“The Army’s architect”

General Leslie J. McNair

Lieutenant General Lesley James McNair
(Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

General Leslie J. McNair (1883-1944) is one of the more easily forgotten American generals who shaped World War II. He was an organizer and an engineer, not a battlefield commander. He did not lead famous battles, but rather worked desk jobs to equip and prepare the U.S. Army for World War II. His decisions had a fundamental effect on what the Army looked like and how it operated. His legacy is somewhat ambiguous: while some of his ideas are generally hailed as strengthening the Army Ground Forces for its trial against the Axis powers, others draw controversy or prevalent condemnation.  McNair did not survive the war he helped prepare America for: he was killed by a mis-aimed American bomb in the first minutes of Operation Cobra (Read our earlier article – The Cobra strikes), the breakout from Normandy. This article will try to take an unbiased look at General McNair’s heritage.
 
McNair originally aimed for a carrier in the Navy, but he was kept on the waiting list for so long that he first took some engineering and statistics courses, then competed for and won a place at West Point instead, becoming an Army man instead of a sailor. McNair, nicknamed “Whitey” for his blond hair, was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1904. Being the 11th best in his class of 124, he earned a place in the artillery branch, which was considered the second most prestigious, right after engineering.

“Whitey” McNair in the 1904 yearbook of West Point
(Photo: The Howitzer)

After a short stint as a platoon leader, he requested and was granted transfer to the Ordnance Department, where he could put his engineering and statistics skills to good use experimenting with and testing equipment. The experience he gathered there with machinery, engineering and statistical analysis became the cornerstone of his entire military career.
 
McNair returned to the Artillery branch as a first lieutenant in 1909, where he became a battery commander and the commanding officer of future General Jacob L. Devers
(Read our earlier article – With a tank and a smile). He also continued working on improvements to mule-transported pack artillery equipment.

Battery C, 4th Field Artillery during the Pancho Villa expedition. McNair was commander of this battery from 1909 until 1912.
(Photo: William Fox)

His technical knowledge earned him a spot on the staff of the Field Artillery School in 1912. Here he compiled test date into firing tables that helped artillery crews aim their indirect fire more accurately; he also spent half a year in France, studying French artillery. Promoted to captain, he participated in the Veracruz Expedition in 1914 and the Pancho Villa Expedition in 1916-17.
 
The United States entered World War I in 1917, and then-Major McNair was sent to Europe in June. He happened to share quarters aboard his ship with future Chief of Staff of the Army George C. Marshall, and the two men developed a friendship and respect that would accompany them through life.

George C. Marshall, McNair’s friend and future superior, as a young colonel in France, 1919
(Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)
McNair served as chief of artillery training and tactics, and reached the rank of brigadier general in October 1918, becoming the youngest American general staff officer at the age of 35. He received the Army Distinguished Service Medal from General John Pershing (Read our earlier article – The General of the Armies), and the French Legion of Honor from the future Vichy head of state, General Philippe Pétain. The citation for the Distinguished Service Medal praised him for “correctly estimating the changing conditions and requirements of military tactics” and “impressing upon the American Army sound principles for the use of artillery and for improving methods for the support of Infantry, so necessary to the proper cooperation of the two arms.”
McNair receiving the Distinguished Service Medal from Pershing
(Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

He served in a variety of positions after World War I, steadily climbing the ranks. He was posted to Hawaii in 1921 and became involved in the controversy surrounding the island chain’s defenses against a potential Japanese attack. He set up a committee consisting of himself, two coast artillery officers and an aviation officer to compare the strength and weakness of artillery and air power for such a task. (It should be noted that the study was part of a larger ongoing debate about the role and future of the Air Forces.) The committee found that artillery would be the best primary weapon of defense as long as it was equipped with enough sound locators and searchlights to detect and spot incoming Japanese planes and ships. The study did note that while aircraft were less accurate than artillery, they could deliver more damage to enemy ships that stayed farther away from the shore. The benefit of hindsight would be easy to blame McNair for not recognizing Pearl Harbor’s vulnerability, but it should be noted that very few people proved more sagacious 20 years before the actual Japanese attack. (Read our earlier article – Predicting Pearl Harbor)

Pearl Harbor dry dock in 1919, two years before McNair’s posting there
(Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)

After two decades of a variety of positions, mainly revolving around organization and teaching, McNair was appointed commandant of the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth in March 1939, half a year before World War II broke out. The Army Chief of Staff, General Malin Craig, and his deputy, McNair’s old friend Brigadier General George C. Marshall, both believed that the college’s teaching methods needed an urgent overhaul in light of the likely coming war. They felt the curriculum was geared too much toward the Regular Army, the relatively small standing Army of the United States, and could not accommodate the rapid expansion and training, nor the maneuver-heavy offensive operations that imminent conflict would entail.

