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

The United States Army entered World War I almost entirely unprepared for modern warfare. The role of the airplane, of tanks and machine guns and gas shells, had not been fully understood before they were encountered on the battlefield. The US Army used French supplied tanks and airplanes during the war, having none of their own. Eventually, nearly 3 million draftees swelled the American army, which had been comprised of less than 100,000 men in 1916, all volunteers. When the war ended almost 5 million Americans had served. They came home to victory parades and triumphant speeches, with most demanding their release from service as soon as possible. By 1920 the regular army was reduced by law to less than 300,000 men. Through the decade the Army declined, as Congress failed to provide adequate funding to support it.

What it Was Like in the US Military in Between Wars
General John J. Pershing in 1923, while serving as US Army Chief of Staff. Library of Congress

Career officers, many of whom made their names on French soil during the war, found little to do in the way of leading troops. Men such as George Patton, Dwight Eisenhower, George Marshall, Omar Bradley, and Douglas MacArthur sought to modernize the American Army, using the lessons learned in the Great War. Inadequate funds stymied them. For most rank and file troops, army life during the 1920s and 1930s was one of confinement to sleepy camps and installations. Pay was low, morale dwindled, out-of-date equipment moldered unused. Gone were the trappings of patriotism which decorated the troops of the late World War. Here is a view of life in the American military during the years between the World Wars, a time marked by Prohibition, the Great Depression, and rising isolationism in the United States.

What it Was Like in the US Military in Between Wars
A New York Victory Parade welcoming General Pershing and soon-to-be demobilized US troops in 1919. Wikimedia

1. It was no way to get rich

A young man choosing to enlist in the US Army in 1922 did so for a period of either one or three years. In return, he received the rank of private and the promise of $21 per month for his services (About $348 today). Along with that “generous” compensation he received his uniforms and equipment, housing, meals, healthcare, and training. He also found himself stripped of all outward appearances of individuality; dressing, walking and behaving the same as his fellows. He learned these adjustments in appearance and behavior at the hands of a company sergeant, one with several years of experience of army life. The company sergeant determined which recruits were most likely to qualify as specialists, such as radiomen, or messengers. Such positions, after training and qualification, brought additional pay and opportunities for promotion.

By the mid-1920s the United States maintained three large overseas garrisons, in the Panama Canal Zone, the Philippines, and the Territory of Hawaii. Another small garrison was in China. The rest of the army of about 250,000 men was scattered in posts across the country, in undermanned bases and camps. Though the Army attempted to close many such camps and consolidate its troops to improve training, Congress stood in the way. Individual congressmen recognized the financial benefit of army bases to their constituents. To those congressmen, re-election was far more important than military preparedness. During the 1920s the Army had little money for training, and when it did train it used increasingly obsolescent equipment. Soldiers on isolated bases had little to do but await the good graces of their sergeant granting them a pass into town, where they could divest themselves of their army pay.

What it Was Like in the US Military in Between Wars
The Superintendent’s quarters at the United States Naval Academy during the interwar years. US Navy

2. For officers, the pay was a little better

Active duty officers of the Army and Navy during the 1920s were nearly all graduates of the respective academies at West Point and Annapolis. There were simply not enough jobs in the reduced services to provide berths for graduates of the Reserve Officers Training Corps. For the officers, social graces were as important as military skills as a means of advancement. A young officer who earned the ire of a senior officer’s spouse found his career in jeopardy. Officers were expected to attend formal cotillions and balls celebrating George Washington’s Birthday, Navy Day, Army Day, the President’s Inauguration, and other auspicious occasions. White gloves and dress swords accompanied their full-dress uniforms. Marrying well was a career move for many social climbers. For the Navy, some such formal events were held aboard capital ships, for the most part, the great battleships.

Officers supported this lifestyle with a pay scale that began at $176 per month (roughly $3,000 today). If one should reach the lofty rank of Colonel (Army) or Captain (Navy) one received more than three times that amount. It was needed, not only to maintain the extensive uniform requirements of the services but also to pay mess bills. Both the Army and the Navy required their officers to pay for their food, with monthly checks made out to their mess treasurer. Although memberships in officers’ clubs were not required, the social nature of the services made it necessary, and it too cost money. Even aboard ship, the officers of the Navy and Marines paid for their food, while the enlisted men enjoyed the largesse of Uncle Sam when taking their meals.

