1941 – The Year Eisenhower Became a General
Fourteen- to sixteen-hour days were the norm and home became a place only to eat and sleep.
The passage of nearly forty years since the death of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1969 has only enhanced his reputation both as a great wartime general and as the thirty-fourth president of the United States. I frequently get questions about Eisenhower, and this recurring interest in him is the basis for the first of a two-part article about a lesser-known period of Ike’s career.
When Lieutenant Colonel Dwight Eisenhower left the Philippines for reassignment to Fort Lewis, Washington in December 1939, he was overjoyed to return to troop duty for the first time since 1918 when he commanded the Camp Colt tank training center at Gettysburg. He wrote to his West Point classmate, Omar Bradley, expressing his exhilaration at being back with troops. “Ike Eisenhower, 15th Infantry, speaking,” he wrote. “I am having the time of my life. Like everyone else in the army, we’re up to our necks in work and problems, big and little. But this work is fun! . . . I could not conceive of a better job, except, of course, having one’s own regiment. I’m regimental executive, command the 1st Battalion, and run a training school four afternoons per week. I hope the students don’t know it, but I learn more than they do.”
Like virtually every other pre-war combat unit, his battalion was at about half-strength and consisted of a mix of experienced Regular Army men and raw untrained volunteer recruits. Eisenhower’s arrival was like a dose of cold Pacific air. Little had changed in his approach to command since 1918. He was stern but fair, insistent upon military discipline and an exacting taskmaster. One morning he ordered a soldier participating in a weapons firing exercise to produce his scorebook, which turned out to be blank. The young man had failed to record a single entry for which Eisenhower properly blamed his platoon leader, Lieutenant Burton S. Barr, who was summoned to face his new battalion commander out of earshot of the men. Barr was subjected to a lambasting that he took to the grave. “I’ve heard about being eaten out,” he said, “and I’ve seen it, but this was unique. This wasn’t being eaten out. This was Eisenhower having a buffet supper, and I was the complete meal.”
Yet, later that day, Eisenhower summoned Barr, “I’m going to tell you something lieutenant, and you’d better listen carefully. This morning you did something wrong, and I bawled you out for it. That was the end. We don’t carry grudges around here.”
Both Ike and Mamie loved Fort Lewis and its active social life. Their brick quarters along officers’ row was one of the most popular spots on post. Eisenhower was frequently in the habit of bringing visitors home for lunch on as little as five minutes notice which kept Mamie hopping. Their home was also often the scene of the informal get-togethers that, for nearly twenty-five years, had earned their various army quarters the nickname of “Club Eisenhower.”
His mentor, Fox Connor, had warned Eisenhower years earlier that another world war was inevitable. When he was not busy training his troops, he eagerly studied every document he could locate about the German Army, mostly assessments prepared by the British and distributed by the War Department. “I study them well and I prepare lectures on them,” he wrote to his long-time friend, George S. Patton.
Despite the long hours spent in training exercises where sleeplessness and discomfort were routine, Eisenhower bragged that he barely got two hours of sleep a night and was frequently caked with dirt and sweat. His new duties, he said, “fortified my conviction that I belonged with troops.”
It was the sort of “grunt” soldiering that characterized the American infantry soldier and after so many years away from it, Eisenhower realized what he had missed. His staff duties at a high level looked impressive on his resume, but it was his love of soldiering that had driven him to stay in the army through the lean interwar years.
To his disgust, his duty with troops did not last long. From late 1940 to March 1941 Eisenhower was chief of staff of the 3d Infantry Division. “So again I’m looking down a pen instead of a gun,” he lamented. Although he was the senior division staff officer and the commander’s right-hand man, he had not lost his distaste for staff work, writing to a friend, “I’m weary of these eternal staff details. I’d like to get a command of my own, even if just a squad.”
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