All’s fair in war—right?

It was late 1939 when, with war rearing its head in Europe, the United States started planning a series of major military exercises. These were to be massive U.S. Army maneuvers. Perhaps the best known of these were the Louisiana and Carolina maneuvers of 1940 and 1941. Preceding these was a mildly smaller exercise—officially called the Third Army Maneuvers—that also took place in Louisiana, in May 1940.

Maneuvers do two things: they train men, and they let officers figure out things like how forces should be arranged in the event of war and which types are needed. This last point was critical. The U.S. Army was decades behind in experimentation, yet Germany’s rapid Blitzkrieg across Europe in spring 1940 was demonstrating the need to examine doctrine and force structures. The maneuvers could help rectify that situation. But if a test was compromised—say, by sharing inside information—so, too, would be the results.

In 1940 Major General Kenyon A. Joyce was the commander of the vaunted First Cavalry Division, a major unit—about 10,000-15,000 men and almost double that in horses—then stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas. His unit was about to participate in the Third Army Maneuvers. As these were the first exercises to experiment with solutions to the problem of how to beat the Germans should America go to war with them, and perhaps the very future of the cavalry, Joyce had a personal interest in this upcoming challenge. At the same time, it was critical that the operation’s vying forces not have advance knowledge—that the event be “free play,” not “scripted.”

Not too long before the maneuvers, he got a letter.

“Colonel John S. Wood, who is Chief of Staff of the 3d Army, is an old friend of mine…,” the letter began. Then it spilled the beans: the units, the terrain, the distances, the initial dispositions of the opposing forces, their general locations, and who would be opposing who.

“From him I gather that your division will be called upon to cover the concentration of the Infantry Corps in the ensuing maneuvers,” the letter continued, “and you will be opposed in this by the 6th Cavalry and the mechanized brigade. Wood says that the initial concentration points will be a hundred miles apart but further seemed to hint that the mission of covering these points would begin prior to the arrival at the point of concentration…. Colonel Wood also informs me that there is a river running through a considerable portion of the maneuver area, and that the river will probably be unfordable except by swimming. Perhaps you could find some place near Bliss where you could practice this….”

The author was the commander of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, stationed at Fort Myer adjoining Arlington National Cemetery. But he had previously served under General Joyce and considered Joyce to be a patron. The 3rd Cavalry commander publicly professed to love the horse cavalry and had a conflicted personal past with the idea of mechanization. But one thing seems clear: he loved his career more than anything.

This officer compromised what may be considered among the most important maneuvers ever conducted in American military history. Any advance knowledge could invalidate some—if not all—of the critical lessons the army might learn and, as a result, put American lives in greater danger. And his reason? Purely to suck up to his patron by tilting the intelligence in his favor.

But perhaps one might think, “Maybe he did not know that the exercise conditions were to be secret from all maneuver elements? Maybe this was just a slip-up?” Well, then consider the handwritten postscript on the typewritten letter:

P.S. Please keep the dope I got from Col. Wood SECRET so I can get more.  GSP Jr.

That is, George S. Patton Jr. ✯

—Robert Bateman, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, has taught military history at West Point, George Mason, and Georgetown universities. To see the actual Patton letter, go to: historynet.com/patton-letter.htm

This article was published in the February 2020 issue of World War II.