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The Thunderbolt . . . . . A Natural
Edited by Emmett L. Keough
Script by Bob Kelly

One of the highest honors which can be accorded man is to command an American combat division. An even greater privilege is to command such a group of Americans as have been assembled in the 11th armored Division. It has been my rare good fortune to guide from its inception a combat unit which first raised its flag over 18 months ago, and which has since borne it with distinction through mud, dust, storm, and sunshine half way across the continent. I now leave for duty elsewhere. Time prohibits my addressing you in person, hence this message. To me, as to all true soldiers of this splendid combat group, the insignia of the 11th Armored Division will always be representative of the highest military traditions. I shall always have a fierce pride and grave humility gained from past association with you. I assure you that when you move to combat I will meet you again, in spirit, if not in being. For you soldiers of all ranks, continue that deep responsibility of upholding the traditions and emblem of the 11th Armored Division in combat, and of keeping its proud banners flying in the forefront as of yesterday, today, forever.

Edward A. Brooks
Major General, U.S.A., Commanding


As Rommel threatened the Suez, Cairo and the entire Allied lifeline to the Middle East, to the United States’ rapidly growing military machine was added, on August 15, 1942, the 11th Armored Division. Activation of the new armored striking force at Camp Polk, LA, signalized the Army’s intention to outstrip its original plan for the inclusion of but 10 armored divisions in the nation’s expanding military program. In the east, as Nazi legions pushed forward in their last great Russian offensive, the crushing blow at Stalingrad had not yet collapsed German dreams of a drive to he Urals; Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, resting at high tide after his most successful desert journey, paused at El Dab’a within cannon roar of Alexandria. Japan’s men still poured as an unleashed pestilence over British, Dutch, Chinese, and American dead in their almost uncontested drive toward Australia, last bastion of Allied might athwart their course of conquest. The guns of Corregidor were silent.

From the huge pool into which America poured its military manpower were channeled tens of thousands of men to make up armored units amassed against the day of Allied offensive.

To the nation’s newest armored division, as its commanding general, came Brigadier General Edward h. Brooks, who had been artillery officer of the Armored Force. A staff of officers to assist him first assembled at Ft. Knox, KY, in July, 1942. With General Brooks came Brigadier General Charles S. Kilburn and Colonel Charles L. Mullins, Jr., to captain the Division’s combat commands. Enlisted men to form the initial 11th Armored Division cadre came from the Third, Seventh, and Eighth Armored Divisions. The Thunderbolt was cast.

Flames to forge a Thunderbolt were kindled among Louisiana’s fragrant pines late in 1942 and fanned to furious heat under the pressure of a training schedule which required the raw recruits of the 11th Armored Division to be combat-qualified by April of the following year. Summer sun, its white-hot rays beating down upon the sultry swamps of the Pelican State, welcomed to Camp Polk the skilled officers whose responsibility it was to guarantee the battle preparation of the half-score thousand of men soon to be entrusted to their command. Close on their heels arrived great groups of time-tested enlisted men, whose leaven of experience was to impart the tough texture of training to the transformation of individuals into groups, men into masses. As the breezes of fall tempered the torments of summer, the armored skeleton of the Thunderbolt Division was prepared for the fleshy clothing of manpower to follow. It came, almost immediately. Train after train brought travel weary men, their unbraided caps and wrinkled uniforms still stamped with unmistakable seal of newness to Louisiana. Bewildered, lonely, and wondering, Brooklyn, Boston, and Boise accents merged into a blended chorus of question. From these men, whose lives a few weeks before were ordered only by themselves, a mighty, formidable military machine was to be molded. They blended, and blended quickly, in the crucible of hard, intensive training. Originally, their lives at Camp Polk were much the same – and much the same as had been the basic military lives of men of the two armored armies which had preceded them at Polk, the Third and the Seventh Armored Division. Basic training at Camp Polk, largest of the nation’s military establishments created to produce armored might, was hard, back-breaking work – work of the only type which could produce men whose entry into battle would foretell success. But all of these things the men who stepped from troop trains were yet to learn --- learn from hours on a drill field, hours in class rooms, hours – endless – of marching, hours of instruction. Yet the tired, heavy-eyed men who streamed to Leesville in November’s autumn today are soldiers.

The first memories of men who wear the 11th Armored Division shoulder patch center on a night when a troop train from New York’s Grand Central , Kansas City’s Union or Birmingham’s Southern halted on a single siding and then tumbled off – to meet their star-shouldered leaders. Many were the tasks of the Division’s nucleus as it prepared for the arrival of its early members – often at the rate of nearly a thousand men a day. Truck after truck shuttled endless columns of men from trains to their new homes – barracks, blankets, hot meals and hot showers. As enlisted men settled into training routines, staff officers worked endlessly preparing schedules and programs whose detailed accuracy would determine eventually the worth of the entire effort. As their integrated effort brought cohesion of leaders from a dozen branches of military service, promotions commensurate with their new responsibilities were granted.

Twin torrents of American military might merged at Camp Polk early in the life of the 11th Armored Division as an endless stream of manpower was matched by as unending a wave of the products of American manufacture. Troop trains shared railroad sidings with flat cars bristling with tank guns and artillery pieces. Many future tankers, artillerymen and peep jockeys received their first view of their new mechanical partners while still on a troop train.

Focal point of its organization, the impressively greenswarded Flag Pole Square of Camp Polk’s 11th Armored Division area called the attention, once each day, of every officer and enlisted man in the fledgling force to the towering reason for his presence at Camp Polk, for the Division’s being. As sunlight

S rays were waning, clear bugle notes summoned attention to the flag stirring overhead, symbol of the nation whose defense had become the responsibility of the men who watched it lowered; symbol of homes under skies rendered peaceful or terror-filled by American armed forces; symbol of everything American. At retreat, momentarily, eyes were lifted from the toil of tomorrow to the priceless price of freedom.

Without civilian parallel was the life that men of the 11th Armored Division found when first they surveyed their surroundings. After seemingly bottomless stacks of classification cards were checked, endless lines of men interviewed and countless assignments made, the procedure-sated recruit who a few days earlier had first looked sleepily upon Camp Polk found himself a soldier. Helmet liners, worn to accustom men to the heavier steel article which might save their lives in battle, replace the square-worn overseas caps and pork-pie-patterned chapeaux of reception centers. “Home” became a square, immaculate barracks’ nook whose care required more time from inexpert hands than an entire hotel from a chambermaid. A whistle no longer signaled a change of traffic lights; its shrillness meant move, and move fast. Meal time no longer was marked by leisurely consumption of individual portions; the “chow hound” was born. Off-duty hours – few as they were, those early weeks of basic – meant only movie queues and mile-long beer lines, or bunk fatigue and bull sessions. This was the Army!

The blending of long-prepared and perfected lecture theories with practical experience was the Division’s training 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 crushing offensive force became a prime concern of the knowledge-absorbing recruits of the 11th Armored Division. Huge-tank-chassis-mounted cannon and pack howitzers, halftrack and smaller vehicle mounted medium weapons – all required the utmost of intense training and practice to develop the well-nigh automatic battle skills inherently necessary in a battle-ready unit of the type the 11th Armored Division was driving relentlessly to reach in an incredibly few weeks and months.

Individual protective measures in battle reach a peak in the world-famous fox holes and slit trenches which are each man’s responsibility – and safety. Carelessness in the use of a shovel or intrenching tool probably has cost many American lives since the present war began, and the importance of the lowly spade was well inculcate into the mind of each Eleventh man. The advantages of various entrenchments were emphasized.

“Any Questions?” That familiar concluding phrase of almost every military lecture resounded like a many-fold echo throughout Camp Polk those early days of basic training, for instructors worked without let up to cram their students with every phase of knowledge of an armored division required for men’s self-preservation in battle. Measures to protect troops and equipment from enemy use of chemical warfare were taught the men in preparing them for conflict. Not only were the deadly vapor gases accorded full attention, for training was given in the decontamination of vehicles sprayed with liquid gases. Plane identification, highly essential art of recognizing without hesitation friendly and enemy aircraft and to act accordingly, 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. Classes were devoted to familiarizing the basics with the scores of conventional signs and military symbols used to portray graphically and concisely battle conditions in any given piece of terrain. Extensive, highly concentrated study was devoted to aerial photographic and photo maps.

