In squashing a potential public relations fiasco, the Army may have ruined the career of a competent officer.
On the day General George C. Marshall took control of the U.S. Army in September 1939, every private, sergeant, general, cook and bottle washer who wore olive drab could have fit inside Chicago’s Soldier Field. But by the time the guns fell silent in 1945, more than 11 million American men and women had served. By any standard, it was a remarkable expansion.
Such growth spurts, however, did not come without friction. Officers had to be found to command the thousands of new units being created, and though every attempt was made to prepare the “90-day wonders” for leadership, problems were inevitable. Legendary are accounts of recently commissioned officers who knew little more than the troops they would be asked to lead into combat. Trying to perform their job conscientiously, these men often turned to the most reliable source of information at hand, the assorted veteran Regular Army NCOs and officers found on most training bases.
Often, though, the old salts of the “real Army” looked down their noses at the citizen soldiers who flooded volunteer stations after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Brought up in an environment of exacting discipline, these men recommended the same for the young recruits. For their part, the newcomers believed that many of their veteran NCOs and officers could behave little better than Neanderthals.
Prescient officers in the Army, such as Marshall, recognized that there would be problems and took a number of measures even before the Selective Service Act came into effect on September 16, 1940, to ensure that those new to Army life would become the most educated and informed soldiers of any in history. They also understood that the old method of “self-policing” would not suit citizen soldiers, and they strengthened the military justice system so that all servicemen could be assured they would be dealt with fairly.
A case in point reflecting this new system involved the court-martial of an officer who found himself dealing with one of the oldest afflictions of any army— desertion—and the not-so-traditional approach the Army took to seeing that justice was served. Lieutenant Colonel William Gates Reed was the commander of the 558th Anti-aircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons Battalion, one of those “new Army” units that found itself tromping around the backwoods of the South preparing for combat during the Louisiana Maneuvers of 1943-44.
Part of Reed’s “kingdom” was the ironically named “Rehabilitation Center,” where those from the 558th who had broken one of a number of regulations were confined. As colonel, Reed probably thought little of how he oversaw the camp, but unbeknownst to him, some of his recent civilian inmates were sending letters home complaining of cruel and unusual punishment for various seemingly minor transgressions. When word of these complaints reached higher authorities, anxious to avoid any public affairs nightmare and not wanting to damage the morale of the troops on maneuvers, they relieved Reed of command on February 16, 1944.
The colonel was charged with violating Articles 95 and 96 of the Articles of War. Specifically, he was accused of personally mistreating prisoners confined to the stockade, of ordering on-duty noncoms to mistreat the prisoners, and of failing to stop mistreatment of the inmates by others under his command.
On March 28-29, 1944, the Army prepared to try one of its own as Reed and his defense counsel appeared before a Fourth Army court-martial board at Camp Polk, La., to answer the charges.
According to the prosecution, Reed’s administration of the Rehabilitation Center was almost medieval in its harshness. “In order to run the stockade [Reed] picked two lieutenants and two sergeants for this purpose,” Job K. Savage, executive officer of the 558th’s D Battery, later recorded in his memoirs, Tarboro to Katmandu. “Unfortunately, two of these, an officer and an enlisted man, were sadists. One lieutenant wore two pearl-handled pistols, imitating General George S. Patton. If an inmate refused to obey his punishment orders, the lieutenant would pull out his pistol and fire around the feet of the soldier.”
In his defense, Reed claimed that the only way to bring order to his unit of recruits was to harshly punish repeat scofflaws. He said he had simply duplicated the approach of the stockade of the 84th Infantry Division, located nearby. “I saw one of the guards strike one of the prisoners with a pick handle and knock him unconscious,” Reed testified. “I went up to the lieutenant…and asked him, ‘How about that?’ and he said that this thing was authorized, and that if I didn’t like it at least don’t call him down in the presence of his subordinates…that if I didn’t like it I should go see somebody about it.”
Reed went on to tell the court that it was necessary to create the Rehabilitation Center because no punishment facilities were available in the camps or posts adjacent to the Louisiana Maneuvers area. “I felt that a punishment under the 104th Article of War would not suffice…[because] those persons who should be confined—and to let the Rehabilitation Center serve the purpose—were two-, three- and four-time offenders without exception. Nearly all of them were tried and sentenced by the Summary Court with a maximum sentence of 30 days and two-thirds pay or $33.”
Added Reed: “Generally if these men would work and showed the right attitude to become good soldiers and stay good soldiers, they were released anywhere from 10 to 20 days after they had been admitted to the stockade. In most cases, the soldiers came out much more willing soldiers than they had ever been before. I felt it was absolutely necessary and went into conference with my staff to determine its advisability, and it was decided at this conference that it would be [the proper] thing to do.”
Leslie H. McKenzie, the battalion’s personnel officer (S-1), testified that he supported Reed’s introduction of the stockade as a means of punishing and forestalling worse misbehavior by some of the men.