What it Was Like in the US Military in Between Wars
American soldiers manning a French Renault tank late in 1918. Library of Congress

3. The lessons of the Great War were applied only reluctantly

Following the war, then known globally as the Great War, some younger officers in the American services recognized the need to modernize. Submarines, airplanes, and armored vehicles had all become effective weapons of war. The need to equip the US Army and Navy with modern weapons, and develop the tactics to use them in war, was recognized by some officers, though for the most part, more senior officers disagreed. So did Congress, at least as pertains to the Army. American public sentiment tilted towards isolationism during the 1920s. The Army’s role was seen as defensive, as it was unlikely it would be deployed in foreign conflicts ever again. The Navy too was viewed as a defensive measure, the first line of national defense, without the need for long-range, high endurance submarines. Congress annually spent more on the Navy than the Army, both for procurements and operations.

Officers from both services who argued for modernized offensive weapons and tactics were viewed by their seniors as troublesome mavericks. Among them were the Army’s George Patton, who pushed hard for the development of armored divisions and warfare. Billy Mitchell developed the Army Air Services and the enmity of the US Navy by demonstrating Army Air Service bombers could sink battleships. The Navy pointed out the results would be different if the battleship was shooting back. Nonetheless, other Naval officers, led by Captain William Moffett, began to lobby for a Naval Air Service, including aircraft carriers. Mavericks in both services encountered opposition from senior military leadership and the money dealers in Congress, yet for the most part, their views were eventually vindicated. During the 1920s however, the weapons they pushed for were slow in coming. World events in the 1930s proved the accuracy of their views.

What it Was Like in the US Military in Between Wars
After Teddy Roosevelt experienced a few hours submerged in USS Plunger (moored far left) submarine duty offered extra pay, attracting more officers and sailors during the interwar period. Library of Congress

4. The Navy’s best sailors were allowed to volunteer for submarines

During World War I the US Navy viewed the submarine as a chiefly defensive weapon, with limited range and seagoing endurance. Beginning in 1920 and through 1925 the Navy commissioned 51 submarines designated as S boats. Unnamed, and assigned numbers such a S-1, S-2, and so on, the boats were the first of the US Navy designed for long-range patrols. The men who crewed them were all volunteers, some of whom were inspired by the fact that submariners earned more money. In 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt experienced a dive on the submarine USS Plunger. Following his dive, the President directed officers and enlisted men in submarines receive hazardous duty pay in addition to their regular compensation. Until then, the Navy considered submarine duty as equivalent to shore duty, and the men aboard submarines received less money than their counterparts in surface ships.

The extra pay attracted volunteers to the submarine service, and the newer S boats offered more opportunities for sailors interested in the undersea service. In the 1920s, the senior Naval hierarchy still did not consider submarines to be useful beyond scouting and commerce raiding. But the public came to view submarines with awe, especially after several accidents led to the loss of S boats. Dramatic stories of sailors tapping out Morse Code messages to communicate with their would-be rescuers on one occasion (the loss of S-4 in 1927) reinforced the public belief in the hazardous nature of submarines. Sailors in submarines earned a special cachet among the armed forces and in the public eye, becoming the elite of the US Navy during the 1920s.

What it Was Like in the US Military in Between Wars
In 1919 the US Army proved it could complete a cross-country transport, if it had two months in which to do it. Wikimedia

5. The Army embarrassed itself over its transport capabilities in 1919

In an ill-advised effort to demonstrate to the public its long-distance transport capabilities, the US Army organized a cross-country caravan in 1919. They invited reporters from major national newspapers along for the ride. Over 80 vehicles including trucks, ambulances, tankers, passenger cars (for the reporters), troop carriers, and field kitchens, as well as a pontoon boat, carried 254 enlisted men and over two dozen officers. Among the officers was temporary Lt. Col. Dwight David Eisenhower. Ike volunteered when the boredom of his posting at Fort Meade, Maryland, simply became too much to bear. At Fort Meade, Eisenhower’s chief duty, he later lamented, was serving as a fourth when senior officers needed one for a game of bridge. The massive caravan thundered out of Washington, DC, on July 7, 1919. Ike joined the train in Frederick, Maryland at the end of the first day.

It had covered just 46 miles and encountered several breakdowns. The disastrous beginning was a harbinger for the rest of the ordeal. Before they reached the west coast 62 days later, several incidents required the aid of local authorities and civilians to help them on their way. On at least one occasion stuck vehicles required horses to pull them out of the muck. Over the course of the Army’s demonstration of its transport capabilities, it averaged just 52 miles per day. The Army touted the caravan as a triumph, blaming the slow pace on inadequate roads across the western plains and mountain passes. The reporters along for the ride focused on the many breakdowns of the vehicles. Some opined the Army could not reasonably expect adequate roads when transporting men and materials under combat conditions. The experience of transport inadequacy remained with Eisenhower for the rest of his life.