Newsreel studded scenes of long, grinding yards of obstacle courses, replete with ropes and scaffolds, became daily homes of 11th Armored Division men. Aching bodies and wearied minds trudged back to barracks during initial weeks of the Thunderbolt, as strange, unfamiliar muscles, seldom used and never mentioned in civilian years before, awoke for the tasks of training ahead. No taxis traveled the gravel-edged streets of Camp Polk, and to exhausted men who trooped doggedly homeward after foot-blistering miles of road marches, the war was real indeed.

As valuable in the process of each individual trainee’s development of split-second timing required of modern men of war as in the preparation of bodies to successfully respond to minds so alerted were the mazes of rope-hung swamps and walls and ditches which dotted Camp Polk’s training areas in early 11th Armored Division days.

Brains and brawn from rugged, intensive training, as the latter months of 1942 passed, became the daily routine of 11th Armored Division fledglings, as they moved through the decisive weeks of the basic training upon which would be built their entire military fitness. Initially, the vital task of hardening the muscles and alerting the minds of these new fighting men to properly react to the rigid tests of technical training and actual battle claimed the constant attention, the utmost efforts of the Division’s leaders who planned their every hour. This exacting job necessarily brought day after day – and night after night – of unyielding stress on conditioning. Eternal devotion to the fundamental criterion of any army’s effectiveness – marksmanship – early entered a permanent niche in 11th Armored Division annals. Hardly had their untried hands begun to grasp familiarly the myriad weapons of their training and eventually of battle when from those weapons, through constant attention, Thunderbolt men began to derive a sense of their importance. A dozen ranges echoed to the sharp staccato of firing practice.

“Ready on the right” – familiar preface to the opening clatter of fire on target ranges – sounded endlessly through Louisiana’s pine woods in the autumn of 1942, as apprentice Thunderbolts tested their applied skill with weapons previously mastered in long hours of lectures and endless oft-repeated discussions of each gun’s component parts, operation and times of employment.

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 matters – weapons. Specialists they were to become in mortars, machine guns and many-millimetered monsters of artillery, yet each of the trainees must first master the intricacies of the smaller, universal weapons of combat. Early in basic training, schedules were heavy with drill in rifles, carbines and automatics – drill so vital that it might mean life or death in combat. Battle allows but one mistake.

Classic example of the demand, accentuated by the speed and swift decision of modern battle, for complete knowledge of the weapons entrusted to the individual soldier’s care, is the need for blindfolded ability to handle with certainty that weapon’s sections. On hundreds of blankets, stretched upon Louisiana’s field grass, men of the 11th Armored Division handled, rehandled and handled again the firing pins, the barrels and the bolts of their mechanical companions. Cleaning, oiling and oiling again brought unshakable confidence in those companions’ loyalty.

Inseparable from warfare, whether medieval or modern, is the possibility of casualties. “First echelon” prevention of casualties must necessarily begin with the training of the troops, and from the Thunderbolt’s earliest ventures into field operations, highly prized was proper maintenance of men and machines. At the same time, each new development on the channeling of casualties to proper treatment posts – and their care en route – was not neglected.

First step in the training of tankers to deal swiftly with disaster was instruction in approved methods for removal of battle casualties from disabled vehicles to points of temporary safety, where they might be launched on their journey to rear area hospitals and treatment stations. Simultaneously, the men who guide the land battle-wagons were told of the dangers of flaming enemy Molotov Cocktails, of highly developed enemy weapons fashioned to combat Allied armored attack, and of the measures perfected to meet these threats.

As tankers labored long hours over the complicated mechanisms of their battle behemoths, men bent on the preservation of the lives of their 11th Armored Division comrades perused training manuals and heard countless lectures on the vitally important, many phased topic of modern preventive and curative combat medicine, last defense against battle death.

Trainees to technicians was the transition scheduled for the human components of the 11th Armored Division, and hardly had the basic lessons of early physical and mental conditioning been stored away when the change began. Basic training, essentially identical in its close order drill, its instruction in primary weapons and its overall preparation for the specialization to follow, gave way to the specific training required by various units of the men who were to take over the tanks and howitzers and rifles.

As modern as a Broadway neon sign and as swiftly changing in application are the combat techniques employed alike by Allied and Axis opposing forces in jungles, on beachheads, in attack and defense. Each of these techniques, and art within itself, became a vital, life preserving science to men of the triangular “11” patch as their training schedules became more specialized. The simple fact of a foxhole may by its skill in preparation mean life or death.

So coordinated are the functions of a hard-hitting armored division that at one and the same time, training received by all of the Division’s branches may constitute a miniature picture of the preparation of an entire army for combat. While tankers learn defense against opposing infantrymen, infantrymen learn offensive measures against opposing tanks. Far from originating confusion, this widespread versatility of the armored nit, with its doughboys, cannoneers and tankers, actually explains its purpose.

From the inborn mechanical skill of the American youth came the quick grasp of the intricate operations of the countless parts which pour from the nation’s factories to make up its sinews of steel. In incredibly short weeks, men whose knowledge of machines had hardly reached beyond speaking acquaintances with garage mechanics, almost instinctively knew the basic problems of a throbbing tank motor or a huge, many-wheeled artillery mount.

Most striking, perhaps, of innovations in the present war are the military operations linked with commandos. Far from a new departure, however, is the stealth, the cunning and the lightning attack of both friend and foe today. Braddock’s British met just those problems two centuries ago; Marion’s and Tarleton’s cavalry employed them a score of years later, and hardly improbable is the conclusion that American fighting men, with a folklore of Indian wars, have become their most successful proponents. Jungle and mountain trained snipers reached preeminent headline positions early in the war, but full as skilled and far more effective are the well-trained, well-equipped sharpshooters of the American Sergeant York tradition.

Men’s emotions are strangely alike as they prepare, for the first time to deliberately pass under a stream of machine gun slugs, over a field strewn with mud-filled craters, and lethal land mines. Business-like GI trucks discharge their passengers. Officers offer instructions. Chaplains pass among the men to be entrusted with their valuables. Parked nearby are ambulances. Medical officers are inconspicuously present. Grim, perhaps, but the beginning of battle consciousness.

One far from unimportant phase of combat inoculation denies the trainee even the assuring presence of a comforting bright sky. Under the cover of darkness, the flare of tracers and the sudden glare of star shells and rockets against the gloom lends an underlined reality to the task of traversing mine-pocked, wire entangled earth, fraught with real and imaginary danger.

Wedging through strung, rolled and hooped, many-thorned feet of low barbed wire on an infiltration course provided an experience without comparison in civilian life. Confronted with an intricate apron of wire, men whose minds are occupied with ”getting through” learn to act methodically, almost mechanically.

Crawlers are granted no respite from the constant overhead cross-fire of machine guns as they attack an entanglement, or encounter a mine crater, and the lesson of concentration and calmness is one without substitute.

Barbed wire battle scars came of hours and days of experimentation in exact types of nerve-conditioning experiences needed by men. Until the rigors of highly-paced present day warfare so vividly portrayed the dire need for pre-combat inoculation in the sound of exploding shells. The whir of bullets overhead and the scrape of low-hanging barbed wire, little attention had been given to the preparation of the minds of men for battle. So the American system of infiltration courses, with their land mines, low firing machine guns and crawling, creeping men was born.

Not only the doughboys who slither across fields swept by enemy fire must work amidst danger to their lives, but the supporting elements of any division – and more particularly of a swift-advancing armored division—must often be called upon to carry out their missions under attack. Aviation, especially, has erased the safety of miles separating rear area establishments from front line attack. Early in their initial stages of training men of the 11th Armored Division support units gained a crucial knowledge of the advantage of swift operations, carefully planned and executed without pause, depriving the enemy of ability to concentrate massed fire, whether aerial or artillery. These principles dictate the tempo of engineer tasks and ordnance duties.

At the height of battle, the courier can always be depended upon to get through vital information and instructions when all other more modern systems have failed. Today, mounted on a motorcycle or riding the most faithful of replacements for the steed of past generations – the jeep --- the messenger’s task knows no hours and no pause. Only swift completion of his errand, which can, and often does, decide the course of a battle and the fate of an army, brings an end to his responsibility. And often his arrival at the appointed destination means only the end of one mission and the beginning of another.

