General William E. DePuy: Preparing the Army for Modern War

By Wheeler, Scott | Parameters, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

General William E. DePuy: Preparing the Army for Modern War


Wheeler, Scott, Parameters


General William E. DePuy: Preparing the Army for Modern War. By Henry G. Gole. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2008. 364 pages. $35.00.

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. …

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