The U.S. Army in 1927
Originally published here at bourbonandbattles.com on August 6, 2016.
My summer 2016 reading list was anchored by a fascinating micro pop-history treatment of the summer of 1927 in the United States. Although it’s a bit on the long side, Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America, 1927 is a fascinating cross-section that bottles the culture, historical events, and personalities of a very short period of time, painting a context for the reader that so many histories fail to achieve.
Bryson regales readers with the achievement of Charles Lindbergh and his transatlantic flight, with Babe Ruth’s place on the Yankees’ Murderer’s Row, with Henry Ford’s failed venture in Brazil, with the idiosyncrasies of public figures like Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover (and the latter’s almost clinical handling of the great floods of 1927), with the rise of boxing as a nationwide spectacle, with the challenges of Prohibition, with the sentencing and executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, and with so much more.
Given such a richly developed context, I couldn’t help but wonder what the U.S. Army was doing in 1927. Smack in the middle of the so-called “Interwar Years” and well before pre-WWII growth, one might assume that the Army was small and relatively dormant, but there was actually plenty going on.
Here are five things the United States Army was up to in 1927, further enriching the context of a very fascinating year:
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Great Flood
In the winter of 1926–27, tremendous amounts of rainfall caused the Mississippi River to swell, thrusting the states along the river into a natural disaster by springtime that claimed the lives of over 200 citizens and caused huge sums of property damage. Perhaps of more historical import, African Americans affected by the floods were largely mistreated, underserved, or downright ignored during the catastrophe, and many of them migrated north in large numbers. It is speculated that the government mishandling of the floods played a major part in pushing African Americans away from the Republican Party (the historically antislavery party of Lincoln and then-President Coolidge) and toward the Democratic Party.
The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 began with an air of confidence from the Army Corps of Engineers. While doing research for a book, Stephen Ambrose wrote the following for National Geographic News:
“In the spring of 1927, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assured the public that the levees would hold. The Corps had built them, after all. But as had been the case at the mouth of the river, the Corps overestimated its own prowess and underestimated the power of the river.”
As floodwaters rose, it became apparent that the Corps’ levees-only system would not hold the raging waters. Levees everywhere failed. According to John M. Barry, the floods quickly settled the Corps’ internal debate about the levees-only policy, leading to breakthrough river management techniques that now incorporate floodways, reservoirs, and other advancements.
While damage control was the focus in 1927, the flooding that year led to Congress passing the Flood Control Act of 1928 the next year. Employing lessons learned in 1927, USACE was charged with preventing such a disaster from happening again through the Mississippi River & Tributaries Project. Although flooding around the Mississippi River has occurred periodically since 1928, the Corps of Engineers claims that its flood control system “represents one of mankind’s most successful civil works projects and one of the wisest investments,” preventing damage and loss with “an estimated 45 to 1 return on investment.”
Charles Lindbergh and the U.S. Army Air Corps
Charles Lindbergh gets a mention above, and Bryson practically makes him the protagonist of his book. Little mention is made, however, of the icon’s military service. Lindbergh enlisted in 1924 and graduated at the top of his flight school class, emerging with a commission as a second lieutenant in the Army Air Service Reserve .
At the time of his famous New York-to-Paris flight in 1927, Lindbergh was a Captain in the U.S. Army Air Corps Reserve (it switched names in 1926 — the military’s propensity for relabeling things has never changed). When he got back home, President Coolidge awarded Lindbergh the Distinguished Flying Cross, and he was even awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor later that year (presented to him the following March).
Bryson covers all of that pretty well in his book, including later actions in which Lindbergh favored isolationism and spoke publically against American involvement in World War II (and for Germany). Lindbergh’s views drew sharp rebuke from many, including President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, sparked his fall from public grace, and led to his resignation as a Colonel from the Army Air Corps Reserve. After war officially broke out, Lindbergh wanted to fight, but Roosevelt refused to restore his commission. He still went on to fly over 50 combat missions in the Pacific.
In 1954, then-President Dwight Eisenhower reversed FDR’s decision and brought Lindbergh back into service as a Brigadier General in the Air Force Reserve, by then a separate branch of service from the Army.
Lindbergh’s transatlantic adventure was perhaps the most flashy and impressive aviation achievement of the time, but 1927 was the year of many firsts, and the 1920s were a decade of military aviation expansion in general. In June 1927, U.S. Army Air Corps Lieutenants Lester Maitland and Albert Hegenberger flew in the first transpacific flight from Oakland, California to Wheeler Army Airfield on Oahu, Hawaii in their Atlantic-Fokker C-2, the Bird of Paradise.
Congress passed the Army Air Corps Act in 1926, but its five year expansion plan didn’t begin until 1927 due to funding issues. Budget problems continued, and the end result of the expansion fell short of the Act’s goals, but the final picture at the conclusion of the expansion period saw an Air Corps that was vastly greater than when it began in 1927.
The May 1927 War Games
The War Department prioritized air power in two simultaneous field exercises that took place in May of 1927. In New England, a joint Army/Navy exercise took place around Newport, Rhode Island and aimed to test the defenses of a 128-mile coastline between Chatham, Massachusetts and the mouth of the Connecticut River. “Blue” defenders fought to repel a “black” invasion force of 75,000 notional troops arriving in 78 navy vessels. The black force employed airplanes for reconnaissance and bombardment missions, while the blue defenders were able to shoot down several bombers.