Streaming Colors and marching men moved smartly past a reviewing stand at Camp Polk on New Year’s Day, 1943, to signal the end of the beginning for Thunderbolt men. Brig. Gen. Kilburn, acting Division commander in the absence of Major Gen. Brooks who was accompanying Lt. Gen. Jacob L. Devers on an inspection tour of American troops in the North African theater, headed the group of Division leaders who viewed the spectacle of proudly moving men who, a few short weeks before had been the tired, unmilitary recruits dismounting from troop trains to assume military citizenship. Banners snapped crisply in the midwinter air as column after column of infantrymen, tankers, artillerymen, engineers, and ordnance, medical and headquarters men filed past the point of review, sharply executed “eyes right” and moved on. Among the first organizations to start functioning with military precision in the 11th were the bands of the Armored Regiments. Many were the lessons yet to be assimilated; many were the miles of maneuvers yet to be experienced; many were the sleepless nights to follow. All these were yet to come. Yet, as they marched in their first full-fledged review, marched gravely behind streaming colors, the men of the 11th Armored Division were soldiers – in name and in thought and in stern, unflagging determination.

The critical eye of inspection studied units and men of the 11th Armored Division early in 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 Gen. Willis D. Crittenberger, Corps commanding general, toured motor parks and marksmanship ranges, watched physical fitness tests and studied every phase of training.

Artillery – crushing, meticulous weapon of offense and defense alike – reached new refinements in World War II as the stationary field pieces of the past were transformed into speeding self-propelled mounts, traveling with the rapidity of a locomotive and mounting weapons of tremendous devastation. America, in building its own armored might, did not neglect full exploitation of the new role of artillery. When Corps inspectors came to Eleventh Armored units to test their training progress, much attention was claimed by the revolutionary armored field artillery battalions, most mobile artillery organizations of history. The inspections produced commendations.

So varied are the tasks of the engineer unit in World War II that its lineal descent from the sappers and pioneers of the armies of history, although easily substantiated, seems almost unbelievable. One phase of engineer activity, however, which has constantly been identified with that branch of service, remains one of its chief functions – bridge construction. A far cry from the slender causeway of boats which sufficed, even in the last World War, to carry men and materiel of armies across the most traditional of natural obstacles – rivers --- are the intricate spans which must be fitted together today to furnish transportation foundations for an army of many-tonned tanks, of huge, lumbering ordnance vehicles and a multitude of lesser land craft.

Infinitely more involved than the rough sketches of terrain which were considered more than adequate for military purposes in years and wars now history are the minutely scaled maps which today guide the movement of entire armies for great distances in fast-moving, liquid warfare. Far from sufficient for the purpose of utilization, however, are the maps themselves, their careful preparation and wide distribution. Such is the explanation of the great care exercised in the training of divisions and armies to guarantee their ability to intelligently appraise the immediate battle situation from detailed maps furnished to them. Only when each individual of a modern battle unit can accurately read maps may that unit be certain that precious combat moments will not be lost in hesitation.

An appraisal of any unit’s training progress must be based upon each individual’s soldierly qualities. Emphasis without relaxation on the part of Thunderbolt policy molders early produced the carefully sought high standard of alertness, neatness and discipline. Men of the Eleventh were soon marked by their smart, crisp salutes. The training period devotion of the soldier to his appearance, to his weapons and to his quickness of response finds its battle counterpart in success.

In the manner of their step, the briskness of pace and firmness of movement, all soldiers blend, regardless of unit or branch of service, into a unites mass when they march, shoulder to shoulder, down a drill field or parade ground on dress review. Strong indeed are the ties between perfection on review and success in battle, for the point of discipline in a military organization is as important as it is time-honored. The precision of an organization’s movement, as one man, before reviewing chieftains is a well-nigh unmistakable index to its fitness in combat, its ability to carry out commands quickly and without question.

Often the impressive occasions are the high tides of military memories of 11th Armored Division men as they all gather a thousands-strong Division for important, historic ceremonies. Reviews, presentations of colors, awards of honors – they were all recorded indelibly in the mental archives of the men whose many-typed military duties left scant opportunity for them to recollect emphatically the overall unity of an entire division. The men who guided the Thunderbolt from its first fledgling flashes in the mud and dust of Louisiana were conscious of the necessity of molding the soldiers and steel that made up the organization into a coordinated striking force. No measures capable of encouraging such a development were neglected. From the Eleventh’s earliest review until the present time, battalion, regimental and Division formations have built with care a unit esprit de corps which will prove invaluable when the Thunderbolt reaches the final tests on the battlefield. And almost certainly every man of the Thunderbolt, long, long after the periods of unpleasantness which have already transpired and those yet to come are quite forgotten, will vividly recall guns flashing, men marching and colors streaming beneath the sun of the Pelican State.

Recognition of outstanding accomplishment is an age-old and unquestioned military policy, and throughout the life of the 11th Armored Division, leaders of the Division have repeatedly called forth from the ranks both enlisted men and officers to receive achievement awards. These honored men may well be the vanguard of those who will earn valor awards in combat.

Strikingly representative of any military entity are its battle standards. From the earliest history of armies, men have prized battle flags as symbols of the nations and traditions for which the fight. Often those standards are born of trial and blood and in themselves tell a story of the national heritage of the men who honor them. Such is the case of the Stars and Stripes, for in its rippling folds is centered the story of American freedom.

Few fighting units trained by the nation to capture victory in the current war were fortunate enough to receive from their own leaders a report on the progress of American arms already engaged in battle. Early in 1943, Major Gen. Brooks returned from North Africa, where he toured American troops and military establishments with Lt. Gen. 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 lie ahead when training is completed and the final test is reached.

Unsurpassed in impressiveness in the entire roster of military ceremonies is the full-dress review. Its two-fold purpose, serving as it does to demonstrate the smartness and battle trim of the troops reviewed, as well as to instill almost unconsciously in the men who march a full sense of their own might, has kept it unchallenged on the list of military ceremonies since the days of the raiding Goths. That men – well-trained, soldierly men – are the irreplaceable foundation of even the most modern armored unit is strikingly underlined when they leave behind their attention-compelling machines to march as did the men-at-arms of centuries long past.

The type of uniform and manner of marching at the Division formations held at various stages of the 11th Armored Division’s life as a military entity served as a guide to the progress of the Division’s training as it moved through months of garrison training and maneuvers in the field. At the end of basic training, when first full-fledged reviews were held, the men marched well, with the tense precision of recruits intent on remembering each drill field lesson. Later, field-hardened and time-trained, the formations took on the unconscious snap associated with seasoned troops.

Well-favored throughout its period of training by frequent visits of the Army’s most high-ranking leaders, the Thunderbolt greeted at Camp Polk, late in April of 1943, the first such inspecting official – Lt. Gen. Devers, who commanded at that time all the armored forces of the nation. General Devers, with whom the Division’s first officer, General Brooks, had previously toured North African battlefronts, gathered a many-sided picture of the Eleventh’s training progress from a daylong schedule of inspection which allowed the armored chief an opportunity to see in action each of the types of units making up the Division.

Peculiar to America’s armored divisions is the Combat Command -- flexible task force which, although it may contain as many lower units as the occasion demands, if self-sufficient. Preparation for action of the troops under his control automatically becomes a chief duty of the Combat commander. Principal unit of General Kilburn’s Combat Command A at Camp Polk was the 42nd Armored Regiment and he presided at many ceremonies of that organization prior to its dissolution in the revamping of all armored divisions late in 1943.

The art of serving food, seldom dainty in army life, rose sharply in favor at Camp Polk when feminine guests from the nearby WAAC camp began to be often visible in chow halls of the Thunderbolt Division. Tenderly fashioned designs of carefully called cold cuts graced many a mess sergeant’s “pride and joy” table while the new disciples of Emily Post piously poised plates and cups.

As spring mildness gave way to summer sharpness, troops stationed at Camp Polk paused briefly to celebrate the Easter season. The WAACs, highlighting as hey did all ceremonies during their all-too-short stay in Louisiana, joined the Thunderbolt men at the principal observance – and Easter Sunrise service. The mixed chorus shared musical participation in the service with Division bands. Their feminine voices lent a touch of home to the Bowl ceremony.