General Malin Craig, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff when McNair was appointed commandant of Fort Leavenworth
(Photo: U.S. Army)
McNair threw himself into the job with the efficiency and energy he became known for. He modernized the curriculum and shortened the course to accommodate the civilian schedules of National Guard and Reservist officers who otherwise could not have attended. He updated the Field Service Manual, the Army’s core doctrinal document. McNair was reassigned before the 1941 edition could be published, but once it came out, it became the primary doctrine document for the Army in World War II. His performance was reflected in his evaluations: General Craig rated him as the second best of the 41 brigadier generals he knew.
 
McNair was reassigned to the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the U.S. Army in July 1940. By this point, his old friend George C. Marshall was both the Army Chief of Staff, and the head of GHQ, and he delegated most of his tasks in the latter position to McNair. Simply put, McNair’s job was to oversee the mobilization, organization, training and equipment of the Army for World War II. As part of this process, he took a key role in planning and conducting the Louisiana and Carolina Maneuvers in 1941 and 42, two large scale exercises which allowed the Army to test the quality of its troops, equipment and commanders.
McNair (right) with Omar Bradley during the Louisiana Maneuvers
(Photo: U.S. Army)
In March 1942, shortly after America’s entry into World War II, GHQ was disbanded by the Army and replaced with three separate organizations: Army Ground Forces (AGF), Army Air Forces, and Army Service Forces. The purpose of this shakeup was to eliminate inter-branch rivalry; all it managed to achieve was the rivalry for eminence and resources was not conducted by three separate organizations. McNair was appointed the commander of AGF, and set about what arguably became his greatest achievement: building an Army large enough to win in Europe, while leaving enough men in civilian jobs, most notably agriculture and industry, to avoid disrupting the nation’s economy.
McNair as commander of the Army Ground Forces
(Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)
This was no mean feat: the AGF had 780,000 officers and men in March 1942, and had to expand to 2.2 million by July 1943, and eventually to more than 8 million by 1945. One method he utilized to achieve this was to train soldiers in multiple tiers: fresh recruits only received training in basic soldiering to shorten training time. Once they were qualified, they gradually moved on to larger and larger groups, learning how to operate effectively within those. He also made training conditions as realistic as possible, with live ammunition used whenever possible. (It should be noted that the standard infantryman’s training was shorter and much less thorough than that of elite units such as the airborne; this was necessitated by both time and financial constraints.)
Soldiers training at Camp Edwards, MA, during the war
(Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)
McNair had reservations about the National Guard, as he found their military experience wanting. He tried to completely demobilize the force, but this was overruled both because the manpower was needed, and because of the likely political backlash that would have followed such a move. In the end, he managed to restrict National Guard officers to relatively lower positions, with most divisions commanded by regular Army officers.
Guardsmen of the 45th Infantry Division, one of the first National Guard units activated in the war, enroute to Sicily in June 1943
(Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)
Another aspect of the same overall task was the reorganization of army divisions. The War Department originally thought it would need 350 divisions for the war. This estimate was lower to around 200 once they realized that several of the Axis powers were less well-equipped, and technological superiority could make up for numbers. Several later events, most notably Hitler invading the Soviet Union and pushing Stalin to the Allies’ side, further reduced manpower needs. By rewriting manning and equipping tables to allow fewer soldiers to fill out a division, McNair eventually succeeded in creating a system where 91 army divisions were sufficient to fight the war.
McNair and Patton during a 1942 exercise at the Desert Training Center
(Photo: U.S. Army)
Not all of McNair’s decisions were found successful by posterity. One element of his leadership that draws frequent criticism was the introduction of the individual replacement system. Some militaries followed the practice of waiting until a unit was sufficiently worn down, then replacing it with a brand new, full-strength unit. Marshall and McNair decided that applying this system to the long and stressed trans-Atlantic supply line would have taken up too much space on board cargo ships, leaving them with insufficient capacity for other things. Instead, McNair developed a system wherein freshly trained soldiers would be shipped overseas to a replacement depot and assigned to a fighting unit from there to replace that unit’s recent losses.
Replacement troops preparing their packs in France
(Photo: National Archives)
One problem with the system was that the veterans of the receiving unit often resented the newcomers, who did not share their experiences and who were there to replace fallen or wounded old comrades. Additionally, these units were usually already engaged in action, and the new arrivals didn’t have the time and opportunity to learn from the more experienced soldiers.  They were immediately thrown into the fight, and very often died quickly.
 
