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Nonfiction Excerpt: The Generals by Thomas E. Ricks

Captain William DePuy and the 90th Division in Normandy, Summer 1944 

Captain William DePuy of the 90th Division saw it all in northwestern France in the summer of 1944.

On June 13, 1944, a few days after the 90th Infantry Division went into action against the Germans in Normandy, Lt. Gen. J. Lawton Collins, to whom the division reported, went on foot to check on his men. “We could locate no regimental or battalion headquarters,” he recalled with dismay. “No shelling was going on, nor any fighting that we could observe.” This was an ominous sign, as the Battle of Normandy was far from decided, and the Wehrmacht was still trying to push the Americans, British, and Canadians, who had landed a week earlier, back into the sea.

The 90th’s assistant division commander, Brig. Gen. “Hanging Sam” Williams, also was looking for the leader of his green division. He found the division commander, Brig. Gen. Jay MacKelvie, sheltered from enemy fire, huddling in a drainage ditch along the base of a hedgerow. “Goddammit, General, you can’t lead this division hiding in that goddamn hole,” Williams shouted. “Go back to the CP. Get the hell out of that hole and go to your vehicle. Walk to it, or you’ll have this goddamn division wading in the English Channel.” The message did not take. Within just a few days the division was bogged down and veering close to passivity. “Orders may have been issued to attack, but no attacks took place,” remembered DePuy. “Nothing really happened. Infantry leaders were totally exhausted and in a daze. There was a pervasive feeling of hopelessness.”

In June 1944, DePuy was fighting to stay alive—no small feat in the bloody, World War I–like combat of that summer. One infantry company in the 90th began the day with 142 men and finished it with 32. Its battalion commander walked around babbling, “I killed K Company, I killed K Company.” Later that summer in Normandy, one of the 90th’s battalions, with 265 soldiers, surrendered to a German patrol of fifty men and two tanks. In six weeks of small advances, the division would use up all its infantrymen, requesting replacements totaling 100 percent. The average term of service for a 90th Division lieutenant leading a platoon in combat was two weeks. The 90th Division in Normandy, DePuy would remember bitterly, was “a killing machine—of our own troops.”

Gen. Collins relieved MacKelvie. In the relief order, Gen. Collins wrote that the division’s enemy opposition had been “relatively light,” probably less than a regimental combat team—a blistering aside. Collins instructed the 90th’s new commander, Maj. Gen. Eugene Landrum, to fire the commanders of two of the division’s three regiments. DePuy considered one of those two, West Point graduate Col. P. D. Ginder, “a horse’s ass of the worst order. Goddamned fool . . . he was a disaster.” DePuy was hardly alone in his estimate of Ginder: Another officer, Lt. Max Kocour, a mortar forward observer, remembered that the regimental commander “almost constantly made the wrong decisions.” Indeed, even after being relieved, the excitable Ginder continued to issue orders, at one point sending troops forward into an artillery target area without seeking permission or coordinating the movement, an action for which he was placed under arrest and sent back to division headquarters under armed escort. Ginder had been in command of the regiment for less than a month. His successor, Col. John Sheehy, was killed in an ambush after two days in command.

Col. George Barth took command of Ginder’s regiment after Sheehy’s death. One day he saw a long column of perhaps eight hundred men and asked DePuy which battalion they were. That was no battalion, DePuy replied—it was the day’s incoming replacements for the division’s casualties. Barth later confessed that, before taking over the regiment, he “had never before experienced ‘zero morale.’”

MacKelvie’s successor, Landrum, was given a few weeks to prove he was an able commander, but by midsummer he also was judged to be wanting. Gen. Omar Bradley, the senior American general in France at the time, decided to replace Landrum with Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the son of the former president, whom he had sacked a year earlier as assistant commander of the 1st Infantry Division under Maj. Gen. Terry Allen. But the night before he was given the job, Roosevelt died of a heart attack. Landrum was eventually removed as the commander of the 90th, though before he left, he fired the assistant division commander he had inherited, Brig. Gen. Sam Williams, with whom he had clashed. “I feel that a general officer of a more optimistic and calming attitude would be more beneficial to this division at this time,” Landrum wrote. Bradley concurred and topped off the dismissal by demoting Williams to colonel.

The swift reliefs of World War II were not an instrument of precision, and, while often effective in leading to more capable commanders, they were sometimes clearly the wrong move. Other officers watched and assessed the fairness of such firings. In the case of the 90th Division, the consensus was that the removal of MacKelvie was fully justified but that Ginder and Landrum probably deserved better, and that Williams certainly did. This peer judgment resulted in Ginder, Landrum, and Williams being given second chances. Ginder was assigned to the 2nd Division later that year as a spare commander and redeemed himself with a strong battlefield performance on Elsenborn Ridge, key terrain during the Battle of the Bulge. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his acts during the grinding Battle of Hürtgen Forest and was given command of the 2nd Division’s 9th Infantry Regiment. During the Korean War, he would rise to command the 45th Infantry Division and make news by giving a battlefield tour in his helicopter to the pop singer Eddie Fisher, who had been drafted but was continuing to pump out hits. Even a commander escorted from the battlefield under arrest could recover. In 1963, Ginder retired as a major general.