Opened with an aquatic-musical program attended by many of Camp Polk’s high ranking officers, the South Camp swimming pool, used chiefly by members of the 11th Armored Division and of the 41st WAAC Training Regiment, provided a welcome off-duty relaxation spot. WAACs and thunderbolt men who in civilian life were expert swimmers participated in the pool-opening ceremonies, complete with Billy Rose style water acrobatics and a water-borne salute to visiting dignitaries. Hours for use of the pool, arranged by Camp and Division Special Service representatives, were scheduled to include intensive daytime training periods. Units of the Division visited the pool en masse to receive training in swimming – swimming laden with full equipment and packs, as the men might someday be called upon to do as they enter battle. Hot summer days and evenings passed pleasantly at the Polk pool.

WAACs walked the gravel—strewn roadways of Camp Polk as spring claimed Louisiana in 1943. Thousands of young women, early veterans in the field of military service for women, arrived at Polk in April to await assignment to permanent posts in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps. Welcome guests indeed to Eleventh Armored men were the khaki and OD clad young ladies who became the toasts of countless company parties, dances and Service Club functions.

Continually amazing originally skeptical “old army” men by their quick adaptation to military routine, the soldierly smart women of he WAAC staged review after review at Polk for commanding generals of III Armored Corps, the 11th and 8th Armored Divisions, and the Camp commander.

In many instances 11th Armored Division facilities for training were made available to the 41st WAAC Regiment, and many members of the present Women’s Army Corps stationed in foreign theaters received instruction in such matters as gas mask drill from Thunderbolt men.

All work and no play made no dull youths among 11th Armored Division men at Camp Polk, for many hours were allotted to athletics as the Division was forged into a fighting force. Upon diamonds, gridirons and courts throughout the Division area many afternoons were spent in pursuit of peacetime pleasures. Sharing with the recreational relaxation derived by the men from the sports was the quickening of reactions, the toughening of bodies and the spirit of team-play which, in civilian life, did much to prepare American youth for the battle tasks war has created for them. “Play ball” was a familiar cry at Polk.

Selective Service’s sampling of every cross-section of national life sent many former professional and semi-pro baseball stars to the new armored division at Camp Polk. These men, whose diamond efforts formerly brought them many thousands of dollars yearly, speedily united to lend their talent as to the instructions of less-gifted players to build company, battalion and regimental nines whose games soon provoked the universal interest of big league series.

Scattered, spontaneous games were not sufficient to arouse the universal sports interest necessary to bring about widespread participation, and well-organized leagues for play in almost every popular sport soon were formed. Based, of course, upon intra-company rivalry, winning combinations soon were chosen to represent the companies in battalion play, the battalions in regimental play, and the regiments in Division-wide competition. So arranged as to pit as opponents teams with approximately the same number of men from which to draw their members. These leagues did much to build up the spirit of rivalry as American as ice cream cones. Dodger fans soon found themselves rooting for teams competing in the Peason – or Kisatchie – league.

So late in 1942 was the complete membership assembled at Camp Polk, and so engrossed were the men when they did arrive in the all-important job of basic training, that athe Division’s first fall and winter saw little organized football. However, men, many of them called from college campuses, to whom football had been a lifelong interest, do not easily forget pigskins, punts and power plays. Crisping afternoons found many off-duty hours spent upon real and improvised gridirons. In football, too, officers and men whose names were famous lent their efforts to the development of seasoned linemen and backfield artists. Successfully seeking experienced gridiron men among the membership of the 91st Reconnaissance Battalion, Lt. Gene Ellenson, Georgia All-American, assembled an eleven which has remained undefeated throughout the Division’s history.

Less widely known in civilian life than the more famous athletic activities – baseball, football and basketball – are the mass participation games which have won for themselves a lasting place in the Army’s athletic program. Volleyball – the game favored by a wide margin by men overseas; softball; swimming and bowling – all required little equipment and little training; and this factor rendered them ranking favorites with Eleventh men at Camp Polk, just as with other soldiers the world around.

Bowling enthusiasts found ample opportunity at Polk to topple the ten-pins. Leagues were formed within man of the battalions and regiments of the Division for alley play at nearby cities, and later two bowling buildings, with three alleys each, were opened within the camp itself. Competition between major units of the 11th was soon launched, and trophies provided by at he Division were awarded to league play winner, both individuals and teams. Eleventh teams also met other units.

Invaluable in its ability to instill cool-headedness and the will to win by absorbing punishment, boxing early attracted scores of ring recruits to the ranks of seasoned boxers already counted among he Division’s membership. Cards, including six, eight or ten three-round fights were almost monthly affairs after the Division emerged from the earlier stages of training, and from these bouts was formed a reasonably accurate roster of the 11th Armored Division’s ring champions. Among those winners were not a few who, as amateurs, semi-professionals, and professionals, had been more familiar in the ring as civilians. These experienced men did much to groom plucky cubs into crafty boxers.

Wrestling, too, became a popular Polk Field House occupation, with many former followers of the grunt-and-groan profession appearing regularly to keep in condition and pass on mat hints to would-be grapple experts. Contestants in this science of muscular prowess were never lacking of exceptionally strong support from their units, and the spirit of friendly rivalry was always loudly demonstrated by good natured heckling from a keenly enthusiastic audience.

Simplicity personifies in its equipment and skill, volleyball has proven, since the nation’s military expansion began in 1940, to be almost invariably the most popular single type of team competition. So few are the items of play required to up full-fledged volleyball courts that even the smallest of units may carry those items into the field without undue encumbrance, and the result has been that, in many isolated war theater. Difficult to supply, volleyball has been occasionally the only organized sport available. Eleventh men became volleyball fans early in their army lives, and informal games and teams sprouted with weed-like rapidity. Formal leagues were organized for volleyball play, as well, and major attention was given by the men of every unit to the games.

Proper recognition for victors in all competitive athletic activities was as original Division policy, and that recognition frequently took the form of trophies furnished by the Special Service Office. The official sanction thus granted many forms of sports enabled no small number of men to take with them to civilian life material tokens of their army prowess. Recognition was also accorded to organizations whose members were most successful in their athletic endeavors.

Men of the Thunderbolt were no exception to the universal rule that men in uniform, confronted by stark realities, view with a new slant their religious lives. They spent many hours in the chapels and at the outdoor religious services at Camp Polk. Thoughtful, considerate chaplains, whose military jobs deal with every phase of the soldier’s life, became an indispensable part of the days of the Division, and to them came hundreds upon hundreds of men with countless problems. But most important to the men who attended the services those same chaplains conducted was the spiritual guidance they afforded amid unfamiliar scenes, trying days of training and unprecedented problems. Without ostentation, religion in daily life became a standard practice of many 11th Armored Division men.

Supplementing the services of the dozen standard Army chapels which dotted Camp Polk’s scenes were the improvised field chapels which, especially in the early days of the Division, were often visited by many men. Their homely appearance, however, detracted not at all from their charm. Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter provided opportunity for renewal of ties with home and pre-war years. Services for men of all faiths were arranged by the Division’s chaplains, and Catholics, Protestants, and Jews alike joined their families at long distance in religious rites. Each Sunday morning streams of men wearing the Eleventh Armored patch wended their way toward the white chapels of their units to attend services of their own faiths, services arranged and conducted by men of God in uniform –Army chaplains. Lack of large auditoriums suitable for mass religious services often brought about outdoor meetings at Camp Polk. Notable among these was the Easter sunrise attended by almost every unit of the Division. Many families of officers and enlisted men were present as guests, as was the entire membership of the 41st WAAC Training Regiment.

Many were the stage productions brought to Camp Polk’s theaters and Service Clubs by USO Camp Shows through the cooperation of the Hollywood Victory Committee. Not a month passed without a group of sage, screen and radio artists to beguile off-duty hours with music, dancing and comedy. Delightful as are the appearances of the nation’s top entertainment names, many of the younger male stars have been called to the colors and those who remain must necessarily widely space their visits. Supporting their efforts are the thousands of lesser-known performers who visit every military base on the globe. To these are due sincere appreciation. Typical of the spirit of fellowship freely exhibited by each of the world famous stars who called upon Eleventh Armored men at Camp Polk was their perennial request to visit each of the scenes of battle training so familiar to their GI hosts. Dozens of green coveralls, worn by filmland’s most famous names on jolting tank rides, on machine gun ranges and battle courses are today treasured souvenirs of 11th men. At Camp Polk’s rugged infiltration course more than one soldier crawled from the final trench to charge across the road only to come face to face with Joan Blondell or Bob Hope.