The defenders were ultimately declared the victors, though the invaders were able to (theoretically) land some ground forces in the form of infantry, armor, and artillery. Blue ground troops repelled the invaders, and “umpires” of the war games ended the exercise, declaring the blue forces the winners.
According to the Washington Post — which gleefully reported on the maneuvers in great detail, even when notional and completely imaginary — a May 19, 1927 article reported that General Preston Brown declared the exercise a success and that the coastal defenses “proved to his satisfaction that if the sea coast defenses were adequately manned and supported by a mobile force they could repel any landing along the New England coast within the area in which the exercises took place.”
Meanwhile around San Antonio, Texas, the Army Air Corps began its third annual maneuvers, supported by ground troops from the 2nd Infantry Division (then stationed at Fort Sam Houston). Part of the San Antonio games was a Staff Exercise for the 2ID staff with notional troops and enemies, and the other part involved actual 2ID “blue” troops versus a notional “red” enemy. The one-sided nature of war games without an actual enemy force left much to be desired, but the maneuvers offered valuable lessons for the young Air Corps. (Two-sided exercises would begin in 1929.)
According to historian Maurer Maurer in Aviation in the U.S. Army, 1919–1939, airplanes were used throughout the Texas exercise in bombardment, attack, observation, and transport roles. Overall, the war games near San Antonio were also a success. From a Los Angeles Times article dated May 19, 1927:
“General opinion among observers was that the Blue army staff had handled its orders and strategy for an imaginary army driving toward the Red capital so skillfully that the Red capital was menaced. The Blue army, according to the observers, succeeded in turning the Red right flank and was already to take the Red capital at New Braunfels.
“In the meantime, the Blue second army, the only troops actually in the field, succeeded in staving off a second Red army seeking to fall upon the first Blue army’s left flank and annihilate it.”
Another Washington Post article dated May 19 seemed to poke fun at the San Antonio exercise, writing:
“While the “Blue” Second infantry division was entirely successful in its efforts to conceal itself from a hypothetical “Red” army corps, it failed entirely to conceal itself from an army of red bugs. There was nothing hypothetical about the red army corps of bugs, and the Second division suffered heavily.”
As the quote suggests, while fighting notional enemies, troops in the field suffered from very real and very unpleasant chigger bites. Clearly Chigg-Away had not yet been invented.
War Plan Red (aka the Plan to Invade Canada)
Though not approved until three years three years later, the official U.S. War Department and Navy Department plan to invade Canada was written in 1927.
The problem: how can the U.S. stave off a British invasion? The answer: by bullying our Canuck neighbors around with military force. It was called War Plan Red.
To even get to that point, you have to understand why the United States was leery of the UK. One reason was the fact that Britain had not paid back its war debts (which were questionable to begin with), riling the feathers of many U.S. politicians. Another reason was because of disagreements regarding navy construction limitations after the failed 1927 Geneva Naval Conference.
The gist of the plan was that the U.S. Army and Navy would seize key ports, routes, transportation hubs, and other logistical points of interest in order to deny the UK a foothold in Canada from which to invade the Lower 48. No hard feelings, neighbors. The plan, interestingly, called for no engagement against Britain outside of the Western Hemisphere, banking on the Canadian invasion to force the UK to sue for peace.
To the Canadians’ credit, they had a plan to invade the States years before War Plan Red. Titled “Defence Scheme No.1,” the 1921 Canadian plan called for a surprise preemptive invasion south into the United States once it became apparent that the Americans planned to invade north. They scrapped their plan in 1928 in an effort to pursue friendlier relations with the U.S. and Britain. American military leaders didn’t dump War Plan Red until the outbreak of World War II 11 years later.
The Army in China
As early as 1900, with the China Relief Expedition in response to the Boxer Rebellion, (and in a handful of instances prior to that) the United States had military forces in China. Although U.S. Army soldiers played a role in China for the first few years of the 20th century, the Marine Corps took over the primary mission of Legation Guard. These “China Marines” did the heavy lifting in Peking (modern Beijing), but in 1912, the Army’s 15th Infantry Regiment was sent to Tientsin for a long-term stay in response to the Chinese Revolution that ousted the Qing Dynasty and established the Republic of China.
It was the 15th Infantry Regiment that was stationed in China when the Chinese Civil War between the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) and the Communist Party of China kicked off in 1927. As civil unrest picked up, the Army’s 15th Infantry Regiment was tasked to protect communication lines between Tientsin and Peking.
The 15th Infantry was eventually recalled to Fort Lewis, Washington in 1938 where it began its long relationship with the 3rd Infantry Division. (3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment continues service today as a part of 3ID’s 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team.)
Proudly continuing to call themselves “doughboys,” soldiers of the U.S. Army in 1927 represented an optimistic and active military that remained on the edge of technology, readiness, and global engagement. While the rest of America swooned over Lindbergh, cheered for the Great Bambino, and enjoyed the emergence of “talkies,” the Army was rolling along.