Friday, 20 November 2015 13:25

Writers for Conservatives: 16 -- The Great Battle Chronicler

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Writers for Conservatives: 16 -- The Great Battle Chronicler

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner writes on literature from the Adirondacks where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Samuel Lyman Abbot Marshall (1900-77), known as "Slam," is regarded as our foremost military historian, and while he did write histories (World War I, the Korean war, for instance), the designation is not quite right; it misses what was unique about his work. To understand that, we have to know something about his life and career. From his memoir, Bringing up the Rear, we learn that his father was an expert bricklayer (and itinerant preacher) which is why he moved frequently as job opportunities turned up, so Slam's childhood was spent in different states until the family settled in El Paso. It was a typical working class boyhood of the time: without consciously knowing it, he was raised within the moral framework created by his parents and the society around him, and within those boundaries he had plenty of unsupervised freedom to develop. Compared with youth today, boys like Slam were both more innocent and more mature, more responsible. In El Paso, he got to know soldiers at nearby Camp Cotton, so when we entered the war it seemed the natural thing to join the army. He went through the Soissons, St. Mihiel, and Meuse-Argonne campaigns, and when he became at seventeen a lieutenant, he was the youngest officer ever commissioned from the ranks.

He worked at various jobs for a few years until he became a reporter and sports writer on an El Paso paper, which led to a lifelong job on the Detroit News. In his spare time and for no other purpose than its innate interest awakened by his war experience, he pursued military studies by reading books (he mentions J. F. C. Fuller and B. L. Hart, two eminent British military theorists) noting his disagreements in the margins, and then writing a thesis (for his eyes only) justifying his disagreements. Think about that for a moment, think about the man's determination and self-discipline. He makes the point in his memoir that he valued intellect less than the power of concentration, "whereby all that one knows about a given problem may be brought to bear in a given moment," and the course of his career certainly bears him out. In the late 1930s he began writing articles for the Infantry Journal, and when Germany invaded Poland, he did a daily 15-minute broadcast on local radio, analyzing developments, as well as a daily column for the News. Blizkreig, his book about the Nazi campaigns through the fall of France, was published in 1940, and a year later Armies on Wheels, covering events up to and including the invasion of the USSR. But his greatest work was yet to come.

After Pearl Harbor he was called to Washington to serve as a Lt. Colonel in the General Staff, which meant a number of miscellaneous assignments until he was told to write pamphlets describing U.S. battles so far in the war. He answered that it was impossible because there was no information to give body to the narratives. His superior was appalled and didn't want to face the Chief of Staff, George C. Marshall, who'd given the order, so Slam did it (this was typical; when others shied away from responsibility, he would shoulder it), explaining to Marshall that the army's Historical Section was still studying WW I. Shortly thereafter, he and two colleagues were told to do the job-plan for the writing of the history of the army in WW II. Understand that they were doing it from scratch, with no guidance. Although he did not know how he was going to do the job, Slam knew they had to have access to command decisions as well as the combat zone, and they had to fight the Pentagon for that.

Preliminary planning done, but still with no idea how to penetrate the fog of war to get the real history of battle, Slam joined the 27th Infantry Division in its assault on Makin Island in the Gilberts. For awhile he tried questioning individuals:

Nothing I heard helped me a bit. Not only were these people extremely vague about what they had seen and what the unit had done; much that they reported was clearly hallucinatory.

Then one night, he was caught in a battalion perimeter by a series of Japanese attacks, stemmed at the end by one machine gunner. Next morning he said to the commander:

If I can find out what happened to us last night, I'll know the way to clear up confusion in battle.
Joe said: "I agree; I haven't any notion what my own troops did."
When we reached the tip of Makin just before noon, I sent for the standout machine gunner and his lieutenant. Their stories clashed head-on. I collected all survivors from the platoon, and questioning them as a group, made them start at the beginning -- that is, when they moved into the position. Piece by piece we put it together. The story of the night's experience came clear as crystal. It was like completing the picture of a jigsaw puzzle. At last I knew that, quite by accident, I had found what I had sailed west seeking.

After that, he went back to Hawaii to interview the companies that had fought at Makin, perfecting the technique. He went on to Kwajalein (Island Victory is his account) and confirmed the method.

A large part of my field work was done during the return voyage to Oahu. We held company assemblies on the open deck every day. By the time we saw land I had sufficient proof that the new method could be applied as readily to the actions of one whole division in battle as to the fighting of one platoon.

Sent to Europe after D-Day to set up a theater-wide organization (eventually employing 350 men trained in his methods), he and his aides waded into the Battle of the Bulge, conducting interviews on the spot at the time, and when he was done, he said, "From there on out, no one would be able to stop us." Much of his success was due to his determination, good humor, and commonsensical ability to evade red tape.

That was Slam's great contribution to military history, the way to learn what actually happened on the battlefield. It had other benefits, too, because it revealed strengths and weaknesses on both sides, teaching tactical lessons. It was learned, for instance, that Japanese soldiers followed certain patterns of action that were stereotyped, so could be learned and countered. This was even more striking during the Korean War when the Chinese suddenly erupted on the battlefield in November 1950 with tactics that were baffling, frightening, and very successful until they were understood, an effort in which Slam played a large part. An example:

As the fight began, or even before it started, when the presence of the Communist Chinese maneuver body was still unsuspected, there would come a blaring of trumpets, a piping of shepherd's horns, or the trilling of fifes and flutes. The blowing of bugles would persist throughout the battle. The other musical effects were used not unlike overtures. However used, the instruments were getting to the American nerve, and the troops felt spooked.

The group interviews told him the flutes and horns were intended to demoralize defenders, but the bugle calls were tactical signals. He had to find a solider who could remember the calls accurately, and then he had to scale the calls and reproduce the instruments. A factory in Seoul did so, and soon Americans were using the Chinese calls to confuse the enemy.