Few indeed are the American fighting men who have failed to attend, either at a training camp, at an overseas station or a near-battle bivouac a performance by Bob Hope, whose trips throughout the nation and the world to entertain the nation’s men and women in uniform have written a splendid page for the story of the entertainment industry’s war effort. Accompanied by broad-mustached Jerry Colonna and gracious Frances Langford, whose popularity never fades, Hope, king of comics, visited Camp Polk in the spring of 1943 for appearances punctuated by endless rounds of hospital wards and training areas. Bluff, hearty Cary Grant, one of Hollywood’s first top stars to make a whirlwind tour of Polk, arrived while many Division men toiled in the throes of basic training. His ready laugh, firm handshake and throaty, wry comments won for the Hollywood “he-man” a lasting place in 11th Armored Division memoirs.

Gorgeous, gracious Joan Blondell, her blonde hair following in the breeze from Louisiana’s pine woods, whirled through Camp Polk for three thrill-filled days late in 1942,impartially attending mess hall chow assemblies, range firing and tank demonstrations with unfailing charm.

In sharp contrast to the gala scenery so typical of his quarter-century of stage success, Blackstone, unsurpassed in the field of modern magic, held spellbound thousands of men who turned from tank problems to gather around impromptu stages – a half track or a reconnaissance car – as he dexterously demonstrated his matchless, mysterious feats.

Far from the beaten path of the familiar scenes of stage productions were many of the varied types of entertainment featured at Polk theaters, service clubs and recreation halls. The Serge Platoff Don Cossack Choir, timelessly popular choral group which has appeared in every major city in America for dozens of years, was not the least in popularity.

Unique is the niche carved in a soldier’s hall of memories by amateur entertainers who have given freely of their time and effort to make more pleasant the intensive time of training. At Camp Polk civilian guests came from a dozen nearby towns to sing, to dance and to act for the multitude of men in uniform who made Louisiana their temporary home. Uncounted scores of young ladies from Northeastern Louisiana and West Texas towns often came many miles to attend Eleventh Armored dances, and their presence transformed myriad evenings into memorable ones for the trainees.

Tribute and thanks, when the turn of memory recalls pleasant hours at Camp Polk, must also go to military agencies which carefully planned and as meticulously programmed the visits and schedules of each entertainer, whether star, singer, dancer or amateur – to provide satisfaction for the tastes of each individual of the 11th Armored Division. Truly the entire gamut of entertainment was covered and covered again.

America at war has marveled at the many miles, the long hours and the generous-hearted cooperation the nation’s entertainment world has given to the men who drive the tanks, sail the ships and pilot the planes. Dusty, tedious hours of 11th Armored Division preparation for combat were lightened beyond measure at Camp Polk by the stage, screen and radio stars who smilingly came and laughingly conquered. Far more demanding even than the time-honored “four-a-day” of vaudeville were the hour-crammed circuits they were called upon to play, yet each entertainer brought warm-voiced assurance throughout days without respite to Thunderbolt men that, in uniform, they would not know neglect or forgetfulness.

Girls of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, courageous, early pioneers in the nation’s effort to enlist its woman-power to work beside men in uniform, journeyed often, with 11th Armored Division men, to Louisiana’s and east Texas’ rich farmlands and cattle ranches as the weekend guests of hospitably southern families. Farm-born and reared men and women found mutual interest and many pleasant hours as together they climbed corral fences, toured corn fields and admired sleek cattle. From their association with the planters and farmers of Louisiana and Texas many rurally-inclined men gained a new concept of the ties which unite the nation – for corn grows in Louisiana, as well as in Iowa; cotton in Texas as well as in Tennessee.

Illness, far less prevalent than in a city comparable in population to the total enrollment of the 11th Armored Division, occasionally plagues Thunderbolt men at Polk, although, as they hardened in the throes of training, the incidence of sickness declined. Always carefully observed was the Army’s broad policy that men even slightly ill must be hospitalized, and men suffering only from minor, but a contagious, diseased were sent to the spacious station hospital, along with those suffering from more serious illnesses and accidents. There, given splendid care, recovery was quick. Every effort was made to care for their welfare while confined in the hospital and on frequent occasions leaders of the Division visited hospitalized men.

Pertinent pauses were far from unusual at Camp Polk, for officers and men of the 11th Armored Division often turned to tasks beyond the scope of training schedules, but nonetheless important. Civilian phases of the war effort must be given assistance; governmental agencies and services frequently were supplemented by comparable services of the Division; guests must be welcomed to the Eleventh and to Polk. Such interesting interludes sometimes required the cooperation of but a few men or units of the Division – sometimes many or all. But their diversionary aspects were welcome indeed.

Full cooperation was given by Eleventh units to all progress of the war effort, and an earaly1943 scrap metal drive brought hundreds of tons of contributions from the Division and from families of Division men who lived nearby.

Concrete evidence of the necessity for combating the Axis treachery and cruelty which we fight today was often furnished graphically to the Division by those among its own members whose homes were originally in lands now, occupied by Nazis and their satellites.

Barracks to bedrolls was the transition in store for men of the Division when they moved from Camp Polk into the field for extensive maneuver problems in the third phase of Louisiana-Texas maneuvers conducted by the nation’s Third Army. Spotless barracks, well-appointed mess halls and city-like camp facilities gave way to insects, blackout marches and chow lines.

Introduced to a life as strange as had been the army itself a half year earlier, city-bred men of the Eleventh soon pulled abreast of the country-bred buddies in knowledge of the thousand minute details which are associated with life in the field. Arranged, in addition to the strategic experience afforded, to acquaint men with the none too simple science of living and fighting under natural conditions as primitive as those known to their fighting ancestors centuries before, the maneuver phase of the Thunderbolt’s history transformed theory-trained recruits into field-experienced soldiers. Long accepted conveniences of modern civilization became daily problems to be solved without interference with preparations for combat. Inextricably linked with training in living in the field were the lessons in tactical dispositions – strategy and blank-shell combat.

Each unit of the nation’s Army which has “sweated out” a period of Louisiana maneuvers carried away unforgettable memories grounded in the season of their presence in the maneuver area. To the Eleventh, no memory of field exercises in Louisiana is more typical – and more universal – than that of swirling clouds of dust, billowing up from he tank treads and the wheels of many vehicles.

Far from the greatest share of official attention to maneuver problems may be devoted to matters of supply and maintenance which pyramid when camps are left behind, for the Division’s organization must continue to function in every detail just as it did in garrison. Spacious offices transfer their activities to tents; the tents replace company orderly rooms and battalion and regimental headquarters – and the entire transition must occur without disrupting military routine.

Observing, correcting, instructing, Major General Brooks was to every unit of the 11th Armored Division in the field an oft-seen individual. Covering scored of miles each day and night to watch the progress of problems, the operation of supply and lines of communication, General Brooks’ erect figure, as his jeep traveled back roads and river banks, symbolized the importance of each man’s tasks.

Dust, dirt, and digging were the daily companions of every Eleventh soldier under the blistering Louisiana sun. Dust which swirled over vehicles covered tents and piled inches-deep embankments along roadways; dirt which begrimed hands, sullied equipment and left each man’s face a mottled mask of brown at day’s end; digging in sandy loam, in fertile black earth and rock-hard red clay – digging slit trenches, digging garbage pits, digging gun emplacements, digging-in vehicles. Every movement, whether an individual’s or a unit’s, involved dust, dirt – and digging so frequent that the shovel seemed the most universal weapon in this man’s Army.

Giant trestle-like frames, appearing often at the exact moment of need, rapidly stretched their tentacles across pontoons shifting into place with mechanical rapidity to link attack troops and vehicles with opposite bank objectives. Lessons learned earlier in brief field exercises in the art of conquering natural water handicaps received the final touches of experience so vital to successful operations in combat.

Man and varied were the tactical lessons of movement absorbed daily by the men whose vehicles seemed to move almost without halt across fields, through pine forests and over streams in Louisiana and Texas.

