American Forces in World War II

by Tom Wade, 2 March 2008
Reprinted with the generous permission of Tom Wade

The entry of the United States into World War II was marked by constant setbacks spanning the Western Pacific beginning December 7, 1941 and into early 1942. After being defeated and pushed back for six months, the U.S. military machine began to turn out victories that would push back every advancement of the Axis powers and in 45 months lead to their total defeat. Thousands of books, articles and papers have been written trying to dissect and analyze every aspect of the conduct of the war by the United States. This paper will look at a few of those books and discuss their methodology and interpretation.

Prior to the twentieth century, the U.S. Navy and their marine detachments were the only American military forces with extensive overseas experience. The army, with the exception of the Mexican War had been purely in a defensive position with regard to other wars. Peter Karsten's book entitled The Naval Aristocracy looks back into the mid-nineteenth century and the emergence of the United States as a major naval power. His primary focus is his interpretation of the role of the navy in protecting the emerging business interests of American companies as they sought overseas markets. Karsten disagrees with the assessment of many leading historians such as Fletcher Pratt, Samuel Eliot Morrison and McGeorge Bundy and others who saw the navy's role as one of "innocent" American diplomacy.[1] The author takes the opposite view expounded by Charles Beard that the navy was totally an instrument of American business interests abroad. Looking into the mindset of the American naval officer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Karsten attempts to show that the navy had developed a philosophy that in the words of Henry Simpson, made "Neptune God, Mahan his prophet, and the United States Navy the only true church."[2]

Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan and his messmates became the main target of Kersten's thesis. By focusing on the frailties of human spirit and overlooking the positive accomplishments of securing a rule set for safe commerce, the author fails to recognize the possible outcome had the United States Navy remained in a purely defensive role. If one reads this work unaware of the past histories of nations, their impression would be of an "evil empire" bent on dominating a world filled with lesser sorts. The views of American naval officers are not much different from the views of any person who is in the service of their respective nation during any time period. This can be attested from the writing of the earliest historians from the Bible and Classical Greece.[3] The role of navies since the man first went to sea was to defend the shores, protect the sea-lanes and project the power of the nation it served.

Kersten reveals his views most clearly in his final chapter when he asks the question. "Must we have every new naval, army or air force weapon that the weapons merchants create?"[4] His less that balanced thesis thinly disguises his anti military bias is important recognize. Awareness of it allows the reader to understand that these men whose personal views a person today may find offensive were the instruments that created a navy that was able to resist the aggression of countries in the twentieth century.

A digression into the world that Kersten would have us live would find a navy similar to Sweden's where America would have a large flotilla of coastal patrol craft to guard our shores. Our only capitol ships would be hospital ships sent to the scene of natural disasters worldwide. By the advent of World War I we would not have been able get our men to Europe without the help of the British Navy. World War II would have been different story. We of course would not have had possessions in the Pacific. War in the Pacific would not have occurred because Japan would have conquered Asia unopposed. The United States would have been reduced to a vassal state watching the world carved into two spheres between Germany and Japan. For all their faults we must be thankful that such men as Mahan did exist. Their role in shaping the future of a "Blue Water" navy is best revealed in Steven Howarth's To Shining Sea a definitive history of the United States Navy.

Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt at the Naval War College
Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt at the Naval War College

The men who captained the U.S. Navy during World War II grew up at the altar of the philosophy of Alfred Thayer Mahan. During the 1930's the fact that President Roosevelt was a great fan of the navy, began a ship building program to stimulate the economy, this would gain many new ships such as destroyers and submarines.[5] Aircraft carriers were built as plans for battleships were reduced. This turned out to be an act of providence. Aircraft carriers their planes and the smaller ships that protected them became the primary tools that secured the seas. Battleships although vital in shore bombardment and as anti-aircraft platforms were relegated to a supporting role. At the outbreak of the war, American naval power was driven back across the Pacific. Our Eastern Shore was the perfect backdrop for German submarines to sink coastal shipping. The fight to regain control of the seas was the doctrine that had been developed in the previous century by those "aristocratically" naval officers whom Peter Karsten wrote so derisively about in his book. In the same vein the American business interests that were portrayed as colonializing the world would become the source of thousands of planes and ships with which to regain control of the seas and carry the fight back to the aggressor's door.

