When World War II began in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt realized the Nazis posed a world-wide threat and worked to increase the size of the U.S. Army and to train more vigorously. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, in particular, wanted to develop ways to defeat Germany’s blitzkrieg tactics. Seeking the roughest terrain possible for training, he chose the Louisiana-Texas border to be the site of large-scale military maneuvers, with Camp Beauregard in Pineville serving as the maneuver’s headquarters.
In May 1940, approximately seventy thousand soldiers descended on Louisiana and divided into “Blue” and “Red” armies to wage mock battles across Rapides, Natchitoches, Sabine, and Vernon Parishes. The purpose of the maneuvers was to learn how to move large military units in combat conditions and to develop ways to coordinate infantry, tanks, and airplanes in battle.
Although deadly serious, the maneuvers took on a comical appearance because of a lack of equipment. The army did not have enough tanks or machine guns, so trucks were labeled “tanks” in white letters, and sticks were used as machine guns.
The 1940 maneuvers were so successful that the War Department conducted a larger operation in August with ninety thousand soldiers. The maneuvers continued even after an unexpected hurricane ripped through the state and turned the land into a quagmire. The War Department was so pleased with the lessons learned that it turned west-central Louisiana into a permanent training ground.
As the war in Europe worsened, the National Guard was called into federal service, and new Louisiana maneuvers were planned to integrate the Guard units into the U.S. Army. Once again, Louisianans heard the rumble of tanks and the roar of attacking airplanes. On August 17, there was even a clash of horse-mounted cavalrymen along the Calcasieu River.
At the end of these maneuvers, the War Department announced that three new army bases would be constructed in Louisiana: Camp Livingston, near Tioga; Camp Claiborne, near Forest Hill; and Camp Polk, near Leesville. Camp Beauregard was designated the headquarters for the entire region, and Kisatchie National Forest was used as the camps’ bombing and artillery range. Thousands of workers were hired to build the camps, which helped end the Depression in Louisiana.
The 1940 maneuvers were just a prelude to the largest peacetime maneuvers in American history. In the summer and fall of 1941, approximately half a million soldiers were sent to Louisiana to wage several mock campaigns. Such future World War II generals as Dwight D. Eisenhower, George S. Patton, Mark Clark, Walter Kreuger, and Omar Bradley participated in the training. In ordering the maneuvers, General Marshall declared, “I want the mistakes made down in Louisiana, not over in Europe.”
Life for people residing in the maneuver area was turned upside down. Patton’s tanks rolled into Winnfield, the Cane River bridge in Natchitoches was bombed with sacks of flour, pontoon bridges were thrown across Red River, and three hundred to four hundred military vehicles passed through Alexandria each day.
For the most part, Louisianians and soldiers got along well; however, local residents often laughed at the northern boys who had never encountered snakes, ticks, or redbugs. One family was shocked to find some of the city-raised soldiers did not even know that milk came from cows.
There are many stories told about General Patton during the Louisiana maneuvers, such as the time his troop column became stuck in a traffic jam in a small town. Famous for his temper, Patton was yelling and cursing at the men trying to get the vehicles moving again when a priest emerged from a nearby church where Mass was being conducted.
When the priest told the general that his foul language was interrupting the church service, Patton respectively saluted him and immediately left the area. Another story claims the wealthy Patton used his own money to buy all of the gasoline from service stations south of Many so his opponent would run out of fuel.
The Louisiana Maneuvers permanently affected how the U.S. Army fights. After encountering numerous problems trying to coordinate tanks with infantry, the army decided changes had to be made. Patton and several other generals met in the basement of the Alexandria High School and drew up plans to create a new army unit organized around armored vehicles. Fort Knox, Kentucky, was made the training base for these mechanized units that are still used today.
The maneuvers also gave birth to army airborne units after small groups of paratroopers were used to support offensive operations. After the maneuvers, the 82nd Airborne Division—America’s first airborne division—was created at Camp Claiborne in 1942 under the command of General Omar Bradley.
Dr. Terry L. Jones is professor emeritus of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe who has received numerous awards for his books and outdoor articles.