Deadwood Officers

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

General DePuy looks back at his early army days, waiting in England for D-Day, when every unit was still full of deadwood officers:

My main retrospective thought about all of that is, that because we didn’t have any officers in positions of responsibility who had confidence in their war fighting role, their tactical role, we didn’t have any quality control. Nobody ever got fired for anything. No one! So, we kept the hopeless people side-by-side with the good people. And, it never changed. Everybody got to know one another. We really knew every officer in the regiment by the time we got to England.

But, we also knew that there was a lot of deadwood in the unit, including two out of three battalion commanders. So, my problem was that there was no tough thinning out of the officers who should have been eliminated before they got a lot of people killed. And, that can only happen, I guess, if you have experienced officers who have standards and who know what it is they expect. Unfortunately, we didn’t have such people.


As you know, the 90th Division was studied for years at Fort Leavenworth as an example of the impact of leadership on unit performance. In this respect the 90th was unusually weak going into the war. It recovered, but in the process, thousands of good men were lost. When General McLain took over after about six or seven weeks of combat he told us that the soldiers of the 90th were just as good as the soldiers in any other division but that they had been poorly led. That was an understatement of monumental proportions.

In the first six weeks of the battle in Normandy, the 90th lost 100 percent of its soldiers and 150 percent of its officers. In the rifle companies that translates to losses of between 200 and 400 percent. Those losses compare with the worst of World War I.

In this same period two division commanders were relieved. In my regiment one regimental commander was relieved in England and another in Normandy. The one relieved in England returned to the regiment and was killed within two days. Two battalion commanders also were relieved, and one ran away and was then relieved.

The consequences of all this leadership failure could be predicted. My regiment simply did not perform notwithstanding the heroic efforts and tragic losses among the lower ranking officers and the bewildered troops. Much the same picture applied to the whole division in terms of performance.

The division and regimental commanders were regular officers. They were clearly
unqualified for command in battle. The commander who took the regiment to Normandy was as close to being totally incompetent as it is possible to be. He knew nothing about an infantry regiment. He was erratic to the extreme. Three or four times he ordered the regiment straight ahead into a repeat performance of a failed attack. He will never be forgotten by the survivors. Of the three battalion commanders, one was a graduate of the Military Academy — he was brave but had a personal problem; one was a Reserve officer who had insufficient inner strength to lead troops and face battle; and the third one was a despicable punk from the Illinois National Guard — he had given ample evidence of his character continuously during the two years before Normandy. Upon issuing his order for the first attack of the war he went to the aid station, turned himself in and was evacuated. He was pursued by the authorities and reduced to enlisted rank.

The value system in the 90th Division did not identify and eliminate these officers before they had done their grisly work.

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