German tank on an even footing, which, by the winter of 1944, was much better than most American armored vehicles could manage. And it was fast.

The doctrine was as revolutionary as the stimulus that created it, the Blitzkrieg itself.

The doctrine also turned out to be a complete dud in wartime.  The German tanks – with a doctrine that emphasized tactical flexibility and initiative on the part of small-unit commanders – didn’t oblige the US commanders and line up to do battle with the Tank Destroyers as the Tanks slipped past to wreak their mayhem.  The towed “tank destroyers”  – antitank cannon – tended to suffer terrible casualties for limited results; they simply weren’t equipped to fight successfully under McNair’s doctrine. The mobile tank destroyers were much more effective – but again, rarely if ever managed to insinuate themselves between the tanks and the enemy.

If anything, the Armored Force suffered worse.  They fought virtually the entire war with the M-4 Sherman (which we talked about three years ago); the best tank in the Western world when it first went into action at El Alamein in 1942, by D-Day it was under-gunned, under-armored, and frighteningly vulnerable to exploding when hit.  American (and British, Canadian, Free French, Indian and Polish) tankers paid a brutal price.

Two M-4 Sherman tanks, their turrets blown clear by exploding ammunition, inspected by German SS soldiers, probably in Italy. Early versions of the Sherman were as much as 80% likely to have a catastrophic fire, often ending with a crushing explosion.  The forward hatches are open – perhaps the driver and machine gunner got out alive.

Worse – in 1943, when forward-looking officers, worried about stories about the new generations of German tanks, the Panther and Tiger, along with contemporary generations of German tank destroyers and anti-tank guns, proposed building a heavy tank, with a gun powerful enough to defeat the German tanks and armor thick enough to withstand a hit from their powerful guns, in order to do battle with the new threat, McNair stonewalled them, insisting (using “settled science”) that the Sherman was their German tanks’ equal and then some.

The gruesome death toll among Allied tankers in Normandy shook up the US Army command; General Jacob Devers, commander of the Armored Force, went over McNair’s head to General Marshall – McNair’s boss – and finally got the go-ahead to produce the M-26 Pershing, the first American tank able to go head to head with the Panther or the Tiger one-on-one with a reasonable chance of not just survival but victory.  The M-26 was the first in an evolutionary line of tanks that ended with the M-60 Patton, which still serves in Israel and many other countries around the world – but a total of maybe 50 of them actually got into combat by the end of the war in Europe.

A platoon of M26 Pershings in Germany during the war. The M26 was the first American tank capable of going into action against German Panther and Tiger tanks with a reasonable chance of not only surviving, but winning.  It had the gun from the M36 (above), and thicker armor than a German “Tiger” tank.

McNair’s untimely but spectacular demise helped pave the way for this – but for thousands of Allied tankers, it was too little, far too late

You Fight Like You Train:   While commanding Army Ground Forces, McNair was responsible for hatching the training doctrine for troops that would go overseas.  And  before their first contact with the enemy, Americans were fairly confident in the training their sons and brothers were getting.

Basic trainees at bayonet training.

But for all the puffery about American training before the first contact with the enemy – and the reconstructive history about the subject after the war – the fact is that the US Army’s training served it very badly.

US troops received a very hasty basic training program, one that focused relatively little on small-unit tactics.  The training program before D-Day was heavily focused on training troops in their specialized skills – tankers, signalmen, artillerymen, truck drivers, mechanics and so on pretty much learned how to handle tanks, do communications, shoot cannon, drive trucks and fix things and so on, without much training in how to fight should be situation call for it.

Beyond that?  The infantry training was unrealistic and not especially suited to training people for combat in World War 2.  This wasn’t fixed until after the horrendous casualties of the Normandy campaign were assessed and absorbed. And the lessons learned at ghastly cost in North Africa and Italy were very slow to migrate outside the units involved.

Worst of all?  There was very little time spent training people how to assume duties above their grade if their superior were killed or wounded.  If a company commander were incapacitated, his platoon leaders would know only what they’d observed – and it frequently wasn’t enough.  So when US units started taking casualties, frequently they’d lose their way and flounder, until later in the war when enough men had had vital combat experience.

American troops from the 106th Infantry Division, as prisoners of the Germans. On the opening day of the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944, the 106th – mostly men who’d passed basic training and no more, some of whom had never fired a real rifle before being assigned as “infantry” – got slammed by surprise.  As much as 2/3 of the division, 8-9,000 men, surrendered. It was the largest single-unit mass-surrender in US Army history.

But both of those problems paled compared to McNair’s greatest failure –  a system whose inadequacy hadn’t even begun to be tested when McNair and the bomb intersected seventy years ago today.

The Supply Chain:  McNair’s crowning logistical achievement was the “Individual Replacement System”, or IRS.  It may have caused more dead Americans than any other factor in World War 2.