What it Was Like in the US Military in Between Wars
The single-engine Douglas World Cruisers used for the round-the-world flight were equipped with pontoons, replaced with wheels for overland segments. Library of Congress

6. In 1924 the US Army attempted to fly around the world

In part to gain public support – and thus tax dollars – for the expansion of the Army Air Service, in 1924, four pilots and four mechanics took off in four airplanes from Seattle, Washington. They flew along the Aleutians, crossing the Pacific to the Soviet Union, and down over Japan to Southeast Asia. From there they proceeded across India, Iraq, and into Europe. When they came to the Atlantic the Navy cooperated with a string of ships patrolling the area over which they would fly, standing by for rescue if needed. They landed at both Iceland and Greenland in less than desirable conditions. From Greenland to Labrador, and then Nova Scotia, the flight continued, though breakdowns and other issues led to only one of the aircraft actually completing the entire circumnavigation, which ended in Seattle on September 28, 1924. As they crossed the United States, several stops brought out enthusiastic crowds.

The 175-day journey succeeded in gaining public acclaim for the Army Air Service, though that acclaim did not lead to a significant increase in Congressional support. Dollars for development and expansion remained difficult to come by. The circumnavigation by air became one of several aviation achievements of the 1920s which led to the widespread belief in American technological superiority. Yet funding for military aviation in both the Navy and the Army continued to meet resistance in the penurious Congress during the 1920s. Shoestring budgets and competition between the services meant the aviation branches grew slowly, though they did grow. For the Navy aviation was seen as primarily a scouting service. The Army was beginning to develop the possibilities as an offensive strike weapon.

What it Was Like in the US Military in Between Wars
As young officers both Patton (left) and Eisenhower, seen here in 1945, indulged in violations of the Volstead Act at Ft. Meade, Maryland. US Army

7. Both services looked away over violations of the Volstead Act

The 1920s and Prohibition meant that servicemen in the United States, as well as its territories, were forbidden to drink alcoholic beverages. Like their civilian counterparts, many servicemen simply ignored the law. Dwight Eisenhower, a future President of the United States, made bathtub gin in his quarters at Ft. Meade, Maryland. George Patton brewed his own beer. Omar Bradley, for much of his life, was a teetotaler and had his first taste of whiskey in Hawaii during Prohibition. It was the beginning of a habit of having one or two drinks every night before dinner, which he continued for the rest of his life. Though there were exceptions, of course, most commanders ignored their men returning from nights off drunk, as long as they did not report for duty while impaired. Even the Army’s Chief of Staff, John J. Pershing, enjoyed evening drinks with his aide, George C. Marshall.

Alcohol had been banned on US Navy ships since 1914, and Prohibition removed it from Naval Bases and shore facilities. Sailors too found ways to circumvent the law. When ashore overseas they found alcohol easily, and though official procedure was to warn them against drinking, once again most officers ignored the ban. During the years 1926-1932, the Army averaged 89 convictions by courts-martial for drunkenness per year. The Navy averaged even fewer. The Army also noted a distinct preference of officers applying for overseas service. The Philippines and Tientsin, China, where the United States maintained a garrison, were requested postings by 80% of officers. Both offered legal alcohol, though in many circumstances officers were forced to accept a reduction in rank to serve in those posts. In the 1920s promotion was slow, and such an acceptance speaks volumes regarding life in the military.

What it Was Like in the US Military in Between Wars
The segregated 15th Regiment, New York National Guard serving in France, equipped with French helmets, earned the nickname Harlem Hellfighters in World War I. National Archives

8. The Army was segregated, the Navy slightly less so

During World War I, Black sailors served in Navy ships, usually as firemen or coalers, or as mess attendants serving officers in the wardrooms. After World War I ended enlistments for Black Americans in the Naval service were discontinued. However, Black sailors already in the service were allowed to remain, received promotions, and many reached the rank of non-commissioned officers. Most, if not all, served in shore assignments and were allowed to remain in the service until retirement, with the same pay and promotion opportunities as White sailors serving in the same specialties. In 1932 Black Americans were again allowed to serve aboard ships, as mess stewards and attendants only. As on any ship, they were assigned collateral duties for specific situations, such as battle stations. By the end of the 1930s, approximately four thousand Black sailors served in the US Navy.

