The Louisiana Maneuvers: Propelling the United States Towards Victory, but at What Cost?

Caveat up front- This is not a particularly good paper. Due to limitations which were part of the prompt, I was not able to utilize as many sources as I would have liked, and therefore many of the assertions I make are not supported with citations, (we were limited to JSTOR only). I can assure you, the reader, that everything I’ve said is at least factually accurate, (specifically in reference to contemporary problems in the Ft. Polk area), whether you agree with my arguments or not is obviously up to you.

If you can forgive that, it’s my belief that at the very least this paper will bring to light some aspects of the Louisiana Maneuvers which you might not have considered before.

 

The Louisiana Maneuvers: Propelling the United States Towards Victory, but at What Cost?

 

With Axis aggression appearing on daily headlines and faced with the global warfare which would eventually follow, in 1940 and 1941 the United States Army decided that it was high time to evaluate the readiness status of its soldiers. Consisting of nearly 470,000 troops split into two fictitious forces, the Army descended on northern and central Louisiana in order to engage in pitched mock-battle. Costing millions of dollars and taking nearly 16 months to complete, these exercises which eventually became known simply as “The Louisiana Maneuvers” would not only meet the goal of helping prepare the Army for the upcoming conflict but would ultimately impact the way we trained for every future war, disproportionately impacting the trajectory of the United States in the Post-War Era, but with the side effect of both positively and negatively changing the lives of the local populations forever.

Given the rising threat overseas, Generals Walter Krueger and Ben Lear took charge of the Second and Third Army, consisting of 123,00 and 219,000 men respectively.[1] The location for the maneuvers, (namely central Louisiana around the Sabine river), was chosen specifically for the variety of terrain which it hosted. Swamps, farmland, patches of near-arid desert, rivers, creeks, farming communities and both flat and hilly terrain could all be found within the region. “The outcome of the maneuvers was not prearranged. Though the army’s general headquarters gave Lear and Krueger a wide strategic directive, the tactics and results were up to their own initiative and daring, plus the ability and resourcefulness of their men”[2]. The maneuvers were the first of their kind in both scope and scale, and considering the nearly half a million soldiers involved, will likely never be replicated in modern times.

The primary focus for the exercises was a geographical position within Vernon Parish, Louisiana known as Peason Ridge. Used today as an artillery and live fire range, the hilly but relatively clear terrain of Peason Ridge would provide the fictitious armies a clear line of approach and defensible position for hosting and repelling counter-attacks. Other objectives were also named, pushing towards New Orleans being one. The exercise was also a way for the United States Army to practice tactics which had previously only been theory. In several cases, United States Army officers like George S. Patton and others utilized the Louisiana Maneuvers to put the German tactic of “blitzkrieg” or “lighting war” into action, testing their ability to charge forward with the constantly refined tanks and other mechanized elements, elements which would prove themselves as being highly effective during all following conflicts from World War 2 up through the Invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The maneuvers not only replicated the combat focuses of warfare, but the logistical considerations as well. Train tracks were laid to provide supply routes, blown up by opposing faction’s engineers, and promptly rebuilt, air power was used liberally, conducting both bombing and supply runs, and both government and individual dollars were spent gratuitously on the local inhabitants for supplies and services, equaling an estimated overall cost of $25 million. In addition to the massive expenditures testing logistical processes, the maneuvers were also used for research and development, with wartime staples like the notorious “C-ration” being perfected and finalized during the exercises.

Experimentation and development during the Louisiana Maneuvers was key to future successes. Military airplanes could be seen overhead on a daily basis. Conducting mock bombing runs and dogfights, early pilots who had limited or no combat experience were able to not only hone their own skills, but also helped set in stone successful tactics which would later be used to teach United States Army Air Corps pilots, including the famous Tuskegee Airmen. The most revolutionary of the experiments performed during the Louisiana Maneuvers was the appearance of airborne troops. These soldiers belonging to the 501st Parachute Infantry Battalion, utilizing air-infiltration and parachutes, established camps within Louisiana and jumped into objectives in support of both the Red and Blue armies, creating new doctrine quite literally “on the fly” which is still in use today, in many cases completely unchanged.