America was an industrial nation.  Its frame of reference was largely through the metaphors of industry.  And in that metaphor, a combat division – whose nominal strength was about 15,000 men – was like a machine on an assembly line.  If it could be kept supplied with the things it needed; nuts, fuels, bolts, men, washers, body bags, whatever – it could be kept running 24/7.  It was an appeal to the efficiency that industry demanded.

McNair’s idea; keep the infantry divisions fighting in the front line without a break.  When things got broken in battle – men, machines, it mattered not – use the supply services to replace and repair them.

And so the US Army built an immense force to provide the logistics needed to keep the front-line divisions in action.  If a radio or a jeep or a tank or a typewriter broke, or got knocked out, by enemy action, a new one would be sent up front forthwith, supplied by the immense American industrial effort (and, usually, electricians and mechanics and repairmen at ordnance depots would repair the broken unit and return it to service as well).  If a man got killed or wounded, the IRS would send another one to replace him (and the Medical Corps would try to fix the injured one, and if that didn’t work, Graves Registration would process the remains).  That way – so the theory went – the division could fight on, without worry about its manpower or stock of equipment dwindling.

Other armies – the Brits, Canadians, even the Soviets – would pull units out of combat after casualties built up to a certain level. The units would rest, recuperate, and absorb new men. The older surivivors would teach the new men what it took to survive – or a least get a start on it – before going back into the line. The new men at least would know their unit-mates before the shooting started – which could make a difference between life and death.

The US Army, though, would keep a pool of replacement troops at special centers – “Replacement Depots” – until a unit needed new men.  Then the men were fed, in ones and twos and bits and pieces – forward to the combat units, often under cover of darkness, frequently under fire.

It was an abominable system.

The men in the line were too busy keeping themselves alive to bother teaching the newbies.  The new men learned “on the job” – and casualties were predictably horrendous; between the shortfalls in training and the abrupt introduction to battle, the average life span among a replacement infantryman could be as little as four days in a major battle – which also dissuaded veterans from extending themselves, usually, to pass on knowledge to the replacements.   The replacements that did survive would go on to repeat the pattern when new replacements arrived.  A man that survived thirty days in battle was quite likely to develop the skill that’d make him hard to kill (until they’d been in battle for 4-6 months, when either they got careless or their minds tended to give out).

And so while the American experience of the war doesn’t record it in the community memory, casualties were horrible.  Not on a scale a Soviet or Japanese soldier might recommend, as their lives were squandered hundreds and thousands in “human wave” attacks and suicide missions.  But the losses were ghastly nonetheless.  A veteran of the Fourth Infantry Division – one of the divisions that fought from Utah Beach all the way into Germany by the end of the war – noted that the Fourth was actually three divisions; “one in the line, one in the hospital, and one underground”, reflecting – accurately – that the Division of about 15,000 men suffered over 200% casualties during the war.

And for all of those faults?  When the pressure was on, even McNair’s abhorrent system failed completely.  When the German attack at the Bulge overwhelmed the American casualty-replacement system (which had, in addition to all the aforementioned faults, started shutting down the supply of replacement infantrymen to Europe to get ready to invade Japan) the Army had to press cooks, mechanics, bakers, signalmen, and thousands of air force cadets into service as infantry – with, again, horrendous casualties.

So bad was the system, and so desperate was the Army for replacement infantry, that the Army was forced to move units of African-American truck drivers into infantry roles.  The Army had shied away from putting black units into combat – although there were several (more later in the series) – much less integrating them.

But this was desperate.  Still, unlike other replacements, black troops were fed into the line in platoons of 40 men, intended to stay separate from their white comrades in the bled-white rifle companies.  But the frictional attrition of war broke that down; soon, black squads of 10 served in white platoons of 40.  Then, black men served in white squads, and eventually shared foxholes with white troops – who, by this point in the war, were happy to have someone covering them.

So in a sense, the complete breakdown of McNair’s replacement system helped usher in the integration of the Army; officers who’d seen the performance of black troops alongside white troops in Belgium and Germany in 1945 were not averse to leading mixed troops in action in Korea, five years later.

Black and white soldiers together, in Korea, 1950.

Changes:  Today, the US Army closely reflects its long-term reactions to General McNair’s legacy.  The Army’s been integrated for almost seventy years, of course – well ahead of American society as a whole.

That New Tank Smell:  And jarred by the immense casualties of the Armored Force in its explosive Sherman tanks, the Army embarked on a generations-long battle to make its tanks not only more powerful, but more survivable.  The M-26 led to three generations of development; the M-46/M-47, the M-48 and finally M-60, all solid, reliable, well-armored vehicles with at the very least competitive hitting power.   They rarely fought in combat – Vietnam was mostly an infantryman’s war – but the M-48 and M-60 series vehicles in Israeli service crushed their Soviet-built opponents in 1967 and 1973 and 1981.