Army units were entirely segregated both during the First World War and in the interwar years. Black soldiers messed separately, were assigned separate barracks, and though some trained in integrated classrooms, were mostly isolated from their White counterparts. Black officers served only in Black regiments. The number of enlisted Black soldiers dropped steadily through the 1920s. During World War I, draft boards, particularly in the Deep South, drafted a disproportionate number of Blacks into the segregated regiments. Following the war, enlistment of Black soldiers was discouraged. The Army’s official view regarding Black soldiers was reflected in a 1925 report written by a clearly racist White officer, Major Brehon Somervell. Somervell wrote of American Blacks in The Use of Negro Manpower in War, “Compared to the White man he is admittedly of inferior mentality. He is inherently weak in character”.

What it Was Like in the US Military in Between Wars
US Coast Guard Rum Patrol ships Tucker and Cassin in a rare quiet moment during their operations against smugglers. USCG

9. Sailors in the US Coast Guard were busy throughout the 1920s

During World War I, the Coast Guard was temporarily transferred to the Navy Department. After the war, the service returned to the Department of the Treasury, its then peacetime home. The Volstead Act, which provided the enforcement authority for Prohibition, assigned that role to Treasury (which was why Eliot Ness and the Untouchables were called T-Men). Sailors in the US Coast Guard spent the 1920s hard at work, often at sea and on the Great Lakes, chasing and capturing smugglers of alcoholic beverages. When the 1920s began the Coast Guard consisted of about 4,000 officers and men. During the decade the service grew to over 10,000. It was the only branch of the US armed forces to expand during the 1920s. It acquired new ships, coastal cutters and mothballed Navy destroyers, to aid in the accomplishment of its mission.

In 1925, the Coast Guard acquired its first airplanes, having convinced the Treasury Department that aerial searches greatly enhanced their ability to intercept smugglers. While the other services, particularly the US Army, lost capabilities during the 1920s, primarily because of steadily shrinking budgets, the Coast Guard became a highly effective, well-trained interdiction force. It even gained combat experience in running gun battles with some smugglers. When smugglers adopted coded radio transmissions to communicate, the Coast Guard countered with an increasingly sophisticated signals intelligence group, adept at cracking complex codes. Repeal of Prohibition brought a drawdown for the service, including the loss of the destroyers, but during the 1920s life in the Coast Guard was a busy, dangerous, and exciting career. By 1930 it was arguably the best trained of all the American armed forces.

What it Was Like in the US Military in Between Wars
Using the Army to deliver airmail in 1934 proved disastrous for the Air Corps and embarrassing for FDR. Wikimedia

10. The Army took on non-military roles in the 1920s and 1930s

For troops stationed in the United States, a series of non-military duties occupied their time during the interwar years. The Army became a relief force in the face of natural disasters, setting up emergency camps and feeding those whose lives were disrupted. In 1934, as a result of a scandal affecting airmail contracts with private carriers, President Roosevelt abruptly canceled all contracts. He assigned the US Army Air Corps to deliver all air mail. In an Executive Order FDR ordered the Army to deliver all airmail, under the authority of the Postmaster-General, and in accordance with his schedules. His schedules included a great deal of night flying. Ill-prepared and with limited equipment (such as suitable airplanes for the mission), the Army began delivering airmail in February 1934. The Army lacked the necessarily experienced pilots and possessed only airplanes unsuited to the task.

Prior to 1934, budget cuts severely hampered pilot training in the US Army Air Corps. Flying was, for the most part, only in clear weather, only in daylight, and in open-cockpit aircraft. The private contractors delivering the mail used established air routes in civilian passenger airliners. The Army pilots were unfamiliar with the routes and had no such aircraft. The Army initially selected 48 pilots to carry the mail, none of them from their most experienced ranks. In fact, only two of the pilots had more than 50 hours of experience flying on instruments, and only 31 had over 50 hours of flying at night. By March 9, after just 19 days of the Army carrying the mail, 10 pilots and navigators/observers had been killed in crashes from flying in inclement weather. FDR, publicly humiliated, ordered Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur to suspend the project on March 11.

