Mary K. Hamner
Piney Woods Journal Correspondent
She was just a little girl and she was scared! The old kerosene lamp didn’t make much light and that light flickered and caused eerie shadows across the walls of the room. Why was her Mother putting quilts over the windows? Was it to keep something or someone terrible from looking in? The child didn’t really understand when her mother explained that they were participating in a “blackout” for the Louisiana Military Maneuvers, so she obediently went along to bed.
The Great Louisiana Maneuvers was the largest military exercise of its kind ever held in the United States. Involving half a million men and 19 Army Divisions, taking place over 3400 square miles of Louisiana during August-September 1941, it was preparation for United States’ entry into World War II.
They came with a sound in the night, a rumbling like thunder that didn’t end–a roar like a long freight train that never passed on. Lt. General Walter Krueger’s Third Army of 333,000 men was moving north in the greatest field exercise the Army had ever staged.
A much smaller force opposed this ponderous BLUE Army, only 130,000 men commanded by Lt. General Ben Lear. General Lear’s Army, equipped with two streamlined triangular divisions; three square National Guard divisions; a Cavalary division, two armored divisions with 762 light and medium tanks, and about 300 supporting planes, was much more mobile.
The maneuver was planned to give the Army practice in moving large numbers of troops through difficult terrain. The question posed was: Can a small but highly mobile force, using tanks and superior arms, stand off a force almost three times its size? The answer turned out to be no.
It was a proving ground, a finishing school for famous commanders. Dwight D. Eisenhower was an ‘unknown’ 49-year-old lieutenant colonel when he came to Louisiana in 1941. General Alfred M. Gruenther, General George S. Patton, Jr. and others were alumni of the Louisiana War Games.
The Army had obtained lease privileges for 20 million acres of land secured from 94 thousand owners for these maneuvers. Landowners were sent questionnaires for permission or rejection of troop use of their land. Not a penny was charged for any of these leases.
Locals remember the convoys made up of trucks, tanks, troops, moving all night long.
Road conditions changed from hour to hour. “I was driving a paper route at the time,” one man said. “I topped a hill, fell into a road deep with ruts and broke a car spring. The roads were just demolished.”
“The post office was overwhelmed,” the Postmaster of the 1941 era recalled. “Soldiers mailed letters as they traveled through the town. They would hop off one truck to mail letters and later catch another in the convoy. Many times letters and money for stamps were just thrown up on the porch,” he said.
Another shared memories of the Army camps. “One day it was a desolate tract of woods. The next, forty acres would be full of soldiers and their military camps. I was a youngster back then and I loved to watch their crap games.” He said.
In the hot dry September soldiers bathed in local creeks. Some recall soldiers buying bootleg whiskey. Others remember soldiers that were brought home from church for Sunday dinner.
Photographers from Life Magazine and other major news publications accompanied troops. The Louisiana Military Maneuvers was monitored and recorded by Time, Newsweek, and Christian Science Monitor. A military coup was witnessed first hand by one local in his front yard. A group of RED Soldiers were hunkered down intently observing doodle bug holes. As they were trying to coax the sand-burrowing insects out into the open, BLUE army soldiers topped a nearby hill and captured the lot of them.
Soldiers in the military exercises bought out small towns. Candy, cigarettes, cigars, and soft drinks were in heavy demand. Small businesses flourished. General Omar Bradley, one of the generals who was there to run the Louisiana Maneuvers, explained how the people who lived in the land they occupied generally welcomed the soldiers with open arms.