US Army: What it Was Like in the US Military in Between Wars
What it Was Like in the US Military in Between Wars

What it Was Like in the US Military in Between Wars

Larry Holzwarth - March 11, 2022

What it Was Like in the US Military in Between Wars
The first American peacetime draft began with the Selective Service Act of 1940.

17. Draft boards determined who was eligible for conscription

The Selective Service Act of 1940 required all American men between the ages of 21 and 35 to register for the draft. Throughout the United States, communities formed draft boards to determine who among the registered manpower pool would be actually conscripted into the service. The boards were comprised of prominent local leaders; businessmen, political activists, clergy, and so forth. The boards evaluated each case to determine in which category an individual belonged. Those found to be 1A were the first to enter the service after being assigned a number by lottery. Boards took into consideration overall health, occupation, marital status, children, and many other factors when evaluating candidates. Early in the war, some men of draft age avoided the Army by enlisting in the Navy, a practice discontinued in 1942. From then, volunteers had to go through the draft process, to ensure the needs of all services were met.

A draftee wasn’t necessarily in the Army yet, even after receiving his notice and reporting to an induction center. Physical and mental health examinations came first. It was possible to qualify for one service and be disqualified for another. For example, chronic ear infections could disqualify a man for naval service (inner ear problems contribute to seasickness) but he could still be useful to the Army. Eyesight which disqualified a man from pilot training did not necessarily mean he couldn’t carry a rifle in the infantry. Draftees could state which service they preferred, but the needs of the service branches outweighed the desires of the serviceman. After the examinations, fingerprinting and signing the induction papers, an oath was administered and the new recruit was sent to a reception center. Most draftees were allowed a short period of time to arrange their affairs before shipping out.

What it Was Like in the US Military in Between Wars
US Army recruits in training at Camp Edwards, Massachusetts in late 1942. US Army

18. Draftees arriving at training centers still faced shortages in 1941

The draft allowed the Army to amass manpower in 1941, before the attack on Pearl Harbor, but it still faced shortages in practically everything needed to equip, train, and feed the new recruits. American industry had begun to focus on war production, thanks to Lend-Lease, but it was a mere fraction of what was required. What supplies were produced were necessarily first needed at advance bases to prepare for defense; the Canal Zone, the Philippines, Hawaii, Alaska, Guam, Wake Island, and others. New recruits arriving at training centers received haircuts, inoculations, uniforms, and little else. Weapons for training recruits were, in 1941, often unserviceable. Uniforms were poorly fitted, mostly leftover from the First World War. The same applied to boots and shoes. Recruits in 1941 trained with obsolete equipment, some of which were leftover from the Spanish-American War.

Nowhere was the Army’s lack of preparedness more readily apparent than in Washington DC in December 1941. Following the Pearl Harbor attack officers working in Washington, offices were required to appear in uniform. Some of them had not worn their uniform, other than the full-dress used for formal affairs, in decades. According to David Brinkley, who witnessed it firsthand, in the second week of December Army officers appeared in a collection of different uniforms, most out-of-date for years, such as choker collar tunics, leggings and gaiters, riding pants and boots, Sam Browne belts, a variety of caps and hats, all in varying shades of green, gray, brown, and khaki. Obtaining up-to-date uniforms had been impossible on short notice, and many turned to private tailors or the Woodward and Lothrop Department Store for new uniforms as the weeks went on.

What it Was Like in the US Military in Between Wars
US Army recruits in training, still in World War I era helmets, in 1941. US Army

19. For many draftees, the Army provided their first trip by train

New recruits left the induction centers bound for training camps. Some, such as Madison Barracks in upstate New York, had been in continuous use by the Army since the War of 1812. Others were brand new and their numbers increased rapidly. For many recruits, particularly those in the South and on the plains, the journey represented their first departure from the community of their birth. Some went by Army trucks or by bus, most went by train. They arrived in civilian clothes, with civilian haircuts and with their individuality intact. The Army immediately went about removing any vestige of the civilian life they knew. They were dressed the same, given the same haircuts, marched in unison to training, to meals, to classes, and to medical care. The goal of recruit training was to instill instant, unquestioning obedience to orders, adherence to Army principles and traditions, and physical fitness.