Landrum was sent back to the United States and put in command of a division in training, but Dwight Eisenhower, the top American commander in Europe, declined to let him bring the division overseas. In 1950, Landrum served in Korea as a colonel, acting as chief of staff to Lt. Gen. Walton Walker, commander of the Eighth Army, during the difficult first year of that war. He was allowed to retire the following year as a major general.

It was the removal of Hanging Sam Williams—the nickname came from his eagerness to impose capital punishment during a peacetime Army court-martial—that especially caught the attention of members of the division, and the Army at large. “They got the wrong man,” DePuy would argue, with feeling, decades later. He had seen Williams out and about, pushing officers and encouraging troops, while Landrum was usually found back at his headquarters. “Hanging Sam Williams was the assistant division commander and he was with us all the time. He was very helpful and a very brave and powerful man.”

Williams abided, living with his demotion for seven years. He was promoted back to brigadier general in 1951 and a year later won command of the 25th Infantry Division in Korea. Ironically, but in keeping with his Old Army ways, Williams acquired a reputation in the Korean War for ruthlessly relieving officers he perceived to be incompetent. When he asked a briefer how certain troops would get to “Red Beach” in an amphibious landing, the officer said they would be transported by the Navy but conceded that the plan had not been coordinated with that service. “You are fired,” Williams responded. Williams’s blunt manner would catch up with him later, in Vietnam. In 1955, not long after the French disaster at Dien Bien Phu, he was made the top American military adviser in Vietnam, where he routinely engaged in shouting matches with the U. S. ambassador. (In an interesting coincidence, Creighton Abrams, the future American commander in Vietnam and Army chief of staff, would be assigned in the 1950s to work first for Williams and then for Ginder. He liked Williams but detested Ginder, who continued to display a remarkable mix of pomposity and incompetence.) Williams eventually retired as a three-star lieutenant general.

Later in the summer of ’44, Bradley sent Brig. Gen. Raymond McLain, whom he had brought from Italy to England to have on tap as a replacement when someone was fired, to take over the 90th Division. “We’re going to make that division go if we’ve got to can every senior officer in it,” Bradley vowed. McLain kept him to his word, two days later giving him a list of sixteen field-grade officers he wanted out of the division. It would not be surprising if DePuy, despite his youth, had helped compile that list, given his growing influence in the turbulent division’s operations. DePuy believed that the division had been remiss in not removing several officers before going into combat.

DePuy’s own World War II experience illustrates how the swift relief of some officers cleared the way for others with more competence. He began the war as a “green lieutenant” from the ROTC program at South Dakota State College. He finished it having commanded a battalion at age twenty-five and then been operations officer for a division. During the war he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and three Silver Stars.

The 90th Division also improved radically, going from a problem division that First Army staff wanted to break up and use to send replacements to other units to being considered, as Bradley wrote later, “one of the most outstanding in the European Theater.” Retired Army Col. Henry Gole, in his analysis of the 90th Division and DePuy’s command style, directly credits the policy of fast relief:

Because incompetent commanders were fired and replaced by quality men at division and regiment, and because the junior officers of 1944 good at war, including DePuy, rose to command battalions in a Darwinian process, the division became an effective fighting force. DePuy was 25 years old. His regimental commander was 27. The other two battalion commanders were 28 and 26.

 

DePuy would be haunted for decades by the bloody, grinding fighting of the summer of 1944 and by the incompetent leadership he witnessed in Normandy. “The brutality and stupidity of those days have affected me all the rest of my professional life,” he said. His experience shaped DePuy’s approach to fighting in Vietnam, where he would command the 1st Infantry Division twenty-two years later. He then would go on to play a central role in shaping the post-Vietnam Army that fought in Kuwait in 1991. “DePuy is one of the very small handful of very great soldiers that this country had produced in this [20th] century,” said another general, Donn Starry. “The Army owes him a great debt, an enormous debt. He set it on the path for the 21st century.”

Three aspects of the experience of the 90th Division stand out, even seven decades later. First, that generalship in combat is extraordinarily difficult, and many seasoned officers fail at it. Second, that personalities matter—the 90th floundered under its first two commanders in the summer of 1944 but thrived under McLain’s leadership. Third, and most significant for understanding American history, that American generals were managed very differently in World War II than they were in subsequent wars. During World War II, senior American commanders generally were given a few months in which to succeed, be killed or wounded, or be replaced. Sixteen Army division commanders were relieved for cause, out of a total of 155 officers who commanded Army divisions in combat during the war. At least five corps commanders also were removed for cause. Corps and division command, wrote Secretary of War Henry Stimson, “was the critical level of professional competence” during the war.

 

Excerpted from The Generals: American Military Command From World War II to Today.


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