Streams, large or small, defiles and impassable, rickety bridges even ceased to appear as obstacles to tank commanders and half-track drivers as they watched the speed and skill with which the tireless engineers, working by day and by night, spanned the obstacles. Sturdy, square-log bridges or bypasses were built with miraculous speed even as the waiting vehicle crews watched.

Tanks and vehicles of armor, capable of devastating and crushing blows, must, at times, themselves be protected. And camouflage – its methods and adaptations – early became a prime interest of the tankers emerging as crafty fighter.

Not only the heavier weapons of offensive were found to demand camouflage protection as maneuver days became weeks, for men of the Division also became adept in the cloaking of machine gun positions, of trucks and tents and individual foxholes with the vitally important covering of natural coloring and foliage.

No maneuver-instilled lesson will prove more important to combat-threatened troops of the Eleventh than the protection of supply lines. From the earliest arrival of supplies at railheads, where selected troops intelligently guard the rail establishments, to the arrival of food and equipment in the field, caution was never relaxed.

Most convenient late camouflage invention, irreplaceable in the open plains of West Texas, was the camouflage net, made to order protective covering for tanks, half-tracks, trucks – for every vehicle – which also concealed installations.

Stealth borrowed from the light foot-falls of primitive warriors may seem impossible to adapt to the operations of giant, lumbering tanks, but the same surprise of an Indian attack is far from impossible in an armored division. Dependent upon factors ranging from careful preparation for the assault to the individual alertness of each man, surprise is an essential component part of the striking tactics of an armored unit. Spacing of vehicles in moving columns to avert permanent danger of air decimation assumed prime tactical importance.

Maintenance of men and machines to preserve them both in constant fighting trim may not be left for rear areas or pauses in battle. First echelon maintenance – oft-repeated, never forgotten phase of any division – claimed minute-by-minute attention in Louisiana. Minute failures of equipment or manpower, made critical by neglect or multiplied by duplication in scores of vehicles, may spell quick disaster for an attack of an army or a nation. In no instance, therefore, was the smallest failure of maintenance permitted or excused.

Unpredictable and muddy, the Sabine River, state-line border of Texas and Louisiana, loomed early in 11th Armored Division training as familiarly as deserted, rippling back-home creeks or crowded city plunges. No new departure in the training of troops is the matter of instruction in rivers and their ways, but to a vehicle-crowded armored division the problem of transferring operations across a stream of considerable proportions are doubled and redoubled. To overcome these problems in training and preparation for actual battle operations, the Sabine served as an invaluable instruction area. Every conceivable type of crossing was made by the Eleventh during two months of swift movement from Louisiana to East Texas and back to Louisiana. Smoke obscured operations many times; feints were made, establishing small holding units on hostile shores while actual offensive crossings were made many miles up or down stream; a half-dozen crossings were made simultaneously the Sabine was crossed and then re-crossed in the same problem against enemy opposition.

Final defensive preparation against enemy armored assault, as offensive plans are formulated, is the many-typed tank barrier. Erected at points of probable attack, the barriers serve to check or halt hostile tanks. Natural tank barriers, solidly supplementing the mechanical efforts of defending troops, were streams such as the Sabine. So tractable, however, was the cooperative river that changing depths permitted, at times, employment of the oft-used process of fording.

The eyes of Texas watched column after column of vehicles and car after car of trains transfer the equipment and men of the 11th Armored Division from Camp Polk to Camp Barkeley in the Division’s first permanent change of station, late in August of 1943. Short weeks at Polk ended the Eleventh’s Louisiana training period when maneuvers had concluded, and the migration to the plains of Central Texas began immediately. Welcome indeed were the wide-open spaces of ranges and ranches after swamps and forests of Polk’s environs.

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. Much of the Division’s training schedule time at Barkeley was devoted to matters growing out of necessity of that training was barely matched by the satisfaction of officers and men alike with their new home. Hardly had the Division scouted its surroundings when the deorganization of armored divisions reached the Eleventh, to dissolve three of the principal units which had comprised the Division from its activation – the 41st and 42nd Armored Regiments and the 55th Armored Infantry Regiment.

When universal reorganization of the nation’s armored divisions dissolved regiments and launched battalions, the Thunderbolt’s station was at Camp Barkeley. Among many officers and men who departed was Brigadier General Charles L. Mullins, Jr., courtly chief of Combat Command B from the Division’s activation.

Barkeley brought many changes in the lives of the troops of the Eleventh, and most notable of these was the uniform alteration which omitted, in the oft-baking Texas days, the summer uniform tie. Authorized by Division authorities in accordance with the accepted practice of Camp Barkeley, the tie abandonment constituted a physical token of the Thunderbolt’s change of scenery. Sharing the custom were the men of the huge Medical Replacement Training Center – together with thousands of men of other units “deep in the heart of Texas.”

Sharing with the appreciation of men of the Eleventh for the new scenes they found in Texas was the cordial reception by the Texans of the unfamiliar vehicles and newly arrived soldiers of the Division. Civic leaders and average civilians alike extended every courtesy to the Thunderbolt men, and vehicles of the Division formed a major portion of the purchase attracting displays of central Texas’ participation in the Third War Loan drive. The welcome of the people of the Lone Star State to the first armored division to train among them was enthusiastic.

World events, as the Eleventh’s training had progressed, transformed the war picture from a dark one for the Allies to a scene fraught with the rays of impending success. At Barkeley many men of the Thunderbolt, Italian born or of Italian descent, joyfully learned that the nation of their ancestry had deserted the support of the Axis, and a few weeks later the anti-Axis government of Marshal Pietro Badoglio fully united with the United Nations for an all out war against the Italians’ German oppressors. The end of the beginning was near.

Participation in frequent civilian programs planned to stimulate the civilian war effort – particularly the purchase of war bonds – increased and intensified the men of the Division in the military equivalents of the same programs. 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 yet attained. The Division’s bond campaign was sparked by the Commanding General, Major General Brooks, who made several appearances before Abilene civic groups, in addition to a 30-minute radio address.

Awe-struck children, viewing movie-pictures tanks in person for the first time, provided gasping, attentive audiences for many of the Eleventh’s war bond programs in Texas, and the children’s parents joined in the flattering attention. Every type of armored unit, from artillery attack weapons to band groups, had a good share in the highly successful bond rallies.

New equipment, replacing much of the maneuver-worn material which accompanied the Division from Louisiana to Texas, arrives 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 Eleventh was destined to use them only for short weeks. New artillery observation planes also were delivered to the Eleventh at Camp Barkeley, and when the ships’ pilots, trim feminine members of the WASPs, women’s ferrying organization, stepped from them, watching soldiers of the Division gained a new insight into the scope of the participation of American women in every phase of the war effort. Two young ladies making their first delivery of planes to an armored unit, were guests of the Division’s pilots for a few hours before they began their return trip to the factory and looked over many of the Thunderbolt’s heavy weapons and vehicles. All of the carefully gathered and renovated heavy equipment, however, was soon to leave the possession of the Eleventh, for when the Ninth Armored Division quit Camp Ibis, on the Mojave Desert of California, arrangements were made whereby the two armored divisions made an exchange of equipment.

Unexpectedly soon came the call for the 11th Armored Division to evacuate Camp Barkeley and prepare for the most realistic of all battle-training – desert maneuvers. As October of 1943 drew to its end, train after train jerked from the Barkeley sidings to begin the long journey to the cactus, sand and sage brush of California’s desert.