Slam's exploits in the field are fascinating, and I recommend his memoir for that reason alone. What I want to focus on are the books he wrote that embody his group interview method. They are listed at the end, but I shall discuss one as an example of the rest. The River and the Gaunlet is his account of the rout by the Chinese of the Eighth Army in the last days of November 1950, and he tells the story exactly, comprehensively, and dramatically:

Such then, were the doubts and problems that pressed upon this headquarters during the early days of November while the army was gathering itself along the Chongchon. It would be inaccurate to say that all saw the storm signals clearly and cried warning. But there was a sense of impending change and a realization that the army must replenish toward it. China's intentions remained the great riddle and the key was still missing. There were three interpretations of the object sought by this new enemy on Eighth Army's immediate front: a) a limited assist to help the North Koreans hold a defensive base within their own country; b) a show of force to bluff Eighth Army away from the Manchurian frontier, and c) a screening movement to cover the advance of armies from behind the Yalu.
According to the knowledge then present in Eighth Army, each of these was a reasonable estimate. But all were equally wrong. The enemy armies were already there. . . .
By then X Corps, with 1st Marine Division and 7th Infantry Division in the van, already had penetrated deep into enemy country. There, as in the west, the Chinese counteroffensive would strike suddenly and with full power, following by three days the collision with Eighth Army. But these were two battles and quite separate, each from the other. All that happened on the eastern field for good or evil influenced the fortunes of Eighth Army scarcely at all. Another epic story, it someday must be told.
Here we look only at the unequal struggle along the Chongchon between one army which, through attacking, had no expectation that it would be strongly resisted, and a second host which, hidden, watched and waited the hour opportune to its own offensive design.
One knew.
The other didn't.
So to begin.

The essence of the book is Slam's careful recounting of the small actions-squad, platoon, company -- which made up the whole as the army, unit by unit, retreated over a period of five days, and this gives the actions and the individuals such immediacy that we cannot escape the appalling knowledge of what that combat was like:

While the force on the rearward knoll was being pinned and then. . . . Second and Third Platoons had taken no part. Out along their open flanks, they could hear voices yelling: "Don't shoot! GIs! Don't shoot! GIs!" M/S William G. Long thought the cries were on the level, and that the other platoons were breaking and coming into his lines. But he was doubly perplexed because he thought he could hear men speaking Chinese out somewhere beyond his front. He called to his men: "Don't fire yet!" The fact was that though they had heard fire all around, they had seen no targets.
Then Long heard a bugle blown from rearward -- four sharp notes, twice repeated. That was the enemy call from the other hill, signaling that the point was won and that heavy weapons should come up.
Right afterward, whistles shrilled from many points, and bullets thickened around Long. Cpl. Henry Miller yelled: "Here they come! I can see them!"
By then Long could see them also. Perhaps a score of dark forms stood out clear against the starlight within a hand toss of his foxhole. They were stooped over, looking like hunchbacks, and they moved in perfect silence. Long and several others fired. The figures hit the ground and returned fire. Several grenades exposed near the position. . . . A grenade exploded next them, and he heard them cry out. Then a dozen forms shining silver in the moonlight broke from the underbrush and came over the rise. Pfc. Navarro met them with machine-gun fire but got off only one short burst. They went straight for the gun. Navarro and his assistant, Pfc. Beverly, were shot to death by a Chinese with a tommy gun, standing directly over them. A grenade landed hard against Sergeant Hawkins, lying in the shadow beside Burch. The explosion lifted him bodily and blew him across Burch; his leg was shattered. Pfc. Brinkman, already wounded in the skirmish on the right, was struck by a second bullet. Corporal Barry, who had been trying to dress his wound, was also shot down. Someone yelled: "The BAR's jammed!"
These things happened as fast as the next second. Burch shook loose form Hawkins and jumped to his feet. Now he could see from seventy-five to a hundred Chinese in a wide semicircle so close upon him that he could have dented any part of the line with a well-thrown rock.

Slam was not an elegant writer, but it was in his nature and his self-training to be one who sees with absolute clarity the things of this world, especially the actions and reactions of men in extreme situations. My hunch is that only he could have discovered the historical method because only he could know it when he saw it -- then he could teach it to others. But he remains supreme. No other writer will give you a truer sense of what battle was like in that place at that time.

A final note of interest to conservatives: Marshall was contemptuous of most (not all) war correspondents, and he had this to say to a press conference at the time of the Eighth Army defeat:

I didn't talk to the press gallery; I gave it hell. I said it had been writing irresponsible copy about a bugout army based on rumors and spook stuff from malingerers. I reminded them that the Eighth Army was in retreat, with our national affairs in crisis, and that an American wasn't divested of all moral responsibility to his nation just because he held a news job.

Recommended Reading

World War II: Island Victory, Battle at Best, Night Drop, Bastogne: The First Eight Days, Makin.

Korea: Pork Chop Hill, Hill 440.

Vietnam: Battle in the Monsoon, Bird: The Chistmastide Battle, West to Cambodia, The Fields of Bamboo.

Sinai Victory: Analysis of the Israeli Army's performance in 1956.

S. L. A. Marshall wrote many other books, historical as well as technical.

Hopkins, William B.: One Bugle, No Drums. An account by a participant of the situation of the 1st Marine Division at Chosin Reservoir across the peninsula from the Eighth Army, an account which shows the superior skills, training, morale, and tactics which saved the Marines from the Eighth Army's fate, with an appendix by Marshall. *

"While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their virtue they will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader." --Samuel Adams

Read 3430 times Last modified on Friday, 20 November 2015 19:25
Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.

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