Share This Article

Infantryman get a close-up look at the M2A1 medium tank during a lull in the 'fighting' at the Louisiana Maneuvers (Courtesy National Archives)

The mock battles of what became known as the Louisiana Maneuvers had one purpose: to prepare America’s soldiers for the war that had already begun in Europe and was threatening to spread around the world.

It rained on Monday morning Sept. 15 over all Louisiana. From low, darkening clouds the drops spattered on the State’s good highways, on its hundreds of marshy mud roads, on its pine forests, and on its deep swamps full of quicksand.

The rain fell, too, on 350,000 U.S. soldiers and 50,000 U.S. Army vehicles as they fought the greatest sham battle in U.S. history. The attack had come before dawn. With two fast-moving, hard-hitting armored divisions leading the way, Lieutenant General Ben Lear, commander of the Second (Red) Army, had pushed his troops across the muddy Red River, was already sending long tentacles down the highways to the south, where Lieutenant General Walter Krueger’s Third (Blue) Army lay in wait. Overhead, armadas of pursuit planes fought great dogfights, while sleek A-20A attack bombers and Navy dive bombers strafed the columns of tanks and trucks moving up to the front.

That excerpt from the Oct. 6, 1941, issue of Life opened a multipage feature article on the largest mass training maneuvers undertaken by the U.S. Army to date. The mock battles of what became known as the Louisiana Maneuvers had one purpose: to prepare America’s soldiers for the war that had already begun in Europe and was threatening to spread around the world.

In the early spring of 1940, the U.S. military faced a seemingly insurmountable task. With Poland overrun by German armored columns now poised to strike at France, and China under assault by Japan, America’s commanders had to prepare the U.S. military for war. The problem was not a dearth of troops—after Adolf Hitler’s blitzkrieg rolled through Poland in September 1939, Congress had mobilized the National Guard and Reserve and approved an increase in the size of the Army. It was that the existing troops were poorly trained or not trained at all.

No one was more acutely aware of this than Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall. A student of history, Marshall was certain American boys were as courageous as any German or Japanese soldier, but they lacked sufficient training and combat experience—and time was short. Marshall concluded that what America’s burgeoning ranks needed was a complex training exercise, an exacting test in an environment that would closely approximate the realities of the battlefield.

To help implement his idea, Marshall called on Lt. Gen. Stanley D. Embick, a veteran soldier and commander of the Third U.S. Army, headquartered in Atlanta. Marshall directed Embick to find a suitable location where thousands of U.S. troops could be deployed in a series of maneuvers to test their readiness. Armed with these instructions and accompanied by his aide, Major Mark Clark, Embick traveled to central Louisiana, where the Army had trained many of its soldiers during World War I. With a tattered road map as a guide, Embick and Clark tramped through Louisiana’s backcountry, noting the roads, trails, swamps and forests.

Sparsely populated, thick with undergrowth and uncharted swamps, and scarred by rural traces that turn to muck at the slightest hint of rain, central Louisiana was an ideal place to prepare an army, with vast tracts of land that could accommodate the large-scale maneuvers the Army needed to conduct. The north-central part of the state is home to Kisatchie National Forest, a 604,000-acre virtual wilderness of pinewood hills. Just south of the national forest was Camp Evangeline, a 23,000-acre tract established by the Army in 1930. By linking the two tracts, the military had a ready-made training ground. But Embick determined the training area needed to be larger still. So the Army secured Louisiana’s permission to conduct maneuvers in rural areas south of the national forest. Embick and state officials worked quickly to iron out the details, and by early June 1940 the Army had secured the right to deploy across thousands of square miles in Grant, Natchitoches, Winn, Rapides, Vernon, Claiborne and Webster parishes.

Embick went even further, securing use rights to large tracts of land in East Texas that bordered the primary Louisiana deployment grounds. Like central Louisiana, East Texas was then sparsely populated, with a network of unfinished roads that would challenge military topographers and unit commanders. The 3,400 square miles of combined maneuver area was also laced with rivers—the Sabine and Calcasieu to the west and the Red to the north—natural barriers that would present valuable training obstacles for the engineer units obliged to bridge them.

