IN THE BEGINNING
By Hal Steward
Rommel was threatening the Suez, Cairo and the entire Allied lifeline in the Middle East when the 11th Armored Division was brought into being on August 15, 1942 at Camp Polk, Louisiana.
Creation of the 11th Armored Division signalized the Army's intention of having more than the 10 armored divisions it had originally planned. Armor was destined to play an important role in coming American World War II campaigns.
To the Army's newest armored division on August 15, 1942, came Brigadier General Edward H. Brooks, its new commanding general, who had been artillery officer of the Armored Force. With him were Brigadier General Charles S. Kilburn and Colonel Charles L. Mullins, Jr., to command the Division's two combat commands. Enlisted men to form the 11th Armored Division cadre came from the Third, Seventh and Eighth Armored Divisions. The Thunderbolt was cast.
Tasks of the Division's cadre were many as it prepared for the arrival of the Division's early members. Often as many as a thousand men would arrive in one day. Truck after truck shuttled endless columns of men from trains to their new homesóbarracks, blankets, hot meals and hot showers.
As enlisted men settled into training routines, staff officers worked tirelessly in preparing schedules and programs whose detailed accuracy would determine eventually the worth of the entire effort.
In late 1942 the members of the Division were found engaged in tough training. The training schedule required the raw recruits of the 11th Armored Division to be combat-qualified by April of the following year. It was a large order but the Division was determined to carry it through.
Without civilian parallel was the life men of the 11th Armored Division found when first they surveyed their surroundings at Camp Polk. Gone were loosely fitting civilian clothes, traffic lights, leisurely eaten meals, and the hundreds of other things that are part of everyday civilian life. Men of the Eleventh were in the Army now. Blending of long-prepared and perfected lecture theories with practical experience was the Division's goal. No detail of application that might possibly be useful in combat was overlooked.
Skill, in the use and maintenance of the medium and heavy weapons so typical of an armored division's offensive force became a prime concern of the knowledge-absorbing recruits of the Division. Huge tank-chassis mounted cannon and pack howitzers, halftrack and smaller vehicle mounted medium weaponsóall required the utmost of intense training to develop the automatic battle skills necessary in a battle-ready unit.
Measures to protect troops and equipment from enemy use of chemical warfare were taught the men in preparing them for combat. Plane identification, highly important so that a man can protect himself against enemy aerial bombardment and strafing, came in for a concentrated share of training hours and effort. Men to whom maps had been only geographical riddles or road aids learned azimuths, compass employment and contours. Obstacle courses were responsible for many an aching body during those strenuous training days.
Linked by the inseparable bond of military necessity to the long hours of physical conditioning, however, were equally long days of repeated instructions in the most basic of all military mattersóweapons. Division members became specialists in mortars, machine guns, rifles, pistols, artillery pieces and all the other necessary weapons of war.
Next came infiltration courses and the whine of live bullets over the heads of trainees. Training was beginning to take on a realistic atmosphere.
When Thunderbolts marched pass the reviewing stand on New Year's Day, 1943 it was the end of the beginning for them. A few weeks before they had been unmilitary recruits, but today on New Year's they looked like soldiers. Inspectors studied units and men of the 11th Armored Division in early 1943, when tests arranged by III Armored Corps weighed progress of the Division's training in the first months of its existence. Officers of the Armored Corps, headed by Major General Willis D. Crittenberger, Corps commanding general, toured motor parks and marksmanship ranges, watched physical fitness tests and studied every phase of training.
Few fighting units trained to capture victory in World War II were fortunate enough to receive from their own leaders a report on the progress of American arms already engaged in battle. Early in 1943 General Brooks returned from North Africa, where he toured American troops and military establishments with Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers, then commander of the nation's armored forces, and gave to the Thunderbolt Division a detailed word picture of the days and duties which were ahead when training was completed.
As Spring, 1943 arrived at Camp Polk, Louisiana, so did a group of members of the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps. The 11th Armored Division was on hand to greet them. And in following weeks the young women became the toasts of countless company parties, dances and Service Club functions. In many instances, members of the WAAC were given military instruction by 11th Armored Division instructors.
Although training consumed most of the Division's time, Thunderbolts managed to squeeze in sports activities in quantity. There were football, baseball, basketball, boxing, bowling, volleyball and others.
Religion was not neglected either in the early days. Sunday mornings found the Thunderbolt chapels filled with 11th Armored Division members.
While the Division was stationed at Camp Polk a steady stream of famous talent entertained its members from time to time. Cary Grant, Joan Blondell, Jerry Colona, Bob Hope, Frances Langford, Frank McHugh, are just a few that visited the Division during its training days.
After basic training came a period of Louisiana maneuvers, an experience common to hundreds of thousands of soldiers. From the garrison life of Camp Polk the Division suddenly found itself housed in tents.
Dust, dirt and digging became familiar to every last man of the Division. Louisiana maneuvers were underway.
