General George C. Marshall became Army Chief of Staff in September 1939. He took command of a neglected army, 17th in the world in terms of size. He quickly took note of world events and communicated his concern immediately to United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Roosevelt had a strategic dilemma. He did not want but had to prepare for a war on two fronts, Germany in Europe and the Japanese in the Pacific. He wanted to eradicate Nazism, but didn’t want to fight two wars at once that had essentially different causes and demands. He turned to Marshall to implement what he expected to be a war against Nazi Germany. In the event of war with Japan, the United States Navy would have to hold until the Army defeated Germany.
Marshall immediately recognized that massive reorganization was in order. The United States Army had no tank corps; it was eliminated after World War I. The few tanks America had were outdated light tanks that could not compare with German tanks then employed in Blitzkrieg tactics in Poland.
The Louisiana Maneuvers of September 1941 showed the prowess of several American officers and led Marshall to notice Dwight D. Eisenhower. General George S. Patton moved his men 380 miles around his enemies’ rear at night. He would later employ similar tactics against the Germans.
When Marshall took office, the United States had 174,000 regular officers and men and 200,000 in the National Guard; by the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, 1,686,000 men in thirty-six active divisions were available. Most lacked both training and equipment.
But that was not enough. The two-front war would require 200, perhaps as many as 330 divisions. As the war progressed and landings were made all over the Pacific and in North Africa and Italy, the American High Command began to rethink their strategy. Eighty-nine divisions were active as of August 1943, far less than the combined manpower of Germany and Japan.
But the American equipment was proving superior. Artillery was an American specialty, and the heavy batteries of 105mm and 155mm were better than any other army. The American Sherman tank, the mainstay of both American and British armored divisions by late 1943, was not as heavily armored or as powerfully gunned as their German counterparts, but they were more reliable and easier to maintain. The United States Army Air Forces, soon after the war to be the United States Air Force, joined with the Royal Air Force to hold almost total air superiority over the battlefield.
In subsequent after-action reports, an American invention, the GIs were found to fire their rifles far less that believed, fought for their buddies in their unit rather than for ideology or popular war aims, and were happy to go home when relived. Units were not withdrawn after combat, but stocked with replacements and sent back to the front. Units like the 1st Infantry Division, 82nd Airborne Division, and 2nd Armored Division, in constant battle for years, suffered 200% casualties.
By the end of 1944, on every battlefield except the China-Burma-India Theatre of Operations, American forces advanced confidently. Difficult terrain, long supply lines, and too few troops marked the CBI Theatre; even so, small units like Merrill’s Marauders made tangible gains.
By 1945, the United States Army had 8,300,000 men and women out of 139,900,000 Americans in uniform. When the Germans surrendered, the Army planned to transfer European Units to Japan for the final invasion. Over 1,000,000 casualties were expected (although that source has never been identified.) The use of the Atomic Bomb made an invasion unnecessary. Over the course of World War II, 318,274 United States Army personnel were killed and 565,861 were wounded on the ground and in the air.
The miracle that Marshall created — a professional army out of civilians — is often overlooked in the massive quantities of war machines produced by the United States. In the absence of a long, continuous military tradition, the United States Army created a flexible, creative officer corps in command of motivated and well-equipped enlisted men that were the equal of the militaristic programs of education of both Germany and Japan.