What it Was Like in the US Military in Between Wars
Following the airmail disaster powerful Speaker of the House Henry T. Rainey publicly questioned the capabilities of the Army Air Corps. Library of Congress

11. The Air Mail debacle revealed the inadequacies of the US Army Air Corps in the 1930s

The Army resumed carrying the airmail on March 19, using severely limited routes and operating only in clear weather. Eventually, over 260 Army pilots participated in the program, among them Curtis LeMay and Ira Eaker. Air Mail service was gradually returned to contracted carriers, and the Army’s participation ended in May. In the aftermath, Speaker of the House Henry Rainey commented on the Air Corps, “If it is not equal to carrying the mail, I would like to know what it would do in carrying bombs”. The Chief of the Army Air Corps, Major General Benjamin Foulois, resigned and retired, and following a lengthy investigation by Congressional committee received a reprimand and public humiliation. Chief of Staff MacArthur managed to keep his own skirts clean, despite the obvious training defects within a portion of the Army under his ultimate command.

A Board of Inquiry under former Secretary of War, Newton Baker, investigated the conditions within the Army Air Corps. Nine of its twelve members were Army ground forces officers. The board rejected the need to expand the Air Corps or grant it authority of an autonomous service. It recommended improved training, particularly in instrument flying, though it had no means of expanding the budget to pay for it. The Air Corps continued to operate under the authority of the US Army Chief of Staff, through his assigned Chief of the Army Air Corps. The following year Germany revealed to the world its modernized Luftwaffe, a violation of the Versailles Treaty but an accomplished fact. The Army Air Corps moved quickly to obtain modern aircraft and improved pilot training, as much as military budgets allowed.

What it Was Like in the US Military in Between Wars
Douglas MacArthur being sworn in as US Army Chief of Staff. US Army

12. Douglas MacArthur became Chief of Staff in November, 1930

When Douglas MacArthur became Chief of Staff, following stints as Superintendent at West Point and command in the troubled Philippines, his credentials as a prima donna were already well-known within the Army. At his desk in the War Department, MacArthur preferred to wear a Japanese kimono rather than his uniform. During the 1930s most officers working in the various bureaucracies in Washington wore civilian clothes to work. But not many wore Japanese garb. MacArthur used a jeweled cigarette holder, maintained a mistress he had met when she was a teenager (16) in the Philippines, and established a public relations staff to control his image in the press. He considered the British Empire to be a threat to the United States, especially in the Pacific. MacArthur negotiated with the Navy to ensure the defense of shore installations was in the hands of his Army.

By 1931, the general habitually referred to himself in the third person, in correspondence and in meetings. He resisted cuts to the Army’s budget during the depression, gaining enemies within the White House and the War Department’s civilian employees. He also opposed the use of Army personnel for what he viewed as non-military employments. The Army supported many of the New Deal programs in a variety of ways, especially the Corps of Engineers. MacArthur jealously guarded against encroachments on his authority over the Army. He also warred with the press over-reporting some misguided actions, including suing two reporters in 1932. When they threatened to call his young mistress to court as a material witness, the general dropped his suit and paid the reporters a settlement for their trouble.

What it Was Like in the US Military in Between Wars
A Civilians Conservation Corps classroom, built by contractors under Army supervision during the Depression. National Archives

13. The interwar Army helped create the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933

FDR established the Civilian Conservation Corps to provide employment, job training, and physical conditioning for young men. In return, the CCC planted millions of trees, built roads, parks, campgrounds, bridges, and other contributions to American infrastructure. Reasoning that no American organization had more experience building and maintaining camps housing young men than the US Army, FDR assigned them that role. Camps were established and commanded by reserve officers, and contingents of active-duty troops supported them. MacArthur opposed the use of the Army in such a role, arguing it detracted from readiness. Most career Army officers took their cue from their Chief of Staff. In contrast, General George C. Marshall, who was eventually responsible for 35 CCC camps in the American Northwest, supported the program. Marshall later called his involvement with the CCC, “the most instructive service I ever had, and the most interesting”.

When the CCC became the most popular of all of the New Deal’s many initiatives, MacArthur characteristically took credit for its success. At its height, more than 2,500 camps were in operation, providing leadership and management training for reserve and active-duty Army officers across the nation, training which would otherwise have been unavailable due to restrictive military budgets during the Depression. The Army’s Quartermaster Corps supplied the camps with everything from food to toothbrushes, sports equipment, motion pictures, and in the camps established for older veterans of the First World War, canteens which included beer. Eventually, MacArthur lobbied for an increase in Army control of the camps, including a voice in the work to be accomplished by the men, nominally approved by the US Forest Service. Soldiers attached to the CCC camps had better training, better food, and higher morale than their counterparts on sleepy American bases.