Contrasting the written history found in Howarth's book with Karsten's benign role of how the navy should be employed, one would not need too great of an imagination to see Howarth's history would not have occurred as written. It would have been a history written by a German or Japanese historian about the demise of the United States as a great power. Several factors would contribute to our naval success in World War II that stand in opposition to the role we should have played as defined by Karsten. We would have not have had any presence in the Pacific, so during the 1930's as Japan rose to military prominence the Pacific would become their personal pool. One could perhaps argue that had Perry never opened the door to Japan becoming an industrial power it would still be a feudal kingdom. Our commitment to Great Britain would not have been possible as our navy; being in a defensive role could only protect our eastern shoreline from attack. Hitler would have not been impeded in his quest for empire and in a short time his sights would have turned to North America.

Howarth's book covers the history of the United States Navy; he devotes two chapters to World War II. In those chapters he outlines the time from the 1933 to 1945. The United States Navy was not only responsible for confronting the Japanese Navy and supporting the Marines in their island hopping campaigns across the Pacific, but destroying the German submarine menace in the Atlantic and moving a million men across the sea to confront Germany and Italy. The Soviet Union owes its survival to the U.S. Navy who protected convoys that brought thousands of tons of material to their shores. None of these events would have taken place had the navy remained as it was before men like Alfred Thayer Mahan and his "messmates" came with their views of American naval power. Stephen Howarth allows the record speak for itself in his book. He only reports the facts as they occurred without much comment on the mindset that led them. The "call to duty" subscribed in Karsten's book is the grist that sustained the navy in World War II, it is unfortunate he failed in his anti-military view to see the forest behind the tree.

Marines of 1st Marine Division fighting on Okinawa, 1945
Marines of 1st Marine Division fighting on Okinawa, 1945

The mailed fist of the United States Navy in the Pacific was the Marine Corps. Their existence was secured for the life of the nation in the sacrifices they made on countless battles across the Pacific. The image of the fighting Marine being almost invincible was secured in battles from Wake Island, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Iwo Jima. Craig M. Cameron attempts to explore the myth, imagination and battle conduct of the First Marine Division during World War II in his book American Samurai. This is a social history of one of the most famous units to serve during the war. Cameron has taken a great deal of criticism for his attempt to look beyond the perceived noble warrior image to uncover the truth that war is the very nasty business of killing. He uses material that has been used before, to paint a picture of a body of men who are reduced to killing machines that emulated the very warrior spirit that drove their Japanese enemy. Upon first reading, the focus on the shortcomings of morality and sexual tension created by a male dominated society seem to have nothing to do with the warrior identity.[6] In retrospect every army in human history has driven itself upon the rocks of self-degradation by dehumanization of the enemy and rape and pillage of the conquered.

During the conduct of the war in the Pacific, the nature of the Japanese military behavior required a balancing of the books in order to make the emotional sacrifice to confront them. Cameron makes much of the racial dehumanization of the enemy. Taking young men from homes where they were taught not to kill required changing their mindset to accept the enemy was not their equal. Today in a world where we expect armies to behave like policemen talking the gunman out, killing them would seem subhuman. In order to win a war, one must expect their military to kill the enemy. In order to do that you have to believe the enemy deserves killing. Dehumanizing the enemy is the most efficient way to achieve this goal. This problem with being able to be an effective soldier is best illustrated in Rick Atkinson's Army at Dawn, where Ernie Pyle noted a "new professional outlook, where killing is a craft."[7] And further as noted, "that a soldier is not effective until he learns to hate. When he lives to kill the enemy, he then is of value."[8] The entire nature of the war in the Pacific differed from the war in Europe. Most battles were fought over ground that did not allow for enveloping movements where one could cut off the enemy's supply and they would wither and starve. That strategy was used to cut off some islands fortresses, like Wake Island and Truk. Looking back over the years many of the worst battles, Tarawa, Kwajalein, Guam and Saipan could have been avoided by blockades by the massive naval forces arrayed in the Pacific. Based on the strategy used by the Navy in the Central Pacific direct assault became the only way to dislodge an entrenched foe. That left the Marines only one way to confront the enemy, by becoming his equal at killing efficiently.