Like Marshall, Embick had closely followed the German conquest of Poland. While he believed the maneuvers would be a good opportunity to test the Army’s new halftrack-mounted 75mm antitank gun, he and his planners also hoped to answer other questions: Could mobile units adequately replace horse cavalry? Could the Army’s newly formed paratrooper units actually be dropped en masse? Would armored units be able to maneuver effectively in difficult terrain and uncertain weather conditions? Would the Army’s new three-regiment “triangle divisions” maneuver more efficiently than the old four-regiment “square divisions”? Furthermore, Marshall was keen to see whether a professional officer corps of rising colonels and brigadier generals could command large units operating over vast tracts of territory, as they would be called on to do in the brewing war. Lt. Gen. Krueger later described what Marshall and America’s other senior commanders were looking for in their officers—men who possessed “broad vision, progressive ideas, a thorough grasp of the magnitude of the problems involved in handling an army, and lots of initiative and resourcefulness.”

While it was one thing to find the right region for the maneuvers, it was another to make certain the maneuvers were challenging and instructive. Throughout the spring of 1940, Embick and his staff worked tirelessly to devise a series of increasingly difficult tests that would prepare soldiers for the battlefield and test command arrangements from the squad level to full army level. Embick wanted to test units under as many different conditions as possible, to see whether they could communicate with each other, deploy according to schedules and, perhaps most important, cover long distances at night. The exercises were designed to be exhaustive—and exhausting: There’d be scant sleep on a real battlefield, so there would be little time for relaxation in Texas and Louisiana.

Embick sought logistics assistance from senior armored and infantry corps commanders, who insisted the maneuvers be as realistic as possible. Loudspeakers would blare the recorded sounds of battle, canister smoke would shroud the battlefield, and bags of white sand would be dropped from aircraft to simulate the impact of artillery shells. U.S. Army Air Corps spotter and reconnaissance planes would gather intelligence, while transports would deliver troops to newly constructed airfields. Planners stockpiled millions of rounds of blank ammunition, and Embick established rules to govern when units would join the line of fire and what kinds of “casualties” they’d suffer. His goal was not only to determine who could “kill” whom, but also to test the time it took medical units to transfer the “wounded” to rear-area combat hospitals. Finally, Embick appointed and trained hundreds of maneuver “umpires,” who, armed with clipboards and armbands, would monitor and assess units and leaders according to a complex grading system.

While the umpires’ conclusions were important, even more important, from Embick’s perspective, was feedback from individual commanders, who were to assess their own performance and that of their troops. Embick’s goal was not to determine winners and losers of the exercises, but to create an effective training regimen for the coming war.

By April 1940, all was ready for the Louisiana Maneuvers. There were to be two events in the spring and autumn of 1940 and two more the following year, with the largest, most complex and most important to be held in September 1941.

The 1940 maneuvers began in May with 70,000 soldiers, who trained and “fought” in four separate exercises of three days each, beginning on May 9. These first maneuvers, Embick said, were “experiments,” not contests. The first was to see whether armored units could actually mobilize and travel long distances. To test this, the War Department ordered Maj. Gen. Walter C. Short’s IV Corps to move from its Fort Benning headquarters in Georgia to Louisiana—550 miles in six days, the longest motor march ever undertaken by the U.S. Army. Soon after arriving in Louisiana, IV Corps was thrown into a series of corps-on-corps exercises that pitted Short’s armored columns (the “Blue Army”) against Krueger’s IX Corps (the “Red Army”). As military historian Christopher Gabel noted:

In the first exercise, Red Army took the offensive, crossing the Calcasieu while Blue Army defended the river line. In the second exercise, Blue Army attacked, enveloping both flanks of the Red force. The third maneuver again saw Blue on the attack, this time with penetrations of the Red line at Slagle and Hornbeck. In the fourth exercise, the provisional tank brigade and the 7th Mechanized Cavalry Brigade were combined into a provisional division totaling some 382 tanks—the first armored division in Army history. This force spearheaded a Red Army attack, which the Blue force countered with an antitank defense extending as far east as Gorum and Flatwoods.

Embick followed up, crisscrossing the “battlefield” to question commanders and soldiers on both sides and reaching some preliminary conclusions on America’s combat readiness. What he found was not encouraging—the Army evidently had a lot to learn about mobile warfare. Vehicle breakdowns, repair team shortages, repeated traffic jams and poorly worded orders were all common. More important, senior commanders’ failure to lead from the front led to uncoordinated attacks and jumbled defenses. “Commanders and staffs mistakenly believed that they could run the war from headquarters,” Gabel noted, “relying on maps and telephones, much as they had in the static warfare of 1918.”

In the wake of the May war games, several senior tank experts, including Colonel George S. Patton Jr., recommended the Army create separate armored divisions that could operate unencumbered by infantry or horse cavalry units. The recommendation was forwarded to Marshall, who quickly established a special armored training school at Fort Knox, Ky.