Many and varied were the tactical lessons of movement absorbed daily on maneuvers by the men whose vehicles seemed to move almost without halt across fields, through pine forests and over streams in Louisiana and Texas.
During maneuvers Sabine River crossings became a habit. Every conceivable type of crossing was made by the Division. Along with river crossings the laying of pontoon bridges also became "second nature" to Division engineers. Just after the completion of Louisiana maneuvers the 11th Armored Division was ordered to make a permanent change of station to Camp Barkeley, Texas, near Abilene. First armored division to inhabit Camp Barkeley and make Abilene its off-duty home, the Eleventh found hospitality far surpassing even the well known stories of Texas' cordiality. Extensive, well-planned and well-organized, Camp Barkeley provided gratefully received diversion, even in its training facilities and geographical location, for the maneuver-hardened Thunderbolts who arrived in the late summer of 1943. Hardly had the Division scouted its surroundings when the reorganization of armored divisions reached the Eleventh, to dissolve three of the principal units which had comprised the Division from its activationóthe 41st and 42nd Armored Regiments and the 55th Armored Infantry Regiment.
While at Camp Barkeley the Division participated in many civilian programs that were planned to stimulate the civilian war effortóespecially the purchase of war bonds. War bond sales among men of the Eleventh soared at Barkeley, producing one of the highest percentages of Division participation in the Army's world-wide bond buying campaign at that time.
New equipment, replacing much of the maneuver-worn material, which accompanied the Division from Louisiana to Texas, arrived at Camp Barkeley during the Eleventh's short stay at the Texas camp. Many vehicles were overhauled, parts replaced and given paint jobs, although the Division was destined to use them only for short weeks. New artillery observation planes were delivered to the 11th Armored Division at Barkeley by trim feminine members of the WASPS, women's ferrying organization.
Suddenly in the fall of 1943 the order came for the Thunderbolt Division to evacuate Camp Barkeley and prepare for the most realistic of all battle-trainingódesert maneuvers. As October 1943 drew to a close, train after train loaded with 11th Armored Division personnel and equipment left Camp Barkeley headed for the California desert.
Hardly two months after respite was granted the 11th Armored Division at the end of Louisiana maneuvers, men of the Thunderbolt were streaming from trains at tiny desert stations marked by little more than water towers and the shacks of section crews. The Eleventh was settling down in the desert for the 1943-44 winter.
The Mojave Desert of California presented new problems to Division troops. Tankers, artillerymen and infantrymen, accustomed to the sharp, landmarked lands of Louisiana and Texas, added to their training experience in the new problems of range estimation which required constant use of binoculars and keen vision. Long distance communication by radio took on new responsibilities, and camouflage, in the cover-less desert wastes, required constant and unrelenting attention. Maintenance, too, in the wind-borne clouds of sad, assumed new and difficult aspects.
Central point of the Division organization in the desert was Headquarters Circle at Ibis, situated at the halfway point of the long Eleventh tent-camp area.
Chemical warfare's chief weapon of World War II, smoke, played an important role in many of the desert's maneuver phases. Hovering low between desert peaks, cloud-like vapors from smoke pots rapidly covered huge areas, obscuring effectively all troop movements. Infantrymen, pressing forward in maneuver exercises to assault fixed enemy positions, often were granted the cloak of protective smoke as they moved into battle.
In January 1944, when the 11th Armored Division moved into the field new battle-suggestive maneuvers experiences awaited it. At Palen Pass, scene of attack and defense by most units training in the Mojave, Thunderbolt men attacked, attacked and attacked again through sleepless nights and trying days.
Hosts of the men of the Division on their repeated weekend visits to the Nevada city, the people of Las Vegas watched that Western's town most pretentious display of military might move through its streets on November 11, 1943. Tanks of several Thunderbolt units joined to stage the Armistice Day parade, when General Brooks shared with the state's Senior Senator, Pat McCarran, chief speaking honors on the program.
Only twice throughout the Division's entire period at Ibis and on desert maneuvers was the monotonously nutritious diet of field rations withdrawn for a more varied menu. On Thanksgiving and at Christmas hundreds of plump turkeys, delivered to anxiously awaiting mess staffs, became unprecedented feasts.
Entertainment for the Division troops on desert maneuvers was provided by the USO Camp Shows and the Hollywood Victory Committee, who occasionally played to capacity audiences at the Amphitheater.
Repopulated for brief days by men and machines of the 11th Armored Division after desert maneuvers were ended, Ibis soon rejoined the solitude of the Mojave as the Thunderbolt Division loaded, men and equipment, on trains and convoys for the journey to its next training stationóCamp Cooke, California.
Scientific testing of the individual and organizational training of men and units began immediately upon the Division's arrival at Camp Cooke. Coincidentally, final training polish of many facets of the Division's battle fitness was carried on.
A change in command of the Division was made in March 1944 when General Brooks left to join battletested troops awaiting the invasion. Brigadier General Charles S. Kilburn assumed command.