Primary-group theory is used by Cameron to explain the attachment to an "ideal" group composed of a certain category of human beings that are superior to other groups. This trait is evident in other military units in history. Greek hoplite soldiers, Roman legionaries, the British regimental system of the 18th and 19th century and the units of Germans drawn during the final days of World War II. These men were from the same towns and areas and had a kinship to protect and support each other. The Marines took that primary-group kinship into the Pacific and tried through legend and myth to sustain it as new men joined their ranks.[9]

Cameron tries to draw a conclusion that the war hates and race hates were adapted to the cold war, where the Communist was devious, cunning and bestial.[10] This of course is true, but so was Herodotus's description of the Persians, and down through history where every conflict requires a bogeyman. Cameron' book is useful in uncovering the truth of how we prepare and support a group of men to fight a very nasty war. But to use it as a vehicle of navel gazing to create a sense self-loathing is criminal to the memory of those men who served and died in defense of their country. A better treatise on the war in the Pacific is whether the Central Pacific thrust was a waste of manpower. The idea of a central command to prosecute the war against Japan might have been more efficient in using vital resources to cut off Japans supply sources from South East Asia. After 1943, the majority of Japanese carriers and pilots had been lost; their ability to re-supply most island outposts was drastically reduced. Perhaps thousands of marines would have lived, had a more central command been in place and the southern approach via Australia given more support. This concept is addressed in greater detail in John Ellis's book, Brute Force.

Another entry into the realm of cultural history is Michael Sherry's book The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon. Mr. Sherry is a competent writer who presents his view on the culture that gave rise to American air power. Like Peter Karsten and Craig Cameron, Sherry lets his bias shine through in his assessment of the doctrine of strategic bombing. As an example, he writes that the fire bombing of Tokyo led to "work absenteeism, apathy, and fearfulness." This led to a "disintegrating of the social fabric."[11] A few pages later he concludes the chapter by noting that "destruction would win the war," and history has proved us right. He them lashes out by writing that this was how the United States, not always, but at its worst, waged the war.[12] Sherry like Craig Camerfoverlordon writes of American racial hatred towards the Japanese that was lacking in the more fanatical Germans. He notes that the Japanese people were notably freer from the crude stereotyping of the enemy than the United States.[13] This must have been of little comfort, to the thousands of POW's starved and tortured, and the millions of Chinese civilians slaughtered by the Japanese military.

In Europe two years of precision bombing of military targets did not appreciably reduce the production of material for the German war machine. When the bombing campaign turned to the destruction of German cities and the killing of workers staffing those factories, productions dropped and the war machine was reduced to the point of defeat. Part of the rise of American air power was the use of tactical support in all theatres. Sherry makes no mention of this aspect of air power, leaving the reader to believe that generals without a conscious, ordered swarms of bombers to blast and burn innocent civilians into submission, as their armies, nobly held off the Allies.