And then to the revolutionary development of the M-1 Abrams, which has for over thirty years not only been able to kill every enemy tank that faced it with relative ease, but whose crewmen have, in twenty years in combat in Kuwait and Iraq, not suffered a single fatality from a through-the-armor shot by an enemy weapon.

Hi, We’re The Replacements:  And the US Army scrapped the Individual Replacement System.

During World War 2, units were created in a serial fashion; after they created the 75th Infantry Division, they created the 76th Infantry Division.  Then the 77th Infantry Division, and so on.  They were little more than numbers, without any tradition, any history to evoke any esprit de corps in the young men who’d be doing the fighting.  This was a contrast to the British and Commonwealth armies, where men joined battalions that were spawned from “Regiments” that had long, storied histories.  It was also a contrast with US Marine Corps, where each of the infantry regiments traces a history back through World War I, the Civil War, even the War of 1812, a history that’s spun into a mythology that the USMC uses to instill a sense of pride in the unit (the technical term is “esprit de corp“) that, in combat, has a role in carrying the individual soldier through the worst of times.  In combat, every little bit helps.  And so in the sixties, the US Army began association units with historical regiments, and making thost tradition a part of soldiers’ training – especially in Infantry, Armor and Artillery.

Not that being a replacement got much easier for US troops – but in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq it was never the disastrous human meatgrinder that General McNair created.

The personally disastrous intersection between man and bomb 70 years ago today did not, by itself, ring in all those changes in the way the US Army fought its wars – ithe changes happened over the course of forty years.

But the reaction to the death and wasteage that flowed from General McNair’s best efforts had effects that are still acting on the US military today.

11 thoughts on “Good Intentions

  1. ” the best tank in the Western world when it first went into action at El Alamein in 1942″
    Is the T-34 a “Western” tank?

  2. Thanks for the informative read Mitch, I was unaware of Lieutenant General Lesley McNair.

  3. Soviet tanks were at Al-Alamein? I assume captured ones by the Germans? Odd to think that any sane person would transport a repair shop queen like the T-34 to Africa.

    Interesting about the lack of training. I have my grandfather’s 1930s-era ROTC yearbooks from the U. of Iowa, and it at least “has pictures” of target practice, bayonet practice, boxing, wrestling, and the like. Of course, if indeed it was mostly “for the cameras”, that would explain why my grandfather’s unit was wiped out on Guadalcanal.

    Thankfully for my grandfather (and me, as my dad hadn’t been conceived yet), he was too fat for service. So obesity can save your life in some circumstances.

  4. McNair’s IRS was very much cut from the same cloth as Robert McNamara’s MBO(Management By Objectives) approach to the Viet Nam War i.e. we want x% increase in the enemy casualty count for the coming week and then everyone is surprised and shocked, SHOCKED when My Lai happens.
    Whats truly shocking is how often the management innovations of McNair and McNamara trotted out in American corporations without any sense of history.

  5. My father was in an army radio technician school in late 1944 after basic training. By the time he deployed anywhere the war was over. Not so for others. The previous class at that radio school had been cancelled part way through the class. The trainees, who had probably shot a Springfield in basic, as my father had, and may have gotten familiarization training on the Carbine during technician school, were all made into Infantry replacements. They would have had no advanced infantry training, and may never have even fired a Garand before being sent into the line in Europe.

  6. “…but the M-48 and M-60 series vehicles in Israeli service crushed their Soviet-built opponents in 1967 and 1973 and 1981.”

    Using an example of Israelis fighting Arabs to justify that equipment A is better than equipment B is like saying that I’m better than Lebron James because I’ve been playing basketball longer.

    There’s absolutely no substitute for good training, tactics, and leadership and the Israelis have those in abundance compared to the Arabs. Look what they did with the F4 Phantom against the Arabs and compare that to our experience against the Soviets in Vietnam. It took quite a while and some radically revamped almost-Israeli-like training programs before the US kill ratio became acceptable again.

  7. Mitch:

    It’s a good thing we had Patton, Bradley, and Eisenhower because the way I read your piece I got the impression despite the horrible mistakes made by that German spy pretending to be an American general we overcame them to win.

    Walter Hanson
    Minneapolis, MN

  8. that German spy pretending to be an American general

    Nah. He wasn’t evil. He was just wrong.

    He made mistakes, and they cost lives. Many generals and admirals did; look up Patton’s assault on Metz, Hodges’ push into the Hürtgen Forest, Clark’s attacks on the Rapido and Volturno rivers, Halsey’s pursuit of the Northern Strike Group.

    His ideas were big ones, and they turned out to be wrong. But he devoted his life to serving his country, and died doing it.

  9. Regarding the errors, it strikes me that when I as an engineer have started towards decisions that would be a big error, it is often the guys on the production lines who will tell you why that’s an incredibly bad decision first, and they’re right about 95% of the time. And so I wonder if the big tragedy is that nobody was listening to the noncoms who were watching the new guys die.

    Either that, or there was a tragedy that Deming was compiling statistics at Rouge instead of the Ardennes.

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