Uncompromising and forbidding, the Mojave Desert is a bleakly desolate land of grotesquely shaped and vari—colored mountains of stone towering over endless miles of arid land long stricken from nature’s roster of assets. Yet, three years ago, when swift, broad strokes of creation called into being the greatest Army to wear the uniform of the United States of America, and the need inevitably arose for some type of domestic training for the new young giant which would approximate the battle tasks awaiting, it was to the Mojave, hurriedly plucked from the junk heap of geography, that the planners turned. Close inspection verified earlier conclusions that amid the brush-dotted dunes of the desert men might live and work and fight and plan almost exactly as they would be later called upon to do where ocean voyages ended. From the matter of organization of the desert maneuver area, which was carefully modeled on the system employed in overseas theaters of operation, to the last minute mess hall detail, life on the desert was a faithful reproduction of life in rear-area camps far from any American shore. Many individual division camps were established throughout the Mojave, ranging from the Mexican border to Nevada, from Arizona to the first green hints of land more favored by nature along the California coastline. Unit after unit of American armed forces, already fully inoculated with military fundamentals and field lessons learned in maneuvers in other sections of the nation, came to California to occupy base camps – cities of endless rows of tents – for months on end, and then move out for further weeks and months of full-scale maneuvers. Hardly two months after respite was granted to the 11th Armored Division at the end of Louisiana maneuvers, men of the Thunderbolt were streaming from trains at tiny desert railroad stations marked by little more than water towers and the shacks of section crews. Soul-shriveling, almost, were the endless, changeless landscapes before them – dreary, billowing and overpowering as ill-odored drug. On the desert there are no subtleties. Skies are drab or daubed with Aztec coloring; night are a pitch dark or a neon bright; the air is motionless or a nor’wester rages. Implacable or tender, the Mojave has not been slandered by the stories of its swift, laughing abandonment of men to certain death. Amid such scenes, at Ibis, a score of miles from the Arizona-California bordering Colorado River, the Thunderbolt settled for the winter of 1943-44. Vacated a few weeks earlier by the Ninth Armored Division, Ibis stretched, with symbolic desert expansiveness, lengthwise west to east for more than two miles. Its tents, its thorn-studded brush, its combat-like inconveniences – all became the daily life of men who wore the Thunderbolt patch. Nights of bitter, biting cold followed mornings of warmth and chilling afternoons through cycles of days, broken only by pauses to celebrate, for the Division’s second time, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Far different from the marrow-melting heat experienced by many other units whose desert adventures were for the duration of torrid season s were the memories stored away at Ibis by Eleventh personnel. As calendar pages flipped past to record the opening of the Division’s third dateline year, Ibis became almost a deserted village as troops began their series of maneuver thrusts and counter-thrusts among the unmarked, unfriendly waves of the desert sea. There, under starry nights and brilliant, swiftly ascending moon, after sunsets beyond reproduction, the 11th Armored Division learned the cold passionless beauty of the desert. There many a venture led to an experience long to be remembered and storied in the years to come.

Deceptive distances, merging panoramically into the horizon, became a keynote of daily life of men on the Mojave Desert. The tented area of Ibis, with its multiple rows of cloth barracks, soon shared, I the eyes of the men who inhabited these rows, the colorless symmetry of the surrounding natural landscapes. Tankers, artillerymen and infantrymen, accustomed to the sharp, land-marked 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 sand, assumed new and difficult aspects.

Central point of Division organization in the desert was the Headquarters Circle at Ibis, situated at the halfway point of the long Eleventh tent camp area. Here the tents of all headquarters offices were grouped crescent-like around the Thunderbolt flag. National colors and the two-star banner of the commanding general marked the tent quarters of Major General Brooks, a hundred yards from the circle of headquarters offices. Flanked by the orange canvas of Brigadier General Kilburn’s quarters and the tent of Colonel Charles D. Palmer, chief of staff.

Trackless desert wastes, uncharted as a sea, where maps and radio sets replaced roads and landmarks, brought to soldiers of the Eleventh a new understanding of the paramount importance of permanently endurable lines of communication. Deceiving distances, obstructing mountain ranges, in a land where every horizon resembles the last, sharpened compass consciousness and the oft-forgotten, all-important ears of listening radio men. Only endless hours of care lavished on weapons and equipment, much of it bequeathed to the Eleventh by units which had formerly trained in the desert, sufficed to maintain in battle trim, despite wind and dust and sand, the Division’s striking power. Instruction, often from the immediate examples offered by field problems did not pause in the desert. Night after night and day after day found classes in progress, reviewing lessons previously covered and emphasizing the practical application of maneuver problem solutions to situations certain to arise in combat.

Chemical warfare’s chief weapon in the present war, 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 to assault fixed enemy positions, often were granted the cloak of protective smoke as they moved into battle. Dropping earthward to fire at shadowy foes, and then leaping forward again, the rugged doughboys scored many victories.

New battle-suggestive maneuver experiences, far surpassing in realism any training yet devised for combat-remote areas, awaited the 11th Armored Division when, in the opening days of January, it moved into the field. Tactical situations, in broad outline essentially hose of Louisiana a half-year earlier, became serious, grim business. The clanging of air raid alarms sounded more and more frequently and the aircraft no longer only theoretically eliminated troops by bombing, for more often than not the planes swooped low to drop eye-swelling tear gas. 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.

Chief among the many high ranking and foreign military guests who visited the Eleventh at Ibis and during maneuver phases to observe training and tactics was Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair, chief of Army ground Forces, who arrived at camp a short while before maneuvers hot under way. Welcomed by General Brooks and General Kilburn, the ground chief met many officers of the division, watched troops go through training paces, and dined at the commanding general’s mess.

Aside from the visual, physical aspects of the desert, its relentless, rough-grained atmosphere served to harden, muscularly and mentally, trained technical soldiers into rugged fighting men. Conceptions of life under primitive conditions changed from toil to routine. Minor details of daily existence, once magnified to monumental proportions by the abandonment of conveniences afforded in training garrisons, resumes their proper minor roles in the plans of men and of organizations. Chow lines and mess kits became as widely accepted as the china and chow halls of previous training stages. Base camp hardships graduated to the status of coveted luxuries. The Mojave Desert, immemorially bent on forging full figured men or destroying tem, granted to the Thunderbolt the last leaven of steel-like toughness required by the Division to finally fit it for entrance into battle.

Immeasurably intensified in value by their scarcity, the rough-hewn recreational facilities available to troops of the Division in the desert were chiefly tent-housed exchanges which simultaneously served as drug stores, beer parlors, cigar stands and service clubs.  Across rude, hand-fashioned counters were dispensed the soft drinks, the beer, soap, cigarettes and candy which were desert luxuries.

Only twice throughout the Division’s entire period at Ibis and on desert maneuvers was the monotonously nutritious diet of iron rations withdrawn for a more varied menu. On Thanksgiving and at Christmas hundreds of plump turkeys, delivered to anxiously awaiting mess hall staffs, became unprecedented feasts.

Training paused only briefly at Christmas, as every unit’s responsible officers made final preparations for the maneuvers to follow almost immediately, but the pause was notable for its informality and peculiarly desert aspects. A midnight mass at the sand-seated, sky-roofed Division Amphitheater began the religious observance of the day, after touring singers and public address systems made Christmas Eve visits to every organization to present the music traditionally associated with the holiday. On Christmas morning additional religious services were held in tent chapels, and the Division’s highest officers walked from area to area to extend greetings of the day to the enlisted men and officers they encountered.

Primitive expedients sufficed to serve the daily requirements of men and officers alike at Ibis, and the barber-soldier, his talents often unrecognized in garrisons well supplied tonsorial, presided at candy-pole tents and open air establishments.

Entertainment, provided by USO Camp Shows and the Hollywood Victory Committee, occasionally played to capacity audiences at the Amphitheater. Stars whose names rank with Hollywood’s most well-known headlined some of the one-night shows, and appreciative soldiers audibly welcomed their visits. Hosts of the men of the 11th Armored Division on their repeated weekend visits to the Nevada city, the people of Las Vegas watched that Western town’s most pretentious display of military might move through its streets on November 11, 1943. Tanks of several Thunderbolt units joined to stage the Armistice parade, when General Brooks shared with the state’s senior senator, Pat McCarran, chief speaking honors on the Armistice Day program. Graciously received b the Las Vegas residents, the patriotic expedition served to enhance favorable Eleventh relations with the city.

“A” rations beckoned to field ration weary men of the 11th Armored Division as they rolled into Camp Cooke, the prospect of beds and mattresses and barracks for the first substantial period in eight months sharing their attention. 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, bag and baggage, on trains and motor convoys for the journey to its next training station. Last armored division to visit the desert, as the turning tides of war caused emphasis to shift to other phases of training, the Eleventh’s members were the final occupants of Ibis. The Camp was soon closed. Northwestward to Camp Cooke, vast military reservation jutting into the Pacific, moved the Eleventh through cloud-hazed mountain passes which mark the boundary between Southern California’s irreconcilably beautiful coastal region and forbidding inland area. Rain -- seldom experienced desert phenomenon – provoked exclamations of wonder and welcome as Thunderbolt men hungrily watched greenswarded landscape, itself a near-forgotten sight, roll past. Beauty greeted desert-weary eyes. Typical of the physical evidences of the Division’s return to training garrison life were the impressive flag-led ceremonies which followed the Eleventh’s arrival at Camp Cooke. Upon the broad, grass-covered parade ground which lay before the Division Headquarters building was established the daily ceremony of retreat, and now-seasoned soldiers, their ranks thinned by the strain of training, recalled their earliest retreat formations. So welcome were the pleasant scenes about them, the trimness of uniforms and the orderly routine of a permanent camp that men who a year earlier had viewed parades with alarm, welcomed them at Cooke.