While Embick bemoaned the performance of the armored units and the lack of communication between senior commanders and their frontline units, he was satisfied that young recruits were in good physical condition and would perform well in the event of war. And despite his disappointment that few senior officers manned the front with their troops, Embick was pleased to find the Army had created a dedicated officer corps comprising some of the nation’s best military minds. Among those who participated in the maneuvers and went on to assume major leadership roles in World War II were Clark, Patton and Lt. Col. Omar Bradley. Perhaps the most outstanding young commander of the 1940 maneuvers was Colonel Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell. During a key moment in the face-off between the Blue and Red armies, Stilwell commanded a “blitzkrieg” invasion of northern Louisiana with a flying column of tanks—just the kind of attack German General Heinz Guderian was then planning against France. Impressed, Embick and the umpires passed Stilwell’s name up the chain of command. After Pearl Harbor, Marshall appointed Stilwell to lead Allied troops against the Japanese in Burma and China.

The 1941 Louisiana Maneuvers were held over three weeks in August and three weeks in September. To coordinate them, Marshall replaced Embick, who was retiring, with Brig. Gen. Lesley “Whitey” McNair, commandant of the Army’s Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. The self-effacing McNair, whom Marshall described as “the brains of the Army,” had not only crafted the military’s 13-week basic training regimen, he had reoriented and reformed Leavenworth’s curriculum, passing on to Marshall the names of his best students. Like Marshall, McNair understood the challenges the U.S. faced in fighting the Germans and Japanese and was concerned about his service’s poor preparation. He decided to enlarge on what Embick had started, replacing the 70,000-soldier exercise of 1940 with the largest peacetime exercise in American history. “We didn’t know how soon war would come,” McNair later observed, “but we knew it was coming, and we had to get together something of an army pretty darn fast.”

McNair conceived a groundbreaking war game that mobilized 400,000 soldiers in two armies—the Red, or “Kotmk,” representing Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri and Kentucky; and the Blue, or “Almat,” comprising Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee. The armies would contend for control of the Mississippi River. As in Embick’s 1940 maneuvers, umpires would grade individual leaders and units on leadership and combat skills. Senior officers were warned to ensure proper supply and preparation of their troops. Communications systems that had plagued Embick the year before were improved with upgraded equipment, including new radios for senior commanders and their subordinates. This time, McNair insisted, senior commanders were to be as close to the front as the situation demanded. In June, July and August, corps deployments tested coordination between air and ground reconnaissance units, while a second set of corps-on-corps exercises honed combat leadership skills.

Marshall focused considerable time on the 1941 maneuvers, calling them “a combat college for troop leading” and a laboratory to test the “new armored, antitank and air forces that had come of age since 1918.” He personally observed many of the corps- and division-level maneuvers and, in the autumn, an expanded training exercise in the hills of North and South Carolina. But the major focus was on the Red vs. Blue conflict in Louisiana and East Texas. The mock war began on September 15—just three months before Pearl Harbor—and pitted Lt. Gen. Ben Lear’s Second (Red) Army against Krueger’s Third (Blue) Army. Lear’s goal was to defeat the Blue Army and occupy Louisiana. A hard-bitten, gruff-talking disciplinarian, Lear was not well liked by his troops, but he had an eye for detail and was surrounded by a cadre of talented and aggressive officers, including veterans of Embick’s 1940 exercises. Among them was Patton, whom Lear tasked to lead a lightning combined-arms strike against Krueger’s Louisiana defenses.

Krueger, an aging veteran and competitive taskmaster who too quickly bristled at unintended slights, desperately wanted to beat Lear. He gathered a staff of brainy if little-known assistants, including Lt. Col. Dwight Eisenhower as his chief of staff. Eisenhower was an old friend of Patton and, in May, began meticulously planning Louisiana’s defenses against Patton’s tanks. Marshall, who had doubts about Eisenhower, accepted Krueger’s word that “Ike” was a brilliant planner and tough soldier.

Krueger’s judgment of Eisenhower was soon proven on the Louisiana battlefield. Lear’s army crossed the Red River on September 15 with Patton’s tanks in the lead. Eisenhower was ready. Three of Krueger’s mobile corps rapidly responded to the Red Army threat and moved to pin it against the river. Patton laughed off the threat, even circulating an offer to subordinates of $50 to any man who captured “a certain SOB called Eisenhower.” Unperturbed, Ike and Krueger ordered their armored units to flank Patton and prevent a breakout. Umpires deemed the maneuver successful. The first part of the war was over. The Blue Army, and Eisenhower, had won.