During recruit training, individual skills and training led to some men being destined to go on to artillery school, or paratrooper school, or tank training, or signals and communications schools. Some advanced training was open to volunteers only, such as the Navy’s submarine school or the Army’s airborne units. Others were based solely on the needs of the services and the evaluations made by one’s superiors. A soldier who demonstrated an aptitude for heavy weapons was pointed to heavy weapons platoons; a sailor with skills in engine mechanics went on to training as an aviation mechanic, or a shipboard engine room specialist. Drivers with civilian experience in large vehicles went into transportation jobs, bakers became cooks and bakers, heavy equipment operators were often sent to the Navy’s Construction Battalions, known as Seabees. The military used the manpower pool to meet its needs, rather than the men’s whims.

What it Was Like in the US Military in Between Wars
An American Grant tank from the 1st Armored Division at the Battle of Kasserine, a major defeat for the US Army in 1943. US Army

20. The US endured several months of failures thanks to its attitude toward the military between the wars

Across the Pacific, in the Philippines, at Wake Island, Guam, and other areas, the US Army and Navy paid for the long years of neglect during the early months of 1942. Where they did achieve success, such as at Guadalcanal, they paid a heavy price in losses of men, materiel, aircraft, and ships. So many American and Dutch ships were lost around Guadalcanal the area became known as Iron Bottom Sound. The US Army and Air Forces initially achieved success in North Africa during Operation Torch in November 1942, mostly because the Vichy French troops opposing them offered only token resistance, when they fought at all. Three months later the numerically superior Americans faced the Germans in a series of battles fought around the Kasserine Pass in North Africa. They suffered a major defeat, blamed on inexperience, poor leadership, poorer organization, and often inadequate equipment.

Life in the American military during the interwar years, especially in the US Army, was a dreary existence. Enlisted soldiers were poorly paid, poorly trained, poorly equipped, and poorly housed. Officers who entered West Point with glowing ideas about a military career discovered a promotion system which offered little or no advancement, a hidebound command structure which resisted innovation, and a public with little patience for a costly standing army. The burst of patriotism which marked victory in the Great War quickly faded into indifference, impatience, and even open hostility to supporting an Army. That so many great leaders, Eisenhower and Marshall, Bradley and Patton, Nimitz and King and Spruance, unnamed non-commissioned officers by the thousands, endured the years of neglect is remarkable. They enabled the United States to prevail in World War II.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Tientsin Garrison”. Article, Global Online

“1920-1921 Military Pay Chart”. Navy Cyberspace. Online

“A Return to Isolationism”. Article, Office of the Historian, US Department of State. Online

“Roosevelt Takes the Plunge”. Article, Theodore Roosevelt Center, Dickinson State University. Online

“Celebrating Highway History: The US Army’s 1919 Cross-Country Convoy”. Editors, July 12, 2019

“First Flight Around the World: The Douglas World Cruisers at Pearson Field”. Article, National Park Service. Online

“‘What a Magnificent Body of Men Never to Take Another Drink’: The US Army and Prohibition”. Benjamin Runkle, Real Clear Defense. January 16, 2019

“Patriotism Betrayed. How the US Military Resegregated From 2013-2019″. Louis Sheridan, Historical Perspectives: Santa Clara University Undergraduate Journal of History”. 2021

“Rum War at Sea”. CDR Malcolm F. Willoughby USCGR, US Department of the Treasury. 1964

“The Air Mail Fiasco”. John T. Correll, Air Force Magazine. March 1, 2008

“American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur, 1880-1964”. William Manchester. 2008

“Marshall and the Civilian Conservation Corps”. Article, George C. Marshall Foundation. March 3, 2017

“A History of the US Army Officer Corps, 1900-1990”. Arthur T. Coumbe, Strategic Studies Institute, Army War College. September, 2014

“First Peacetime Draft Enacted Just Before World War II”. David Vergun, Department of Defense News. April 7, 2020

“Washington Goes to War”. David Brinkley. 1988

“Learning from the past: Interwar period”. Lt. Col. Craig Punches, USAF, Joint Base Charleston (SC) News. June 12, 2013