Overall, the maneuvers were considered a success, but they did not escape criticism. “…whatever benefits in unit training that the Army gained from the maneuvers were erased in the course of a sevenfold wartime expansion of forces that involved the dismemberment of most maneuvers-trained units.”[3] However, despite these critiques, the maneuvers achieved their primary task, which was to give military commanders practical experience in maneuvering large formations of soldiers. The logistical demands placed on these massive units was perhaps a more intense process than the combat itself, a statement which has been proven through the history of warfare since nearly the beginning of written records, and the real time practice in managing those logistical issues was invaluable. Many notable commanders were present during the maneuvers, including George Marshall, (of Marshall Plan fame), George Patton, Omar Bradley and future United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The experience these men would gain in leading their forces in Louisiana would directly transfer to the battlefields of Europe  and the Pacific where they would go on to fight one of the most noteworthy conflicts of our time.

However, viewing the Louisiana Maneuvers solely through the lens of their effect on World War 2 is abhorrently shortsighted. The more interesting and long-lasting effect of the Maneuvers could be viewed as even more impactful. What the Louisiana Maneuvers truly accomplished was to set the standard for all United States pre-war mobilization training, a standard which has been maintained and built off of ever since. The Louisiana Maneuvers led to the construction of Camp Polk, near Leesville, Louisiana, which would eventually become Fort Polk. Fort Polk known today as the Joint Readiness Training Center and is one of the United State’s key facilities for training military units before they are shipped off to conflicts all across the world.

While it would be fair and accurate to say that the United States has not had a completely unblemished record of overall victories throughout its conflicts, (see the Vietnam War as a key example), militarily and tactically speaking the United States military itself remains nearly without loss, at least when the individual battles are examined. This success is hinged not on some intangible spirit of freedom or nobility that United States soldiers bring to the table, (although that would certainly help), nor is it entirely dependent on the billions of dollars spent on equipment each year, (though yet again, that often helps). Rather, the success of the American soldier hinges near-solely on his and her training, training of a sort and scale which simply is not the norm in many of the locations where the United States wages war.

The precedent which the maneuvers set certainly established a standard which aided the United States towards victory in World War 2, and while arguments could be made as to the merits and demerits of the world Post-War, (the often arbitrary and hasty redrawing of borders being one point), the establishment of the United States and its allies as world powers has certainly brought about overwhelming positive influence in addition to the negative, perhaps most obviously being a preferable system to that of our opposition during said war.

In modern times, the training areas near the Kisatchie National Forest and “Camp Polk”, now known as Fort Polk, (centers of activity during the Louisiana Maneuvers), now exist as full time, year-round tests of United States military might. Building off of the history of training in the region, and using lessons learned from the 1940-41 Maneuvers, the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk and similar training centers all across the world provide immediate feedback to military commanders. This feedback, obtained through simulated wartime environments just like those first found during the Louisiana Maneuvers, allow the United States military to constantly adapt and evolve to new-found and ever-changing threats.[4]

The Louisiana Maneuvers, while concretely establishing a precedence of tactical superiority amongst the United States military, also had both acute and chronic effects on the local population. During the maneuvers themselves, the small and rural communities of central Louisiana and eastern Texas were still in the throes of recovering from the Great Depression, (presumably more so than the rest of the nation, considering the lack of local employment prospects outside of agriculture). For many local citizens, the short-term influx of soldiers became very profitable. Between supplying the private soldiers with goods and services, as well as larger scale government contracts which became available through the $22 million construction of Camp Polk, this influx of wealth was a sharp contrast to the prior years of poverty, and in many cases helped to establish businesses which otherwise would not have been created.[5]

In addition to the immediate financial stimulus which the Louisiana Maneuvers provided came longer term benefits. With the building of Camp Polk and the establishment of a permanent military presence there came an influx of equally permanent support positions which had to be filled by the local population. Additionally, during the maneuvers themselves key infrastructure was built through federal funds which the area had previously had no access to, nor any prospect of receiving by other means. One prime example of this infrastructure was railroad track which, laid by the Army to transport troops during the maneuvers and used afterwards for transportation of German prisoners of war, would eventually be used to great advantage by locals and railroad companies for the transportation of goods and people during peace time.[6]