What it Was Like in the US Military in Between Wars
A US Army NCO and workers of the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933. FDR Presidential Library

14. The Quartermaster Corps polished its contracting skills through the CCC

Initially, members of the CCC were housed in Army tents, fed through field kitchens, and used temporary latrines and showers. The success of the program encouraged FDR to extend it through the winter of 1933-34. More permanent structures were needed, and the President suggested the Army build them. CCC members at the time received a stipend of $30 per month. An Army private received $17. The image of Army privates laboring to build quarters for men making nearly twice what they were paid disturbed military leaders. It would threaten morale. In a nod to organized labor, which had opposed the CCC from the beginning, FDR approved the use of local contractors to construct the permanent camps. Contractors were to submit bids for labor and materials, and Army personnel would evaluate the bids and select the contractors, overseeing the work as it went on.

The decision allowed relatively junior Army officers to gain experience in the entire Army contracting process, from developing requests for bids to completing the contract. They did not know it at the time, but the experience gained by the young officers would prove of immense benefit when the Army rapidly expanded in the late 1930s and especially after 1941. Army camp commanders also assumed responsibility for training and educational programs for the men in their charge, another area which would provide benefits to the Army as it prepared men to go to war. Many Army officers voluntarily served as instructors, gaining experience in training presentations. The CCC provided benefits for the men who joined it, the Army which helped run it, and the American people who still enjoy nearly all of what it built.

What it Was Like in the US Military in Between Wars
The first ship of the US Navy designed and built as an aircraft carrier, USS Ranger, in the Panama Canal, late 1930s. US Navy

15. The Navy expanded as the Army continued to shrink

During the 1930s the US Navy acquired its first aircraft carriers, contracted for new battleships, modernized older battleships, and focused its attention on the Pacific and Japanese aggression. The peacetime crews of most ships were by necessity smaller than would be required to take the vessels to war. There wasn’t enough money to pay crews at wartime strength. The Navy’s chunk of defense budgets allowed it to continue to grow from the mid-1930s. Seen as the nation’s first line of defense, the Navy and their infantry branch, the US Marines, were also favored by President Roosevelt. The Army continued to shrink, dwindling to just over 180,000 men on active duty, called the Regular Army. Morale was low. Pay was low. Routine was boring. There weren’t enough weapons to train adequately, and when weapons were to be had there was often no ammunition.

Recruits marched with wooden mock-ups of guns, practiced attacking machine gun nests consisting of mock-up guns. Automobiles, and even bicycles, bore signs which read “tank” during training exercises. There wasn’t enough money in the training budget to allow the expenditure of fuel in real tanks. By 1938 the US Army ranked, according to some sources, as the 19 largest in the world, behind the armies of Portugal and Belgium. The pace of promotions was that of a snail. Dwight Eisenhower, a major in 1920, still retained that rank in 1935. That year he accompanied MacArthur to the Philippines, where MacArthur accepted the rank of Field Marshall in the new Army of the Philippines (the promotion was his own idea). The following year Ike finally received a promotion to Lt. Colonel, US Army, after 21 years of active service.

What it Was Like in the US Military in Between Wars
Douglas MacArthur addressing units of the Philippine Army Air Corps in August 1941. US Army

16. The Army finally began to expand in the late 1930s

After years of Japanese aggression in China, and s those of the Italians in Africa and the Germans in Europe, the US Army began to expand in 1938, though it remained around 200,000 men. MacArthur had officially retired from the US Army, though he remained on its payroll in his capacity as Military Advisor to the Philippines. He also received pay for his role as Field Marshall of the Army of the Philippines, making him the highest-paid soldier in the world in 1938. Eisenhower, critical of MacArthur’s activities and behavior in the Philippines, returned to the United States in late 1939 to his first position as a commanding officer of a battalion. By that time, the Germans had invaded Poland, England and France were at war with Germany, and isolationists were demanding the United States stay entirely neutral. FDR was already exploring ways to help the British.

By Autumn, 1940 France had fallen to the Germans. The British Empire was the only entity still at war with Germany. Japanese aggression was on the rise. In the Philippines, MacArthur called for increased American presence and financial support for the Philippine Army. After a summer of intense debate, in the national press and in Congress, the first peacetime draft in American history was authorized through the Selective Service Act of 1940. The Army expanded rapidly, in terms of the number of men called into the service. By mid-summer, 1941, less than one year later, 1.5 million Americans were conscripted into the US Army, which was ill-prepared to receive them. Inventories of uniforms, weapons, and even rations appeared adequate in numbers. But many of them, even rations, dated to the military buildup of World War 1, more than two decades earlier.

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

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 Security.org. 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, aashto.org. 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