Maneuver-mauled machines, their framework groaningly protesting the stress of Mojave miles, began to receive close attention at Cooke almost before they had discharged their convoy burdens of men and materiel. Weapons and vehicles, rendered capable of full desert service only by careful attention to first echelon maintenance, replacements and revamping, soon assumed garrison-restored freshness, rivaling their well-spruced crews in mutual cooperation necessary between men and machines.

Scientific testing of the individual and organizational training of men and units began immediately upon the Eleventh’s arrival at Camp Cooke, and coincidentally final training polish of many facets of the Division’s battle fitness was carried on. In classrooms and on drill fields lessons begun almost a score of months earlier were reviewed, renewed and perfected. Theories carried into practice but occasionally submerged in the trials of maneuver problems were re-emphasized.

Poised for preview at Camp Cooke, on the eve of weeks-long series of Army Ground Force tests and inspections destined to determine definitely the efficiency of the months of training which had elapsed since August of 1942, the 11th Armored Division surveyed its history as drastic changes were made. General Brooks, commanding general of the Thunderbolt from its inception, and Colonel Palmer, original chief of Staff, left to join battle-tested troops awaiting the invasion. To the post of Division commander came General Kilburn, upon General Brooks’ departure, and a short while later he assumed permanent command. Colonel Willard A. Holbrook, original Division Trains commander, took over General Kilburn’s Combat Command A and Colonel Wesley W. Yale, former Eighth Armored combat commander, became chief of staff. Lt. Col. Robert G. Lowe, former G-2, became commanding officer of Division Trains.

Befitting the universally shared anticipation of the cumulative battle tests rapidly approaching was the growing emphasis which its Camp Cooke training period saw placed upon Eleventh combat practice. Each type of Division unit daily saw more realistic the training schedules planned for them, until a predominant amount of the Thunderbolt’s time was hoarded for rifle ranges, tank testing areas, and artillery firing sectors. Attention now centered on perfecting the precision of each soldier.

Spectator-shocking examples of last-stage practice for transfer from the rehearsal to the professional stage of warfare were the detail-complete problems staged by the Division’s infantry battalions which spared no fine-point of timing in the reproduction of combat conditions to be experienced in times yet to come.

Complete villages, containing all the obstacles encountered by troops who fight through civilian-abandoned towns and cities, contributed their invaluable share of knowledge to the mounting store of experience being hoarded against the day of attack by Eleventh doughboys. Booby-trap strewn streets and houses concealing enemy snipers and gun emplacements taught by trial the many-sided dangers of street fighting as round after round of live ammunition thudded into the substantial structures. Repeated trips were made by the infantry, through the replica of danger-surrounded villages one day to be encountered. Heavily armed, with every offensive and defensive item of small arms provided, the Eleventh men slugged their way with sham-questioning reality.

Awe-inspiring sheets of flame tossed from back-slung flame throwers took high billing in the battle-readying preparation of the Thunderbolt at Cooke. Duplicates of the terror spreading weapons which forced the Japanese from Gibraltar-like fortresses on South Pacific isles, the flame throwers were studied, mastered and studied again by the men who will carry them into battle and the men who will sometimes rely on their effectiveness to quell stubborn enemy opposition. Field tests against blockhouses built to simulate battle objectives followed days of lectures on the battle-dubbed blow torches and hours of their dissection and part-by-part study.

Typical of the critical attention focused on divisions nearing the end of their training were the repeated visits paid to the Eleventh at Cooke by the Army’s most important figures. Lt. Gen. McNair came to the Thunderbolt for the second time in less than half a year, accompanied by Major General John Milliken, under whose III Corps authority the Division moved when it arrived at Cooke. The Army Ground Forces chief’s party inspected many training phases at Cooke, pausing at times to carefully investigate the individual efficiency of officers and non-commissioned officers. General McNair’s period at Camp Cooke was but the first of a long series of carefully detailed inspections by AGF.

Most impressive moment of the 11th Armored Division’s training arrived early in May of 1944, when General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff and the entire Army’s ranking officer, came to Cooke for the specific purpose of inspecting the Thunderbolt’s training and state of battle preparation. After watching tank problems, mine field deactivation and artillery firing, the General addressed all officers and top-grade NCOs of the Division, telling them, “I have been very much impressed with the things I have seen here today.”

Organized athletics reached unprecedented heights of activity at Camp Cooke, and one of the outstanding single events was the Division boxing tournament held in the spacious well arranged Sports Arena. Dozens of Eleventh ring enthusiasts participated in the tournament, which produced the first authentic boxing champions in the Thunderbolt’s history.

Basketball, in full swing when the Eleventh arrived at Cooke, where one of the West Coast’s top service fives was based, brought forth two-score Division teams to participate in Thunderbolt league play, and to capture the Camp tournament.

A baseball team worthy of the Division’s full support emerged from practice sessions in April, and a schedule arranged b the Division athletic office brought them games with the first-ranking service teams of the entire Pacific Coast area. The Thunderbolt nine acquitted itself with distinction in each of its games.

Proximity of the eleventh training site at Cooke to the motion picture center of Hollywood brought many opportunities for the men of the Division to visit world-famous scenes of the movie city and of Los Angeles. Cooperation of the Thunderbolt in the filming of pictures was occasionally sought, and a few fortunate men traveled to Hollywood with their weapons as official representatives of the Eleventh, only large armored nit presently stationed near Southern California’s chief city. The open-handed hospitality accorded to the Division in California and Los Angeles registered a lasting impression.

Entertainment highlights of the 11th Armored Division‘s presence at Camp Cooke were the weekend visits of hundreds of young ladies who came from Los Angeles, Hollywood and many other Southern California cities as guests of he Division. Service Club and recreational hall dances furnished the principal items on the weekend parties, and General Kilburn, soon after the Thunderbolt arrived at Cooke, removed the ban on off-duty wearing of civilian shoes, saying, “I had heard that some of the men of other outfits, not hampered by GI shoes, were outdoing you on the dance floor. Naturally, that situation could not be tolerated.”

A chief attraction for the girls who visited Camp Cooke dances was the tour of the Division’s heavy equipment which was always included on the program. Tanks, artillery weapons and halftracks were turned out in their finest array for the benefit of the feminine guests, who donned coveralls and field jackets for their informal inspections.

Many Hollywood figures appeared at Camp Cooke as participants in stage productions arranged by the Camp Special Service Office, which also handled the weekly preparation of variety shows for the Service Clubs. Lt. Rudy Vallee’s eleventh Naval District Coast Guard Band, the USO camp shows and independent Hollywood organizations and individuals did much to give success to the entire Camp entertainment program.

Top-flight dance bands, formed from the Division Band Platoon organized at Camp Barkeley, appeared at countless Division functions at Cooke, and the premier combination, the Cobandos, rivaling in versatility and repertoire many of the nation’s big name orchestras, was invited to fill a two-day engagement at the world famed Hollywood Canteen.

Among top civilian notables who called upon the Division during its training periods was Frank C. Walker, Postmaster General of the United States, who visited Camp Cooke as the guest of General Kilburn. After viewing various types of units included in the Eleventh, the Postmaster General looked in on the Division’s Arm Post Office 261, inspected the APO’s facilities and went over the problems of handling Army mail. Later with General Kilburn and General Milliken, he reviewed a ceremony staged by Filipino troops stationed at Cooke and pinned a Soldier’s Medal on a Filipino soldier commended for bravery.

Mort au champ d’honneur . . . . . “dead on the field of honor” are those men of the 11th Armored Division who have given their lives in preparation for that day when we meet and crush the enemy. The memory of those comrades in arms is eternally etched in our hearts. Their spirit will lead us in battle and quicken the tempo of our march to victory.

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