The story of another side of the rise of American air power, the tactical air force is told in Thomas A. Hughe's book, Overlord: General Pet Quesada and the Triumph of Tactical Air Power in World War II. Hughe's book is described as a biography of General Pete Quesada, but strangely ends with his retirement from the air force, half way through his life. No effort was made to engage the other half of General Quesada's life and his views of air power during later conflicts such as Vietnam and Gulf War I, during which he lived. Hughes seems to be a little too close to his subject, to present a balanced view of tactical air power in World War II. The accomplishments of General Kenny in the Pacific and his 20th Air Force which developed ground attack tactics and innovations such as arming B-25's with nose guns to attack enemy shipping was overlooked. The accomplishments of General O. P. Weyland, tactical air commander for the Third Army was downplayed in order to focus on Quesada. This is no way a lessening of Quesada's merit even though men such as Kenny, John Slessor, and Joe Cannon had developed most of the doctrine he adopted. Quesada used his organization skill to implement that doctrine into close air support for the First Army in Europe. Hughes contends that the Air Force, vying for a position in a post war world turned away from tactical support in avoid being subordinate to the army. He also contends wrongly that tactical support did not return to the U.S. Air Force until the 1970's. The Vietnam War saw a return to close air support to gain parity with tactics being used since World War II by the Navy and Marines.[14] The most important lesson taught by this book is to reveal a man of great personal appeal and luck, which rose to command at the right moment and made a difference in the way the war, was conducted in Europe. His efforts paid off and many allied lives were spared, by helping to destroy the war fighting ability of the German ground forces.

The United States Army on the eve of World War II expanded from a force of 174,000 in July 1939 to 770,000 by the summer of 1941. The ground forces consisted of four armies, with nine corps made up of 29 divisions. The cadre for this force was drawn from the existing regular army units and the federalized National Guard. Army doctrine and tactics were outlined in FM 100-5, Field Service Regulations, and Operations, implemented in 1941. Michael D. Doubler in his book Closing with the Enemy gives an insiders concise history of the battle tactics developed and implemented by the U.S. Army in Europe in 1944-45. At first look Doubler's work seems to be a primer, much like Infantry in Battle published in 1934, was for training officers unfamiliar with World War I tactics. An insight into his true motives can be found in the introduction when he writes. "The notion that the American army achieved victory in World War II only because of its employment of overwhelming numbers against an exhausted Wermarcht is untrue. Senior American commanders were adept at maneuver and concentrated firepower, but inadequate numbers of combat formations, manpower and logistics shortages hampered operations."[15] Unlike some authors have underrated the leadership and fighting qualities of American forces, Doubler documents countless examples of innovation and ingenuity in overcoming German forces. This theme remains throughout the chapters as the army battles its way across Europe and into the heart of Germany. Doubler returns to the theme of innovation and superior tactics in his final chapter when he in the true fashion of an infantryman himself concludes. "All of these improvisations and adaptations permitted Americans to gain a competitive edge over the Germans without the benefit of overwhelming material superiority."[16] The only problem with this statement is it ignores the fact that American forces had an overwhelming source of supplies ranging from ammunition to weapons and transport. At times there were shortages, but the fact that the same leadership and organization skills that overcame the Germans tactically were at work in the logistics chain. Another aspect of tactics given little comment is the concept of "marching fire" as introduced by General George Patton in the Third Army. A revealing quote that. Marching fire "paid off 100% in diminishing casualties."[17] This comment and the results in moral and actual success were given little coverage. When Doubler concludes that transport was used for moving supplies and not for gaining tactical advantage to out maneuver the enemy, he completely ignores the modus operandi of Patton and the Third Army. He reserves his main thrust to cover the tactics of the First Army and except for Metz, and the relief of Bastonge, leaves Patton's Third Army in a marginal role of importance in the area of tactical innovations. Michael Doubler's final sentence about the greatest lesson the army learned in World War II was that the learning process itself is an integral part of any conflict. This is something that has been known and quoted in every war, that every good war plan is almost useless as soon as the war starts. Innovation and audacity wins wars, not rigid and unimaginative leadership.