It is now well-known American military lore that in his desk drawer in Washington, Marshall kept “a little black book” (one he once waved at a reporter, just to prove it existed) in which he listed those officers he believed would lead the nation in battle against the Axis. The list had grown through the years. McNair was on it, as were Bradley, Stilwell, Clark and Patton. By the end of the Louisiana Maneuvers, Marshall had added Eisenhower to his list. Three months later, eight days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he brought Ike to Washington. Within months, the newly promoted brigadier general was in London, planning the invasion of North Africa. Within two years he was supreme allied commander and Marshall’s eyes and ears in Europe.

Marshall was not the only one impressed by Eisenhower. The young officer also entranced journalists covering the Louisiana Maneuvers, front-pages fodder through 1941. CBS reporter Eric Sevareid eyed Krueger’s staff and concluded that Eisenhower “makes more sense than any of the rest of them.” Drew Pearson, perhaps the best-known reporter of his day, agreed, telling his readers that Eisenhower “conceived and directed the strategy that routed [Lear’s] Second Army,” and that the balding lieutenant colonel was endowed with “a steel-trap mind plus unusual physical vigor.”

Such reports wouldn’t have swayed Marshall—after all, no one on his list had actually been tested in combat. Still, the Louisiana Maneuvers had reinforced the chief of staff’s faith in realistic training. The Army he had built in just two whirlwind years had not been blooded, but Marshall was confident it would acquit itself well. And while he had taken note of Eisenhower’s talent, he was even more buoyed by Patton’s aggressive battlefield tactics.

Following his failed breakout from the Red River “beachhead,” Patton was made a commander in Krueger’s Red Army, which would take the offensive during the second set of exercises. In the latter part of September, as McNair watched in amazement, Patton led his armored corps in a massed flanking attack against the Blue Army’s defense in depth. Patton’s 2nd Armored Division advanced 200 miles through northern Louisiana and East Texas in three days, enveloping Lear’s flank. It was a brilliant maneuver. Lear’s army thus surrounded, McNair suspended the exercise.

McNair and Krueger spent the following weeks reviewing lists of senior officers, culling those who had failed the test of the Louisiana Maneuvers. Those who survived the process were marked for combat commands. Those who did not were shunted off to other service or retired. Lear was charged with training the Second Army and later replaced McNair, who died in Normandy, as the Army’s chief trainer. But Louisiana had sealed Lear’s fate: He would never obtain the combat command he desired. Krueger, thought too old to command, was sidelined as head of the Southern Defense Command. But in January 1943, General Douglas MacArthur told Marshall he wanted Krueger to head up the new Sixth U.S. Army, based in Australia. Krueger went on to become one of the toughest, if now largely forgotten, combat leaders of World War II. Of course, history records the achievements of Patton, Clark, Bradley and Eisenhower, who replicated in Europe what they first practiced in central Louisiana.

Were the Louisiana Maneuvers a success? The ever-critical McNair praised the exercises, but was quick to point out they had revealed some weaknesses: “The principal weakness was deficiency in small-unit training due fundamentally to inadequate leadership.” If there is one hero of the maneuvers, it is McNair, who was everywhere at once, watching and taking notes. From these notes McNair—whom Marshall appointed commanding general of Army Ground Forces—shaped the most intensive and physically demanding training regimen for regular soldiers in American history. Over the next four years, until he was killed while watching the soldiers he had trained advance into Normandy, McNair molded the cadre of sergeants who became the backbone of the Army—the small-unit leaders he worried about during the steamy Louisiana summer of 1941.

The Louisiana Maneuvers provided vital training for the tens of thousands of American boys who would go on to fight and win on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific. In the midst of that global conflict, soldiers who had battled near Shreveport, driven tanks in East Texas, flown reconnaissance missions over Evangeline Parish, or simply fought off the chiggers and ticks, would acknowledge the bond forged during a make-believe war. A Walk in the Sun, one of Hollywood’s most poignant accounts of World War II combat, features a memorable scene in which American soldiers slog forward under fire near Salerno to capture a farmhouse. Members of the platoon laughingly agree: Their assignment is going to be tough, but “it can’t be worse than the Louisiana Maneuvers.”

For further reading, Mark Perry recommends: “The 1940 Maneuvers: Prelude to Mobilization,” by Christopher R. Gabel; “Careers of Officers Involved in the Louisiana Maneuvers,” by Rickey Robertson; and Eisenhower: A Soldier’s Life, by Carlo D’Este.