Another problem revolved around the replacements’ qualifications. McNair intended every replacement to go to a unit which needed his specific skillset. This was often ignored by combat commanders in Europe, who simply grabbed whatever reinforcements were available, putting trained tank crewmen into infantry units and causing other similar mismatches. In fact, some commanders completely ignored the intentions of the system and just lumped the replacements into brand new units.
McNair (right) with other generals. Left to right: head of Army Air Forces Henry H. Arnold, Joseph T. McNarney, US Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, and head of Army Service Forces Brehon B. Somervell
(Photo: U.S. Army)
Despite McNair’s attempts to fix the system, it finally broke down around late 1944 and early 1945. By the final stage of the war in Europe, rear echelon troops were often pressed into frontline service, men rushed into battle without proper training, and some units were ground down to combat ineffectiveness.
 
Another often-criticized aspect of McNair’s command of the AGF was his view on the role tanks and tank destroyers. As an artillery officer, McNair believed that the best way to take out an enemy tank was an anti-tank gun, such as the 37 mm M3 gun. The M3, however, was both a towed weapon (and as such rather slow), and also quite anemic. McNair accepted Marshall’s idea of using tank destroyers: tracked vehicles that were faster and had better anti-armor firepower than tanks, but paid for these advantages with less armor. These vehicles were specifically designed to foil German “blitzkrieg” attacks. The German doctrine was to find one or several weak points in the enemy defensive lines, and hit those points with a large force including many tanks. American tank destroyers were supposed to be a counter to this. They would be kept in reserve, then once the Germans committed to a given location, the destroyers would be rushed there (since they were self-propelled and fast), set up in camouflaged and protected positions, and hit the advancing Germans in the flanks.
M10 tank destroyers disembarking in Normandy
(Photo: National Archives)
The problem was that this was a fundamentally defensive idea which presupposed that the Germans would attack. Once U.S. forces entered combat in Europe, however, they were usually on the offensive, and German blitzkrieg attacks rarely occurred. Tank destroyers were not very good on the offensive, since their thin armor made them easy targets for dug-in German tanks and other defenses. History proved McNair wrong on this occasion, and validated his opponents within the U.S. Army, such as Generals Jacob Devers and George S. Patton (Read our earlier article – The wars of George S. Patton), who believed that the best way to combat a tank was to have a better tank.
M10 in action near Saint-Lô, summer 1944
(Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)
McNair, however, failed to recognize his mistake, and continued advocating for the use of tank destroyers and for only using tanks to support infantry and exploit breakthroughs. Thanks to his influence, this impacted troops fighting in Europe. This was why the “Easy Eight” Sherman tank (Read our earlier article – The M4 Sherman) with its improved gun was not adopted earlier, and why the Pershing heavy tanks only arrived in Europe at the very end of the war.
 
While McNair was not a combat commander, he did nevertheless encounter personal peril during World War II. He was on an inspection tour in North Africa in the spring of 1943, and was observing frontline combat in Tunisia when he suffered wounds to the arm and the head.
McNair with his arm in a sling after being wounded in Tunisia
(Photo: public domain)
He deployed to Europe in 1944, initially without a specific mission. Once Patton was assigned command of the Third U.S. Army during Operation Cobra, the breakout from Normandy, his previous command, the First U.S. Army Group remained leaderless. It was a fake unit, created by dummy vehicles and prearranged radio messages, but it played an important role in misleading the Germans about the location of the D-Day landings. (Read our earlier article – Operation Bodyguard) McNair was assigned to the fictitious unit to continue the deception and make the Germans believe there would be another amphibious landing.
McNair sharing a jeep with Eisenhower
(Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)
McNair was in Normandy on July 25, 1944, observing the beginning of Operation Cobra. The operation began with a massive aerial bombardment of the German lines by American heavy bombers. Several planes dropped their bombs early, killing 111 U.S. troops and wounding another 490. McNair was one of the 111 dead: a bomb fell directly into his trench, the explosion throwing his body high into the sky. He could only be identified because his uniform identified him as a lieutenant general. He became one of the four American officers of that rank to be killed in World War II, and the only one who died in combat in Europe. He was temporarily buried in the temporary American-German cemetery at La Cambe (Read our earlier article - The German war cemetery of reconciliation) before being laid to final rest in the Normandy American Cemetery. His only son, Douglas McNair, was killed in action on the island of Guam on August 6, 1944, 12 days after the death of his father. Leslie McNair was posthumously promoted to General in 1954, but his gravestone was only updated to reflect this in 2010.
General McNair’s gravestone in the Normandy American Cemetery
(Photo: Author’s own)

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A paratrooper landing at Mont Saint-Michel, France to honor paratroopers who descended on D-Day
(Photo: U.S. Army, Army Sgt. Hannah Hawkins)
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