General William E. DePuy: Preparing the Army for Modern War.
Henry Gole's biography of General William DePuy accomplishes two valuable functions. First, it tells the story of one of the most important American Army leaders of the second half of the twentieth century. Second, Gole uses DePuy's life as a lens through which to view the history of the US Army from 1941 to 1977. In doing so, the author brilliantly portrays the life of the man who led the effort to reform and revitalize the Army after the nation's bitter defeat in Vietnam, making it arguably the best army in the world by 1990.
Gole's book explains how Bill DePuy became such a successful leader and trainer. DePuy acquired and honed his leadership skills during the first 30 years of his career. Like many Americans of the Depression years, DePuy joined his state's National Guard "for the money." DePuy was commissioned as a second lieutenant through the ROTC program at South Dakota State College on 9 June 1941, just in time for the "Good War." He then served as a platoon leader in the 20th Infantry Regiment where, he noted, "I learned more about just plain soldiering from six months.., than I learned in the rest of my service." His battalion commanders were "tough and hazing kinds of men," and his regimental commander, Frank W. Milburn, later successfully commanded a division and a corps in Europe.
The formative examples of leadership that DePuy experienced in the 20th Infantry served him well the rest of his career, but the tactical doctrine and training of the unit was, as Gole describes it, "guaranteed to produce American cadavers.... Tactics consisted of getting on line and advancing in rushes....It was an idea verging on criminal folly, exercised as it was in Bill DePuy's training in 1942 and 1943 and in close combat in 1944." In 1942, DePuy was assigned to the 357th Infantry Regiment of the 90th Infantry Division, where he served for the remainder of the Second World War.
The 90th Infantry Division is a case study of how a poorly trained division paid an incredible price in blood before it became a competent combat force. The 90th Infantry suffered enormous casualties in its first months of combat and saw the relief of two inept division commanders and numerous regimental commanders. By the end of July 1944, Brigadier General Raymond S. McLain had assumed command. He, and the few surviving original officers, turned the division around. DePuy credits McLain "with saving the division.... He visited the most forward battalions and was seen by his troops." Omar Bradley later recognized McLain as one of his best division commanders, and George Patton chose the 90th Infantry Division to receive a Presidential Unit Citation. But the process of retraining the division took months of effort by McLain and officers such as DePuy, who served as the Operations Officer ($3) of the 357th Infantry Regiment. During this process, DePuy learned how to train soldiers to fight effectively and win. This experience enabled him to later remake US Army tactical doctrine and training in the 1970s.
The first formative period of DePuy's career ended in 1945. He had learned how to teach the nitty gritty skills of combat to soldiers, how to lead in combat, and how to think through the tactical lessons learned by his division. His ability to look objectively at his experiences shaped his approaches to combat, leadership, and training for the rest of his service.
Following graduation from the Armed Forces Staff College in 1952, DePuy served as V Corps' Assistant G-3 for Training in Germany. In this job he tested and evaluated 20 battalions a year. This service brought him back to the fundamentals of Army combat training. After two years in this billet, DePuy took command of an infantry battalion in the 4th Infantry Division. For the next year, DePuy practiced the lessons of training that he had learned with the 90th Infantry Division and in his time as a training officer. He found that his new battalion "was as good as any of the battalions over there....At the squad level it was a shambles, just like my battalion had been in World War II. At the platoon level, it was a little better. The company commanders were better. They had good potential. So I decided to spend my time at the bottom."
Gole correctly observes that "DePuy's decision to spend his time 'at the bottom' specifically addressed what he found in 1954, but he made the same decision in his battle group in 1961, in his division in 1966, and as the US Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) commander in 1973. His lifelong conviction was that if you get it right at the squad and platoon levels, the rest would fall into place." As a battalion commander, DePuy personally tested his infantry squads and platoons until "they got very, very good." As a division commander in Vietnam, he continued this hands-on approach to leadership and training.
From 1964 to 1969, General Bill DePuy was "totally immersed" in the Vietnam War from three perspectives: theater operations, as J-3, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, 1964-66; tactics, as the commander of the 1 st Infantry Division, 1966-67; and national strategy, as Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities, 1967-69. He is best remembered, however, for his command of the Big Red One.
DePuy continued his bottom-up approach to training as he improved the combat effectiveness of the 1 st Infantry Division. During his year in command, the division fought large-scale battles against major Viet Cong and North Vietnamese units in its successful effort to protect the approaches to Saigon and to give the Army of the Republic of Vietnam a chance to reorganize and train. DePuy stressed the use of firepower rather than man-to-man combat to destroy Communist forces. He pioneered airmobile operations while also paying close attention to tactical details and training at the squad and platoon levels. He had no patience for ineffectual battalion commanders and earned a reputation for ruthlessness with subordinates and impatience with superiors. Henry Gole covers the debates that surround the DePuy leadership style and results with thoughtful directness and sound judgment.
DePuy, like a number of other Regular Army officers who survived the Vietnam War, realized that the Army was in deep trouble by the 1970s. Many of the junior and mid-grade officers had left the service after repeated tours in Vietnam. The noncommissioned officer corps was exhausted, with many of the best NCOs opting to leave. At the same time, the nation ended the draft, making it harder to fill the ranks with qualified personnel. At this critical juncture in Army history, Bill DePuy was selected to command the newly organized TRADOC and given the mission to revitalize training and solidify tactical doctrine in light of the lessons of recent wars, to include the Arab-Israeli Wars of 1967 and 1973. In the case of DePuy, opportunity and preparation intersected, placing him in a critical job at the right time.
William DePuy ended his Army service as Commanding General of TRADOC in 1977. Henry Gole successfully argues that DePuy was the principal architect of the resurrection of the US Army from the depths of despair it had found itself in by the end of the Vietnam War. DePuy initiated this turnaround by creating a training system based on national and regional training centers focused on the rigorous testing of soldiers, squads, crews, platoons, companies, and battalions. DePuy's genius was his ability to teach leaders how to train their units in the essential combat skills needed at the forward edge of the battlefield.
Gole's account of DePuy's life is told with warts and all. Bill DePuy was one of those men who evoked either fierce loyalty or intense dislike as he worked aggressively to improve the fighting power of the Army. Gole often shares some of his personal observations on the issues of DePuy's life, many of which Gole lived through. There could have been no better historian to tell the story of the man who helped save his nation's army at one of the worst periods in its history. General William E. DePuy: Preparing the Army for Modern War is a superb contribution to our knowledge of the Army's transformation and provides much food for thought about the forthcoming challenges of regeneration and reorientation the nation faces.
Reviewed by Colonel Scott Wheeler, USA Ret., author of The Big Red One.