“The rate [of soldiers going AWOL] was high in September , and when we came here on maneuvers in October…we saw that something would have to be done to handle AWOLs and the men who misbehaved,” McKenzie testified. “In other words, if these men could go AWOL for a month at a time while others were on maneuvers, and then receive just a fine of $33, or whatever the court would impose, and then come back and go to work, mostly anybody would be glad to do that.”
Upon cross-examination, however, McKenzie admitted that the AWOL rate had already decreased substantially for the 558th by the time the stockade was established in early November. According to his testimony, 31 men were on the AWOL rolls in September, but only two had fled in October, the month before the stockade opened.
As battalion S-1, McKenzie said he was familiar with a U.S. War Department directive against confinement of soldiers, designed “to conserve manpower,” a policy the stockade in effect contravened.
Reed’s defense presented a letter from Reed to the commanding officer of the stockade, 2nd Lt. Howard R. Mudd, that outlined the regulations of the camp. The letter explained that the rules were based on a plan similar to the one issued by Maj. Gen. Stonewall Jackson, formerly in command of the 84th Division.
While acknowledging that the regulations at the Rehabilitation Center were strict, Reed’s defense also tried to point out that the colonel did what he could to make the prisoner’s lot more comfortable. In particular, they described the time Reed showed concern for a stockade inmate who had been working in the rain and was with out dry clothing. “I got out my only suit of underwear and gave it to him,” Reed testified, “and rounded up some blankets for him so that he might keep warm.”
Captain Francis M. Connelly, battalion motor pool officer, offered other favorable examples of Reed’s supposed generosity and his interest in his enlisted men’s welfare that included letters written to the families of new recruits informing them that their sons would be well cared for while with the battalion.
“Last November,” Connelly continued, “rather than have the men eating their Thanksgiving dinner in the field, the colonel went to [102nd AAA Brigade commander Brigadier] General N.H. Egleston and requested permission to allow more than the usual 50 percent to leave the area so that we could bring them into Alexandria [La.] and give them a hot meal.”
In other testimony designed to reveal Reed’s abilities as a leader, Connelly recalled that “the colonel had one of the boys from our section design a Christmas card, and another one of the boys…composed a short poem which we mimeographed and sent out to the individual mothers and fathers of the boys. At that time we had 800 to 850, and the response was remarkable.”
Despite the testimony lauding Reed’s character and leadership qualities, and his glittering military record since joining the Army in January 1941, Reed was found guilty of violating Articles 95 and 96 and was sentenced to be discharged.
In an appeal for clemency, Reed’s defense counsel requested that their client be restored to active duty based on several facts established during the trial, including:
- The record discloses testimony of a general officer, of three colonels and of other officers that the accused was a tireless worker; was greatly interested in the Army; and that he trained his battalion to the extent that it was one of the most efficient of the 14 Antiaircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons Battalions (AAA AW BNS) in the maneuver area over a period of 51⁄2 months.
- All of the accused’s acts were for the betterment of the battalion; his only desires were to bring it to a state of perfection, and no orders or action of the accused were motivated by any other reason than to prepare his unit for successful operation overseas.
- The accused has predominantly excellent and superior efficiency ratings for the entire period of his career as an officer.
- The accused expressly desired to make efficient soldiers of the many-time offenders, as they were not getting the training essential for a soldier, and he desired to rehabilitate and mold them into soldier material.
- There were no facilities available in the maneuver area for summary and special court prisoners, and the battalion stockade was instituted so that summary and special courtmartial orders could be executed to their full extent and meaning. It was the accused’s duty to have these sentences executed.
- In his zealousness to improve the efficiency of the battalion, he admits his grave error in carrying his attempts to rehabilitate wayward soldiers too far. He has lost the battalion he activated and trained so well. At great cost, he has learned of his wrong. He desires greatly to be allowed to continue serving in the Army of the United States, at least until the termination of the war.
The appeal was not enough. “Even though the accused has an enviable record of efficiency,” the judge advocate who reviewed the appeal stated, “There is no room in the Army for any officer who commits or permits such acts as those of which the accused has been found guilty.”
The case went through an appeals process and worked its way up the chain of command, eventually reaching the desk of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was informed that the JAG in the case had ruled that the cruel treatment of inmates in Reed’s command indicated a lack of judgment and humanity, which rendered the colonel unfit for commissioned service.
On September 7, 1944, Roosevelt confirmed the sentence. Reed later learned that three officers and three enlisted men from the 84th Infantry Division also faced courts-martial “for similar unrelated alleged offenses against 84th Division enlisted men in Louisiana Maneuver area.”
Cashiered from the Army in disgrace, Reed returned to civilian life and disappeared. Given the former commander’s reputation, his relief did not improve conditions within the battalion. “[It] never completely recovered its morale of early promise of becoming an outstanding unit,” Savage later wrote in his memoirs. “Overall it had a topflight group of officers and enlisted personnel at all levels, save at the very top.”
The Army’s quick action in the Reed case eliminated a potential public relations disaster that could have profoundly affected the willingness of parents to send their sons and daughters off to war, but it was an unfortuante turn of events for the 558th, which seemed on its way to being a good combat unit. Six decades on, the question of whether justice was served still lingers.
Originally published in the February 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.