With the Maneuvers, the local environment was forever impacted both positively and negatively. The purchase of vast swathes of land for the maneuvers ultimately resulted in what is now known as the Kisatchie National Forest, a large multi-use area for commercial logging, (prevalent even before the federal oversight), recreational use, and military training. This federal oversight is often regarded as both a blessing and a curse. Many locals, due to the purchase of the land, were forced off of their homesteads and farms, having to relocate to other areas. Due to this relocation, many rural family cemetery’s and properties were lost forever, in some cases remaining on Forest Service maps, but often becoming completely consumed by the surrounding environment.[7]

Local wildlife was also affected. One of the primary local mysteries today are the roaming herds of wild horses which inhabit Vernon Parish, (home to Fort Polk). These herds did not exist prior to the Maneuvers, and they are often attributed to the cavalry forces which were present during the time. These cavalry elements consisted of both tanks, (emerging technology at the time), as well as traditional horse-mounted cavalry which was seeing its twilight, and escaped horses from these units are said to have sired the many generations of wild horses which are currently a source of both scorn and sympathy from both soldiers and local natives. Another mixed bag of positives and negatives come from the red-cockaded woodpecker population. Previously a populous species in the region, these woodpeckers are now nearing extinction, or at the very least scarcity, and the ever-expanding military training area prompted by the Maneuvers of 1940 and 1941 prompted United States Forest Service officials to designate protected zones within the Kisatchie National Forest where the woodpeckers reside.[8]

The protection to the species provided by the United States Forest Service presents an interesting point when considering the pros and cons of the consistent training presence of the United States Army, prompted initially by the Louisiana Maneuvers. While the preservation of the species might very well be at threat solely due to the military presence, its protection by the federal government might not have occurred in the first place if said presence had not existed, providing an interesting catch-22. This conflicted approach can easily be applied to all other aspects of the perpetual military presence and is not easily answered. In all walks of life, from wildlife to family property, to financial security of local people, the government presence inspired by the Maneuvers has been both a blessing and a curse. Federal oversight has both benefitted and disadvantaged local issues on multiple levels.

The recurring theme is that the Maneuvers caused both gain and loss for the local population. More acutely speaking, while soldiers present during the maneuvers generally behaved well and were directed not to interfere with cultivated farmlands or other areas that might be disturbed, this was not uniformly true and local property was certainly damaged by the very nature of the war games.[9] The current existence of the military training post causes similar concerns to some locals. While government money certainly flows into the area, and local businesses thrive and exist solely due to the presence of soldiers, the large population of the garrison often puts stress on the small town outside the gates, and as with all large populations crime levels increased as a result.

This brings us to the question, what did the Louisiana Maneuvers provide for the United States? Did the successes and lessons born of the Maneuvers ultimately benefit the nation? Were the often-negative results endured by the local population outweighed by the results of the Maneuvers? In all cases, the answer seems to be yes, the Louisiana Maneuvers, while carrying with them their own distinct baggage, certainly were worth both the financial expenditure and sometimes questionable results.

The overall success and widespread experimentation and doctrine production that came from the Louisiana Maneuvers are nearly incomprehensible. The immediate outcome was providing fresh commanders and troops, who in many cases had never fired a shot in anger, with valuable experience that would be required in the upcoming conflict with Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, Fascist Italy, and their assorted allies. However, that short-term effect was just the beginning. The framework which the Maneuvers established and the training networks which would continue to be built upon would go on to aid the United States and its allies, (who have utilized similar doctrine from our own “book”), to have massive advantages in upcoming conflicts, conflicts which pepper the history books and shaped the world forever. Leaving World War 2 aside, even the standstill that was achieved in the Korean War positively impacted the entire population of South Korea, (see the “Miracle on the Han River”). Victories in the invasion of Grenada deposed a military dictatorship, victories during various proxy wars during the Cold War helped to eventually cause the collapse of the oppressive USSR, freeing and improving the lives of millions of people all across the world. The deposition of Manuel Noriega, the defeat of Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War and the following safety which Kuwait found, all of these conflicts can be directly or indirectly tied to superior United States military training which can itself be tied to the framework provided by the Louisiana Maneuvers.