Courtney Hodges and the First Army come under the glaring spotlight of twenty-twenty hindsight in Edward G. Miller's A Dark and Bloody Ground, a narrative study of the battle of the Hurtgen Forest. The author uses government documents, interviews with both American and German participants and visits to the battlefield to craft a chilling vision of planning gone wrong and the inability to seek the kind of innovation that Michael Doubler claims was the highlight of American tactics. The overriding battle plan used tactics that had been used in Normandy and Brittany of driving the enemy back and capturing roads and towns in an effort to breach the Westwall. The failure was that within the dark forest, no amount of innovation could overcome the labyrinth of hell it became. In all, ten divisions were used in a grinding effort that took three months and cost thousands of casualties. In the final month the mission changed to assault the Roer River Dams. The final analysis asks the question if it would have been dangerous to bypass the forest. The answer presented by Miller is that after securing the VII Corps flank and testing the ability of Germans to launch attacks from the forest, the army should have secured the approaches to the forest and moved on to the dams.[18]

Edward Miller's book differs from Michael Doublers in its method of presentation of both sides of a battle. He packs an incredible amount of detail in 200 pages in a high quality battle history. Miller points out that several factors influenced the Germans ability to withstand the attacks so effectively. First the, terrain and weather was against the Americans. Second the Germans were well led and fighting on the defense where their knowledge of the land gave them added advantage. Overwhelming firepower from the Americans was ineffective due to the thick forest and attacking troops were vulnerable to tree bursts that fortified German forces were somewhat immune. In an echo of Closing with the Enemy, Miller quotes FM 100-5 battle doctrine which states "no one arm wins battles." This was true in the forest when combat often was nothing more that the gathering of a few riflemen and tanks then hoping for the best.[19] The final toll for the US Army was over 33,000 casualties. The battle for the town of Schmidt alone cost 6184 casualties compared to 4000 losses by two divisions at Omaha Beach. The usefulness of such a book compared to a book on tactics is vastly superior. Tactics will change and be modified to suit the objective. A through battle history will serve as a lesson plan for what went wrong and give insight as to how to meet that challenge in the future. It has been noted that General George Patton was a great student of reading battle histories and even at the age of seventeen wrote of his fascination for Epaminodas, the Theban general who invented the massed oblique attack.[20] The lessons taught in Edward Miller's work serve as an example of how commanders must always be far thinking and never underestimate the enemy.

The final book in this series John Ellis's Brute Force is a statistical study married with perfect hindsight to argue two themes. His first theme is that the overwhelming material strength of the Allies, the United States in particular, guaranteed the success of the Allies in defeating the Axis. He second theme throughout the book is disdain for the top British and American general's leadership skills. Ellis is not a trained historian and to his credit has written several books about the ordinary soldier's view of combat. The book covers the breadth of World War II and offers criticism for every phase from the Battle of the Atlantic and the bomber offensive, to North Africa and on to Europe, finally the last two chapters are devoted to the Pacific Theatre. The role of the United States in this book is first and foremost to be statistically proven to be the factory that produced most of the war material during the last three years of the war. Without getting into the skill of leadership and management of this endeavor, Ellis lets the reader believe that the country that gave the world the auto assembly line and washing machines, began turning out tanks, planes, ships, guns and ammunition overnight, without a bump in production.

The appendixes are extensive, and graphically illustrate the material shortcomings of the Axis nations. This material imbalance in a strange way portrays Germany and Japan to be the underdogs in their ability to conduct a successful war. Ellis then turns to the allied military leadership to the balance the worksheet, by claiming that every command strategy advanced by the Allies was wasteful, short sighted and unimaginative. Ellis being British, aims most of his wrath at Field Marshall Montgomery and Air Marshall Harris. When discussing senior American officers, he is lessons his criticism to statements about maladroit deployment of forces that caused campaigns to drag on to long.[21] The two themes are joined into the title Brute Force, where the allied commanders are unable to outfight the enemy and resort to beating him to death with a blunt instrument in the form of overwhelming weaponry.