You need not look across the globe to see benefits, either. While some locals certainly found displeasure from the military and federal presence, both then and now, small and previously faltering communities were resurrected, and the job and infrastructure creation which were prompted by the Maneuvers has persevered and increased over time. These communities in many cases exist and thrive not in spite of the echoes of the Maneuvers, but rather because of them. Local businesses in the Leesville and Vernon Parish region, among others, can often trace their beginnings to the influx of 470,000 soldiers into those small towns between the years of 1940 and 1941. Considering all factors, the Louisiana Maneuvers positively impacted not only the local communities, but the entire world.

Bibliography

Decamp, Jennifer, Sarah O. Meadows, Barry Costa, Kayla M. Williams, John Bornmann, and Mark Overton. An Assessment of the Ability of the U.S. Department of Defense and the Services to Measure and Track Language and Culture Training and Capabilities Among General Purpose Forces. RAND Corporation, 2012.

 

Gabel, Christopher R. “The 1941 Maneuvers What Did They Really Accomplish?” Army History, no. 14 (April 1990): 5-7. Accessed July 5, 2018. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26302543.

 

Gelpi, Paul D., Jr. “Piney Hills Stalag: The Internment of Axis Prisoners of War in Camp Ruston, Louisiana.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association50, no. 3 (2009): 341-50. Accessed July 6, 2018. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40646275.

 

History of the Great Louisiana Maneuvers. 1991. Accessed July 6, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mP_BeUPNTGI.

primary source interview quote by Annie Lesnack

McManus, Jane P. “Abandoned/Lost Cemeteries- Vernon Parish.” USGenWeb Archives – Census Wills Deeds Genealogy. Accessed July 06, 2018. http://files.usgwarchives.net/la/vernon/cemeteries/abandon.txt.

 

Murray, G. Patrick. “The Louisiana Maneuvers: Practice for War.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association13, no. 2 (1972): 117-38. Accessed July 5, 2018. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4231247.

 

Phillips, Laura C., and Brian S. Hall. “A Historical View of Red-Cockaded Woodpecker Habitat on Fort Polk, Louisiana.” Journal of Field Ornithology71, no. 4 (2000): 585-96. Accessed July 6, 2018. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4514527.

 

[1] Murray, G. Patrick. “The Louisiana Maneuvers: Practice for War.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 13, no. 2 (1972): 117-38. Accessed July 5, 2018. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4231247. 117.

[2] Murray, 117.

[3] Gabel, Christopher R. “The 1941 Maneuvers What Did They Really Accomplish?” Army History, no. 14 (April 1990): 5-7. Accessed July 5, 2018. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26302543. 5.

[4] Decamp, Jennifer, Sarah O. Meadows, Barry Costa, Kayla M. Williams, John Bornmann, and Mark Overton. An Assessment of the Ability of the U.S. Department of Defense and the Services to Measure and Track Language and Culture Training and Capabilities Among General Purpose Forces. RAND Corporation, 2012. 29.

[5] History of the Great Louisiana Maneuvers. 1991. Accessed July 6, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mP_BeUPNTGI.

primary source interview quote by Annie Lesnack

[6] Gelpi, Paul D., Jr. “Piney Hills Stalag: The Internment of Axis Prisoners of War in Camp Ruston, Louisiana.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 50, no. 3 (2009): 341-50. Accessed July 6, 2018. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40646275.  343.

[7]McManus, Jane P. “Abandoned/Lost Cemeteries- Vernon Parish.” USGenWeb Archives – Census Wills Deeds Genealogy. Accessed July 06, 2018. http://files.usgwarchives.net/la/vernon/cemeteries/abandon.txt.

[8] Phillips, Laura C., and Brian S. Hall. “A Historical View of Red-Cockaded Woodpecker Habitat on Fort Polk, Louisiana.” Journal of Field Ornithology 71, no. 4 (2000): 585-96. Accessed July 6, 2018. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4514527. 585.

[9] Murray, 122.

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