The question of overwhelming superiority material is of no controversy. No one can argue with the statistical facts. Where Mr. Ellis seems to be on weaker ground is in his argument that American commanders were as incompetent as he portrays them. As an example he writes about the success of tactical air power without mentioning the generals such as Pete Quesada, who implemented the tactics. He goes on to launch his strongest at General George Patton whom he calls "one of the best traffic policemen in the history of warfare." Ellis relies on General Omar Bradley's autobiography as his evidence that Patton was merely chasing retreating Germans across France.[22] In the spirit of being the advocate of the common soldier Ellis should look at the accomplishment of those men in the Third Army. The loss of 27,104 dead and 130,000 wounded and missing, to capture 81,522 square miles of territory and 12,000 cities and towns and almost a million POWs makes John Ellis's claim that Patton was "following" Germans, sound foolish.[23] John Ellis had harsh words for the waste of manpower, because allied forces did not show enough foresight and audacity in the pursuit of the German Army. He conveniently overlooks the obvious in proving his point about overwhelming material strength.

John Ellis turns to the war in the Pacific, and makes his best argument for the misuse of overwhelming superiority. His reflections of Admiral Ernest King being a member of the naval aristocracy that demanded that the navy control the strategy in beating Japan is revealing when one looks back over time. This strategy resulted in a two pronged attack that in hindsight added to the casualties and may have lengthened the war. Had the southern approach been the main thrust and the naval power used to control and blockade the island outposts and cut off shipping to Japan, the Japanese war machine already materially deprived would have withered for lack of fuel and food.[24]

In Conclusion, the final butcher's bill for mistakes made, makes each one of these books along with the thousands of others written about the war, valuable in gaining insight on what happened over a half century ago. No one book has all the answers, however in a strange way these were all connected. One can see the reason the Marines trained their men in a samurai fashion, in order to instill a sense of family and shared values. And how the naval aristocracy, created a blue water navy able to control the seas. Air power and tactical air came into being and changed the face of modern war. And finally the original fighting man the grunt, relied on tactics learned though innovation and trial. Today, as war has moved into an age of stateless men against nation states, forces must adopt new tactics and invent new strategies to ensure a rule set that allows humanity to survive and prosper.

Copyright © 2008 Tom Wade

About the Author

Tom Wade is a Vietnam veteran with 30-year career in global logistics. He recently reinvented hisself by obtaining a Masters degree in history. His current goal is to spend the rest of his life connecting echo boomers to a future worth creating, by understanding the past. He resides in California, is a member Small Wars Council, and contributor to various blogs.

  • Bibliography


    [1]. Peter Karsten, The Naval Aristocracy: The Golden Age of Annapolis and the Emergence of Modern American Navalism (New York: The Free Press, 1972) 140.

    [2]. Ibid., 250.

    [3]. Ibid., 316.

    [4]. Ibid., 391

    [5]. Steven Howarth, To Shining Sea: A History of the United States Navy, 1775-1991 (New York: Random House, 1991), 357.

    [6]. Craig Cameron, American Samurai: Myth, Imagination and The Conduct of Battle in the First Marine Division, 1941-1951 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 73.

    [7]. Rick Atkinson, Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2002), 4.

    [8]. Ibid., 462.

    [9]. Cameron, American Samurai, 194.

    [10]. Cameron, 241.

    [11]. Michael Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 280.

    [12]. Ibid., 300.

    [13]. Ibid., 243.

    [14]. Thomas A. Hughes, Overlord: General Pete Quesada and the Triumph of Tactical Air Power in World War II (New York: The Free Press, 1995), 314.

    [15]. Michael D. Doubler, Closing with the Enemy: How GIs Fought The War in Europe, 1944-1945 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994), 3.

    [16]. Ibid., 272.

    [17]. Ibid., 251.

    [18]. Edward G. Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Hurtgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1995), 209.

    [19]. Ibid., 19.

    [20]. Victor Davis Hanson, The Soul of Battle: from Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny (New York: Random House, 1999), 283.

    [21]. John Ellis, Brute Force: Allied Strategy and Tactics in the Second World War (New York: Viking Press, 1990), 157.

    [22]. Ibid., 386-387.

    [23]. Hanson, Soul of Battle, 303.

    [24]. Ellis, Brute Force, 515.